Sparrow Nights

by David Gilmour
215 pages,
ISBN: 0679311122

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A Dark Play on Chekhov
by Malca Litovitz

The title of David Gilmour's fifth novel comes from Chekhov's "sparrow nights". These are harrowing nights of the soul when love is lost. The book takes its epigraph from a letter that Marcel Proust wrote to a friend: "I cannot get used to things that end". Darius Halloway, the fifty-one-year-old French professor who is the central protagonist of the novel, has experienced many failures and endings. He has failed at marriage, failed to have children, and has had only modest success in his career. Still, he has managed to lead a reasonably civilized life until he loses Emma, his greatest love. His first affair, with the beautiful Raissa Shestatsky, occurred when he was in his first year of university. Gilmour recreates the ambience of the period in rich passages that call up this undergraduate love. "(W)hat a time I had of it, a blanket nailed over the window to keep out the sunlight, a swollen candle by the bed, the air thick with cigarette smoke and that raspberry incense she adored."

When Raissa dumps him for another, Halloway tries to escape by going to France for a year. "But travel is never the escape one imagines. . .By changing the landscape, one succeeds only in highlighting the familiar. . ." Upon his return, Raissa actually wants to see him again but the young Halloway horrifies himself by yawning at their rendezvous. It is even more painful for him to watch love end in himself than to have lost her in the first place. In a wonderful chapter later in the novel, Halloway encounters Raissa once more as he sits, like a true romantic, alone in a restaurant drinking. Halloway hears some music from his youthłthe haunting Concierto de Aranjuez. He thinks: "How like the days of my childhood today had been. How symphonic." Raissa walks in looking like an elder Madame Bovary, beautifully coifed, greying, and elegant. For a moment, time moves magically backwards. "From a swirl of clothes and tired features my beautiful young philosophy student stepped forward, like a child who has been hiding under the covers. . ." Halloway recalls the moment, then mourns its passing. "We had known each others' bodies when they were young. How precious that wasłfor we held an image of each other which no one else in the world did, and when we died, that picture would exist no more."

The word "desire" comes from the Latin "de sidere", meaning from the stars. It's often most intense when experienced from a distance. Thirty years separate Emma and Halloway. Her youth seems to fulfill him: "Before her and I mean all my life before Emma, I had the slightly embarrassing sensation that I was saving myself for someone. I even had it during my marriage...But when I was with Emma, I had the unmistakable feeling that the train had finally pulled into the station. I caught myself being happy." Halloway has the feeling of turning back the clock. He also develops a secret inner life to counterbalance all of the stuffiness of academia. This theme plays itself out in the novel in comic scenes that had this reviewer laughing aloud. He remembers Emma: "Really, she carried on like a madwoman. She whispered, she swore, she blasphemed, she made demonic requests in a voice that was not her own. ęDo you want to see my cunt?'... Or that time in the foyer of the chancellor's housełęDo you want to take me from behind?' No, Emma, I don't want to take you from behind, I want to have Christmas pudding with my colleagues."

Gilmour's description of autumn in Toronto takes on some of Chekhov's vivid attention to physical details. "The scent of leaves, the cool air so sweet. . .in the fragrance alone I could possess again the finest, most elusive sensations of my childhood, the clarity of things felt and seen and smelt and heard. . ." Halloway enters academic life because "I observed, indeed I inhaled (because I could smell them), shelf after shelf of books. How mysterious they were, how I desired the it I knew they contained. . .How happy I would be, I thought, if only I had such an office to go to every day. . .From my first day I loved university life and I never wanted to leave it. Indeed, I haven't." Most importantly, Emma's smell stays with Halloway forever. He keeps an old stinky T-shirt of hers. After she leaves him, he lusts after a woman he meets on a Caribbean cruise who smells like her. He continues to hear Emma's empty hangers clinking hollowly in her cupboard after her departure and feels he himself smells like her until he takes drastic measures to rid himself of her all-pervasive presence.

On an early date, Halloway and Emma see a film version of Chekhov's Gooseberries. The story tells of a man who dreams of owning his own country retreat by a river where he can eat homegrown gooseberries. This sufficiently sweet dream grows sour because the man loses all sense of human goodness as he ruthlessly pursues his dream. In Sparrow Nights, much the same thing happens to Halloway. He tries to escape the pain of losing Emma by drowning himself in his work, in wine, and in other women. Eventually, he begins to visit massage parlours. He develops a new mythology of himself as he enters the exotic world of crime and lust represented by the beautiful black woman, Passion, his favourite of these masseuses. Sometimes, only sex can heal a sexual wound. As Marlene Dietrich once said, "The best way to get over someone is to get under someone else". Halloway does not get under Passion; he has something called a "hand release". The result, however, is similar. "I felt immeasurably better. . .Better still, the smell was gone, Emma's smell, replaced by the rather thick, cloying scent of baby oil. . ." He experiences repeatedly "the contentment of the freshly ejaculated".

Passion's name is both satirical and symbolic as his relationship with her proves to be his downfall. In an October 9, 2001 radio interview with Susan Helwig on In Other Words, Gilmour confessed to a love of Elmore Leonard novels. Perhaps that is why he decided to give his novel such a violent and disturbing ending. Halloway invites Passion to his home, and she reluctantly agrees to come. Passion proceeds to rob him of many of his most precious possessions. She takes his "Proust pencil, for example (for underlining the hardcover version). . ." Like Swann, Halloway thinks of his mother in dark moments. One of Passion's greatest thefts is the theft of Halloway's statue of the Madonna. "I'd inherited it from my mother; it was the only thing of hers I'd kept."

Another aspect of Darius' character, which Gilmour suggests from the beginning of the novel, starts to predominate. Halloway's obsessive nature had led him to kill a neighbour's dog and destroy someone else's air conditioner because the noises bothered him. Now, he sets out to get revenge on Passion. Without giving away the ending of the novel, I would simply like to say that it ends violently and somewhat weakly. A horrific crime is perpetrated and justice is not done. In some ways this makes sense as unbridled passion can lead to self-destruction. However, Gilmour's novel works best when it is witty and darkly comical, and when the literary allusions are playful. Darius Halloway says, "Like Chekhov, I believe that you don't introduce a gun into a story unless you plan to use it." How you use it, is what matters. ņ

Malca Litovitz is author of To Light, To Water (Toronto: Lugus, 1998; Spanish translation by Alexis Cabrera). Guernica Press will publish her new collection of poetry, currently titled The Venus Chronicles, in 2003.


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