A few posts back, I mentioned that my book (This Hidden Thing) had been nominated for a couple of this year’s Manitoba Book Awards, and even more recently suggested that very soon, when the excitement of the shortlists and gala was over, we’d all be able to slip back to our quiet desks or reading chairs. Well, let me conclude this matter, since I brought it up, by saying I’m almost there, almost solid again after the emotional pudding I turned into for a couple of days, but still very happy and more grateful (in so many directions) than I can possibly express. Of the categories I was nominated in, David Bergen won the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction and I took home the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award. If you’re interested in news of the event, photos, or the jurors’ comments on the book, all of it is at the THT page or Events. Off to my cozy corner now, where I’m reading last year’s Pulitzer winner, Tinkers, by Paul Harding, a slow and evocative book about an old man returning to his childhood, via memory, in the days before he dies.
With one Giller prize under his belt, and a nomination for another, David Bergen’s star is high in the Canadian literary firmament. In this his latest book, the protagonist Morris Schutt, 51, works his way through something of a midlife crisis – a crisis of grief, really — precipitated by his son’s death in Afghanistan, for which he feels vaguely responsible. Morris is conflicted in many ways, not least of all that he was raised Mennonite (though “had shucked that off quite quickly”) and wishes he were Jewish. He sees “all of us…marching towards non-matter”; he needs “to understand how he could still grasp and hold on to the essence of his life.”
There’s not that much that happens (the critical event having occurred already), except for Morris’ inner questing, and the small steps he takes both backward and forward to respond to his situation. These acts, little more than gestures at the time, gather however, and seem both significant and hopeful by the end.
I have to say I was disappointed with the book at first. Something about the writing/characters wasn’t ringing true for me (and I don’t mean Bergen’s trademark spareness). Was it striving for affect without giving sufficient support for it? Perhaps I was comparing it to The Time in Between, which I’ve liked best of Bergen’s books so far. (I’ve not read The Retreat, the book just before this one.) But I can also say that by page 70 or so – page 76 to be precise – the book (or I?) had found its stride; found depth.
I was struck by a tiny recurring detail: Morris pulling a blanket up over someone (for example, over his letter writing friend Ursula, the prostitute Leah, his daughter Libby, and his father), tucking them in for sleep. It had a parental tenderness, but eventually I felt intimations of the undertaker as well.
Bergen insists he’s not Morris. There are certainly parallels between them, though, and Bergen admits he’s “pillaged” his own experiences for the novel. Those who know his Mennonite background and community, as I do, may find this adds layers of interest to the reading experience, and perhaps questions and some dissonance as well. I think it’s a book that needs — and provokes — further discussion, more than I’m able to give it at this time. But I’ll certainly be interested to hear from others who read the book.
Last week, which seems a long while ago already, was Thin Air week in Winnipeg. Thin Air is the city’s annual writers festival. I was honored to have a small part in the event, with a campus reading of This Hidden Thing, but mostly the week was about listening to and engaging with a great variety of other writers from across the country. As the event’s subtitle says, “it’s for readers.”
I took in four of the evening events, and two of the afternoon book chats. Here’s a few highlights.
From the festival opener, a line by Ismaila Alfa, traffic reporter for CBC Radio and poet/musician:
Long live the figures of speech before and after me.
Long live indeed, figures of speech!
The festival featured many wonderful writers and their books, and I hate to single some out, but… I enjoyed hearing Richard B. Wright (perhaps best known for his Clara Callan), whose new book is Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. Wright had some interesting things to say about how he works, including the comment that reading poetry unblocks him when he’s stuck, reinvigorates him. And, finding myself once again involved in the terror and joy of a new novel project, I certainly resonated with what Wright said about that:
You’re sitting in a room talking to yourself — it’s almost a form of madness… You hope what you’re indulging in will be liked and indulged by others… [But] I seem to need another life. A writer needs this other imaginary world.
And the books I’d like to read because of the festival? Wright’s, yes, and also David Bergen’s latest, The Matter with Morris, which landed on the Giller prize long list as the week opened. Opening reviews have praised it and the passage Bergen read from it intrigued me. (Another festival author and Winnipegger who made the long list is Joan Thomas, but I’ve already read her Curiosity, so I’m up at least one!) I’m also looking forward to Sandra Birdsell’s new book, Waiting for Joe.
Every time I attend readings I realize again what a pleasure it is to listen to ideas and words crafted with care. Poetry, especially, shines when read aloud; the genre almost requires an oral presentation. Novels are trickier to judge from their performance, I think, because they turn and deepen on extended development. But the fragments we hear are an invitation, and we honor authors when we take them up on it.