Driving Men Mad

by Elise Levine,
ISBN: 0889841551

Small Souls under Siege

by Anne Dandurand, Robert Majzels,
ISBN: 0920953816

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Passionate Voices
by Mary Hill

WHEN I WAS A STUDENT in Robert Majzels' Concordia University literature class about five years ago, he asked us to write our way into an author's style. I gave him my version of an Ernest Hemingway short story, rewritten in the unmistakable voice of Joyce Carol Oates. It was a verbose, amateurish piece, with too many semi-colons, and Oates's self-conscious characters drowning out Hemingway's cool, economical prose. If the exercise taught us anything, it was the difficulty of foster-parenting writing techniques. In asking us to translate a literary style, Majzels pushed his students to listen closely to voices on the page, and examine their own abilities as writers.

In his translation of the Montreal author Anne Dandurand's Petits Ames sous ultimatum (Small Souls Under Siege), Majzels proves himself the master of his own method. I can only assume that the best of French-to-English translators would be forced to face their own uncertainties while working with short stories as outstanding as those in Dandurand's fourth collection, which was first published in French in 199 1. An English translation has long been overdue, considering the acclaim heaped upon one of the stories, "The Last Day for Milkshakes," by both the Salon Du Livre de la Jeunesse, which awarded Dandurand its grand prize in 1989, and Radio Canada, when it named the story a finalist in its short-fiction contest in 1990. In this piece, Dandurand tells the story of a bright, abused little girl on the verge of returning to her family after a stay with a loving foster mother; it stands out as the singular story in this collection that relies on character and such a precious if limited -- point of view.

But it's by no means the best. Dandurand's real strength lies in forming enticing plots that speed ahead with passion. Her characters, seemingly unremarkable, are thrown into odd -- and often horrendous circumstances that render them remarkable. A lovestruck woman prowls the underbelly of Montreal, collecting rat's spit and virgin's blood for a potion to lock a man into eternal seduction: a cleaning woman at a girls' reform school adopts the role of an obsessive investigative heroine to solve the murder of a beloved resident. In the surreal "Misunderstanding in Svendborg," a confused traveller ends up lodging in a brothel for far longer than she expected.

Drastically unfit for their circumstances, these small souls nevertheless live in stubborn acceptance of it all. The attitude of Jacinthe, the romantic-potion maker in "The Possession of Jacques Braise," is typical: "I was furious; how I longed to be free of obsessions, but I've never had the strength to dig in and resist cyclones, I end up jumping into the saddle and riding them out...."

The stories in Small Souls Under Siege are so effective in English that it's hard to imagine Majzels sacrificed much in the translation: he captures Dandurand's voice expertly.

Dandurand's diversity and less overtly political themes have helped keep her free from categorizations such as those imposed on the Toronto author Elise Levine. Levine, who happens to have included a lesbian or feminist or two in some of her stories, fell prey to hasty labels with the publication of her debut collection of stories, Driving Men Mad. Yes, Levine writes of the most intense of themes: lesbian lust, obsessive love, violence against women, child abuse. A less courageous writer might have used fiction to polish these themes, to offer such subjects in easily digestible form. Instead, Levine exposes the roughness and the crude pain of life. It's a rare writer who can write bluntly about the raw side of life while subtly leaving room for her readers to make their own, often disturbing connections.

Tension hangs thickly between siblings, lovers, parents and their children in Levine's worlds; but she stops just short of defining the source of tension, letting suggestion hang there uncomfortably. In "Scugog," a newlywed revels in her husband's lust but mourns his frequent absences; both, meanwhile, tsk and sigh, removed from the headlines that scream of disappeared women. Levine writes plot by suggestion, hopping in time, inviting her readers to fill in the blanks. But of the body, its sensuality, its reactions to the psyche's wounds, Levine speaks literally, intensely, in visceral images. In "Refiring," a woman suffering from a rare psoriasis pictures her own unravelling:

Bobbie imagines she might hear it one night, her skin quietly slithering from her body, unwrapping from her like something alive and breathing and hugging her with decreasing tautness the past fifty-eight years, and now slipping from her while the electric clock thrums downstairs in the kitchen, time slipping from her body in gauzy strips.

If Levine was looking for a vehicle to force her readers to squirm in discomfort, to confront the gritty side of life, she has made it, in Driving Men Mad.


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