— August, 2008
The Colony of Unrequited Dreams,
The Custodian of Paradise — Wayne Johnston
In the previous episode of Bubba’s Book Club, I left off by pledging that next time I would celebrate these two novels properly. They were given to me a few years ago by a friend who had picked them up at a literary festival in the author’s native Newfoundland. (I don’t think I’m biased in saying that Canada, from East to West, must have produced more good writers per capita than just about anywhere—I will try to follow up on that notion, maybe do a little essay on CanLit.)
The two interlinked novels are mainly set in Newfoundland (which rhymes with “understand,” I keep having to explain to Americans, and even some Canadians) around the time of World War II, and many of their stories and characters are shared. However, my friend assured me it didn’t matter which one I read first, and the author seemed to make the same claim.
It happened that I read the second one, The Custodian of Paradise, first, and I loved it, so went on to read The Colony of Unrequited Dreams right away. I enjoyed it, too, and admired it, but certain mysteries were already known to me, which was a kind of “spoiler,” diminishing the simple curiosity that might have spiced the reading experience—which in turn may have been quite different if I had read them in order (I’ll never know!). This is not to fault either novel, for both are first-rate accomplishments, just . . . different. Much of the first one, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, seemed to exemplify the modern style of “fictionalized biography,” in this case centered on Joey Smallwood, a real-life labor organizer and politician who led the former British colony of Newfoundland into confederation with Canada in 1949 (he is still vilified by some Newfoundlanders for having “tricked” them).
Fictionalized biography is a difficult package to “sell” to a reader—presenting real, well-known people doing things they didn’t do, and saying things they didn’t say. Certainly Wayne Johnston pulls it off as well as anybody has, but for me, the jury is still out on the concept of biographical make-believe. (I am trying, and failing, to come up with any other shining examples in literature, other than plays—but in that arena a performance is clearly a portrayal, not a true-to-life account.)
The second book, The Custodian of Paradise, felt mysterious and lyrical, moody and inventive, with shifting, fragmented revelations unveiled in stately, tidal rhythms. Again, it may have been the order in which I read them, but The Colony of Unrequited Dreams read more like a conventional work of historical fiction—imagined lives amid real events—though that’s no criticism, either, for Johnston perfectly rendered the sense of place, and people, of Newfoundland. The weather, the landscape, the work and play, the food and drink, the unique accents of speech, all are portrayed faithfully and affectionately, but without sentiment or nostalgia—just “how it was.”
The Custodian of Paradise unwinds in an elliptical, dreamlike fashion, centered around a fictional character from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Sheilagh Fielding. Known to her familiars by her last name alone, Fielding is one of the all-time great characters in Canadian fiction, fiercely intelligent and mordantly witty. Her story is star-crossed and relentlessly unfortunate, but she takes refuge in dark humor (the time-honored recipe: tragedy spun into comedy that is bittersweet—or just plain bitter) and moonshine whiskey. Events in Fielding’s life spin out in dark, mysterious threads, woven into a spell that is almost mythic in scale. Her life is haunted by an unknown benefactor, her “Provider,” and peopled with characters whose eccentricities, and capacities for good and evil, lie just on the believable side of caricature.
I still wished I had read the two novels in their original order, and a year or so later I even tried reading them again that way, but it was no use—you can’t unring the bell, and you can’t unknow anything, at least without forgetting it, and there was no forgetting these characters and their fates.
The writing is strong and vigorous, and is especially impressive in portraying the characters in their own voices—not only in the dialogue, which is one level of achievement, but something perhaps even more difficult: presenting a character’s own writing in his or her distinctive “voice.” It is a wondrous feat for an artist in fiction to so inhabit his characters that he can think like them, talk like them, and write like them, and such “writing within the writing,” akin to Shakespeare’s device of the play-within-a-play, requires the combined skills of both a great dramatist and a virtuoso actor. That accomplishment is particularly impressive with a character as smart, quick-witted, and delightfully vicious as Fielding. A truly lost soul for much of her life, battered by misfortune and drowning in alcohol, Fielding finds her métier as a newspaper columnist—satirical, ironic, and with an acid wit—and the author creates her voice wonderfully in that forum, as well as in her private journals and letters.
So yes, I recommend these two novels highly—but personally advise reading them in the order in which they were written and published
The Alexandria Quartet — Lawrence Durrell
A great deal of history inhabits and surrounds these four novels, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, both accidentally and intentionally.Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was of Irish descent, but was born in colonial India, where he spent his first ten years (his brother, Gerald Durrell—pronounced in the English style, “Der-el”—became a prominent naturalist, and wrote a hilarious memoir of their expatriate childhood, My Family and Other Animals).
The Alexandria Quartet is set among a similarly expatriate community in Alexandria, Egypt, during the late 1930s and early 1940s, and the characters are, like the city itself, a mixture of Europeans, Levantines, and Arabs—Christians, Muslims, and Jews. (Interesting that from the perspective of his times, the mid-twentieth-century, the author seems entirely liberal and unprejudiced about races, religions, and gender preferences, yet the modern eye recoils from his repeated, casual mentions of jazz with the “n-word” adjective. [Though when presenting swear words in dialogue, Durrell—or his publisher—used only the opening letter followed by the appropriate number of asterisks—bowing to the mores of his time.] You encounter that presently unacceptable word in Hemingway and other American and British writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, too—like that unfortunate Joseph Conrad title, The N***** of the Narcissus, which alone might make many people avoid an otherwise great novel. But no one’s going to swallow The Sub-Saharan African of the Narcissus, never mind sillier euphemisms, and it’s hard to know what to do about that anachronism, without setting out to censor the insensitivities of the past.)
The individual novels of The Alexandria Quartet were published in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and added up to a tetralogy (not a pretty word—you can see why Durrell chose to call his four books a “quartet” instead) that was a truly modern work, consciously integrating influences from twentieth-century science and art, like the theories of Einstein and Freud, and the pictorial devices employed by Picasso, adapted to narrative form.
In his foreword to the second book, Balthazar, Durrell outlined his technical intentions explicitly: “Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.”
That statement of intent sounds cold, formal, and logical, yet it underpins a work that is lavishly romantic and sensual. An important distinction: science is the skeleton, the frame perhaps, but does not inform the method, the subject, or the object. All of those are contained in one eternally unscientific word: love. In that same foreword, the author unambiguously described the “four-decker novel” thusly: “The central topic of this book is an investigation of modern love.”
All the many forms, illusions, and sacrifices of love are rendered with a painter’s eye and a poet’s language (Durrell was predominantly a poet before he took up prose, and his first novel, The Black Book ,was praised by T.S. Eliot as “one of the great hopes for modern English fiction”). In The Alexandria Quartet, variations of the same events are told from shifting points of view, like a Cubist fragmentation of scenes, characters, and actions, all staged against a lyrical, painterly portrait of the city itself—the harbor and waterfront, the Grand Corniche, on “the wrong side of the Mediterranean,” the clamor of sights, sounds, and smells in the Arab Quarter, the pigeons’ wings catching the sun as they rise among the minarets, the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at dawn, the looming desert and its nomadic peoples, sunrise hunting parties among the reeds of Lake Mareotis, the eccentrics among the exiles and expatriates of the consular community, their romantic, sexual, and political melodramas, all seen through prisms and shards of mirror, yet rendered with tender brushstrokes.
The characters’ lives are awash in grand passions and serial infidelities (anticipating John Updike by a few years), and their erotic operas play out against a large-scale backdrop of history—World War II approaching and then overwhelming the city, and tensions among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Intriguing side-plots illuminate the Coptic church—Egyptian Christians—and the Jewish Cabal, with a mystique that still captivates mystics today.
The plot of the four interwoven novels is, by design, “relativistic,” but there is always plenty of drama to keep the reader’s interest: murders, suicides, incest, espionage, conspiracies, treachery both political and sexual, and many unforgettable characters. The first novel, Justine, opens without much action, while Durrell first weaves a lyrical spell to entrance the reader, and gradually introduces his narrator—only ever named “Darley,” he seems to be a self-referential, post-modern bit of trickery modeled after the author himself. As the deeper layers of the tale unfold, Darley is made to appear a bit of a fool, and what his contemporaries might have called “a swine.” (In a way, he anticipates Nabokov’s “unreliable narrator,” and is certainly a thoroughly modern “flawed hero.”)
In the three subsequent novels, other points of view are introduced, and the reader comes to realize that Darley has been sadly duped, and blind to everyone’s emotions, including his own.
I first read The Alexandria Quartet over thirty years ago, as a boy of twenty-four, and although my understanding of and appreciation for the novels is greatly enhanced by whatever I might have learned in thirty years, there is no difference in how the experience of reading these books made me feel. Exalted then, exalted now. It would be enough to say that reading The Alexandria Quartet thirty-one years ago made an impression on me strong enough that I wanted to reread them all these years later—but how much more wonderful that the desire was so richly rewarded.
[An autobiographical aside, for any interested readers: Another piece of history is told by my paperback boxed set of The Alexandria Quartet. It was given to me in the mid-’70s by lyricist Pye Dubois, with whom I collaborated on such Rush songs as “Tom Sawyer,” “Force Ten,” and “Between Sun and Moon.” One day Pye presented me with a pile of books that also included some of John Barth’s early novels. (I am eternally grateful for both of those recommendations.)
Clearly I was reading The Alexandria Quartet while we were on tour, for when I opened those books recently to reread them, I smiled to see that the inside back covers were plastered with backstage passes, like many of my paperbacks from those years. (Back then, reading was the only activity that could help to fill all the empty hours on tour, in airplanes, rental cars, buses, dressing rooms, and motels.)
Dated around mid-1977, these stick-on passes show Rush opening for Boston and Ted Nugent, and headlining smaller shows with opening acts like Cheap Trick and Angel (perhaps the first ’80s hair band, it occurs to me now, though they didn’t survive that long—perhaps they were just a few years too early. Angel had the same record company as Kiss, wore fanciful white costumes exemplifying the “Angel” image, and spent hours—and countless cans of hair spray—on their elaborate hairstyles).
Other tales from the olden days are told by those passes, like the simple fact of bearing the names of different promoters for different cities—a vanished small-business approach, in our age of monopoly—and the physical nature of being stick-on passes. No tour laminates in those days, because we were always bouncing from tour to tour, headlining one show and opening the next.
All of those memories and more, all that history, were evoked by the simple act of opening an old
book . . . ]
Zen and Now: On the Trail of Robert Pirsig and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Mark Richardson
Earlier this summer, a representative from this book’s publisher sent me a pre-publication copy, wondering if I might like to read it, and perhaps offer “a few kind words.” I was flattered to be described as “Canada’s most famous motorcycle memoirist,” but that might be akin to the Flight of the Conchords boasting about being “New Zealand’s fourth most popular folk-parody duo.” Still, it’s nice.
The book sounded interesting. The author is a motoring journalist for the Toronto Star, and set out to follow the motorcycle journey taken by Robert Pirsig and his son, Chris, in 1968, a journey that shaped the enduring classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values. That book has sold more than five million copies in the past forty years, and I count myself among its admirers—from long before I had ever ridden a motorcycle—and of its equally profound and tortured sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals.
However, I knew I wouldn’t have time to do Zen and Now justice right then, or write an appropriate response, for I was in the middle of a tour (again!), and these days, my “empty hours” on the road are filled with motorcycling. That leaves little time for reading or writing. So I politely replied to the publisher in words to that effect, and said I would try to send them something in time for the second edition (an optimistic wish, kindly intended).
I packed Zen and Now in my bike bags, and carried it with me on my journeys for a while. One day in late June, after a long day on my motorcycle, riding solo up through the back roads of Nebraska, South Dakota, and into Minnesota (between shows in Denver and Milwaukee), I fetched up in Austin, Minnesota. On my own at the Holiday Inn, I cleaned up and changed, then took Zen and Now to dinner with me.
In the evening sunshine (long days in June, at that northern latitude), I took an outside table at Torge’s Live Sports Bar and Grill and opened the book. I was hooked immediately, not least because the story opens . . . on a back road in Minnesota. The author was setting out from Minneapolis, as Pirsig and his son had so many years ago, determined to follow the same route west to San Francisco. I was also hooked by the author’s sensibility, as expressed in this early paragraph:
The only way to truly experience a road like this is to be out in the open—not shut up in a car but riding along on top of it on a motorcycle. It’s tough to explain to someone who’s only ever traveled behind a windshield, sealed in with the comforting thunk of a closing door. On a bike there’s no comforting thunk. The road is right there below you, blurring past your feet, ready to scuff your sole should you pull your boot from the peg and let it touch the ground. The wind is all around you and through you while the sun warms your clothing and your face. Take your left hand from the handlebar and place it in the breeze and it rises and falls with the slipstream as if it were a bird’s wing. Breathe in and smell the new-mown grass. Laugh out loud and your voice gets carried away on the wind.
Hallelujah, brother pilgrim of the open road.
Mark Richardson also has a journalist’s training and instincts, and stops often along his way, talking to people and collecting their stories. He describes those characters with humor, compassion, and insight, even while he satisfies his own quest—which, like all journeys worth taking, turns out to be altogether different than he expected.
A central tenet of the philosophy Robert Pirsig illuminated in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is as simple—and as complicated—as, “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.”
Richardson applied that same philosophy to his road trip, and then to his account of it, and here comes that blurb the publisher asked me for, offered with pleasure and a nod of my motorcycle helmet: “Zen and Now is a story worth telling, about a journey worth sharing—an entertaining, inspiring, and rewarding read.”
A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World — Tony Horwitz
Before I opened it, I never suspected this fat, serious-looking volume would turn out to be another “road book.”
Judging the book by its cover (oh yes), it seemed to be a fairly thick history of European exploration and settlement in America, and I picked it up expecting a work of “popular history,” like the kind of non-fiction books I most appreciate—those that take difficult, complicated subjects and boil them down for the consumption of interested dolts like me.
The flap copy sets the scene, “On a chance visit to Plymouth Rock, Tony Horwitz makes an unsettling discovery. A history buff since early childhood, expensively educated at university—a history major, no less—he’s reached middle age with a third-grader’s grasp of early America.”
An American journalist of some repute (The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker), and author of several other books, Horwitz sets out to fill the gaps in his knowledge of the actual discovery and settlement of North America by Europeans. He starts at the accepted beginning of “all that”—the Vikings, who explored eastern North America around the turn of the first millennium. The only documented Viking settlement in North America is in Newfoundland, at L’Anse aux Meadows, and my interest in the story perked up sharply when I realized the author was not just going to write about it, he was going there.
“Yes,” I thought, “We’re not just going to learn stuff—we’re going on a road trip!”
After a brief passage summarizing the relevant pieces of thousand-year-old Norse sagas (the “historical fiction” of their day), the author appears, driving a rental car from St. John’s to L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula, overlooking Labrador—a considerable journey. (On our first motorcycle tour, in September, 1994, Brutus and I visited the Viking site in L’Anse aux Meadows. On a chilly, fog-dimmed afternoon, among peat bogs and stunted spruce, the forbidding coast of Labrador in and out of view across the straits, and no one else around, we walked among the modest exhibits, ducked into a reconstructed sod hut, and were stirred by the vision of a small community of Vikings living on that spot a thousand years before.)
To my further delight, Horwitz stayed in L’Anse aux Meadows for five days, interviewing the locals and weaving their stories into the Viking history. That sets the pattern for the book (not unlike Mark Richardson’s in Zen and Now), and makes for an interesting, entertaining, and informative way to present his investigations—following as closely as he can in the footsteps of the Spanish conquistadors and English religious malcontents (never referred to as “pilgrims” until centuries later), and talking to the modern-day people he meets along the way.
It is a fascinating story, of course, and a satisfying way to experience it. The highest compliment I can pay the author is that I was genuinely sorry when the book ended. However, he’s got some others that sound promising: Blue Latitudes, Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map, and One for the Road.
Always so many more books that I’m probably going to love . . .