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?
I’m always afraid to tell people that my favourite literary magazine is Canadian Notes and Queries. The name is so off-putting. It sounds like a mimeographed sheet devoted to esoteric bibliographic information about Duncan Scott Campbell and Stephen Leacock. And in fact that’s what the magazine was for most of its history. But for the last decade or so, it’s been the home to the best essays on Canadian culture, and also some excellent short fiction. (John Metcalf was the editor who re-invented CNQ and he’s been helped by Daniel Wells, Alex Good and others). Perhaps wisely, the editors have tried to rebrand their journal as CNQ, to hide their embarrassing original name.
The new issue of CNQ, number 77, is chock full of the goodies including a new story by Clark Blaise. And some of these essays are already available online. Here are two goodies:
1. Seth on Doug Wright. The best writing on comics tends to come from cartoonists themselves: Art Spiegelman, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware, Eddie Campbell. There are few other art forms in which the critical discourse is so totally dominated by practitioners. Seth belongs to this elite company of cartoonists/critics. His essays on cartoonists like John Stanley and Chris Reynolds are filled with sharp observations grounded in a rare in-depth knowledge of comics history. The latest issue of CNQ reprints Seth’s speech on Doug Wright, delivered 5 years ago to launch the Doug Wright Awards. It can be found here.
The subset of Sans Everything readers who are interested in comics will want to read the following articles:
1. Patrick West on the politics of Herge (which West argues were Catholic conservative rather than fascist). A quote:
Posterity has not been kind to Hergé. In many ways, his life resembles that of P G Wodehouse. Both authors were unfairly accused of being Nazi collaborators (Hergé having written for the Belgian Le Soir newspaper in the 1940s when it was a sanctioned organ of the German occupying administration); both their works suggested an unconscious misogynistic mindset: Wodehouse’s world was one in which the only female characters were airheaded or manipulative girlfriends, or the aunts Dahlia (bossy) and Agatha (terrifying); Hergé’s only real female character was the monstrous pest, Bianca Castafiore, based on Maria Callas. And both Hergé’s and Wodehouse’s tales centred on two asexual characters, one of whom was phlegmatic and rational, the other spirited and tempestuous: Tintin and Haddock, Jeeves and Wooster.
Nostalgia is a suspect emotion, both psychologically and politically. Emotionally, nostalgia carries connotations of escapism, ignoring present realities while longing for a mythical past. Politically, nostalgia has often been used by conservative and Fascist leaders who have deployed images of the good old days in order to thwart social progress.
I’m uncomfortable with this view of nostalgia as a purely regressive phenomenon because some of my favorite contemporary artists often do work that consciously tries to evoke melancholy at the passing of time. I’m thinking here of the films of the Coen brothers, the music of Bob Dylan, and especially the comics of Robert Crumb, Seth, and Chris Ware (among many others). All of these artists are nostalgia-obsessed but none of them fit the stereotype of complacency and escapism that fit the nostalgia stereotype: these artists are all astringent and challenging. As an example think of Crumb’s use of blackface racial images: stylistically he is working in a nostalgic mode, but the end of effect of these drawings is to remind us of an uncomfortable past (which lingers into the present).
In the comic book world, everyone is offering up their list of the best book of 2008. My own list is necessarily partial and personal, and there are some books that look great which I haven’t read yet, like the new issue of Kramer’s Ergot. But with all these provisos in mind, my list would include:
What It Is by Lynda Barry (Drawn and Quarterly). A book about creativity which is also an outburst of creativity: an organic, breathing book, as thick with life as a jungle. Many of the pages do have a jungle-like feel thanks to Barry’s collage method (pasting her art on old school projects done decades ago by school kids) and her tropism for bright colors. Instructive yet completely free of any lecturing tone of superiority, Barry teaches us that art is play, that play is an essential part of mental health, that we all have multiple personalities, and that memories are living things within us. Bringing all the threads together we can say: Creativity is mentally healthy play that brings to the surfaces the personalities and memories that live within us.
Last weekend I took part in some comics related events in the Kitchner/Waterloo area, where local museums are showing art by Seth. On Saturday I moderated a discussion between Seth and Chris Ware at the University of Waterloo. Fortunately the film maker John Minh Tran was at hand to take some remarkable photos, a sample of which are below: