Pages

Monday, July 13, 2015

Literary Locavore 1

Summer is a wonderful time to eat locally, to take advantage of the freshness of food that is produced, metaphorically, in our back yards.  It also seems to me a good time to read locally, in part at least because there is so much fine work being published in Saskatchewan.  Part of our decision to eat locally is pure pleasure:  there's nothing quite like eating peas that were picked yesterday, or slicing into a tomato fresh off the vine, perhaps still sun-warm.  But part of it is ethical.  We want to keep our local farmers, who are neighbours of a kind, in business.  We want to keep their land out of the  hands of the industrial farmers.  We want--when we can get it in this climate--food with the smallest footprint possible, not food that has been trucked in for hundreds of miles.

Similarly, reading locally brings pure pleasure, sometimes of the kind I found at the Wilf Perreault exhibition:  the pleasure of seeing our own geography, albeit from a different perspective.  Sometimes it's simply the unique pleasure of a good book, in my case intensified by the pleasure of reading out in my front garden on the beautiful (though sadly rainless) summer evenings that are delivered fresh to my door.  Other times it's ethical.  Just as I have enormous questions about  industrial farming, so am I uneasy, in spite of  Russell Banks's reasurrances last week in The Globe and Mail, about industrial publishing from the monster Penguin/Random House/McClelland & Stewart.  If we want a distinct Canadian voice, we need, I believe, to be supporting smaller publishers like Coteau and Thistledown.  (Though I must confess that two of the books I want to write about were published by M&S.)
Just as I think diversity makes ecosystems stronger, so I think diverse voices can better give us a sense of the wondrous complexity of the human condition.  So I'm going to begin my literary locavore diet today with Connie Gault's wonderful novel, A Beauty, and in the coming weeks (though I can't say in what order), I will reflect on Bruce Rice's The Trouble with Beauty, Cassidy McFadzean's Hacker Packer, dee Hobsbawn-Smith's book of short stories, What Can't Be Undone, and Gerry Hill's Hillsdale.  I may sneak in a few more before I'm done.  These won't be reviews:  I know all these people, though some of them only slightly. Virginia Woolf (to whom I am certainly not comparing myself) was constantly getting herself in trouble by reviewing friends and by pretending she could bring a reviewer's objectivity to their work.  She was generous to B-list authors and very hard writers in her own league.  She felt, rightly I think, that a reviewer hired, say, by The London Times, owed a service to her culture to identify which books that were excellent, which could have benefitted from one more draft or a different approach, and which simply failed.  Every culture needs a multitude of people doing this job, but I'm not one of them.  I'm a blogger; what you'll find here is a personal response.  As well, I take Jan Zwicky's line on reviews or responses: the best way of dealing with an unsuccessful book is silence.  So I'm going to be looking for what's good and strong and truthful in these books.

Often the writing of novels begins with a question that may or may not be answered, but at least gets a thorough exploration.  I can easily imagine Connie Gault beginning her work on A Beauty by wondering what might happen to a beautiful woman who has everything taken from her.  At the novel's outset, Elena Huhtala, who has already lost her mother, is left by her father who hopes that the assumption of his suicide will impel Elena off the failing family farm into the city, where she will find work.  He has left her some money, but this is stolen.  So she has nothing:  no family, no food, no  money, no transportation.  Even the single dress she owns is thin with washing, and she hasn't eaten for days.  She is convinced by the Gustafson family to go to an event in town where she dances with Bill Longman, a privileged young man from Calgary whose father has given him a golden roadster and who is cruising the small towns of the prairies looking for adventure.  When he asks Elena "Can I take you home tonight?" she takes his hand, walks out of the dance hall, and begins the first of the three journeys that comprise most of the novel's action.

Some of the questions Gault asks about beauty are the ones taken up by philosophers over the last 25 years.  Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, writes that "It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.  Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care:  if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us" (81).  It's the dirty thirties.  Hotels and shops and restaurants can barely keep going, but when Bill and Elena begin their trip they bring excitement, new viewpoints, and hope to the various witnesses of their journey.  Gault's references to the movies and to the fan magazines that have become popular give one a sense that this historical moment  in its own particular way is hungry for beauty.  But unlike Garbo's beauty, Elena's cannot be precisely described.  In that way, Gault echoes the thoughts of I.A. Richards, who says beauty is "inexhaustible to meditation," Dennis Donoghue who remarks that beauty is undefinable, and Alexander Nehemas who notes that beauty asks us to return to it again and again.  We regard something as beautiful because we have the sense that each time we return to it, we will be given something more:  more insight, more wisdom, more pleasure. 

But none of these philosophers (Scarry--the one woman--excepted) considers what is like to be beautiful, to be the beautiful object, if you will.   In a way, that's what A Beauty partially illuminates. We don't, finally, know much about Elena Huhtala, but when we meet her 27 years after the novel's opening, we don't have the sense that her beauty has brought her any peace or advantage, though she admits that the men in her life changed fairly frequently--each of them richer than the last.  We know that she has gone back to Finland, where her mother died, but has not exactly found a meaningful connection there.  When she returns to her father, all she has is a handful of Marimekko dresses which everyone admires, but which she isn't sure about. Tantalizingly, Gault ends the novel before Elena makes the choice that will or will not change her life.

What I particularly admired about A Beauty was its structure--and how appropriate it is to the questions we ask about beauty.  The novel is largely made up of three distinct road trips.  The first is Elena's with Bill Longman.  Before she gets out of his car for no apparent reason in Gilroy, before he impatiently takes off and leaves her there, Bill and Elena visit three small prairie towns:  Addison, Charlesville, and Virginia Valley.  Each of these communities is represented by a couple of people who live there:  we get to know how the depression and the dirty thirties have affected their lives.  We know their struggles, their failings, their desires. And we're allowed to see how Elena's beauty is that perceptual wake-up call Scarry writes about:  how she can inspire people, make them hopeful again.  Gault beautifully populates these small prairie towns with characters as sharply drawn as a shadow near sunset, giving us (like Wilf Perreault) an historical sense of the place where we live.

The second journey is Elena's father's attempt to find her.  The third is Elena's and Bill's return to Trevna, where Mr. Huhtala now lives, Elena in search of her father, Bill hoping to find her again.  The novel is, then, a series of quests, none of them quite "achieved" as Mallory put it in his Morte d'Arthur.  The life of a beautiful woman isn't a straight line from tragedy to success, fulfillment, peace. 

I haven't spoken of Ruth, who is one of the novel's narrators, eleven at the time when Elena stops in Gilroy.  In a gesture that Elena later recognizes is a kind of revenge, she leaves Gilroy with Ruth's father, leaving Mrs. McLaughlin (and the very responsible Ruth) with seven children.  Elena is everything Ruth will never be.  While Elena is beautiful, Ruth has a wandering eye that will require thick glasses for the rest of her life.  While Elena can walk away on adventures, Ruth is tied to her family by her sense of responsibility.  One suspects that at least of one of those wealthy men might have allowed Elena to have an education, whereas Ruth quits school in grade ten to help support the family.  But Ruth has advantages that seem to elude Elena.  Ruth marries the handsome young man in Gilroy who is initially struck dumb by Elena's beauty and now has (by my careless count) two sons and a daughter.  As well, Ruth has maintained connections to both Mr. Huhtala and Bill Longmore that not only give them comfort but that facilitate the novel's final meeting.  Ruth's life may ask a very important question about beauty, one the philosophers don't consider but that Gault does:  is beauty a matter of being seen, or is it how you see?