A CAUTIONARY TALE

Today I heard a story on CBC radio about a Canadian shocked to find Nazi war memorabilia for sale in a shop in this country.
It reminded me of an incident at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1981. That year at Macmillan we had just published a fine non-fiction book by John Melady about German P.O.W.s in Canada in the Second World War. The title of this well-researched book was ESCAPE FROM CANADA.
I have many German friends, and once spent a high-school month in Hamburg, so decided that in my role as Publisher I should become a salesman, selling the German Rights to this book.
To do the job properly, I decided to get out of the usual English-language Frankfurt Hall (crowded with Canadian, British, American, and the other Publishers from around the world who liked to deal with major books translated from English). Instead, worriedly trying to recall my rusty German, I stepped into the very large Hall for German publishers.
I roamed around, looking for the sort of publisher who specialized in military books, like John Melady’s. In about the 40th Aisle, I found one. and when I stumbled into my introduction, the German Publisher manning the busy booth swept me into a conversation in fluent English,. He courteously agreed to consider our book, and gave me his card.
“But”, he exclaimed, with great enthusiasm, “we have a book for you! And it is being translated into English already!”
He produced a large hardcover book that was full of text and illustrations, and handed it to me.
Then he was called away to look after another urgent matter, leaving me gaping at the book in my hands. It was called the German equivalent of “The S.S.– A Celebration”
I leafed through it, shuddering, to make sure that I was not missing a shrewd satire. But no, it was an admiring look at the SS forces who had played a decisive role in the war. Instead of “decisive”, some citizens in a dozen European countries that had endured Nazi Occupation would use words like “ruthless” and “shameful”. Or given the cheerful approach of the German publisher, perhaps the correct word is “shameless”.
I remember vividly one photo from The Russian Front. A visibly terrified old woman was holding a large pitcher of milk, preparing to pour it out for five or six laughing young blond members of the Master Race; as they lined up they still had their rifles on their shoulders and broad smiles on their faces. The caption — and the gorge rises as I recall it — was, in German, “Once a mother…’
My command of the language was not up to the situation. Nor was my command of my own temper: this man really thought that I would want to publish this book, and that my fellow-Canadians would want to buy it.
My protest was mute. Instead of politely returning the loathsome book, I simply dropped it, BANG, on the floor in the middle of the booth. Then I walked away.

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NEIL BISSOONDATH AND DYSLEXIA

A very long time ago, in 1985, I published Neil Bissoondath’s first book, the short story collection Digging Up The Mountains. Since then I’ve watched his international career take flight with his long and short fiction, including A Casual Brutality (1988), On The Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows (1990), The Innocence of Age (1992), The Worlds Within Her (1998), Doing The Heart Good (2001), and The Unyielding Clamour of the Night (2005). Among other titles.
Neil continues to teach Creative Writing at Laval, and is a welcoming fixture with his wife Anne for visitors to Quebec City. Recently Jane and I were yet again recipients of their superb hospitality.
We talked at length about his controversial non-fiction book, Selling Illusions:The Cult Of Multiculturalism In Canada (1994). I was unfortunately not the book’s publisher, but was well aware that the word “controversial” here is an understatement, like the word “costly” applied to the Second World War. In fact, the updated 2002 edition begins with Neil’s Introduction, which briefly demonstrates the tsunami of outrage that burst over his head when the book appeared…… and went straight to the top of the best-seller list.
I won’t try to summarize the book here. But I’ve just re-read it, and will recommend it to anyone who would like to spend time thinking hard thoughts about what it means to be Canadian. The outrage that Neil provoked included a denunciation by Sheila Finestone, the Minister for Multiculturalism in Ottawa. I think it’s clear that some of that outrage stemmed from the fact that he,  born in Trinidad, was a person with dark skin who wanted to be judged on what he did as an individual writer, and wanted to avoid being seen as a “representative” of any group, of any sort.
That is an increasingly lonely position today, but Neil makes a very thoughtful defence of it. I strongly recommend that you read his book, and see what you think.
Selling Illusions contains a story about me, which I had forgotten. As you’d expect, Neil gives a very accurate account of what happened.
“And a Canadian publisher, Douglas Gibson of McClelland & Stewart, relishes the following story. In a speech to an industry convention, Mr. Gibson, a clever and witty man, attacked the federal government’s tax on books by saying, “Those who tax reading must be people who find reading taxing.” The line was greeted with laughter and applause. But afterward, one person approached him to register displeasure. “That was a clever line,” the man said. “Many people laughed. I did not.  I’m dyslexic. It’s not nice to imply that people who have a hard time reading are stupid.”
The chapter, Diversity and Creativity, where my sad story appears, begins with the sentence “How easy it is, in life and in art, to give and to take offence.” Indeed.

PHILIP ROTH IS GONE FOR GOOD. SORT OF…

You may have missed two recent tributes to Philip Roth, who died last week.
One is in The New Yorker, by the novelist ALI SMITH. She learned to her surprise that she and this admired older gentleman both swam in the same New York pool. When she consulted him about how to keep your mind active while swimming boring lengths, up and down, up and down, he told her that he made a point of fixing on a specific year, then recalling everything he could about it. He would tackle not only the events in his own life during that year, but in the city, the state, the country, the literary world, and the world at large.
Ali Smith tells us that he swam long distances, much faster than she did, and learned from him that his recipe for a mental workout also seemed to produce good results.
As the outdoor swimming season begins in much of Canada, I’m happy to pass this idea along.

Meanwhile, I hope that you read the National Post cartoon on May 24 by my friend GARY CLEMENT. It’s an 8-panel piece that runs for half a page, headed “Goodbye, Philip Roth.” The sub-heading says simply “True Story.”
I’ve been in touch with Gary to congratulate him, but complained that it strains the reader’s belief that his encounter with Philip Roth took place “on Columbus Ave., of all places”.
He swears that it’s true.
Gary and his wife and son were in New York when they saw an older man sitting quietly alone outside a coffee shop. Gary says “OMIGOD! It’s Philip Roth!”
Urged to go and say hi, Gary objects “YOU CAN’T JUST SAY HI TO A GUY LIKE PHILIP ROTH! HE’S A GOD OF WRITING! AN IMMORTAL!”
The family goes off for a hamburger.
Then, in mid-burger, Gary abandons his family, runs back, and blurts out “I’m sorry to bother you Mr. Roth but I just wanted to tell you how much your writing means to me.”

The story unfolds as you would hope.

“Turns out.. he was a real kibbitzer.”
Roth:”Normally when this sort of thing happens, people offer me a little cash.”

Gary:”I only have Canadian money.”

Roth:” I’ll take a cheque.”

Gary recalls: “It was like talking to my Dad!”

To Gary’s surprise, Philip Roth wanted to know more about him.

Roth:” What do you do in Canada?”
Gary:” I’m a cartoonist.”

Roth:” From this you make a living?”

At the end, “Finally it was time to go.

Gary:”I look forward to your next book…any hints?”

Roth: “I can’t say. I’m just READING books now.”

The superb True Story ends with Gary’s words: “Shortly after that, Philip Roth announced his retirement from writing. And now, he’s gone for good. Sort of…”

A lovely memory of Philip Roth late in his life. I wonder if his hair was wet.

REMEMBERING CHARLIE RUSSELL , AND TOM WOLFE

CHARLIE RUSSELL, who died on May 7 in Calgary, grew up in the shadow of the Rockies. His father was Andy Russell, the unforgettable mountain man who was my friend. I once tried to sum up Andy’s life by saying that he had been “a trapper, cowboy, bronco-buster, trail guide, grizzly hunter, nature photographer and film-maker, lecturer, and fighter for the environment.”
His books, including Grizzly Country, Horns In The High Country, The High West. The Rockies, along with the later books that I published (The Canadian Cowboy, The Life of a River, and Memoirs of a Mountain Man) were hugely successful.
They meant that young Charlie and his brothers grew up on horseback , roaming through the Rockies from near Waterton Lakes through into B.C.. On foot, they were at home in the mountains. “My boys grew up able to climb like mountain goats”, Andy records in one of his books, with an alarming photo to prove it.
Charlie, naturally, drifted into the same sort of life, mixing ranching in the foothills with escorting tourists through wild, high places. And he became fascinated by grizzly bears.
He inherited that interest from Andy. I remember once visiting ” The Hawk’s Nest”. the Russell ranch in Alberta south of Pincher Creek, near Waterton. As we looked east , away from the Rockies, we could see three ( no, four!) grizzlies coming in our direction. Andy was not worried. In his life, by standing firm and “talking to” advancing bears that were charging– planning to kill him — he had faced down 23 grizzly charges.
Charlie developed great respect for grizzlies, and decided to get to know them better.
A trip with his father and his brother Dick to study , and to make a documentary about, a white sub-species of black bears on the BC coast on Princess Royal Island led to an astonishing discovery. They could never get near to any bear…..unless they left their guns behind. Charlie told The Edmonton Journal that eventually “The three of us came to the conclusion that the bears could sense that we were not a threat, that somehow they realized that without a gun, we would do them no harm.”
Charlie’s curiosity, and his belief that even grizzly bears were natural friends to humans led him in search of bears unspoiled by harsh contact with hunters. He found them in Russia, in the eastern Pacific section called Kamchatka. After much negotiation with Russian authorities, in 1996 Charlie flew in with his home-built plane, accompanied by his partner, the photographer Maureen Enns.
The result was a remarkable 2002 book, GRIZZLY HEART: Living Without Fear Among The Brown Bears Of Kamchatka. It was laced with photos of Charlie swimming with a bear friend. or walking with them, or fly fishing with a bear at his shoulder,watching, waiting eagerly for a fish to bite.
The New York Times wrote that “His conclusion that bears were not naturally hostile to people earned him enemies among hunters…..”
He once told an Australian newspaper “A lot of it is because the hunting culture needs to promote an animal so fearful that people can feel brave about killing it.”
The Kamchatka experiment ended with hunters breaking in while Charlie was back in Canada, and slaughtering the bears who had become his friends.
A personal note: When Jane and I stayed at The Hawk’s Nest a few years ago, we were charmed to find that friendship was still being extended by Charlie and his brother John and his wife Valerie to nearby bears. Outside the house was a bird bath. Right beside it was a bear bath. When we tip-toed out in the morning we were disappointed (and relieved) to find that no bear was there, relaxing happily in the big bath!

TOM WOLFE was another friend who died recently. His death in New York received a lot of attention, which is appropriate, because through his own writing, and his editing of important books like The New Journalism, he had a huge impact on writing and writers in many countries.
I knew him a little , and admired him a lot. I especially liked his work on Marshall McLuhan (“What If He’s Right?”). I’ve enjoyed telling the story of Marshall being taken to a strip club by mischief-inspired friends who wanted to see how this devoutly Catholic scholar would react. Tom reported that Marshall gazed at the spectacle thoughtfully, and then said “Ah, yes. She’s wearing us!”
Once I took Tom out for a speaking engagement at York University, York had been constructed in the 1960s at the very edge of Toronto, so was surrounded by a very bare landscape.
Tom gazed out at it and said, mildly, in the Southern accent that he retained even after his Ph.D. years at Yale, “It’s kind of like Brasilia, isn’t it?”

THIS WEEK’S TORONTO SHOW, AND A QUEBEC CITY SURPRISE

First, the surprise in Quebec. For a third time we were received at the magnificent Morrin Centre in the heart of old Quebec , by the incomparable team of Barry and Elizabeth.
The GREAT SCOTS show featured many surprising Canadian Fiction Writers , including Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspe. This author of the first great Canadian novel in French, Les Anciens Canadiens, was imprisoned for debt IN THE CELLS IN THE MORRIN CENTRE BUILDING. We visited the ancient cells, and marvelled at his languishing there for over three years, able to see his family house across the street.
Before his debts caught up to him, he led a charmed life as a Seigneur in Quebec. You can roam around the old city, finding places where he once lived, like the Maison Jaquet, now the site of the traditional restaurant (where Guy Vanderhaeghe and I once dined) appropriately named “Les Anciens Canadiens”.

In the audience that day was a man from B.C. who mentioned that, like me, he had family links with Ayrshire. As I signed books and chatted, it became clear that he was a great-grandson of Robert Dunsmuir. My book , Across Canada By Story, pays tribute to the huge impact of Robert Dunsmuir on Vancouver Island:
“Logging and fishing were the staples of life everywhere on the Island. In Nanaimo there was something else. Robert Dunsmuir, as Scot from just outside Kilmarnock, was born in 1825, around the same time as my scary (“It says here you broke your leg!”) Kilmarnock great-grandfather, Robert. Who knows what they put in the water there in those days (although the town did produce Johnny Walker whisky. But we have fatherless Robert Gibson creating a tweed mill, and Robert Dunsmuir, a miner, coming to Vancouver Island, discovering a coal seam north of Nanaimo and creating a mining empire. He was another scary man. In the restrained words of The Canadian Encyclopedia: “His disregard for safety, and his employment of cheap Asian labour and disallowance of unions made him unpopular with labour.” The coal tradition lingers in Nanaimo with colourful place names like “Jingle Pot Road”.

IN TORONTO ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 AT 1.30. I’ll be giving a show at the MILES NADAL CENTRE AT BLOOR AND SPADINA. It’s based on the show I gave at Queen’s Park for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and will concentrate on our GREAT CANADIAN STORYTELLERS FROM 1967 TO TODAY.
I hope that you can come along, and say hello after the show.

NEW SHOWS, POSSIBLY NEAR YOU

I’m happy to announce three shows, in three different places, in the next three weeks. Maybe some will be convenient for you to come and attend, or to alert local friends , to come and have a good time
1. DUNDAS, Ontario, will mark the re-opening of its fine new Library, at 18 Ogilvie Street ON SATURDAY APRIL 28.
My “ACROSS CANADA BY STORY” show will start there at 1.00 p.m., complete with bursts of music, and interesting coast to coast travels. And more than a few fine author stories.
2. QUEBEC CITY, Quebec, will feature my newest show, which is also based around the superb author sketches by Anthony Jenkins. That show is “GREAT SCOTS: Canadian Fiction Writers with Links to Scotland,. It will run at THE MORRIN CENTRE, on the Chaussee des Ecossais (of course) ON TUESDAY MAY 8 AT 8.00 pm. This show has met with success in Guelph and in Montreal, so we’re looking forward to our third return visit to the fine Festival crowd in Quebec.
3. TORONTO, Ontario. We’ll be giving a 65-minute version of the 150 YEAR ANNIVERSARY SHOW. This version, very similar to what we gave for the Lieutenant Governor, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in her Chambers in May 2017.Although I cover the 150 years, this shorter version will concentrate on “CANADA’S GREATEST STORYTELLERS, FROM 1967 TO THE PRESENT”. Again, the music, iconic works of art, and the fine caricatures by Anthony Jenkins, make this a very lively show. You and your friends can see it at THE MILES NADAL CENTRE, at Bloor and Spadina, ON THURSDAY, MAY 17 at 1.30 pm.
We have other shows lined up for later, so Jane and I hope to see you at some point. But these are the the ones closest on the horizon.
A FINAL NOTE. these days I’m busy going to a recording studio, to read aloud a Audible Book Version of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY. I’m very pleased to do it, and am working hard. But I must confess that reading aloud the story of my last visit to Alistair MacLeod in hospital was too much for me. The recording engineer, the expert Bobby, says that he can patch it together for me.

THE ICE CREAM TRUCK GOING DOWN THE STREET

Mavis Gallant died at the age of 91 exactly four years ago, on February 18. She died in Paris, an ex-patriate Canadian writer who was admired by other fine writers around the world. Yet now she is at the centre of a scandal rocking the American literary firmament, from coast to coast.

Not that Mavis has any responsibility here, or is in any way to blame. On the contrary, one side in the noisy fight claims that it is defending her against a modern author who is stealing her work.

The story begins in the pages of “The New Yorker”, the magazine that for decades published Mavis Gallant’s work. In fact, only John Updike had more fiction appear in the magazine over the years than Mavis, and the role the magazine played in revealing her genius to the world is well known. On January 9th this year, however, the magazine published a piece of fiction by Sadia Shepard entitled “Foreign-Returned”.

That is the simple heading for the story. No reference is made to Mavis Gallant there, as in “A Tribute to Mavis Gallant”. There is also no specific reference such as “Based on the Mavis Gallant story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street.” To the unsuspecting reader, the story stands alone.

However, in a separate interview with the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, Sadia Shepard acknowledges “a great debt” to the Mavis Gallant Story “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street”, which she names.

Enter Francine Prose, the well-known American novelist. In a letter that sends lightning bolts from the page she accuses Shepard of stealing from the Gallant story. Her letter appeared in the The New Yorker on January 22, is and worth reading in its powerful entirety.

To summarize, it begins with Prose noting that a few sentences into the Shepard story “I began to get the eerie feeling that I knew exactly what was coming next. And, in fact I did, because almost everything that happens in Shepard’s story happens in Mavis Gallant’s story, The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street, published in The New Yorker, in 1963. Scene by scene, plot turn by plot turn, gesture by gesture, the Shepard story follows the Gallant – the main difference being that the characters are Pakistanis in Connecticut rather than Canadians in Geneva. Some phrases and sentences are mirrored with only a few words changed.”

Prose concludes by arguing strongly that “the correspondences far exceed the bounds of “debt”, or even of “homage, or of a “translation” into a different ethnicity and historical period.”

She ends with the thunderclap: “Is it really acceptable to change the names and identities of fictional characters and then claim the story as one’s own original work? Why, then, do we bother having copyright laws?”

BANG! The debate blew up with a number of writers in the New Yorker and The Los Angeles Review of Books accusing Francine Prose (and many others who criticized Shepard’s story) of racial insensitivity. Jess Row in a letter to The New Yorker actually says “…we’re not talking about the mechanics of story composition; this is a conversation about racial and cultural power and prestige”.

So where does this leave a Canadian reader? Well, I’m far from being a typical Canadian reader here, although I made my living as a Publisher, trying to anticipate the reactions of that elusive reader. But I had the honour to publish Mavis’s work, introducing her to Canadians as one of our best writers with From The Fifteenth District in 1978. We were friends, as I continued to visit her in Paris, see her in Toronto and Montreal, and to publish her magnificent stories. The classic story in question, “The Ice Wagon Going Down The Street” appears in two of our books: Home Truths: Canadians At Home and Abroad (1981, which won the Governor-General’s Award) and Selected Stories (1996).

A Canadian reader, I think will see more than an outsider in this classic story with the distinctive title. It concerns a childhood memory shared by Agnes Bruser, who grew up, Mavis suggests, “small, mole-faced, round-shouldered because she has always carried a younger child”, in a hard-striving, large Norwegian family in a small town in the Prairies. The house was so lacking in privacy that her happiest time was to slip out early in the morning in the summer. So early that, in those days before refrigerators, she could see the ice wagon making its deliveries, door to door.

Her memory of that apparently trivial moment, “Once in your life alone in the universe”, is so important to her she remembers telling it to the other Canadian she’s assigned to share an office with in Geneva. In fact, it’s the only real conversation she ever has with Peter Frazier (of the Toronto Fraziers, descended from “granite Presbyterian immigrants from Scotland” who made the family fortune that Peter at first was able to live off, until the old money ran out.)

Peter Frazier is the central character in the story, and he has little in common with Agnes from the prairies. He has never been in the West. He has never felt it necessary to gain a university degree. Agnes is so proud of hers that when she moves into the office that she has been given to share with this other Canadian she hangs her framed university degree on the wall. “It was one of the gritty, prideful gestures that stand for push, toil and family sacrifice.” On her desk she places a Bible.

You may be surprised to learn that in the, let’s say,” parallel” story by Sadia Shepard, what is placed on the desk by the Pakistani woman, Hina, to the alarm of her new colleague Hassan, is a copy of the Koran.

The anti-climactic scene in both stories follows a disastrous party at the home of influential friends from their own community. In both cases the male sharing the office resentfully with the female newcomer set above him finds himself conscripted to see her home, drunk. In her apartment, things could go very badly, but as both stories tell us, in these exact words, “Nothing happened.” Except in Mavis’s marvellous telling, when Agnes clumsily emerges from her bathroom to embrace Peter, she is wearing “ a dressing gown of orphanage wool.” Orphanage wool!

As for the Sadia Shepard story, I’m not qualified by personal knowledge to give an informed opinion. I don’t know her other, well regarded work. I know the Connecticut where the story is set, but only through one eight-month academic year in New Haven.  I am amused by her impressions of how men who can do nothing well in the kitchen are expected to spring into action as experts beside the barbecue.  But I can’t express any informed opinion about the accuracy of her portrait of life among expatriate Pakistanis in North America today. Although I note with pleasure that Pakistanis feature in the original Mavis story, when a standing weekend invitation by well-placed Canadian friends to stay at their Swiss summer house suddenly ends. “One Sunday Madge said she needed the two bedrooms the Fraziers usually occupied for a party of sociologists from Pakistan, and that was the end of it.” Could this reference have been what inspired Sadia Shepard to write this indebted tribute?

But I must confess that I read “Foreign-Returned” very much as Francine Prose did. Paragraph by paragraph I read saying “Oh, no, she can’t do this! Surely she’s not going to have her get drunk?” I realise, as many clever readers have written, that adapting anything, however closely, will produce something new. But what would you feel about a “new” work, where its advocate says. “And then there’s this great moment, when the magic potion works, and he wakes up with a donkey’s head on his shoulders! Did you ever hear of such a thing?”

Maybe the fanciful title that I’ve given to this article might have solved all the problems of non-attribution, if the original Shepard story had been graced by it. A Publisher’s solution, which I’m glad to offer for future reprints.

As Mavis Gallant’s friend and defender, let me end by quoting Sadia Shepard. “I believe that creating new work inspired by Gallant honours her legacy and might even bring her new readers, something that Prose and I no doubt agree she deserves.” All very well. But a more definite link with the Mavis Gallant model would send more readers her way, to their great pleasure.