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Because Of The War
by Cary Fagan

IN NORMAN LEVINE`S first novel, The Angled Road (1952), the young hero commits a kind of spiritual suicide. David Wrixon, a Canadian flyer in the Second World War, is on a bombing mission when he fantasizes about crashing his plane into the sea. It is an interesting attempt by the young Levine to have this first version of his fictional persona identify with and share the same fate as the war`s victims. From the beginning, the war has cast a shadow on Levine`s fiction, although one so subtle as to sometimes escape notice. The experience of dropping bombs on an unseen "enemy" gave David Wrixon, and Levine`s subsequent narrators, a sense of alienation from the mainstream, as well as an understated existential belief that we can never really escape our own selves to fully know the experience of others. Levine`s fiction has always cleaved to the facts of his life. He was born in Ottawa to Yiddish-speaking parents, he flew Lancaster bombers in the war, he spent three decades in England, and after his first wife died he returned to Canada. While his work is no doubt an artful and imaginative reconstruction of these events, Levine has stuck to them with an extraordinary stubbornness that speaks of an obsession with some personal idea of truth. Perhaps that is why, although the war is so important to Levine, he has refused to dramatize it in his work or to fictionally impersonate either concentration-camp victims or Nazis, as so many writers feel free to do. This strikes me as a rare kind of integrity. Perhaps that integrity is responsible for Levine`s relatively meagre output. Something Happened Here, Levine`s first collection of new stories in 12 years, is a mete 194 pages of narrow text. The very title itself raises questions that Levine has quietly been putting for so long: what did happen during the war? what happened that we, who are trapped within our own narrow experience, can understand? And in two stories he comes as close as he may ever come to answering them. The story "Because of the War" lives up to the implication of its title - that everything about our world now had its origins in that time. Levine`s writer-narrator, now a widower, has moved to Toronto. Small, odd moments bring the war back to him: anti-Semitic graffiti appear in his apartment elevator, a group of vintage war planes suddenly appears in the sky. At one point the writer is given directions to a house in the suburbs and asked if he can find it. "In the war;" he answers, "I found my way to Leipzig:" It is as if the writer were still up in the sky, unable to see the human life down below. But he wants to know about that life, and so he becomes a kind of witness, listening to the stories of others. There are the sister landladies from France, the Yugoslavian superintendent, the old McGill friend who had his ankle blown out by a mortar shell. It seems as if Toronto is made up of nothing but people displaced by the war, all of whom have a compulsion to speak their lives. The story offers no great discoveries or revelations; instead it acts like a wave, accumulating small moments of feeling. In "Something Happened Here" the writer is staying at a hotel in the seaside town of Dieppe. He makes friends and enjoys the tranquillity of the place, yet all the time the story`s real subject lurks nearby, like a presence matching the writer step for step. And then, standing on the beach, he turns and faces it directly: "I kept watching the cliffs and the opening. And thought how scared they must have been coming in from the sea and seeing this." The flyer has finally come down from his airplane. "Django, Karfunkelstein, & Roses;" in which the writer visits his 70-year-old agent in Zurich, is also in its own way about the war. "Soap Opera;" a novella, rises to a kind of severe magnificence as it depicts the writer`s mother dying in hospital. The other four stories, though written with Levine`s freshness of eye, are minor pieces. It is because of them that this book is not, as a whole, as strong as his last collection, Thin Ice. But the best work in Something Happened Here must be included with the finest that Levine has written. His further narrowing of the already limited path he has chosen for himself will likely prevent Levine from ever being as popular as his contemporaries Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant. But then Levine has always insisted on writing his own kind of story, and on keeping his own kind of silence.

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