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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

significant writers: rudy wiebe

Most readers familiar with Canadian literature will be aware of Rudy Wiebe. To readers outside of Canada, he is not as well known as Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient). He does not live the life of the author-celebrity so even Canadians are not often aware of what he's writing or what he's up to.

There is a bit of experimental writing in Wiebe's most ambitious novels and some unique uses of stream of consciousness (sometimes like Faulkner's writing in The Sound and The Fury though Wiebe doesn't quite push the envelope so much). I can only describe the rhythms of his prose as jagged. I don't say these things to put you off. Wiebe's writing is extremely rewarding and satisfying for those willing to turn on their minds. Any of his books are a meal. But his novels are not dumbed down read-while-you-wait-for-the-plane thrillers.

I first read The Blue Mountains of China. I think what struck me the most was Wiebe's wonderful use of simile and metaphor. As brilliant as those of Nikos Kazantzakis. Highly original and full of colour and life. They make his books poetry in motion. This characteristic of his writing I found held true when I read The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched-Wood People.

Wiebe's asymmetrical rhythms and his rugged surge of words and seizure of your imagination and intellect make him unique, in my opinion, among world writers. Impressions left are indelible. I am not affected much by writers who have no metaphor or simile to speak of, and there are more of those around than I'm comfortable with. In my lifetime, and from very early on, poetry has easily affected me as much as story, so for someone to write a piece, however well put together, and not work at the lyric of their art - I can only say it leaves me stone cold dead.

A few people make a great deal of Wiebe's Mennonite background. It comes up in Peace Shall Destroy Many and in The Blue Mountains of China as part of their storylines but Wiebe does not proselytize, in fact that appears to be the farthest thing from his mind. What he is is a good writer who leans towards historical fiction and who can make his stories crackle with intellectual and emotional force. It is, I think, impressionistic writing, making you feel intensely because of the way he paints his sentences and paragraphs. He pulls you into not only the characters and the plot but into the sunlight and the shape of the leaves and the shape of the wind and the long arching contour of the land.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

significant writers: jennifer johnston

I thought I'd do a series of blogs on writers from around the world whose works have particularly impressed me. Most will not be that well known, I think (though you can always write in and surprise me and tell me you've known about them for decades), while others, like Alan Paton of South Africa, will certainly be familiar to many.

I have liked Jennifer's work for years. It began with the short novel Shadows on our Skin, a troubled tale set in Northern Ireland that is swiftly and brilliantly told, impossible to forget. I think I read The Railway Station Man after that, again about The Troubles, though this time set in the South, again hurtling into the mind with a high velocity impact. The third novel was Fool's Sanctuary, easily one of her best, set in Ireland during the South's war and break with England, yet, despite this background for the novel, surprisingly delicate and peaceful, idyllic, until the sort of denouement that always leaves you pondering the cliffs and crags and crevasses of the human condition.

Her writing is crisp and clipped and tight, not like Joyce at all, if you'd like to compare her to another Irish writer. She is not obscure or dense, like a fog over Dublin's busy harbour, but more like clear light striking the Kerry coast. Blades of grass and waterdrops on the blades are obvious and each grain of sand on the beach, each water-rounded stone, each gull feather in the surf, each whitecap racing to the land, all are finely engraved in the words with which she chooses to strike the imagination.

I remember a time in Carlow - I have visited Ireland at length on several occasions, once for an entire summer - when evening clouds pulled away and gold light lit up the countryside. How emerald the grass was, how precise the cottages and full-leaved trees, how black a stallion that ran over his pasture. That is the clarity of her writing.

It is very moral writing, yes, I'll say that, she cares about rights and wrongs, not so much in the political sense (as in siding with Republicans or Unionists), but in terms of how people treat one another, love or betray one another. She is not a cynic about human nature but she does not pull any punches either. Her writing wounds you but it blesses as well and any tears are well spent and any hurts well felt. You turn away grieving a bit, wary of those around you in this brittle world, yet with a sense that tragedies can be other than they are and we can choose different fates and often do choose different fates. Sometimes, of course, no matter how well we lay our plans, fate or life or God chooses something much different than we'd hoped, and the clean white porcelain walls come crashing down anyway. But even then, in her writing, we still get a feeling that there is another day and there can be light and space and other choices on that day as well, regardless of yesterday. Yesterday is not trivial or easily forgotten. But it is not a mill-stone about the neck either.