Serafim and Claire, by Mark Lavorato, House of Anansi Press
Set in 1920s and 1930s Montreal, Mark Lavorato’s third novel deftly weaves fiction and history, slowly immersing the reader in the lives and passions of Claire Audette, a French-Canadian dancer aspiring to become a theatre star, and Serafim Vieira, an idealistic young photographer and Portuguese émigré. At that time, Montreal was North America’s Sin City. It was the era of flappers, cabarets, crooked city councillors and a thriving Red Light district. Corruption resonates as a sub-theme, with Montreal’s teeming streets, its immigrant districts and its tawdry sexual and civic politics. (It makes you wonder if anything has really changed.)
The two protagonists are continually thrust into difficult situations of their own making that underscore their passion to practise their art. Even the minor characters share this relentless desire – almost to the point of obsession – to follow their artistic or political paths. How they each pursue their passion, and how this pursuit can corrupt as well as uplift, are the elements that keep the reader turning the pages.
Serafim takes candid street photos, capturing people unaware they are being observed. The Leica thereby reveals something of their nature. Lavorato’s characters are intriguing, sometimes riveting. Though we get to observe them, we don’t always understand the wellspring of their motivation. Perhaps, as with all engaging photography, everything is open to interpretation.
As the story opens, the two main characters are at crossroads in their lives. Claire is alone in her seedy Montreal apartment, feverish and seriously ill, while Serafim is in Oporto, on a mission to drown his sorrows and shame. The events of the first two chapters inform the decisions that will eventually bring Serafim and Claire together.
Claire is the epitome of the word driven, wholly devoted to dance. She is so totally focused on moving up from the chorus line to stardom that she will pay any price to advance her cause, whether the currency is her body or a cash bribe slipped to a cabaret manager. Nothing stops her, not even a gang rape.
As the result of her obsession, she can no more discern the consequences of her often devious actions than Serafim can understand that his desire to portray people as he sees them through the lens is not how most of them wish to be seen. They each sacrifice themselves to their art and their obsession, losing sight of what is at stake when they gamble big.
Serafim has left Oporto heartbroken over the loss of a girl he had convinced himself (and told everyone) would be his bride. When she becomes engaged to another man, he flees, carrying his disgrace like a cross. He buys a ticket on a boat to Montreal for no particular reason. During the crossing, he makes a friend, Antonino Spada, who proves to be one of the more engaging characters in the book, apparently based on a true-life character.
When Serafim and Claire meet in Montreal, they are leading hardscrabble livesdevoid of intimacy. What brings them together is not romance. Serafim sees in Claire the face of the woman he lost. Claire sees an opportunity to further her career. She has a scheme intended to make their lives better. Instead, it almost brings them to ruin.
Only two characters in this story understand that there is a price to be paid for one’s actions: Antonino, who is passionate about fighting the festering fascist politics that Italian immigrants have transported to Canada, and Cecile, Claire’s sister, who describes the struggle for women’s emancipation in a province lagging behind the rest of North America.
Lavorato seems more intrigued with the nuances of life than its epiphanies. Serafim and Claire each have small moments of realization, but in the end, like many of us, they make the most of a difficult situation. Where the author succeeds best is in drawing an enthralling tableau of life in Montreal during that riotous era – the deep English-French divide, the plight of ambitious women, the influence of the Church, and the swell of immigrants bringing their old-world angst to the new. These scenes generate a sequence of realistic depictions worthy of Serafim’s Leica.
Gina Roitman is a writer, editor, and author of the acclaimed short story collection Tell Me a Story, Tell Me the Truth, and the co-producer, co-writer and the ‘me’ in the award-winning, documentary, My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me.