Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Who Knows Norman Levine? (and other musings)

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Who Knows Norman Levine? (and other musings)

I read a lot of first-person novels narrated by women. It’s a predilection of mine, maybe even a habit. There’s just something about hearing the “I” of another woman’s voice that affects me viscerally, an old pigtail-trigger response I blame on Sylvia Plath. I was fourteen the first time I heard Esther Greenwood’s empathetic, electrifying voice on page one of The Bell Jar and since then I can’t pass Wychwood public library without thinking of that sound.

Yet, I sometimes wonder if I’m missing out on the goods from chromosome Y. Is it a problem, for example, if my knowledge of the male psyche can be traced to Savage Love columns and Nancy Friday’s paperback tome, Men in Love, which, judging by the fervent thumbprints and food stains throughout my 1987 second-hand copy, has influenced a generation besides mine? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t avoid novels from the male first-person POV. It’s just that aside from Michael Thomas’ brilliant 2006 novel Man Gone Down, I haven’t come across a first-person guy-driven novel that flips the bird to pomo Patrick Bateman’s ode to sadism in a McDonaldized world.

Now, before I come off sounding feebly read, or worse, second-wave sexist, I should reiterate that I’m speaking only about novels narrated in the first-person by men, and not novels that have male characters driving them. A formal issue. So in this category I exclude pyrotechnical symphonies like A Confederacy of Dunces, told from the third-person perspective of everyone’s favourite hot-dog seller Ignatius J. Reilly. Ditto exempted are classic first-person male narratives like Lolita, and Graham Green’s The End of the Affair, which is still my number one novel about love, even though its ending is sad enough to keep Nicholas Sparks’ screenwriters on Adderall. (Tomorrow, I’m posting a list of some other great, if not new, first-person novels from a male POV just to be well-rounded).

All this being said—and thank you if you’re still on the donkey—I recently read two novels, The English Major by Jim Harrison, and From a Seaside Town by Norman Levine, back to back by coincidence, that have first-person male narrators, and are downright brilliant. Both channel life in that “come into my world and touch everything” way that a solid first-person narration ought to be. Both evoke pain with humour and humour with pain. Simply put, the novels have been a welcome VIP pass for moi into the literary locker room of middle-aged masculinity. Not since promising my dead-stock virginity and year’s supply of Tetracyclin to The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole have I been this amused, moved, and touched by the story of a man’s growing pains and obstacle course through love.

I’ll start with Levine’s novel, because it needs a reputation more urgently than Harrison’s, which has already been written up by a bigshot in the NY Times, who, unlike me, is quite adept at keeping herself out of her articles. From a Seaside Town is really two stories. The first concerns an artist in crisis. Joseph Grand, a Canadian travel writer, lives in a seaside English town called Carnbray—imagine Wasaga Beach without the inflatables—with his wife and three young daughters. All's well until Grand loses his lucrative magazine gig and plunges into Chapter 57 without a shrimp’s hope for a bailout. Any writer who’s experienced the self-flagellation that comes with waiting for a $150 cheque so she can make her rent (“Why didn’t I become a dermatologist like my Zaida recommended? Why didn’t I go into marketing?”) will feel Grand’s mounting neuroses. To prozac his depression, Grand goes to London as often as he can to co-habit with one of two friends – a successful gay painter named Charles whose bipolar capers add plenty of bombastic dialogue and comic relief to the narrative, and Albert, a monied isolate who’s babied by his elderly Russian housekeeper while he dreams of hunting Nazis.

The second story of From a Seaside Town is more universal: a man and wife struggle to keep their wits and marriage together for the sake of their young children. There’s food rationing, silent treatment in the kitchen, adultery in the stairwell, and some other domestic scenes that makes Five Easy Pieces look like a drawing room comedy. The salt in the wounds of these scenes is alleviated slightly by humour, but in a way, I wouldn't have minded more pain. In the pointilistic detail of a marriage in distress, Levine is at his artistic apogee. Never have I read such refreshingly human-like and sloppy sex scenes. Copy that for the tense mornings after. Though Levine doesn’t tell us that Grand is an absentee husband—he’s usually too broke to make train-fare, thus stays put—it’s clear that Grand’s writing career shares a heart, brain, and loins with his marriage. When he’s getting paid, his masculinity’s in check, and he’s Valentino of the Seaside. When he’s broke, he reminisces about his college days, past affairs, and other muck in a truncated, bleak way that brings empty discoteques and old Julio cassettes to mind. It’s painful to watch how one’s professional life can rust the personal, but realistic and faithfully portrayed by Levine. Storyline one, then— Grand’s troubles as writer—help us to understand storyline two, his recumbent escapes to London, and dreams of like back in Canada.

Now, nobody’s ever called me linear, which should preclude me from playing biographer, but I think it’s worth sharing something about Norman Levine, whose life, while not note by note like Joseph Grand’s, sounds close enough to rustle up some copyright counsel. Like his narrator, Levine was a Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa. He fought in World War II, then flew over the pond to England and, like Grand, resided in a seaside town. Levine’s was called St. Ives, and it was an artist community that in the 1960’s was a bohemian and affordable refuge from modish, monied London. From a Seaside Town’s setting alone makes it clear that Levine took a lot of physical inspiration from St. Ives for fictional Canbray: the craggy waterfront dotted with shuttered shops, the relentlessly gray, pregnant skies, the geographical isolation from the center of England. Indeed, there’s a sense of grand isolation not only in Levine’s descriptions of physical space, but also his characters, who are never at home in their homes or their own skin. As Allison Oldham of The Guardian put it in her 2005 obituary of Levine, “he was an outsider; as a Canadian living overseas for most of his life, he came to see exile as a condition of being a writer.” Exiles would have been a fitting alternative title for the novel.

Though perhaps Exiles would’ve put too fine a point on a novel that breathes life through its painterly subtlety. Levine has a spare and beautiful writing style. In fact, the way he puts sentences and paragraphs onto the page so delicately that he appears not to be trying at all, and simply letting the story itself write the words of their own volition, is of course a master’s deception. The other remarkable thing about Levine’s style is how obviously and explicitly he trusts his own material. The trusting of one’s material might seem like an obvious gift to oneself and one’s subject, but I didn’t think about it consciously until I read William Zinsser’s incisive book, On Writing, which, with hearty newspaperman candour, advises the writer who doesn’t speak truthfully and let his story do the talking to quit writing. Levine’s trust of his material makes for scenes that perch effortlessly on the notoriously shaky tragicomic wire. Recalling his Polish Jewish father’s ill-begun immigration to Canada, Levine allows his narrator to humorously turn away from the pretence of Valhalla under the big-top of the maple leaf, and show us instead a man isolated by a foreign language and an alien culture:

Carelton drove me to his house for dinner, in a new black Cadillac with
leather seats, and described the arrival of my father. ‘We were allowed
to stay up late. Our cousin from Europe was coming. My father expected
someone young – after all your mother was in her early twenties. And
someone who could do rough work. Instead there appeared this dandy in the
Union station with a silver-topped stick. He was small and bald and in
his forties. We tried to get him interested in the banana business. But
he couldn’t or wouldn’t learn the language. He would go to one of the
workmen, point to a bunch of bananas and say shnite.

Like Grand, who at 40 has turtled up onto the beach of creative dissipation, the narrator of The English Major is searching for keeper shells in the wreck of his own literary Lucitania. Cliff is 60-something, and a former English teacher who gave up on the rabble to farm cherries with a dog at his feet and a zippy, realtor wife on her Motorola at his side. In Cliff, Harrison sets us an everyman—true to life with no surname—sated on the Frostian pleasures of the yellow wood. The road in that wood forks for Cliff, however, at his 40th high school reunion. There, amid the crepe paper and cherry-punch boast-sessions, his wife Vivian has an outdoor coital session with an ex-classmate who drives a big car and, with macho vitriol, is painted by Harrison as a total downhome asshole. Vivian files for divorce and Cliff loses the cherry farm. The beloved dog dies a week later. The novel begins an earnest twenty pages later when the battered baby boomer hits the road.

Now, all the Kerouacians in the house, including this one, know that the possibilities of a road-trip novel are huge, sometimes abused, and sometimes driven by THC. This is to say, the aforementioned keeper aside, not all road-trip novels needed to hit the road. Give the wheel to motivationally-lost characters with nothing to say and watch the novel stall and putter (I’ve built several such cars myself, and I'm now trying to figure out how to animate them). On the other hand, put a broken man in a car, and give him a mission—-besides vanilla self-discovery—-and then we’re burning rubber. In The English Major Harrison uses the road-trip motif pitch-perfectly. By the time he puts Cliff on the blacktop, we understand his history, pain, his motivation, and feel invested in his journey, which is as much spiritual as geographical. Hello bouncing Buddha on the dashboard.

A lot happens in the novel. Cliff clears ten state lines in various revelatory states, sexual positions, rages, nostalgic stupors, and paternal comings-of-age toward his son, an exfoliated movie producer in Hollywood. Admittedly, it’s a lot for a 250 page novel, but under the steerage of Harrison, who’s known for wrangling language until it performs feats of economy and breadth, it was sufficient right down to the sentence level. I’m talking about sentences that start you wondering how a man who taught school for a dent of his adult life manages to remain inviolable to the ABC rules of punctuation while making every thought sound as perfectly cadenced and un-crowded as Don McLean cooing Vincent. Punctuation is used sparingly in the novel, and I found it refreshing to read long sentences, like the following, that smack of control and sharp-wittedness: “While drinking three glasses of cold water which made my chest and head ache I had a craving for books that I hadn’t had in the thirty years back when I still believed that books might save my life.”

There are many, many lines in this novel that stopped me from their simple profundity. On a particularly bad night, when worry seeps at the familiar witching hour, Cliff tells himself, “…You have to take a firm hold of yourself. Take a ten-mile hike, something sensible. All your life now is new like a warm rain after a movie.” Harrison is also great at making tough out of sentimental ground. Recalling his To Sir With Love days, Cliff remembers how “as a teacher I was never much of a counsellor as I thought everyone was basically drowned in their problems and doomed never to rise to the surface. A couple of decades later, I was no better.” The novel is charged with such prickly honesties, and they bite at the stereotype of the kindly old white-haired gentleman, the figure that Cliff cuts behind his wheel. In Cliff, Harrison creates a survivor of a character well past middle life who refuses to be lumped in with the white-haired invisible geezer category one step away from sexless Santa Claus. Call me sociological, but maybe it’s about time there be more books--and movies especially -- starring people past middle age, because every second of the day I look less like Miley Cyrus I worry that soon I’ll simply cease to exist.

Speaking of age and the spoils of being an aged Canadian novelist. Yesterday, under the assumption that the Google search button is the new Christopher Columbus of the research world, I attempted to find articles and reviews about Norman Levine, confident that I’d be treated to reams of manna about this writer’s life’s work. As Patsy Cline says, I was so wrong. What came up on my frowning flat-screen were two obituaries—from the Guardian and Independent—a truncated Wikpedia entry, and then a cavalcade of listings for the Norman Levines of the business, cosmetic surgery, and orthodontic dentistry worlds. Quelle downer. I’m not sure if the online dearth of Levinian offerings is due to his work being out of print, a generational thing, failing interest in our late greats, or a combination of a, b and c. So I guess I’m asking this: has anyone out there read either short stories or the two novels of Norman Levine? How about Canada Made Me? Does anyone like his writing as much as I do?

In the next few days, I’ll be making a full circle back to the beginning of this post by discussing my favourite first-person narrators. Until then, as Esther Greenwood says, “The eyes and faces all turned themselves towards me, and guiding myself by them, as by a magical thread, I stepped into the room.”

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.

Lauren Kirshner

Lauren Kirshner is the author of the novel Where We Have to Go (McClelland & Stewart, 2009). Her short stories, arts reviews, interviews and poetry have appeared in newspapers and literary journals such as The Toronto Star, Now, The Hart House Review and Exile.

Go to Lauren Kirshner’s Author Page