Milchtoast

Chronicles of a writer abroad


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An evening without Alice Munro

A funny thing happened when a friend and I went to an Alice Munro reading yesterday evening: Alice Munro wasn’t there.

Looking back on it now, it maybe was a little too good to be true. In the past year in Zürich, I’ve attended readings by JM Coetzee and John Irving, and now Alice Munro was coming to town. These are not authors that I just kinda-sorta like; it was starting to seem eerie how tailored to my taste these author appearances were.

Yes: I’m aware that Alice Munro is 81 years old.  And yes, I’m aware that she, having lived her life in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia, probably speaks no German, unlike Coetzee and Irving, who both speak enough to be comfortable at bilingual events.

But at 81 Munro does have a new book of stories out, entitled Dear Life. It was easy for me, then, to spin a mental yarn in which she decided to do a European tour, and opted to include in it our klein aber fein city – hadn’t its beauty dazzled me on my walk to the venue?  The lit-up churches and the fairy-light-garlanded trees standing out against the black sky…the swans bobbing serenely on the dark river, the glow of these lights reflected dimly in their breasts…who wouldn’t want to visit Zürich near Christmastime?

Admittedly, there were clues that Alice Munro wasn’t coming to the Literaturhaus’ “Alice-Munro Abend” (translated in my head as “An Evening with Alice Munro”). Though the event was advertised using a picture of Munro, the names of two other, local female writers were on the bill. But recall that John Irving’s reading involved someone helping out with reading the German bits — wasn’t it plausible that that’s what those women would be there for? Or else, the three were planning to have a conversation about writing?

When the event began, however, there was a table with only two chairs on stage…and both chairs were occupied by these women. Where would Alice sit? A third woman came on stage to welcome us all to the event, and she began to talk about Alice, in German. As my friend later noted, she talked about her in a somewhat indelicate manner (“Alice is not young; it’s difficult for her to travel”) but as always when German is being spoken quickly, the meaning fades in and out for me, so all I noticed is that she didn’t look at anyone in particular, as you typically do look at someone when speaking about them in their presence.

Next the two authors began to talk about her life and work, and went on to read from some of her stories, all in German. Surely it isn’t polite to alienate her with all this German? I thought. To make her wait so long for her turn to speak/read? And where indeed was she waiting — in the audience? The bubble of my illusion was being stretched further and further…until they played a tinny audio recording of Alice speaking at a true public reading, and it popped.

It turns out that we non-native German speakers may have been foiled by one little word in the advertisement for this event: widmen. It apparently signalled that this was an evening dedicated to, and not with, the writer. However, a German-speaking couple sitting in front of us walked out partway through, presumably after realizing that Alice Munro wasn’t coming, so I think there might still have been cross-lingual confusion.

After the event, my friend and I ran into a fellow expat writer who at first looked absolutely stricken by what had taken place – she loves Alice Munro; she’d brought a book to be signed – but then, as we headed for the drinks table, pooling our embarrassment, began to laugh until tears stood out in her eyes.

That’s when it occurred to me how much this event had succeeded in capturing the spirit of Alice Munro’s writing. What I think most of us cherish about her fiction are its moments of raw and blemished humanity: moments of awkwardness, embarrassment, anger, and yes…disappointment, too.

In her stories, Munro gives us the moment in which one woman calmly but furiously cleans her kitchen while another confesses to an affair with her husband. She gives us the moment when an older woman who has opened her home in kindness to a stranger realizes that her life is in jeopardy. She gives us the confusion of a man upon finding out that his wife, institutionalized with Alzheimer’s disease, has taken a new boyfriend. And – perhaps most salient for me – she gives us the moment of revealing oneself as a writer:

 …here comes the disclosure which is not easy for me: I am a writer. That does not sound right. Too presumptuous; phony, or at least unconvincing. Try again. I write. Is that better? I try to write. That makes it worse. Hypocritical humility. Well then?

 It doesn’t matter. However I put it, the words create their space of silence, the delicate moment of exposure. But people are kind, the silence is quickly absorbed by the solicitude of friendly voices, crying variously, how wonderful, and good for you, and well, that is intriguing. And what do you write, they inquire with spirit. Fiction, I reply, bearing my humiliation by this time with ease, even a suggestion of flippancy, which was not always mine, and again, again, the perceptible circles of dismay are smoothed out by such ready and tactful voices–which have however exhausted their stock of consolatory phrases, and can say only, ‘Ah!'”

– From the story “The Office”

 I feel sure that if Alice Munro had lived as an expat, she would have brilliantly captured the moments of delight and confusion and embarrassment and sorrow that accompany this experience, too.

In the end I’m grateful to Zürich’s “Alice Munro-Abend” for reminding me that I can visit with Munro, in my home and in the original language, any time I wish. In her perfectly-crafted stories, which now fill thirteen volumes, she has never once failed to show up.

But I can’t help wishing that Alice Munro the person – who ironically at this moment is probably at her home in Ontario, only a few hundred kilometres from my hometown, from my family – will have a holiday season as beautiful as the one we enjoy here in Zürich.

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John Irving in Zürich

In my last post I mentioned a list of my Top 10 favourite books. It was more of a figurative thing than an actual list that I keep on paper, but I was prompted to spell it out in the comments. By the way, if you want to share your own Top 10, or Top 3 or whatever, in the comments on that post or this one, please do: I’m so interested in knowing what everyone’s favourites are (and reading them)!

I’m still not sure whether I’m entirely satisfied with my list, but I know that a few of the books I put down absolutely belong there. One of these is A Prayer For Owen Meany, by John Irving. It’s a wonderful novel about friendship and fate, and I try to re-read it every few years.

Yesterday, thanks to a friend who told me about the event (and accompanied me to it), I got to see John Irving in a reading/Q&A session at Zürich’s Schauspielhaus. This was my second time seeing Irving in person. The first time was at the Vancouver Readers and Writers Festival on Granville Island in 2009, and I found it so exciting to be in the same room as someone whose work I so deeply admired.

Seeing him in Zürich yesterday was a different, but still inspiring, experience. The venue was not a simple room with hard chairs but a plush theatre with a balcony, velvet seats and an enormous chandelier. The interview or “conversation” portion of the event was in English, but after asking each question and receiving a response, the interviewer would briefly paraphrase in German — until some point, after a particularly long response, she threw up her hands and said “Ah, why should I translate? Everyone understands anyway.” Irving himself supplied a German phrase here and there, vestiges of the few years he spent in Vienna.

For the reading, Irving was joined by a German-speaking actor. Together they read adjacent passages in the English and German versions of his new novel In One Person, meaning that the bilingual Volk got to hear more of it. The German was too fast for me, so I just enjoyed Irving’s own reading, and during the German sections I watched as Irving listened to the actor and followed along, making little swooping hand gestures as though he were conducting the music of his book. Fascinating!

At one point Irving jokingly said of his method for plot design: “I find a character that I’m sympathetic to, and I try to think of the worst possible thing that can happen to him.” At first I was taken aback by this — it seems so blatantly manipulative. But how come his work doesn’t come across that way? I then stumbled over a yet more depressing idea: is it by being as cruel as possible that Art successfully imitates life?

I had to reject this idea, too. I don’t think life is unconditionally cruel. But I do think we read for a reason, and that is to find out how we should live. Literature — and other art forms, like film — have to condense joys and sorrows, amplify highs and lows, in order to be useful and forceful enough in this regard. And what Irving didn’t mention, of course, is that after miring his characters, he most always allows them to overcome the obstacles, to be redeemed.

Irving is of course also known for his humour, so here is another [paraphrased] quote from yesterday on sexuality, which is the key concern of In One Person: It’s good that we can imagine things and not act on them, because “if you had sex with everyone you imagined, your life would be an utter disaster. I know mine would be.”

Irving has put out a new book every 3-4 years since 1968, and even now, at the age of 70, he shows no sign of slowing down. He told us, the audience members, about the main character and concept of the novel he’s writing now. And while I don’t know where I’ll be living when he goes on promotional tour in 2015-2016, I can hope it’ll be a place he’ll visit.


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Book recommendation: The God of Small Things

In a good year, I read 40-50 books (this figure includes audiobooks), but my list of all-time favourites doesn’t often change — this is either because I read good books early on, or because those I read first imprinted themselves deeply on my psyche while I was young and impressionable and just discovering the joy of novels. Maybe it’s a mix of both. But what I want to share with you now is a book that, from its first page, began its slow and steady creep into my top ten list.

The downside of being a reader and an aspiring writer is that the kind of books that thrill me most as a reader are the same books that most pain me as a writer. While I’m happy that writing of such high calibre exists, I’m sad that I don’t possess the ability to write this well. While I’m engrossed in the plot, I’m also trying to stand outside of the plot so that I can see how it’s constructed. If the book it is really good, I’ll nod off at my analysis post because I’m so taken with the story, and that leaves me delighted and also annoyed.

It can get to the point where I find myself flinging a book down in exasperation after reading an especially beautiful passage, and storming to my computer where I begin googling the author to learn how long it took the author to write it, how old he or she was when it was published, and so on, because Answers, dammit! I need answers!

Later I’ll calm down. I’ll return to the book and it will soothe me with its beautiful story, its impeccable prose.

It’s an agony-and-ecstasy sort of thing.

Here’s what I learned about Arundhati Roy during my anguished research. It took her a respectable four years to write The God of Small Things, her first novel. She wrote it thinking that it would never be read outside of India. After it was published —  and after it won international acclaim and the Booker Prize for 1997 — she declared herself finished with novel-writing and moved on to political activism, in the service of which she has authored several books of nonfiction. Like Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, she’s bestowed just one perfect novel on the world (though she did announce in 2007 that she intended to write another).

Turning to the book itself: it deals with issues of caste and forbidden love in Indian society. To borrow from a New Yorker review by John Updike, it builds a “massive interlocking structure.” It’s said that good fiction relies heavily on consequence — it gives us pleasure as readers to see one thing leading to another, to have a sense that things are not happening randomly but inexorably. The events in Roy’s book, while not simply told, are (when you think about them later) as neatly causal as a chain of dominoes. Everything that happens — even the horrible things, and there are several — has a sense of inevitability.

It is also written in a nonlinear fashion that is brilliant in how it evokes the state of mind of the main characters — a boy-girl pair of “two-egg twins,” eight years old when the main action takes place. In the beginning the action has already occurred, but the reader is as clueless as the children about why. These details are backfilled and the reader’s understanding grows to the book’s ending, which is also arguably its climax. It’s a beautiful subverting of the typical novel structure.

Finally, the writing is awfully good. The attention to language is like what you’d find in a poem, and it’s amazing that so much care was taken with an entire novel. The rendering of childlike thoughts and forms of speech is perfect and hilarious:

‘Where d’you think people are sent to Jolly Well Behave?’ Estha asked Rahel in a whisper.

‘To the government,’ Rahel whispered back, because she knew.

Finally, it’s a joy to experience India’s sights, sounds and smells painted in vibrant colours, as here, in the book’s first paragraph:

May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.

Read this…it is likely, for one reason or another, to break your heart. But in that way of really good books, it will also feed you.