Culture & Conversation

On the Beach, II

It’s been a long time since it has felt like an “endless summer.” Or, maybe it’s endless but for all the wrong reasons. The city sinks in a dust of its own making, the price of gas turns road trips into groan trips, and a September election promises to bring even more rodents out of the woodwork. What better anecdote, then, than to throw yourself into a book. Even better, dig out a dog-eared title that, once upon a time, was a doorway into endless magic and myth.

Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler
(by Kathryn Harvey)
Reading Darkness at Noon made me a Communist. It should have had the opposite affect. Arthur Koestler had written the book as an indictment of Stalin’s Russia in the 1930s.  Imprisoned in France for his political beliefs after having narrowly escaped death at the hands of Franco’s phalanges’, Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon as he grappled with what he saw as the betrayal of the Russian Revolution by Stalinist thugs.

In 1975 I was eighteen, and this slim book was an assigned reading for my humanities class on revolution. It so happened that I had fallen in with a group of Trotskyists at Dawson College that fall, and they were adamant that it wasn’t the revolution that had failed but that Stalin had been allowed to seize control of the Polit Bureau after Lenin’s death. It was all very exciting. Revolution was in the air. The Vietnam War had ended and the Quebec Cultural Revolution was in full swing. Students were in the streets, me among them, clamoring for free tuition.

Although we didn’t know it at the time, it was the best of times. The worst of times would soon follow. It would take another thirty years before the students would hit the streets in such large numbers. Free tuition may be their rallying cry today but they know it is the least of their worries. They know they are the generation that will be left to pay the price for what their parents and grandparents have done to the environment and the economy. They know they are being lined up to take the fall and quite reasonably they want none of it.

The ends don’t justify the means was the message Koestler was trying to deliver to his readers in the aftermath of the Moscow Show Trials of 1936 and 1937, where so many of Lenin’s compatriots were put to death for political deviations. The ends don’t justify the means is an important bit of wisdom that now, sixty years later, we continue to resist. Our governments, both provincial and federal, cannot seem to exploit the last of our natural resources fast enough, knowing full well that the profits may last a generation, but whose effects are likely to be irreversible.

I was a child of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. The opening up of higher education in this province to more than just the priest class, the reinventing of the educational model that included the creation of CEGEPS with free access to all was an innovation of these times. I benefitted greatly from these changes. My grandmother, an immigrant, had arrived with a grade three education. I have a PhD. In French-speaking Quebec the contrast was even greater. In 1970, at the time of the October Crisis, 38% of Montreal’s population were functionally illiterate, the majority of these french speaking.

Why the English are not on the streets today might something to do with their relationship to education. The English speakers overall enjoy higher scholarity, both then and now. In 1970, the year of the October Crisis and five years before I finished CEGEP, over a third of the province had less than a high school education.

I reread Darkness at Noon this summer and I wonder at the younger self that took on this very serious book and read it like some kind of Bible. I also wonder what the 20 year olds are reading today that might be setting their revolutionary hearts on fire.

The Waves, by Virginia Woolf
(by Michael Lake)

There are a few writers whose list of books I have to restrain myself from reading all at once. Virginia Woolf is one of those writers. I first read Mrs. Dalloway and Between the Acts one summer weekend as a teenager while my parents tried unsuccessfully to convince me to spend more time outdoors. I didn’t get as much out of those two books then as I would years later, but it was the first time I’d encountered a sentence that could meander and bend and, just before getting lost, plop down in just the right place, the only place it could possibly land. It was exhilarating. Only later would I learn that this was virtuosic, that nobody else could match the dizzying momentum of Woolf’s prose, and that she writes the very best sentences in the English language.

There are several Woolf novels that I’ve yet to read, but I’d been saving The Waves for a particularly special occasion. What that occasion would be, I didn’t know, but I wanted it to be at a time when I needed my faith restored: faith in literature, in art, or in the simple but arrant power of words strung together on a page. But when I went to the library and The Waves was the only Woolf book on the shelf, I couldn’t resist. I would read it on the train to New York on my way to the wedding of two of my best friends. During that eleven hour train ride along the Hudson River I read slowly and deliberately and was lulled into the minds of those six characters rolling through their lives, their loves, and the death of their beloved friend.

For the uninitiated, it should be said that The Waves is written in the form of soliloquies: the six characters address the reader in stream of consciousness prose. There is no plot, no dialogue, and there is seldom any action. A 1931 review from The New York Times claims the book’s “true interests are those of poetry” and “this imagery, is not in other words a medium, but an end in itself.” The Waves is a book that is all style and mood, and it is flawless for what it is.

Here is a taste from the book’s sweeping final section in which Bernard, a stand-in for Woolf’s friend E.M. Forster, reflects once again upon the death of his friend Percival:

For pain words are lacking. There should be cries, cracks, fissures, whiteness passing over chintz covers, interference with the sense of time, of space; the sense also of extreme fixity in passing objects; and sounds very remote and then very close; flesh being gashed and blood spurting, a joint suddenly twisted – beneath all of which appears something very important, yet remote, to be just held in solitude.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
( by Martyn Bryan)
I started this summer by reading The Name of the Rose. It’s a curious novel that floats around must-read lists but whose premise wouldn’t necessarily grab me if I was just browsing – two monks are sent to an abbey in 1327 to solve some murders ahead of the Inquisition team.

It was my first time reading the erudite Umberto Eco. I’m not going to deconstruct or explicate the novel in his learned terms, as it has been unpacked to great depths by academics, but merely point out that that Eco is terrific at opening the space for debate and questioning and turning convention on its head.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing is the quantity of research Eco has undertaken; the debates and conversations contained in the novel relating to philosophical, schismatic and heretical history are arresting, lucid, amusing and worth the read alone.

The second focus of the book, for it feels like two cleverly interwoven books, is of course the driving narrative of murders. It’s fun and made me feel smart and curious. But it suffers from a criticism often directed at Eco’s works, namely that it’s unconvincing. I don’t mean the solution of the investigation, but in terms of my empathy levels for the characters – which rarely budged above base level, even during the inquisition scene.

I did; however, get caught up in Eco’s “lust” to find out more. The same lust (for lust is another topic of debate in the novel) that the murders hinge upon.

I’m not saying read this first. I’m just saying make sure you do. If you happen to be going through a theological/philosophoical/puzzle solving/monk phase, read it now!

Chuck Palahniuk et Amélie Northrup, ces auteurs décevants
(by Joseph ElFassi)

La littérature est devenue pour moi une façon de vivre mes rapports: avec des livres mais avec des auteurs. Certains dont le parcours est terminé ne peuvent pas me décevoir, je pense ici à Gil Courtemanche, à Nelly Arcan…

Cependant, certains auteurs sont pris dans des contrats lucratifs qui les obligent à produire, au détriment parfois d’une écriture stylisée et lisible. Je pense ici à Chuck Palahniuk et Amélie Nothomb. Et aujourd’hui je leur parle.


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