Feb 042016

coverClick on the cover image to buy the book.

Robert Day
Robert Day. Click on the image for more about the author.

Fall of 2013 through spring of 2014 Numéro Cinq published monthly installments of Robert Day‘s novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love. Every month our readers thrilled to the comic (yet also sad, in that way all human things are sad and comical at once) adventures and misadventures of Day’s book-designing hero in Kansas City and as a student in Berkeley in the 60s.

Here’s what I wrote at the head of that first chapter. It captures the spirit of the novel and our own adventure in publishing.

In the tradition of Charles Dickens and any number of 19th century novelists who wrote those triple-decker novels first published in serial form in magazines, Numéro Cinq today launches Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Love, which will appear here in seven monthly parts. This is the long awaited follow-up to Day’s wondrous and acclaimed first novel The Last Cattle Drive; it’s not a sequel, but in Let Us Imagine Lost Love, Day returns to his native Kansas, of which he is a wry, witty and affectionate observer. His narrator is a book designer, who loves the jargon and paraphernalia of his profession, a man without a wife but a string of Wednesday lovers, his “Plaza wives,” he calls them. At his back, as we learn in the opening sequence, is a strong-willed Kansas mother who made him memorize three words a day and wouldn’t think of letting him go east to college (he ends up at Emporia State Teachers College). But this is vintage Robert Day: the humor is dry yet generous, the dialogue is laconic but rich with implication. You shouldn’t miss skinny dipping with Melinda or Tina, the narrator’s college girlfriend who would only begin to take her clothes off over the telephone (those innocent days).

Now the New York publishing house Thane & Prose has just brought out Let Us Imagine Lost Love as a book book (ie paper and a cover and all that). When this publishing deal was taking shape, we deleted all but one chapter of the novel online (as per our original agreement with the author). All that we have left is the first chapter (here), an acknowledgement in the book —

The author is grateful to Numéro Cinq Magazine and its editor Douglas Glover for publishing a version of this book as a serial in Vol. IV, No. 9, September 2013 through Vol. V, No. 4, April 2014.

— and the wonderful satisfaction of helping get the book in print.

It should be remembered that this is not the only book Robert Day first published online at NC. His essays series on NC, Chance Encounters of a Literary Kind, also became a book. See my post about that here.

Here, though, to celebrate Robert Day’s new book is the publisher’s blurb.

The unnamed narrator  of Robert Day’s new novel Let Us Imagine Lost Loves designs ‘gift’ books–abecedarians, agendas, address books, “blanks,”– at his KansasCity apartment in between assignations with his “Wednesday Wives,”Chekov, the dictionary, and a fabricated religion, all of which are substitutes for his lost love. Beth Brookings, his unrequited lover of thirty years, has become a celebrated painter and an exhibition of her work is about to open in Kansas City. Unknown to Beth, the narrator
has written Let Us Imagine Lost Love as a gift for her. As the novel moves toward its inevitable ending, Beth and the narrator close the gap between their past and the present. 

Let Us Imagine Lost Love is remarkably inventive. It touches the universal longing for the remembrance of things past, of regret, of the celebration of connections between reality and imagination, and the defiance of time. Day’s novel is pure delight for all its down-home erudition and absurdity, its unswerving humor, and its dedication to pursuing the hearts of others. If the narrator were critiquing his own book, he would certainly observe, as Faulkner did, that it is the story of the human heart in conflict with itself. Don’t miss this beautiful, touching lyric that imagines the affirmation of life when lost love is found.

Feb 022016


Just back from my crash course in theatre at the premiere of Elle, the play, in Toronto. But a lot is happening. There is more. Canadian Notes & Queries, that redoubtable Canadian literary magazine that published my essay on Camus in its last issue, has just published a new essay “The Arsonist’s Revenge” on David Helwig’s little masterpiece, the novella The Stand-In. I love that book. Many of you know who David is because he has published here often, beginning with his translation of a Chekhov short story in our second issue, March, 2010. This essay came about when Ingrid Ruthig (who has also appeared in NC) asked me to contribute to a book she was editing on Helwig’s work. Then CN&Q picked up the essay ahead of book publication. (I know, complicated.)

Here’s a photo of David Helwig and a few paragraphs of the essay:

David Helwig

The Arsonist’s Revenge

David Helwig’s novella The Stand-In came to hand first when I was asked to write a cover comment for the book, yea, these many years ago. I read it, was entranced and enchanted by its incendiary delights. It presents a man, a wounded lover, a long-suffering husband, a bird watcher, a university professor (that most careful and restrained of professions), in extremis, who explodes decorum, wreaks revenge (mayhem and insult), and becomes utterly and gloriously himself (apotheosis). This is what art is best at, giving us the moment we all wish for but can never achieve. To somewhat embellish what I wrote at the time: The Stand-In is a comic gem, by turns mordant, witty and wise. It’s a delicious novella of friendship, marriage, infidelity, plagiarism, and sly revenge. But it’s also a fascinating meditation on irony, biography, badminton, the great Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice, also Flemish painting, mirror imagery, Ernest Thompson Seton and animal painting (especially birds and horses), and the self. David Helwig is a master of thematic weaving. His timing is impeccable. One has the impression of a ferocious intelligence at play – the effect is gorgeous, seductive, compelling and liberating.

The Stand-In isn’t a long book (I am working from the 2002 Porcupine’s Quill edition), about 80 pyrotechnic pages after you subtract the blanks and section titles, separated into three chapters. It’s a dramatic monologue, three lectures delivered extemporaneously by an unnamed retired humanities professor, a last minute replacement for the famous Denman Tarrington who has mysteriously succumbed the week before on the green-tiled floor of a hotel bathroom in New York. Our narrator has gone over the edge, abandoned circumspection and control; he has the podium, his ancient rival is dead (he and Tarrington were, for years, colleagues at the hosting institution), he will joyfully and maliciously set the record straight. Tarrington goes up in flames, demonstrated to be a plagiarist (he wrote his essays off the narrator’s ideas), a wife-beater, a compulsive and boastful seducer (the narrator’s wife ended up running away with him), and a flawed badminton player.

The governing principle of composition is digression and recursion. One amongst the digressions that keep popping up is the story of the story, or the history of two mismatched academic couples whose marriages exploded one summer, “that summer,” the one of crucial memory. Denman Tarrington (DT, aka Delirium Tremens) was married to a tall, slightly awkward woman named Madeleine; the narrator’s wife was Anne, a quick, pink-skinned woman who kept her secrets and made a smashing doubles badminton partner (Anne and the narrator would invariably trounce the Tarringtons on the court). Tarrington pilfered the narrator’s ideas and wrote them into sensational essays that secured for him an academic career far beyond the local horizons. The last summer, the summer before Tarrington left for a big job in the States, he and the narrator met in Paris. Infidelities were revealed. On his return to Canada, the narrator finds his wife away on an extended trip (that she keeps extending, never to return); questioned by Madeleine, he tells her the truth about her husband. Madeleine disappears; Anne goes off with Tarrington: and the narrator lives on in the old house by the salt marshes until retirement, when, finally he too leaves town.

CN&Q is a print journal with a small online presentation. You’ll have to buy the magazine to read the rest of “The Arsonist’s Revenge” by Douglas Glover at Canadian Notes & Queries.


Jan 312016

What ever happened

At the top of the page this month, we feature a series of texts and podcasts — interviews, reviews, essays — that are touchstones of the aesthetic we try to foster at Numéro Cinq. They don’t cover the gamut of things we publish, but they represent notional path, the throw of desire. Formalist, modernist, attentive to words and patterns over message. The intention here is not to define a program, but to make readers think about the nature of art, especially in an epoch of market-driven late capitalist values so pervasive that they seem to many as real as the air they breathe.

Jan 282016


Here’s the Theatre Passe Muraille onstage interview with Douglas Glover, who wrote the book (Elle) on which the stage play (Elle) by Severn Thompson is based. Andy McKim, artistic director at TPM, is a really intelligent and genial interlocutor (there were three pages of lovely questions of which he only managed to ask a handful). The event was billed as “Eggrolls with Andy” and there were, in fact, eggrolls. This was on the evening of January 20, just before the main performance. The location is the little cabaret stage in the bar on the balcony above the stage at TPM. The pictures were taken by the poet Amber Homeniuk, who has appeared before on these pages. She managed to capture some of dg’s more expressive moments.

The sound file is below the images.



Buy tickets here!





Buy tickets here!

Jan 262016


I almost missed this one from yesterday. Actually, a good review of Severn Thompson’s performance. Here’s a teaser. Click the link below for the rest.

Severn Thompson, who adapted the play from the original novel by Douglas Glover and plays the role of Elle, is absolutely captivating. In what is essentially a one-woman show, minus about ten minutes, Thompson holds the audience’s attention in a vice grip with her precision, depth and hilarity. Her script it beautifully poetic, and she is a master of its delivery. Through her words and conviction, she creates a landscape and characters that were as vivid and clear as if they had been on stage with her.

Read the rest at Mooney on theatre.

Jan 262016


Another review. This one at Torontoist. Here’s a taste:

For a full-blooded heroine with courage, resourcefulness, and a healthy libido to match any debauched Victorian gentleman, look no further than Elle at Theatre Passe Muraille. Actress-playwright Severn Thompson’s rousing adaptation of Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel finds her embodying the legendary Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, the young French aristocrat who was marooned on the fabled Isle of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland in 1542 and lived to tell the tale.

Glover’s conception of Marguerite is of a “headstrong girl”—and a bawdy one, too. When we first meet her, she’s aboard her uncle’s ship, having vigorous sex with her seasick tennis-player boyfriend as a means of distracting herself from a horrendous toothache. It’s one helluva’ opening scene—hilarious, erotic, and disgusting all at the same time.

Read the rest at Torontoist.

Jan 252016

Domenico_di_Michelino_-_Dante_Illuminating_Florence_with_his_Poem_(detail)_-_WGA06422Domenico di Michelino: Dante Illuminating Florence with his Poem (detail)

Dante, myth, masks, illumination & lies predominate in the February issue, a thematic crystallization focused on contributions by Pat Keane, Paul Pines, and Mark Jay Mirsky who has earlier appeared in these pages as a reviewer (of Genese Grill’s Robert Musil translations) and as a fiction writer. Mirsky’s fiction created a sort of love quadrangle comprising Dante and Beatrice, a teacher and his much younger inamorata. Dante obsesses the narrator as he obsesses Mirsky. This month Mirsky throws off the mask of fiction and offers an essay on his passions: Dante, humour, translation, and influence. It’s a surprise essay in many ways, salient among them is its emphasis on the comedic irony of the, well, Dante’s Comedy. Mirsky shows how at least one translation misses the comedy in an attempt, perhaps, to be clear. Fascinating to read him. Erudite and yet informal and approachable and present.

Mark Jay MirskyMark Jay Mirsky

I think that when one is drawn to a writer, a work of literature or scholarship, it is because one senses that coincidence has played its magical part. Your life and the life of the writer become entwined and you exchange identities. Isn’t that what happens when you fall in love? Dante talks about how he met Beatrice at nine years old and then nine years later Beatrice appears before him in a miraculous way; how nine seems to keep reoccurring as a magical number between them. This coincidence he assures us is a sign of Divine intention. And of course three times three makes nine, and the Comedy will be organized in the basis of three—even to its triple rhyme.—Mark Jay Mirsky

MeElizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas, who has already contributed a gorgeous Australian childhood essay, returns this month with an extension of her memoir into her teens, redolent of a place and time nearly forgotten these days. Just read the places names in this excerpt out loud and you will be transported.

IN THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south. —Elizabeth Thomas

MooneyJacob McArthur Mooney

From the Canadian poet Jacob McArthur Mooney, we have edgy, witty, wry, even dystopian little poems, also quite funny when he’s writing about the jun that falls out of airplanes onto the world below.

We need to accept that the doom will foster monsters.

We think the end will be a noun when it will really be a verb.

No. Best to collapse the future in front of you:
You will die or your child will be taken by the dying.

—Jacob Mooney


AineGreaneyPanelAine Greaney

Also two chapters from a memoir What Brought You Here by the Irish expat writer Aine Greaney, who I actually knew in the mid-1990s, when she was a student in a workshop I ran in Albany for the New York State Writers Institute. We had lost contact, now we are brought together by the good offices of Senior Editor Gerard Beirne.

No. Scratch that. Actually, I was even braver than Ms. Hiker Boots. For us immigrant women, “courage” means looking around at our own country, the country of our mothers and our grandmothers and our great-grandmothers, and declaring, “No. Not for me.”

Often, as I stood there with my pen and order pad, I heard that woman’s undertow of regret. I wondered if she glimpsed herself at my age, if my story evoked her own roads not taken, her own botched tests of courage. —Aine Greaney

Gregory2recropfor the site nowGregory Howard

Gregory Howard I found when he started exclaiming about NC’s fiction offerings on Twitter, expressing his astoundingly good taste. Such a fine coincidence: a terrific young writer who followed the magazine. I got in touch, and, Lo!, he sent me a fantastic short story, deeply strange, quirky, surprisings and grand.

He met Fuchs in Belem. It was during the Cirio de Nazare, the great procession of the Virgin and as they met the thousands sat in the trees, pulled at the rope, dragged the Virgin to her Cathedral home, waving giant totems above their heads, hands, legs, larger heads, mouths: parts of themselves to be healed. Fuchs was taller than my father expected. He had imagined, for some reason, a small man. A small man with large, owlish eyes. But Fuchs was slender and his face was “the face of a man who talked with people professionally.” They met in a café. My father talked of us and the brilliance of Niemeyer, while Fuchs mostly nodded and said things like “yes, of course” and “very interesting.” My father was tired. He felt at times that he was talking with Fuchs the way you talked to cat on a rug. —Gregory Howard

Chrostowska_s_d_retouched_scaled_croppedS. D. Chrostowska

Jeff Bursey reviews S. D. Chrostowska’s Matches, just out with Punctum press. We ran an excerpt in the January issue.

An apt place to start discussing S.D. Chrostowska’s new work is with the cover, where the representation of untapped fire in the form of matchboxes rests in our hand along with the book itself to summon forth imagery of conflagrations ignited by congregations of ignorance, inbred fright and hostility, where the State and/or citizenry burn books gleefully or, where restrained, banish them from library shelves for their views on gender issues, same-sex marriage, explicit descriptions or the use of offensive words defined as such by those eager to protect their children. —Jeff Bursey

IMG_1516Donald Breckenridge

From NC multiple recidivist (novel excerpts, interview) Donald Breckenridge, a stern, sad memoir excerpt with a nouveau roman-ish dis-affectedness, obsessive detail, and a cumulative emotional punch.

On the corner of Myrtle and Carlton the old man yelling out an open window: What’s today? He was bald with no eyebrows: What day is today? My best guess must have satisfied him because he disappeared behind a torn curtain without another word. After the line was disconnected I put the phone in a drawer. A one-act play about a young woman giving her baby up for adoption—the father was one of her professors—I worked on it nearly every day for three months but it didn’t survive a second draft. Earlier that week I discovered my wife’s letter to a mutual friend where she stated that our marriage was over and that her plans for when she returned to New York in the fall did not include me. I would read novels until late at night, until I couldn’t focus on the sentences, then turn out the light and listen to the radio until dawn. —Donald Breckenridge

éSean RileySean Riley

From our own Mary Kathryn Jablonski, a fascinating interview (with stunning images) with textile artist Sean Riley.

I have come to think of the quilt as protection or armament, as a shield, and yes, this is where the work has since progressed. After I started working on the quilts, I found that what I was really doing was communicating, speaking to people through my art. It was the first time that I really felt like I was using art to communicate. I’d always known that in a sense about myself – that making images, making art was my preferred means of communication, but when I was displaying the quilts, it really became clear.—Sean Riley

MaryKathrynJablonski2015Mary Kathryn Jablonski

Ainsley as Cuchlain in At the Hawk's WellHenry Ainsley as Cuchulain in Yeats’s play At the Hawk’s Well, 1916.

Pat Keane contributes what is at once a great essay in the history of ideas (the idea of masks from Blake to Wilde to Nietzsche to Yeats) and yet another approach to his Irish eidolon. I say “approach” because much of what Pat writes is in the nature of approaches to the obsessional brotherhood of his mind (Nietzsche, Emerson, Yeats, Wordsworth, Twain), using affinities to illuminate and reveal aspects of each in the other, In this case, Wilde is the starting point of the essay, but the thing leaps at the moment when, reading Nietzsche, Yeats made a little explanatory diagram in the margin.

On Christmas Day 1888, Oscar Wilde read to Yeats “The Decay of Lying,” later published in Intentions. That collection also includes “The Truth of Masks,” an essay on theatrical costumes that ends with Wilde’s declaration that “in art there is no such thing as a universal truth. A Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true….It is only in art criticism, and through it, that we can realize Hegel’s system of contraries. The truths of metaphysics are the truths of masks.” That final aphorism might, in style and content, have been written by Friedrich Nietzsche.—Patrick J. Keane

PAT kEANEPatrick J. Keane

Palermo wall muralPalermo wall mural

Erika Mihálycsa, who has already sent us stories and translations, contributes a dreamy and evocative essay on living in Palermo, Italy.

Balcony for dreamers. There is no floor: abandon gravitation ye who step out here. Turned so entirely outward that it got refined out of existence, there not to detain but to accelerate the gaze. The wrought iron railing as an exercise in minimalism in this least minimalist of cities: how to draw the minimal line that can hold the maximum of time. —Erika Mihálycsa

ErikaErika Mihálycsa

spiritualpilgrimwoodcutIn two places at once _ Spiritual Pilgrim, Woodcut, anonymous German artist, circa 1530. Jung, CW 10, plate VIIThe Spiritual Pilgrim Discovering Another World (Woodcut) 16th Century

Paul Pines, a poet, novelist and psychotherapist, offers yet another essay, the third, in a series of meditations on the legend of the Fisher King. Part cultural exploration, part dream analysis, part memoir, part prose poem, the essay and its earlier avatars is a brilliant exposition of symbolic structures that are both out there (culture, the world) and inside (the soul, the mind).

In my twenties, as a merchant marine crossing both oceans and several seas, I spent hours at the rail watching the mysterious relationship between sea and sky. At times they existed peacefully, like sleeping lovers, fused, with no defining horizon. Afloat in seamless space, I glimpsed the plenitude of timelessness. More often, water and air colluded in creating spellbinding iterations of light. Most incredible were their sudden declarations of war. And with each shift of mood between them, I identified a corresponding one in myself so that concentrated thus, in this floating world, the only secure anchor was the observing eye that contained the image linking both worlds. —Paul Pines

Pines_PaulPaul Pines

ChirbesRafael Chirbes

Our newest contributor Joe Schreiber does a masterful review of Rafael Chirbes’ newly translated novel On the Edge.

Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber

There is more, of course. There always is. NC at the Movies, a review of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Happy Marriage by Jason DeYoung. And maybe more than that. I dunno. I’m only the editor, an accidental participant.

Jan 252016

Nc centralEditing Numéro Cinq, the awful truth

Many of you have been clamouring for details of the high life at NC Central Command, inside the Bunker, as it were. You think it’s all Talisker, darts tournaments, and beach weekends in Uruguay. Not so. Now the sad truth is revealed. We offer here a photograph that amply illustrates the way work really gets done at head office. You can see for yourselves the terrible pressures dg is under.

Jan 242016

Nowick Gray

Yet another lost soul has found the truth path and joined the serried ranks of the ungainfully employed at Numéro Cinq. Today we welcome Nowick Gray into the fold. May he find all that his heart desires here and not collapse under the workload.

Nowick has been part of the NC community for years now. He came up and introduced himself at my reading in Victoria a year ago last November. So he knows and appreciates the magazine. I very much like finding people from the community who want to ascend to the inner circle because they love the place and want to help us out.


Nowick Gray writes fiction, essays and creative nonfiction that likes to bend boundaries and confound categories. He also works as a freelance copy editor and enjoys playing African drums. Having survived American suburbs, the Quebec Arctic and the BC wilderness, Nowick is now based in Victoria, frequenting tropical locations in winter months.

Jan 232016

jaki mccarrick

“The passing of David Bowie is kind of like the death of a cultural parent, felt by those of us who grew up in places where the alternatives to the wider, more permissive world that he presented were not worth contemplating; they were sometimes dark and claustrophobic – as much of Ireland was in the 1970s and 80s.”

Uimhir a Cúig was delighted to feature a story by Jaki McCarrick back in July of last year. In this article for The Irish Times, she perfectly captures Bowie as “an agent of change in small-town Ireland”. As someone who lived (or more aptly “survived”) in one such small town, I recognise much of what she says. For my one-hour lunch break in secondary (high) school, I would cycle twenty minutes home and twenty minutes back just to have twenty minutes of respite in my bedroom listening to Young Americans or Scary Monsters or Heroes or Low depending on my mood. Ziggy was kept for after school when my mood lightened considerably.

You can read the full of Jaki’s article here.

—Gerard Beirne

Jan 232016

elle7Severn Thompson as Elle, and the sheet (see below)

State the obvious. Elle, the novel, and Elle, the play, are distinct works of art. They are radically different forms; we have different expectations. The novel’s more than 200 pages of text suck down to perhaps 40-45 pages of script. This is necessary for the transformation into a play, a necessity and a problem for the playwright in terms of selection, but it’s not something the novelist mourns because, of course, the novel remains, fully in tact, over there on the book shelf.

In brute terms, a lot of the novel disappears. What disappears? The whole sequence of events that occurs after Elle’s return to France is gone. That means Rabelais is gone and the joke about Elle inventing the modern novel. Comes Winter, the native girl brought to France by Jacques Cartier, also disappears. Her tragic story is a dystopian inversion of Elle’s own adventure in Canada. Also gone is the frame device of the one-eyed child-stealing man and the novel’s contemporary tail with the Elle-like young woman on the beach at Sept-Iles with her older lover. These characters and devices are meant to extend the myth and the story of Elle into a larger, more mysterious cosmic rhythm beyond history. The novel is built around a complex set of themes loosely implied in words and oppositions like transformation, literary/orality, translation, New World/Land of the Dead, the invention of printing, colonization/love, and so on. Very little of this survives in the play except in stray phrases or references. Also missing from the play are the details of Roberval’s own failed colony upriver from Elle, pages and pages reduced to a few phrases and the mention of the colony’s failure. What survives in the play is a reduced set of events, a roughly similar sequence of action from Elle’s arrival in Canada to her rescue and departure for France and then, of course, Roberval’s murder in a Paris cemetery years later. The play focuses on Elle’s time in Canada and, in plot terms, becomes more of a female adventure story, Elle as Robinson Crusoe, than the novel is. Conversely, also in brute terms, a lot of the text of the play, the words, come straight from the novel. If you imagine a Venn diagram of the novel and the play, they would overlap at these points. After that, they diverge.

I say this not to diminish the play but to be clear about differences. You don’t want to make the mistake of expecting the play to replicate the novel precisely. I have listed some of the novel elements that didn’t make it into the play, but Severn Thompson’s Elle is an enactment, a presence, with a different structure and tool set, different intentions. It has actors, set, sound, lighting and a reactive audience, all in the same three-dimensional space. A novel is pure text; a play has a physicality that bleeds into the plastic arts so that on stage, moment by moment, you’re presented with tableaux or pictures that have a physical beauty. The presentation at Theatre Passe Muraille has an amazing set, starting with the what the director Christine Brubaker calls “the claw,” a metal and papier mache structure at the back of the stage that looks like the ribs of shipwreck or a dead animal or the back of a cave or the edge of a forest. It also feels like a hand, cradling the characters on the stage in front of it. This is the magic of theatre. The claw is an abstraction that changes with light, verbal context, character action, and, above all, the audience’s imagination.

Besides the claw, there’s the sheet. Oh, wonder of abstraction and efficiency. Severn and Christine needed a bear onstage and a woman changing into a bear and a way to imply that the actors are entering the world of dream. If this were a movie, there would be an actual bear. The sheet is a miraculous rectangle of cloth of indeterminate but changing colour that seems stretchy and drops into gorgeous folds. It’s a sail, Richard falling into the ocean, a robe, a tent, a flag, a hut, a fire, a bear, a sign of dream, and the face of transformation when Elle changes into a bear. There are some stunning moments with this sheet, which is sometimes on the stage floor, sometimes woven into the arms of the claw, sometimes suspended on hooks over the stage, and so on. When the white bear falls upon Elle and dies, it’s the sheet. It’s eerie how quickly the audience gets the implication, a lovely bit of theatre and timing. When the bear woman cures Elle and she drifts into a dream state, Severn the actress has her arms inside the sheet which, pulled from behind by Jonathan Fisher, the second actor on stage,  creates a stunning abstract idea of a woman with golden wings. And, of course, when Elle changes into a bear, she’s draped in the sheet, again pulled from behind, so that the human face is suggested but is also bearish. She changes into a bear just by having the sheet pulled against her face and body.

There is deliberate anachronism in the play just as there is in the novel but enacted quite differently. Itslk is an Inuit hunter in Elle, the novel. He presents the intersection of European colonization and the myth/culture of native Canada. In the play, his role is expanded. Jonathan Fisher has a desk and sound board and a microphone and a guitar set up  off to one side of the stage. Through the play he makes music, sings a native song, does a throat singing loop, plays the guitar, etc. He’s a contemporary native artist/musician watching the play and participating in the play and, at the appropriate moment, he comes to the centre of the stage and plays the part of Itslk. Again, theatre is physical. In the same moment, Elle is onstage speaking her lines (having sex with Richard, pleading with her uncle, crooning over her dying baby) AND the contemporary native is present just a few feet to the side with an electric guitar and a soundboard. The effect in a theatre is difficult to parse precisely because, in the audience, you are aware of the juxtaposition but at any given moment the imagination is engaged with Elle or the line. The lighting focuses you. It’s a mechanism of audience manipulation that seems marvelous to me. And, of course, there are multiple message loops: Jonathan Fisher is an actor but also an Anishinaabe musician. Also in real life he is a member of the bear clan. And he delivers one of the lines that does depart significantly from the thematics of the novel. This occurs when he is reciting the story of his mythic quest/hunt for the white bear, a quest that Elle disrupts by her presence (one of the crucial metaphors of the novel is the moment when Elle’s European story collides with Itslk’s mythic quest and destroys it). In the novel Itslk is aware, sadly and tragically, that the disruption of his story means the ultimate disruption of his culture, a moment that cannot be redeemed. In the play, Severn Thompson gives Jonathan’s Itslk a more hopeful line about the bear returning, the myth world coming back (in other words), which is a nod to the contemporary resurgence of native of culture. The novel wants the reader to dwell in sadness; the play wants to leave some hope. That aside, there is clear a moment of delight when Itslk appears. You can feel the audience shift. It’s a daring and brilliant invention, this Jonathan Fisher/Itslk character. And he gets to deliver some very funny lines, bring back the dead dog, bring back the tennis ball, and deliver the thematic legend. (It’s fascinating watching audience, BTW. When Elle throws the ball off the ship and Leon, the dog, apparently dies, the audience turns against her, faces go suddenly glum. But when we hear the dog bark off stage, glimmerings of recognition appear. And there is a wondrous delight when Itslk produces the lost tennis ball — for me, this is a bit like watching the readers reading my novel.)

Lighting, sound. You deeply enjoy the effects. The framing of the tableaux on stage and with lighting creates a monumental feeling, creates focus, creates shadow and transformation. Some images are spectacular. For example, the moment when Elle/Severn falls through the ice. Suddenly she’s illuminated by a bright filtered light from above, a column of light, that imitates the flickering, shadowy feel of being under water while the actress mimes a person drifting down. There is more of this than I can describe here. And in all these moments you see the differences in the kinds of works of art. Novel. Play. (And film, if you think about it — the play is so much a series of abstractions demanding audience interaction whereas in a movie there would be much more of the real, a real ship, a real island, a real bear. A film more often than not will try to leave less to the imagination than a play or a novel.)

A play has actors, not to be left out. Severn Thompson loved the novel Elle and saw a place for herself in it, and she is a spectacular actress. On stage every fibre of muscle is engaged in action. Her body is an instrument. She is amazing to watch. We are so used to movie and TV acting, which is mostly minimalist acting from the eyebrows to the chin (actually, on TV acting is mostly a minimal movement of the lips in speaking). The intensity of a stage play is astonishing. I saw three performances and the best audience was the third night which had an ASL component and a large number of deaf people in the audience. ASL is, of course, an enactment of language. Deaf people communicate with actions and they are acutely tuned into the physicality, the presence of the speaker. You could almost feel their attentiveness to Severn’s every move. In stature, she is a diminutive woman; on stage she is monumental and heroic (also very comic, sometimes pathetic, always passionate, exploding with energy). The lighting keeps trapping the gestures, like a series of still photographs, and they are gorgeously expressive. She’s also just a wonderful mime. With a gesture and a hanging of the head, she inhabits bearishness. She knows how a body looks drifting in the ocean. She has so much to work with in the play from lust (gorgeously funny sex scene early on, also a scene in the novel), rapture, resignation, pathos, rage, animal transformation, flirtation, and love to childbirth and the death of the child. It’s a huge part for an actress, a dream role, I would think. And Severn runs with it. Extravagantly and joyfully. I wrote the book, and I was still misting up when Emmanuel dies in her arms. Even the third time I saw it.

What else? Too much to think of. A note on structure. The novel has some little thematic pre-texts, then the frame with the one-eyed man, then the sex scene on shipboard. What the play does instead is quite fascinating. It actually opens with what you might call an overture, a montage of moments (tableaux accompanied by gong-like sound effects and flashes of light) that in fact presage the action of the whole play in gesture alone. The bear is the there, the death of the general, the death of the baby. Just a gorgeous piece of structure. Then the frame: Elle in Paris, by the cemetery, catching sight of the general, Roberval, her uncle in the gloomy street and starting to tell her story. Then the story begins, on shipboard, sex with Richard. Fleetingly, Elle steps back into the storytelling moment, once or twice, just enough to establish the frame and story together, and then we are off. We return to the frame scene at the very end of the play (these transitions beautifully indicated by a repetition of gesture, key language, also a slight costume change and a jug of wine) and thence to the final confrontation with Roberval. Throughout there are beautiful recursions, language, shape and gesture. The “headstrong girl” phrase from the novel. The shape and presence of bearishness (even Jonathan Fisher, with his fur vest, sometimes hulks like a bear). The cradling of the baby Emmanuel (at one point, again, Fisher is back behind the claw, apparently cradling a baby in his arms). It’s also interesting the way the play is text heavy through the scenes up to and including the arrival of Itslk. When he leaves and after the birth and death of the baby, the play leans more and more heavily on image. Itslk’s presence effectively introduces the native element and begins to educate Elle in the epic traditions of the new world (she is already steeped in her own epic traditions). The death of the baby and the advent of the bear woman (and her symbolic rebirth in the ocean) bring Elle into the world of dream and dream and image subsequently drive the remainder of the play, which, here, takes on a quality reminiscent of German Expressionist theatre. These are structural effects, small and large, that you notice upon revisiting the play, and you begin to appreciate the amazing physical inventiveness of theatre.

When I go to a play, I desire a total experience: intelligent interaction with characters/actors on the stage, magical and surprising effects, emotional engagement, language. I got what I wanted when I saw Severn Thompson at Theatre Passe Muraille. I wrote the book, I knew the lines, but I was still surprised and entranced. It was delightful still on the second and third viewing; I saw more, of course, and appreciated the artistry more (and was able to peek at the audience). If you can, go more than once. It’s revelatory. First reviews of the play kept mentioning that awful movie The Revenant (which, in my head, I keep referring to as The Ruminant). That is a completely wrong-headed response based on the most superficial resemblances (wilderness, survival, bear, revenge). Elle (both play and novel) is about first contact, the tremendous collision of European and native cultures, it is about an act that is continuous and ongoing, a conversation between our cultures. Because she is a woman (and a reader), Elle is the most apt and available of the Europeans for transformation. She and Itslk are paired cultural receptors; they know what is going on, the vast, tragic pageant. The Ruminant is a movie with its dumbed-down realism and a pop-Nietzschean thematic that’s very appealing to commercial audiences. It’s not the same thing at all.


Buy tickets here!





Buy tickets here!

Jan 222016

Shawn Kazubowski_Houston(1)

Shawn Kazubowski-Houston, thespian, director, producer, poet, among other things, has joined the masthead as a production editor. That gives us three production editors, which is to say, we have learned to spread the work around and  expand the staff of loyal background helpers who keep the magazine running. This also means that in fact we have something approaching copyeditors for the first time. We will no longer depend completely on our readers to spot the errors. Think of that!

Shawn is actually one of two new hires. We had the best response ever to our call for production help, an embarrassment of riches. A second announcement is coming. But Shawn first. We are grateful for his expertise and his enthusiasm for the magazine.

Shawn Kazubowski-Houston has been engaged in the performing arts as actor, director, playwright, designer and teacher for 25 years in Canada, the US and Poland. He has published in West Coast Line, and is an unrepentant bibliophage.

Jan 222016


Saw the play for the last time last night then closed the Epicure with Jonathan Fisher, the excellent Anishinaabe actor who plays Itslk, with audience members coming up to the table and chatting to us. A most pleasant way to pass the time.

Here’s another review, somewhat more thoughtful and appreciative of Severn as an actress.


The virtue of Glover’s novel and of Thompson’s adaptation is its satire.  When Elle is rescued she notes that Portuguese and Basque fishermen have been coming to Canada long before the French “discovered” it and claimed it for their own.  That Elle survives longer in the wilderness than the French government-supported colony is itself a critique of colonists’ inability to adapt and learn from their surroundings.  In its anti-male satire, Elle may call herself “frivolous” but her tennis-playing lover is hopelessly impractical and is the first to die.  In ints religious satire, Elle, once a fervent Catholic, begins praying to both her god and the natives’ and finally to none. 

The role that Elle provides is a juicy one for Thompson and ideally suited to her strengths.  Her wry delivery makes the satire all the more trenchant.  Her ability to convey a character’s strength beneath her own view of herself as vulnerable is perfect for Elle’s situation.  Thompson has always been an insightful interpreter of words, but here she has a chance to display her equally superlative skills at mime and physical theatre.  The Elle she creates changes before us from a self-centred society-oriented aristocrat to simply a lone human being with the one simple wish to survive.  

Jonathan Fisher, who primarily adds live guitar music to Lyon Smith’s highly effective soundscape, is a taciturn, self-contained Itslk, welcome as an unromanticized First Nations character.  His presence in what it otherwise a one-woman show is important for embodying the show’s critique against the European colonization of the New World as if it were not already inhabited.  Physically, the playing area already is inhabited before Elle becomes aware of it. 

Designer Jennifer Goodman has reconfigured Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace into a narrow thrust stage bringing Thompson very close to the audience, the peninsular stage helping to depict both the isolation of the ship and later the isolation of the island.  Goodman’s set is a giant bony structure that looks very much like the skeleton of left hand or left paw threatening those on stage.  Yet, depending on the lighting, it can also look like the inside of the cave where Elle seeks refuge or the ribs of the hut Itslk helps to build.  Brubaker makes very imaginative use of a large piece of cloth that can be a sail, a tent or, most remarkably, the skin of the bear into which Elle transforms herself.

Click here to read the rest at Stage Door.

Jan 212016

doireann imram 2014 3


Thrilled for Doireann Ní Ghríofa who featured in Uimhir a Cúig back in its early days. A bilingual poet, her first English language collection of poetry, Clasp (Dedalus Press), has been shortlisted for the prestigious Irish Times Poetry Now Prize. This year’s shortlist of five includes four women and one man – read more here. The award worth €2,000 recognises the best collection by an Irish poet in the previous year. Doireann is in some mighty company including Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian. Previous winners of the prize include Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley, Sinéad Morrissey, and Dennis O’Driscoll.


You can read Doireann’s poems (some in both Irish and English) and watch her video collaborations with Peter Madden here.

—Gerard Beirne

Jan 212016


When Severn Thompson read the novel Elle four years ago she had no idea that this story would capture her imagination for years to come. The Governor General’s Award-winning novel written by Douglas Glover is based on the true story of Marguerite de Roberval. Marguerite, along with her lover and nurse, were marooned by her uncle the Sieur de Roberval on the Isle of Demons in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. Thompson spent the last three years adapting and workshopping Elle before bringing it to Theatre Passe Muraille. “It struck me as so refreshing to find a female voice from a time I had heard very little about, in the very early days of the explorers in the mid 1500’s,” says Thompson. “I felt very close to her [the character]. The story crossed 500 years very easily for me. It brought the past to the present.”

Read the rest at In the Greenroom.

Jan 212016


Another review that’s positive despite not being able to keep The Revenant out of the lead. Jesus wept. :)


The biggest story in the film world right now includes hypothermia, parenthood, bear attacks and Leonardo DiCaprio’s potential first Oscar win in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant. Who knew its companion piece would be revealed at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille, and that Hollywood’s favourite movie would share so many similarities with a story foundational to the creation of Canada.

In Elle, which had its world premiere this week at Passe Muraille directed by Christine Brubaker, writer and actor Severn Thompson adapts Douglas Glover’s 2003 novel of the same name into a mostly solo performance that weaves feminism, survival instincts, colonialism and magic realism together.

Read the rest at The Toronto Star.

Jan 202016


Here’s another review by a man who seems to think everything would be better as a movie and reviews the play as if it were a text and not a series of scenes and tableau-like images that, as the play wears on, remind you more of German Expressionist theatre than what he inappropriately calls “magic realism.” He makes no mention of the theatricality of the play. His descriptive vocabulary is minimal. “Tense” — what does that mean? And he obviously hasn’t read the novel. This is typical of a certain withered Toronto provincialism that equates the Academy Awards with the acme of our culture and thinks that by mentioning them you mark yourself as hip and in the know. :)

What can you expect from a newspaper that so badly read the mood of the country as to endorse Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in the last election? And we all know how that went down.


A white person left for dead in the North American wilderness in the days of conquest and colonization. A highly symbolic encounter with a bear – and local indigenous peoples. An epic journey of survival across a frozen landscape seeking revenge.

No, it’s not The Revenant, the Alejandro Iñárritu film leading this year’s Oscar nominations. It’s Elle, Douglas Glover’s 2003 Governor-General’s Award-winning novel – now transformed into an occasionally tense, but frequently funny play by the actress Severn Thompson.

Read the rest at The Globe and Mail.

Jan 202016

Here’s a review excerpt.

In his program note, Andy McKim, Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille, references author Douglas Glover (who wrote the book on which the play is based): “It was remarkable that she (Elle) survived by herself when the large expedition brought to colonize Canada by (her uncle) and Jacques Cartier couldn’t succeed. (Perhaps) her motives were somehow purer, that she was closer in her attitudes to what we might call the forces of life, and this allowed her also to be more open to native culture.” Or it could just simply be that Marguerite de Roberval (Elle) was one resourceful woman who knew how to suck it up, use what was available to her and embrace and respect her surroundings and survive.

Severn Thompson has adapted Douglas Glover’s book so that it lives on the stage. The language is eloquent and poetic. At one point Elle refers to “endless misty vistas.” I certainly don’t mind spending time in a theatre if I can listen to poetic lines like that, delivered with as much passion and life as Severn Thompson imbues in Elle.

Read the rest @The Slotkin Letter