"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Paris in the 1870s: Fertile Ground for Fiction

 Take a big book with you on vacation, and you won't have to worry about running out of reading material: that was what prompted me to cart along Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina
when we went to Paris and Portugal a few weeks ago.  The fact that one of my library reading groups will discuss it in the spring was an added reason, as was the idea that really good books should be read at several points in one's life.  Since reading is a dynamic thing, what you as a reader bring to each reading can transform a book.  I fully expected to find completely different things in the novel than what I found the last time I read it maybe 20 years ago.

That was very true, in part at least.  The first half where we learn about the complicit seduction of Anna Karenina by Count Vronsky and the sorrows and joys of Levin and his Kitty as they try to live a good life came back to me in vivid detail.  But as the book advanced I realized 1) that I hadn't seen the political and theological argumentation that Tolstoy folded into his story and 2) that I hadn't finished the book...

Picking up the book after a long day of sight seeing in the City of Lights at first was a little disconcerting.  The Russian universe seemed at first so different from the vibrant city I was visiting.  But then I saw just how much Paris--transformed by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-19th century--resonated with Tolstoy's world.  The idle rich, the importance of railroads, the extravagant political ideas: they also were found in Haussmann's Paris, and, consequently, have echoes today.  (The photo is of construction of the Opéra Garnier which gives some idea of what went on as the city was completely reorganized.)

Then I began reflecting on other novels written in the same period. Afer Googling a bit I found that 1877 also saw the publication of two other very good ones that take place in Paris too: Emile Zola's L'Assommoir and Henry James's The American.  The pair are poles apart--Zola writes about those dispossessed by Haussmann's clearing of the center city and James's hero is a brash American industrialist who wants to marry the American widow of French aristocrat.  But they each give an engrossing picture of what the world was like then, and their observations complement Tolstoy's picture of Russian society.

Verdict: All three novels are worth reading again.  Think about taking one or all the next time you've got hours and hours of travel ahead of you. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

Books That Live on: The Saga of Robert Nelson

Had the very pleasant experience last night of arriving at an event marking the opening of an exhibition about Wolfred Nelson (that's him in the image,) doctor, mayor of Montreal and Patriot, at the Maison des Patriotes in St-Denis-sur-Richelieu and finding a stack of my biographical novel of his brother Robert Nelson prominently displayed in the museum's store.

My book was published 15 years ago in English and in French, and I've been told that it still is read with interest by those interested in the history of the Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.  This episode in 1837-38 was the closest Canada ever came to revolution, and set the stage for responsible government, and the establishment of Canada as a separate country 30 years later.

The Nelsons were among the many Anglophones who took up the cause of independence.  Unfortunately their contribution is frequently forgotten in Quebec: the rebellions are more often glossed as a fight between the British and French Canadians.  In Upper Canada, the Patriot leader was William Lyon MacKenzie, who also made his mark later in the new nation of Canada, and who, famously, was grandfather of William Lyon MacKenzie King, prime minister for 22 years.

Last night the Nelson family was there in force: Wolfred's great grandson Richard Nelson, M.D. was the driving force behind the exposition.  It seemed that everyone of them had read my book and enjoyed it!  What a nice thing to have happen so many years after the publication of the book!

It remains one of my favourite projects, as it involved much research which I ended up folding into a novel.  My initial idea had been to write biography of Robert Nelson, but there wasn't enough information about his later life, so I opted for a truly "creative non-fiction" approach.  There are 198 footnotes, but the story itself is told as just that: a story.   Perhaps this new exhibit will lead to new readers. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

New Web TV Literary Program from Montreal

For those of you who like to read, check this out.  It's a new web TV literary program called Between the Pages from Montreal, hosted by Dimitri Nazrullah.  There are four programs in the can already, with four more to be filmed next week.

Tuesday I'm going to be talking with Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger, among other things, and Avi Friedman, McGill architecture  prof and one of the men behind The Grow House, about The Future of the City.

Will post when the discussion is ready for broadcast. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Conínbriga, Portugal: Not the Inspiration for Margaret Atwood But Who Cares?

It's been nearly a month since I posted here--too much interesting travel and not enough internet access to blog.

But I thought about books a lot.  One of the most striking was the echo of Margaret Atwood's short story collection Moral Disorder I heard in Conínbriga, Portugal. 

Atwood's stories are about the best she's done in a couple of decades, in my opinion.  She opens herself up as she has rarely, writing about people who are very much like herself and her family.  At first the reader may think the stories are unrelated, but each one throws light on some rather important concerns: what will become of the world we live in?  How to love?  Is there a connection between the concrete everyday world and something that transcends time and space?

This last lies at the center of the first story "The Bad News." An aging couple, Nell and Tig, struggle to deal with the bad news that awaits them every day in early Twenty-first Century newspaper headlines.  But Nell finds herself slipping into another time and place when the news was equally bad, Southern France in the Third Century C.E.   The barbarians are outside the gates, Romans like this other Nell have reason to be afraid.  The question Atwood poses is: should we prepare for the end of the world as we know it, too?

Conínbriga in central Portugal is very much like Glanum, the French ruined town that starts Nell's musings.  A thriving place for a couple of hundred years at the crossroads  of Roman thoroughfares on the Iberian peninsula, its people retrenched in the Third Century apparently out of fear for the advancing Barbarians.  They effectively abandoned part of the town, tearing houses down and  building a defensive wall five meters high inside of which they hung on for a couple of more centuries. 

The extent of the town was forgotten until the late 1920s when a Portuguese archeologist began excavation of the site.  Since then off a good portion of the town  has been uncovered.  The mosaics are extraordinary, and the House of Fountains, one of the houses left outside the wall, a dream of a Roman villa (see photo.)

Visiting ruins like this (or the medieval part of nearby Coimbra) invites speculation who lived there and what their lives were like.  Just as Atwood's collection suggests connections between incidents and people, so wandering through the vestiges of the past summons up reflections about human nature, strife and survival.