Underrated & Overrated in CanLit

K.D. Miller's Brown Dwarf: Read this book!

Over at the National Post, Alex Good and Steven Beattie give their list of overrated and underrated Canadian writers. Among those who are have been too widely praised: Anne Michaels, Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje, and Yann Martel. Those deserving of more attention include Clark Blaise, Caroline Adderson, Russell Smith, Douglas Glover and Lynn Coady.

These are very strong lists. I happen to agree with almost all the judgments, at least with the writers I’m familiar with. I’m especially happy to see the shout-out to Clark Blaise, who is one of my favorite living writers. In an ideal world, Blaise would be as feted and popular as Alice Munro.

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Canadian Notes (No Queries)

Canada's Finest Magazine

I’ve been on a CanLit kick lately. Here are the fruits of my recent obsession with Canada’s literary and visual culture:

1. Over at the National Post, I review Camilla Gibb’s new novel The Beauty of Humanity Movement, a novel that uses cooking as a prism for viewing the recent history of Vietnam. The book left me cold, for reasons described in the revew. An excerpt:

Just as a brimming pho bowl can easily overflow, Gibb’s passion for food spills into her prose, which is soaked with cooking similes. About one character, we’re told that the feel of her breast “was like a perfect brioche from a French bakery, the nipple like a hard raisin.” This same girl is described in these terms: “Her lips like a butterfly, her skin dewy like a newly peeled potato.” Another beauty has nipples that are “more [like] grape seeds than the raisins of the [earlier] girl.”

A moment of distress leads to a simile that requires a Heimlich manoeuvre: “He prayed for Dao’s life, but woke each morning in certain distress, dread lodged like an egg in his throat.” Perhaps this novel made me too gastronomically minded but my first thought was: What sort of egg? Hard-boiled? Scrambled? Poached?

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James J. Kilpatrick: Death of a Bigot

James J. Kilpatrick

I’ll be curious to see what the obituaries are like for James Jackson Kilpatrick, the newspaper columnist who died last night. Although his name has lost its luster in recent years, Kilpatrick was a very important figure in the 1960s and 1970s, ranking only behind William F. Buckley as the nation’s leading conservative writer. Kilpatrick was also an unabashed racist, who owed much of his fame to his willingness to attack the Civil Rights movement.

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Learning to Sympathize with Conrad

Conrad Black, drawn by Charles Checketts, from The New Quarterly #102 (Spring 2007)


I did a column for the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago on what Conrad Black learned in prison. You can read the column here or below:

From the Globe and Mail, Friday, Jul. 23, 2010

When Conrad Black joined the ranks of convicted felons in 2007, he was disappointed to find out how quickly he was disowned by some of his well-heeled friends, notably double-talking diplomat Henry Kissinger and polysyllabic pundit William F. Buckley, both of whom displayed a loyalty of the calibre commonly credited to shipboard rodents.

I had the opposite reaction to Lord Black’s disgrace: During his salad days as a press baron and would-be aristocrat, I thought he was insufferable, but I have grown fonder of him as a result of his time as a jailbird.

His orange prison jumpsuit ennobled him far more than the ridiculous ermine robes he acquired upon his elevation to the House of Lords.

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Tony Judt, RIP

Tony Judt

Tony Judt was always admirably blunt and would have wanted nothing but the truth in his obituaries. So I hope I can be forgiven for saying that he was not an agreeable man. I mean that in reference to his public persona, not what he might have been like in private: it was always easier to disagree with him than to nod in conformity at this ideas. When I heard the news of Judt’s death this morning my first thought was of all the times I’ve wrinkled my nose while reading him, the various bones I’ve had to pick with him over the years, the many essays and books he’s written which I’ve had problems with, small and large.

Judt’s greatest qualities were his contentiousness which bordered on the ornery, his unwillingness to follow a party line, his independence of mind.  I immediately thought back to his famous attack on social history — “A Clown in Regal Purple” (1979) – which struck me as profoundly churlish in its unwillingness to appreciate the efforts of historians to recover the voices and experiences of the marginalized. His study of postwar French intellectuals – Past Imperfect – was a formidable achievement but marred, I thought, by a certain lack of historical empathy, an unwillingness to grant his ideological foes a context for their follies.

Like many other people I admired Judt’s ideological evolution: he started off a hardened Israeli nationalist, indeed a member of the IDF in 1967, but became in the last decade an eloquent advocate for the Palestinians. But here again, he went too far for me: his advocacy of a one-state solution seemed uncharacteristically utopian and indeed endangers the one real hope the Palestinians have, the two-state solution.

It might sound like I’m putting down Judt but the reverse is true: I’ve learned more from him than I have from thinkers whose worldviews are closer to my own. He was a good man to argue with. The loss to our intellectual life is immeasurable.

In honour of Tony Judt, I’d like to point readers to one of his best pieces of writing, his tribute to Edward Said, another man who stirred up important and necessary arguments. Judt’s essay can be found here.

Of course, much of what Judt wrote about Said applies to Judt himself. An excerpt:

The real impediment to new thinking in the Middle East, in Edward Said’s view, was not Arafat, or Sharon, or even the suicide bombers or the ultras of the settlements. It was the United States. The one place where official Israeli propaganda has succeeded beyond measure, and where Palestinian propaganda has utterly failed, is in America. As Said observed in a May 2002 column for Al-Ahram, American Jews (rather like Arab politicians) live in “extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth.” Many Israelis are terribly aware of what occupation of the West Bank and Gaza has done to their own society (if somewhat less sensitive to its effect on others). In the words of Haim Guri, an Israeli poet who served in the 1948 war, “Rule over another nation corrupts and distorts Israel’s qualities, tears the nation apart, and shatters society.” But most Americans, including virtually every American politician, have no sense of any of this.

That is why Said insists in these essays upon the need for Palestinians to bring their case to the American public rather than just, as he puts it, imploring the American President to “give” them a state. American public opinion matters, and Said despaired of the uninformed anti-Americanism of Arab intellectuals and students: “It is not acceptable to sit in Beirut or Cairo meeting halls and denounce American imperialism (or Zionist colonialism for that matter) without a whit of understanding that these are complex societies not always truly represented by their governments’ stupid or cruel policies.” But as an American he was frustrated above all at his own country’s political myopia: Only America can break the murderous deadlock in the Middle East, but “what the U.S. refuses to see clearly it can hardly hope to remedy.”

Whether the United States will awaken to its responsibilities and opportunities remains unclear. It will certainly not do so unless we engage a debate about Israel and the Palestinians that many people would prefer to avoid, even at the cost of isolating America–with Israel–from the rest of the world. In order to be effective, this debate has to happen in America itself, and it must be conducted by Americans. That is why Edward Said was so singularly important. Over three decades, virtually single-handedly, he wedged open a conversation in America about Israel, Palestine and the Palestinians. In so doing he performed an inestimable public service at considerable personal risk. His death opens a yawning void in American public life. He is irreplaceable.