WHEN ELISABETH HARVOR'S first collection of short stories, Women and Children, was published in 1973, the praise from reviewers was extravagant. Joyce Carol Oates called it I I one of the most accomplished first books of our time." Alice Munro described the writing as "some of the finest ever about marriage, kids, sex ... fife."
Ten years later, though, Women and Children was on its way to being out of print and its author seemed destined to become a CanLit statistic -- another one-hit wonder. It was then that Harvor decided she had to start again, virtually from scratch. She was convinced she had to learn how to do what had always come naturally to her and so she signed up for a creative writing workshop at Montreal's Concordia University. The usual reaction was confusion. "People wanted to know why I needed to take writing courses when I was already a writer," Harvor recalls.
It was, she recognizes now that her second book, If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever, has been published, a case of second-book jitters that got out of hand. Her return to the literary scene has taken 15 years and although she continued to write during that long, fallow period, and even sold the occasional story -- including "Heart Trouble," one of the stories in this collection, to The New Yorker in 1979 -- she was often unhappy with what she was doing.
"I seemed to always be working on three different things at once and each time I was close to finishing something, I would suddenly become fascinated with some other idea. I never thought I was abandoning my stories, but this kept happening again and again," Harvor says, talking about her comeback and her comeback book over lunch at a Montreal deli.
Despite all the false starts and abrupt stops, Harvor didn't even admit to herself that what she was doing was sabotaging her own work. "I reminded myself of the women Simone de Beauvoir talks about in The Second Sex, who don't finish things because they don't want to be judged. There may be some truth in that."
But the truth may have been that Harvor was judging herself too harshly. Constantly rethinking or revising stones that had already been published, she was also reluctant to apply for a grant from the Canada Council. "I guess I lost my confidence and I felt I didn't have the right to apply for anything or to anything.... Still, I didn't experience that time between books as hard. It was as if I was in the middle of a long dream. The fact that I wasn't really finishing anything didn't seem to bother me or else I couldn't deal with it."
Critical of her early work, she began to wonder if success had come too easily for her. "Someone once said that failure for a writer is difficult, but early success is almost fatal." It was the writing workshop that got Harvor turned around. It allowed her to improve the way she structured her stories,something she considered a weakness in her first book. More important, the workshop taught her "that people -- even writers -- could make mistakes and it wasn't the end of the world."
The workshop also led to a graduate degree in literature -- Harvor became a college freshman at the unlikely age of 47 -- which, in turn, provided her with a teaching job she could fall back on while she wrestled with her confidence. As it turned out, three of the seven stories in If Only We Could Drive Like this Forever, including the novella "The Age of Unreason," were written as part of her master's thesis.
Now, at 52, Harvor has a second career: teaching creative writing at York University. She also expects to have another book of stories and a novel completed next fall. She has been working on the novel for eight years and it's just 40 pages short of being finished. "I now realize it's surprisingly pleasant having a book come out."
If Harvor's enthusiasm about having a book out again is genuine, it's balanced by a natural wariness. It goes with the territory for a writer whose stories usually "start with a small real event" and who admits that she makes changes "to protect real people or protect herself from the anger of real people."
Friendly and shy at the same time, inquisitive and distracted, Harvor seems to always be measuring what she says, worrying about it after the fact, seeking to revise her comments the way she is inevitably revising her fiction. "There is a price to be paid for wanting to tell things," she says, smiling cautiously. "People sometimes think you're unpleasant."
LIKE MOST of the characters in If Only We Could Drive Like This Forever, Harvor has a talent for "noticing everything all the time." What can be an unpleasant personality trait in a parent, spouse, or friend, though, is an incalculable blessing in a storyteller. In short fiction, every sentence counts, and it's the demanding, distilled nature of the form that shows off Harvor at her best. Nothing is so ordinary or small, here, that it escapes her attention.
At the same time, nothing very dramatic happens in this collection. Stories like "Heart Trouble" -about a middle-aged divorced woman trying to sort through all "the conflicting advice" she is getting about her physical and emotional health -- are built on an accumulation of detail, snatches of dialogue, subtle ironies, and small vivid moments.
But things don't always add up quite so well. In "The Student's Soiree," Harvor stacks the deck against her protagonist, Bridget -- a shy, mousy, theatre seamstress whose endless problems include being overweight, divorced, and a single parent. Forced and melodramatic, the story strains unsuccessfully for some kind of uplifting ending.
Parts of "The Age of Unreason" are also relentlessly bleak. Family jealousies, repressed sexuality, episodes of madness, and descriptions of autopsies intrude on the narrative like the dream sequences in an Ingmar Bergman film. (The daughter of Danish immigrants, Harvor admits that her Scandinavian background may explain her preference for making readers cry rather than laugh.) But Harvor makes up for the grimness in her fiction with a compassion for human limitations that is eloquent and honest.
Even in "The Teller's Cage," when she is exploring the acrimonious breakup of a marriage, Harvor is able to end the story with a lyrical, heartbreaking fairness. Here, the abandoned wife, who has spent most of the story trying to blame her husband for her unhappiness, remembers with an unexpected nostalgia how her husband, Alec, came to visit her in the hospital when their daughter was born:
The nurse had already brought [the baby] in for the night's final feeding and Alec, slipping across enemy lines in running shoes ... had made like a stowaway ... comically hiking his knees up like a cartoon man walking on tiptoe to reach her. Then he'd hitched himself up, cold and excited, to face her....
She can recall it all so clearly; the pleasure of having made it, of having touched down, with an ease that bordered on fraudulence, in the holy land of adulthood. She can remember what nightgown she was wearing even -- a silver-grey one, damply mooned with new milk.
Coloured in shades of grey, Harvor's writing is invested with a poignant ambiguity. Phrases like "the holy land of adulthood" reverberate with irony; recollections of the bitter dynamics of family relationships strike a chord of recognition. Everyone -- from the lovesick adolescent boy afraid to deal with his mother's illness in the opening story to the neurotic mother afraid to let her son out of her sight in the final, title story -- is trying to grow up and, at the same time, keeping their fingers crossed, hoping they will always be protected and cared for. All the conflicts are internal here, taking place in the minds and hearts of Harvor's often maddeningly passive characters. There are no triumphs, no tragedies either, just a succession of life's hard and muddled choices.
Whether it is a young woman reluctantly bringing her boyfriend home to meet her intimidating mother in "A Sweetheart" or a student nurse deciding to abandon the career others have selected for her in "The Age of Unreason," we see those choices as they are being made. What we come away with is the knowledge that happiness and freedom are not just out of the question, they are beside the point. A master of irony, Elizabeth Harvor has understood something her characters don't know yet: that the act of choosing means leaving someone or something behind forever