I am grateful to Norman Ravvin (October) for his generally fair descriptions of Erland Josephson's novel, A Story about Mr. Silberstein, and for his kind words about my translation. But I am dismayed by his musings about the novel, some of which are simply ill-informed speculation. For example, after noting that this book was first published in 1957 (the author was then thirty-one), Ravvin writes: "It may be fair to suggest that Josephson was only dimly aware of the tangled problems that have proven so daunting to writers in their struggle to write about Jewish culture in the wake of the Second World War." That is ridiculous.
Sweden's neutrality during the war and the many vexing issues associated with it made Swedes, and particularly Swedish Jews, acutely aware of anti-semitism and of everything connected to the Holocaust (though as Ravvin rightly notes but seems to forget, this novel is not about the Holocaust). Moreover, the first round of the Nuremberg Trials concluded in 1946. Josephson would have to have been unconscious for ten years not to have been deeply engaged by the issues those proceedings raised.
Ravvin confesses he is baffled and disheartened by the book, then decides to blame the author for, in effect, not asking the questions Ravvin expects or arriving at the answers he prefers. He suspects Josephson of "unwittingly" representing the stereotypes he sets out to debunk, in that Silberstein has a physical appearance that matches one of the "typical" ones ascribed to Jews. But of course it makes sense that precisely a Jew who does have such an appearance would evoke the (mainly anti-semitic) fantasies of his neighbours. The novel debunks stereotypes not by giving Silberstein a conveniently neutral appearance, but by revealing to the reader the depths of this witty, reflective, unpredictable, complex, and even paradoxical character, and by exploring loneliness and self-deception, aging and memory, in addition to the sources of "everyday" anti-semitism. Careful readers will, I think, find it unlikely that an author of such high intelligence and masterful craft has done anything at all unwittingly.
Almost forty years after Swedish reviewers heaped praise on A Story about Mr. Silberstein for everything from its insight and wit to its prose style and genius for invention, Leon Rooke was moved to call this book a classic, "a novel of chilling profundity". I would urge your readers to find out why by visiting their libraries or their book stores.
Road from Rome of Her Own
William Mathie's review of George Grant's Selected Letters (November) might perhaps mislead some readers to believe that Sheila Grant abandoned the Catholic faith after meeting Grant. Although Grant often referred to her as Catholic to others, he was alluding to her upbringing and to certain residual habits of mind he thought she had retained. She had in fact left the Catholic Church after an intense period of spiritual questioning well before she first encountered her future husband.
New Wave Overflow
All applause for Robyn Sarah's revolutionary review, "First Poets" (November). She has led us to the beginning of what must happen more, and soon. The "us" I speak of are those who write poetry, call themselves poets in this country. Believe me, it takes more than having a book published, especially a book brought out by a recognized publisher, like the four books she reviewed. I read and subscribe to literary magazines, have done so for years, and can say quite quickly, I haven't noticed any of the four names publishing on a regular basis. Which I was led to believe, so long ago, was an absolute must in order to be picked up by a recognized publisher. Am I to believe, in these tightening times, this is no longer required? Or is it, now, that the "poet" must be a product of the great spew creative writing departments continue to, as Sarah says, pour out? And yes, let's not forget, all those other adorning letters, other than p.o.e.t., that dazzle editors, and will more than ever continue to dazzle.
There has been a drastic decline in the quality of poetry published across Canada for quite some time now. Why? Again, Sarah asks, "To be called a poet, is it enough to be able-as all these graduates are able-to turn an elegant phrase around an arresting image?" This is definitely not enough!
I feel Robyn Sarah has, in a very timely way, asked if the poetry of, not just these four "first poets", but poetry at all stages in this country, really matters? Is it necessary? Does it move the genre ahead? Why should anyone read or buy it? What has it to do with their lives?
Poetry, in so many other countries, for so many centuries, has mattered, and was and still is necessary. Why not here in Canada? Or, does it matter? Or is it yet to be necessary? I believe these four young, unready authors (I refuse to call them poets, based on what Cohen told us: "Blackening the page is not enough") were published to create a "new wave". Unfortunately, there's so many of them, sloshing back and forth between our coasts, those who have come before and earned a place are losing out, are not receiving their due. This is how it must work: the title of poet must be earned, not simply given a book and shoved onto the already over-populated raft of Canadian Poetry, then asked if they can swim.
The last paragraph of the review is the most prophetic. My applause loudens here. We must seek the visionary, which takes time. I side with you, Robyn Sarah, pointing at the future, then pointing at the editors of recognized publishing houses across our nation. Reminding them poetry is more than some marketable product, to take responsibility in the nurturing and guiding of the young authors, who choose the path towards becoming the poet.
Welcome in Croatia
This is a short letter to inform you why I chose your review as an interesting one for Croatian universities.
Since I moved from Bosnia and Croatia to Canada in March 1995, I have been searching for new, informative, interesting, professional, scientific, literary newspapers, magazines, journals in Canada. I found many and sent several-the best ones-to Croatian university libraries, among them Books in Canada (as the best one!), which was gladly welcomed and respectfully accepted by Croatian and Bosnian readers.
I hope to continue this activity in future.
Ljerka Susanna Lukic
Short & Long Answers
I write in connection with John Ferguson's review (November) of my book The Space of Appearance. Thoughtful in its arguments, and generous in its view of my role in architecture in Toronto, it nonetheless contains a particular reading of the book that troubles me. Early in his review, Ferguson asserts that I "embark on a search for something pure that has been lost." Then, in response to his own question, what?, he responds: "the short answer might be modernism." This way of putting it led me to expect a "longer" answer later in the review, and I was puzzled and disappointed not to find it. What I found instead was mounting evidence of a frustration with the contemporary practice of architecture that seems as biographical of John Ferguson as his review is of me.
He is correct to see my argument as commencing with an account of the original intentions of modernism in architecture three-quarters of a century ago; it seems to me wrong to read me as regretting the impossibility of its resurrection today. Indeed, I would have thought that my account of the impacts of the various revisionisms in architecture that have occurred since that time would make it clear that I see that possibility as being as foreclosed as he does. But the pessimism with which his disillusionment leads him to conclude-especially in respect to "stronger forces" that "don't give a damn" about the "revitalization" of the architectural profession-and which leads him ultimately to characterize my book as a "failure", this seems to me excessive.
One of my purposes was to attempt to articulate for practitioners of architecture such as Ferguson and myself, precisely what parts of modernism as it used to be known were indeed unrecoverable, as well as those others that, as I see it, still remain very subtly in force. I am inclined to think of modernism's dissipating, but still complex impact on us today in the same way that the French historian Fernand Braudel once characterized that of the nineteenth century on his own generation: "We are," he said, "essentially [its] children.however passionate our revolts or disavowals, however profound our discouragement."
The effective end of modernism per se having been conceded then, what I argue need not be "lost"-the "long answer" that was missing from his review-is architecture itself. And I look to the current efforts of architects-John Ferguson himself among them-as tangible demonstrations of the possibility of its rediscovery-frustrated though those efforts may often be-as an indication of the reasonableness of my hopes for its future.
Toronto and Cambridge, Mass.
Founder's Daughter Writes
I can't tell you how delighted and moved I was by the December issue of Books in Canada. The cover is wonderful-I'm going to have a laser copy made and frame it. It was wonderful also to have Douglas's and Kildare's warm speeches about Val. Altogether, your celebration of Val's contribution to the rise of Canadian letters has been one of the best aspects of the past few months. Among several odd coincidences connected with the timing of his death, the coincidence with the twenty-fifth anniversary of Books in Canada is perhaps the happiest. Although he would have been proud and gratified to share the occasion, the way things turned out the anniversary has been a terrific memorial to his life. And not only in an explicit way: just as important a testament, I feel, is the flourishing state of the journal he helped to found. It's a great issue, the pieces on Val apart. I read it from cover to cover, and it conveys such a lively literary scene, so much optimism and creativity. My father's link with the publication does him honour.
Best of luck to you as you embark on the next twenty-five years of Books in Canada. I'll follow its progress with interest and affection.
Stockport, Cheshire, U.K.
Please Swing Hips
The "old" Books in Canada was chatty, warm, gossipy, inclusive, and therefore superficial, lively, and a bit blowzy. The new Books in Canada (The Canadian Review of Books?) is reasoned, remote, intellectual, cold, covering few books in depth and therefore exclusive.
I think of the "old" BiC as eros, the new BiC as logos. It takes both to make a whole. If the new Books in Canada intends not to modify its approach enough to allow eros to swing her hips past the concrete pillars, I hope there is someone out there who will bring back the "old" Books in Canada, for public libraries could use both.
As a librarian ordering Canadian books for a large public library system, I can tell you that we relied heavily on the "old" Books in Canada's coverage of Canadian fiction. The new BiC seems to value non-fiction (ideas/logos) over fiction (relationship/eros). This is ironic at a time when Canadian fiction is in varicolorous flower and increasingly valued throughout the world.
As a librarian, I have to search assiduously to find reviews or even mention of much of Canada's new fiction. As a writer whose first work of fiction was published this year by Cormorant Books, I mourn that My Nose is a Gherkin Pickle Gone Wrong and almost all the other new fiction put out by Canada's independent publishers will never receive a mention in Books in Canada.
Marilyn Gear Pilling
I am astonished and perplexed that Books in Canada would publish a review as irresponsible, vindictively biased, and irritatingly irrational as Judith Fitzgerald on Stephen Morrissey's The Yoni Rocks (Brief Reviews, September). One reads a review first to discover its literary merit, and secondly for relevant information. We find little of these in the review initialled J.F. What we are given by J.F., who we assume is Judith Fitzgerald, is a confused series of personal biases.
Ms. Fitzgerald is within her rights to dismiss Mr. Morrissey's work as less than accomplished poetry, but her responsibility as a critic is to tell us why in clear and convincing language. This Ms. Fitzgerald fails to do.
It is difficult to take issue with J.F.'s arguments because there is no argument. We are confronted instead with a series of generalized slangy pejoratives, not with reasoned statement.
What is one to make of terminology such as "gush-golly-geeism" or "groupified men's sets", the former a comment on style, the latter on an assumed readership? J.F. complains of the didactic diatribes of Morrissey's verse. May one suggest her review is so much diatribe without even the saving dubious grace of didacticism. Reviews such as J.F.'s do not inform the reader, rather they observe and confuse.
One could accuse Ms. Fitzgerald of a verbal foaming at the mouth without sense or sensibility. One is further left with the conviction the reviewer writes with contempt not only for the work under discussion, but also the intelligence of readers of Books in Canada.
Why was Allan Golombek allowed to publish a review in the December issue of Bob Rae's From Protest to Power when still obviously obsessed and embittered by the loss of his former boss David Peterson to Rae? Golombek makes Rae out to be some kind of deluded devil, making me want to purchase the book to see what Rae has to say, or to at least read a more balanced review.
Grant's Path Crowded
According to William Mathie's article in November's edition, George Grant "insists that pacifism can only be based on what Christ taught and who Christ was, so his movement towards philosophy became the effort to think together what is given in revelation with the teaching of Plato along a path leading to Leo Strauss but also to Simone Weil."
I read with interest the letter from Roger Burford Mason on the origins of the colloquial term "winnots" (Letters, November). At the risk of opening a debate on the origins of this very delicate term, I must draw your readers' attention to a more reasonable explanation. We, who laboured in working-class west London, where baths and showers were weekly pleasures at best, were well acquainted with Mr. Mason's description of "hard materials". The term for this intimate detritus was most aptly referred to as "willnots", as in, will not drop off. Can anyone deny that willnots captures more succinctly the essence of this intimate problem? In contrast, Mr. Mason's explanation is a real bummer.