Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Stockholm versus Canada's America

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Stockholm versus Canada's America

There are few urban jewels as carefully or exquisitely wrought as Stockholm, a city of sharp and precise angles. Its streets don’t curve or sweep or swoon like Paris streets, they cut and jut unbending with sheer flat cliffs of stuccoed apartments. They hit the rivers and canals with a wall of grace, working with nature but not sacrificing anything to the wild lunge of instinct or passion. Obsessively tidy, one can feel the order of the country’s Christian theocracy in the architecture. Every detail – the height, the colour, the cupola, the turrets, the elegance of each doorway, the curlicue of each iron grid – has the hint of a symbol. Combined, these symbols evoke the feeling of a united society, blond-haired, blue eyed, educated, devote. Stockholm survives a harsh climate with a million calm, stoic edges to lean upon for support. It is an enormously livable city, with an abundance of bike paths and transit options, restaurants and cafés, but it is hard to escape the feeling that everything here was planned.

It reminds me of a parable told by Wyndham Lewis in The Caliph’s Design, a parable that revealed Lewis’s desire for autocracy. Lewis depicts a powerful Caliph compelling the architects under his control to instantly remake his city based on a whimsical design dashed off over breakfast. He calls the design, rather dismissively, a “vorticist” sketch and admits that it is shaped more by fancy than design. Still, the entire city was remade, fashioned by the Caliph’s personality. The power of the Caliph was primarily appealing as a corrective to a global force that Lewis believed had infected even the most cutting-edge and experimental writing of modernism. Writers like T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and the Bloomsbury group were not fighting the imbecility of mass-culture but were in fact cataloguing the symptoms of its pervasive ideology. As Paul Edwards writes, Lewis used the Caliph parable “to articulate by contrast a savage relish in the apparent impotence of art to affect the actual world’s banality.”

Stockholm, it turns out, was shaped by a similar parable. Once upon a time, there was a king named Gustav. He travelled far and wide through cities like London, Berlin, and Paris. When he returned to his own kingdom, he found it shabby and banal. He ordered the city completely remade in order to echo what he had seen in other parts of Europe. Whole sections of the poor town were torn down, and dramatic monuments like opera houses, palaces, and museums were erected along the water. In an ending befitting a parable of an autocrat with foreign tastes, Gustav was assassinated in his beloved opera house during a masquerade ball. One wonders whether his costume was British, German, or French.

Canadian cities, with their jangly anarchism, are untamed and libidinal by comparison. Even our best, Quebec, Ottawa, or Vancouver, are filled with ugly, squat, and disconnected buildings. The gridlines of our streets, and even the uniformity of our subdivisions, reflect a civic carelessness of expediency rather than inspiration. Design and style are determined by impulses and subject to no scrutiny. As a result, our streets are like museums of failed fantasies that each halt at the edge of a private allotment, little gardens free to fill up their fixed space as artists seek to fill up the fixed dimensions of a canvas. That so many of these ‘canvases’ are rather uninspired would surprise no one regularly exposed to art – most of which merely strives to duplicate familiar models.

In Canada, there are so few concessions to the style of one’s neighbours, let alone deterministic visions of an entire city, that one gets the sense that our cities stumbled haphazardly into their present company, and eye those assembled wearily. There is so little that is planned, so little that suggests community, or unity of culture. The fact that our cities are also enormously livable is ironic, but poignant. It suggests a different civilization, a different approach to life, hinting at the idealism of what Europeans here collect under the sobriquet “American.” Noble Canadians sniff “North American” in response.

4 comments

I have never been to Stockholm but from the writing here, it is a place that I would really love to visit one day. online casino

It always amazes me how well Toronto works, and how much energy radiates throughout the city. Of the Scandinavian cities, Oslo being younger to money than Stockholm is a better comparison. It has more of Toronto's modern spirit, while retaining that European national vision. The fact that Hogtown is taking more risks with architecture and people-friendly neighbourhoods is exciting.

I haven't been to Stockholm so cannot comment on the comparison. But a note that I like where Toronto is right now. There is built-in charm and moments of beauty, and most exciting, I feel there are so many recent moves here -- with the architecture, bike lanes, festivals, etc -- that are taking the city in the right direction, without having to pull a Gustav.

I should have worked the term "stately" in there somewhere. You can imagine it belonging!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page