Monthly Archives: December 2018

The Pagan Nuptials of Julia on Montreal Rampage

MONTREAL NOW: Why Good Writing Matters

The Pagan Nuptials of Julia

I am a voracious reader, one who often reads books simultaneously.  So it was that last week I was working on a book recommended by several people, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and a book I had picked up at the QWF Book Fair at Concordia this past weekend, Keith Henderson’s marvellous collection of short stories, The Pagan Nuptials of Julia.

First off, Palahniuk’s “novel” (and I use the term loosely) is crap. Sure, it takes on the theme of how men have innate violence within, but so what? Critics say this is “edgy” writing with a voice and tone that is purportedly slick, “hip” and “original,” but to me the book reads like a poorly written Trump Tweet.  I stopped reading after 75 pages and flung it into my recycling bin to take to Renaissance.  Life is too short.

And then I opened Henderson’s collection and was immediately captivated. Here was an original voice and sensibility that stopped me in my tracks.  Henderson is an intellectual in the truest sense: he makes no apologies for presenting complex ideas, occasionally erudite references, and multi-lingual commentary.  His is writing that demands work and engagement on the part of the reader—engagement that is richly rewarded.  The stories in The Pagan Nuptials of Julia are multi-layered and present characters as complex individuals, enacting their lives in confusion, yet always accessible through their passions and longings.

In the title story, he relates the tale of a woman who has returned to her birthplace in Italy to attend a family wedding with her Canadian lover. Ian, the lover, marvels at the beauty of the countryside, at the warmth of the Italian relatives, at how they can discourse learnedly about angels and how Julia, the woman in his life, can so easily emote within this context. At the wedding they attend, Ian realizes that Julia’s “homecoming” is a return of the heart, and his “pagan” imagined marriage to her is the acceptance of this communion. The story ends with a wonderful scene in a cemetery where Julia, Ian and a relative gather with the dead, and suddenly the story swings into an allegory about love, loss, and mortality, all rendered with an effortless and deft touch by the author.

“Less and Less Human” presents two divergent points of view:  a husband who presents a classical view of the world, loving music and art that conveys the profoundest and most enduring of human emotions, juxtaposed with that of his ex-wife, a modern composer, whose vision embraces the seemingly absurd through her empirical scepticism.  At the conclusion, Henderson presents a poignant story of Holocaust survivors hearing the “healing” music of Bach, while his wife denigrates his interpretation, suggesting that modern art is predicated on chaos, not human feelings that could possibly endure.  Here, Henderson’s vision becomes apparent to the reader: someone who bemoans the loss of a humanistic connection that has served as the basis of our culture.  A most powerful warning for our age where we have abdicated spiritual values.

It is hard to pick a favorite story from this excellent collection, but two especially stand out.  “Heaven for Pyromaniacs” (such a wonderful title!) and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. In the former, the main character, Alison, is travelling from Montreal to the funeral of her mother, who has died in Ontario.  The journey, while physical, is really more a passage through her memories, her past, and her feelings about family and loss.  Henderson has the ability to move from the mundane recounting of an event to its core meaning.  For instance, he talks about the reality of people who have fled Quebec after the election of the PQ down the 401 forOntario (the “uni-directional migrants”), yet manages to turn this amusing insight into a metaphor for profound loss as in the following passage: “Bodies moved away from each other in this expanding universe of intimate life.  That is what time and death did.”  Despite the seriousness of the theme, this story is replete with subtle humor and wonderful irony.  At the end, as she and her siblings are removing her mother’s belongings from the nursing home where she had died, Henderson has a startlingly laugh-out-loud moment depicting the elderly residents of the home watching in “delight” and amazement since “unless they were dead or very blessed, they did not move out.” Great writing indeed.

The story though that sticks with me the most is “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” perhaps because this is also my favorite painting by Hieronymus Bosch. How Henderson manages to fashion an allegory about the protagonist’s tainted raspberry patch leading to his subsequent illness and the interpretation of the Bosch painting is a marvel to behold.  He writes about a scene in the  painting of a man surrounded by the “permutation of human evil” and another figure glancing at the world “with wistful despair at the pleasure of the tavern he has just forsworn:  a drunken lout pissing against a wall, a tattered roof, a Dutch whore beckoning from a shutter-buckled window…. Perhaps it was the sense of plague that gave so skeletal a quality to the life of those times just as the sense of holocaust has to our own.”  Juxtaposed with this is his own disease from eating the tainted berries that he states is of a “far less spiritual nature.” Again, an encapsulated summary of what has happened to our notion of suffering humanity.

It is at this point that I wan tto conclude with why such writing matters. Henderson’s vision in these stories reflects the loss of value in our post-modern world, a world of quotidian, material concerns and empty longings.  Gone are the grand themes of art from our lives, he suggests, and we are much the poorer for this.

Besides Henderson being a master of style, it is because of such insights and affirmation that this is good writing—one that makes no apologies and is unremitting in its endorsement of the human spirit.

Keith Henderson’s collection The Pagan Nuptials of Julia is a welcome reminder of what good books once were and hopefully may once again become.

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Excitement Tax at the 2018 QWF Awards Ceremony

Poets John Emil Vincent (left) and Greg Santos at the AELAQ Pop-up Book Fair

About Excitement Tax jurors at the 2018 QWF award ceremony wrote:

John Emil Vincent’s special talent is that these really are poems, not just prose in the shape of a poem. He really plays with language. The result is poems which at first glance seem like nonsense, but a closer reading brings us closer to: well, we’re not sure what — but it is a kind of nonsense that makes sense. . . profound nonsense that comments on everything, including language itself.

After putting down John Emil Vincent’s book, you are still ‘in’ his book.

EXCITEMENT TAX is funny. Sardonic; deeply witty in fact. What a relief. And of course it’s quite sad at the same time. An awful lot like life — especially the confusing part.

Net Worth Reviewed on Montreal Rampage

MONTREAL NOW: SHOW ME THE MONEY

Net Worth

The recent book fair held on November 24-25, sponsored by the QWF (Quebec Writers’ Federation), took place in the Atrium of Concordia University’s McConnell Building.  In attendance were all of Montreal’s major English language publishers, affirming that Montreal’s Anglo literary scene is still alive, well, and kicking.  In addition to a fiction and poetry presentation moderated by Montreal writers Kenneth Radu and Harold Hoefle, among others, publishers were there to display and sell their wares.

As I managed to attend on both days, it was an opportunity to purchase new books, meet established and emerging writers, and to rekindle and form new friendships.  The highlight of my weekend was meeting up with Keith Henderson, managing editor of DC Books, an old friend from our days together as teachers at Vanier College, and meeting and getting to know Kenneth Radu, who is fiction editor for that press. I managed to score signed copies of both of their collection of stories:  Henderson’s The Pagan Nuptials of Julia and Radu’s latest, Net Worth. My week’s reading was now complete. Operating within a word limit, I can only do justice to what will surely amount to an incomplete review of one of them, so I have chosen to take on Radu’s collection first.  On Henderson’s work, more to follow.

At the front and centre of Radu’s Net Worth is money:  how we deal with it, covet it, miss it when we don’t have enough, and how it consumes so much of our lives.  Who would think this is the stuff of literature, but through Radu’s deft prose, it becomes a symbol of our most profound emotions ranging from joy to despair. The first story in the collection, “Lottery,” chronicles a day in the life of a woman in her early middle age, Annie, who has discovered that she has won the lotto jackpot of $42 million. Her initial surprise and happiness quickly dissipate, alternating between perplexity (how to spend the money), obligation (how to fairly dispose of it and how to manage it) and paranoia (how to secure her own safety now that she is so wealthy).  The story creates a genuine sense of discomfort as Radu catalogues every possible scenario one could imagine about instant wealth.  But the story doesn’t end there.  Instead, Radu takes a gigantic literary leap and transforms the tale into an allegory about personal happiness.  After meditation on her “good fortune,” Annie reflects on her life and what makes her happy, coming to the inevitable conclusion that money won’t.  Thus, she decides to dispose of the ticket, but in a way that is hilarious, shocking (so much so that the reader cringes, wondering how anyone could do this), yet redemptive.  Radu’s ending is wonderfully original.

“Trust Fund” tells of a woman who discovers her husband’s secreted fortune in the basement after his death and how she arrives at a wrenching epiphany about their marriage and life as a couple.  Yet another, “Personal Injury,” presents the ironically parallel stories about a woman who has just lost her job and the beggar to whom she has given some money as she is late for work, the very cause of her dismissal.  “NetWorth,” the title story of this collection examines the tragic life of a single father who is desperately seeking work in recession times to support his child, yet whose self-worth is tested by the inhumanity of our capitalist system.  “Residential Requirements” is the story of a factotum, Darryl, who works in a nursing home and exploits the elderly for their money, including providing quasi-sexual favors.  This is the “edgiest” story in the collection, cringe-worthy in its dissection of the protagonist’s deceit, ye tRadu manages to make him a compelling character despite Darryl’s low actions.

The best and most “literary” story  in this fine collection is the last one, “Keats Walk,” a tale of an older man who has lost his wife and who is on a journey toward death as he travels to England and traverses “Jane Austen country,” walking along the same paths that the Romantic poet John Keats would stroll while conceiving his ballads, sonnets, and odes—  Keats who died in his 26th year  and who wrote some of the most profound odes to mortality and love ever penned.  In this complex and multi-layered story, Radu’s literary voice is transcendent as the story is simultaneously jarring in its directness, frank in its relentless examination of ageing and loneliness, all the while presenting the heart-wrenching pathos of ageing, all of this skillfully crafted without slipping into sentimentality.  Radu is able to convey great emotion in the muted thoughts of the protagonist as he reflects on his wife’s death (her) “still warm body clad in purple silk pajamas” almost absently remembering that “she had never liked flannel”.  Brilliant.  At the end of the story, after taking stock of his own life and preparing for his death, the “voice” changes into a poetic rendering as the story becomes a true “ode” to the tragedy of living, of love, and of loss.  This story belongs in any anthology of great Canadian writing.

Kenneth Radu told me recently that the goal of any writer is to create a connection with his reader, a connection of the mind and heart. As someone who has labored throughout his career at the “sullen art” of writing, he knows the loneliness of the human soul and dissects this in his prose with humor, irony, and bitterness, but, above all, with warmth and compassion.

He tells us that there is truly no price one can place on the soul and that our true “net worth” is so much more than a bank balance. For this timely reminder, we the readers should be grateful.  For any lover of good writing, Radu’s book is a must-read.

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