Chronicles of Parents and Children
by Alberto Manguel
New Stories from Quebec
by Matt Cohen, Wayne Grady
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|Children of the world
by I.M. Owen
Alberto Manguel has apparently read everything, which gives him an unfair advantage over other anthologists. This latest book contains one story apiece from 16 writers, 10 of whom were completely unknown to me till now. Five of the 16 are American: two Canadian, two English, two Argentine, and one each Hungarian, Swedish, Danish, Italian, and Swiss.
The theme of the anthology is the bond - or the lack of it - between parents and their children. "The bonds of blood have become (perhaps have always been) a literary convention, like the faithfulness of dogs or the nobility of oak trees," Manguel says in his introduction. In Fact in the selection of the stories the term "parent" is interpreted liberally; is Kipling's mysterious story "The Gardener,." written as an act of mourning for his only son, killed in the battle of Loos in 1915, the parent's part is played by a maiden aunt. (The identity of the gardener in the title is left as an insoluble riddle that will haunt the reader for life.) And Isak Dinesen's "The Dreaming Child" is an orphan whose adoptive mother, after his death, asserts - perhaps believes - that she is his real mother. "The Circus," by the Hungarian Tibor Dory, is about the doings of children in the temporary absence of parents.
The longest story is the book, almost a novella, is "Secret Ceremony," by Marco Denevi -- an Argentine story in the tradition of forge Luis Gorges, full of inexplicable and sinister happenings. It's first-rate of its kind, I'd say, but the kind is more to Manguel's taste than mine.
Entirely to my taste is another near novella, Sara Jeannette Duncan's "A Mother in India," a deftly ironical treat, meat of the "bonds of blood." When the young couple's daughter is born, we both knew that it was abnormal not to love her a great deal, more than life, immediately and increasingly; and we applied ourselves honestly to do it, with the temperature at a hundred and two, and the nurse leaving at the end of a fortnight. The regiment was under officered as usual, and John bad to take parade at daylight quite three times a creek; but he walked up and down the veranda with Cecily constantly till two in the morning, when a little coolness came. I usually lay awake the rest of the night in fear that a scorpion would drop from the ceiling on her. Nevertheless, we were of excellent mind towards Cecily; we were in such terror, not so much of failing in our duty towards her as towards the ideal standard of mankind. We were very anxious indeed not to come short. To be found too small for one's place in nature would have been odious.
As was usual in the days of the Raj, the child is sent to England to be brought up by her father's mother and sisters, "excellent persons of the kind that talk about matins and vespers, and attend both." And when, at 21, she comes to live with her parents, the mother finds her desperately boring.
Sara Jeannette Duncan was known to me until now only as a minor turn-of-the-century CanLit figure. I'm amazed at her strength. Manguel compares her to Henry James; fair enough, if we add that she has a livelier comic sense and far greater clarity of style. Will someone reissue all her novels for me, please?
Other stories that particularly struck me me Susan Minor's "Hiding," in which the cracks beneath the surface of an apparently happy family arse unconsciously revealed by the 10-year-old narrator; Adolf Muschg's "The Scythe Hand," the self-justification of an incestuous father; and Sandra Birdsell's "The Rock Garden." in which a mother gets fed up with being a mother, and small wonder. The daughter who tells the story says "Father had all the money. In case of marital breakdown, I wanted to be where the money was. So my sympathies in any of their arguments rested with him."
When Morris Wolfe and I were editing a collection of Canadian short fiction about 10 years ago, short stories in French were hard to find. It's a symptom of the change in French Canada that Matt Cohen and Wayne Grady have been able to put together an anthology of excellent stories by 12 different writers, mostly dating from the 1980s. And almost all are appearing in English for the first time. The editors, in a brief but penetrating introduction, point out the transition evident in these stories from the traditional conte or tale to the nouvelle or short story proper, as well as the fact that in contrast with earlier work most of the settings, and all the points of view, are urban.
I particularly like the first story, by Monique Proulx, a delightful send-up of the "liberated" life in which the young couple are dreadfully embarrassed to find that they arer falling in love with each other. This story is flawlessly translated by Sheila Fischman, who also deals brilliantly with the untranslatable title, "Sans coeur et soma reproche," by making it "Feint of Heart."
I find it curious that the two translations that have appeared before, both by David Lobdell, retain some glaring errors. In a group of three very short stories by Louise Maheux-Forcier maudissait is still translated as "demanded," in addition as "the cheque." And though Lobdell has revised his translation of Andre Major's story, it still says "He lay his hand on her naked shoulder." All typographical errors, no doubt; but how could they survive the copy-editing and proofreading of two publishing houses?
I wish the editors wouldn't subtitle the book "New Stories from Quebec" and speak in their introduction of the linguistic frontier between "English Canada" and "Quebec." What would they have done if they had wanted to use a story by an Acadian, an Ontarian, or a Manitoban? We shouldn't let the separatists hypnotize us into thinking of Quebec and French Canada as coextensive.