Friday, September 30, 2011

Maurice Sendak

The elderly author has a new book coming out, the first that he's written and illustrated in nearly 30 years.

Two of his recent interviews that I've come across really strike me as reflecting his unique and down to earth personality (this in spite of or perhaps because of his fanciful and fantastical writings). In the Globe and Mail interview, this charming exchange that seems to suggest that he doesn't have time to waste on stupid, banal questions:

You must have faced a lot of pressure to write kiddie books over that time.
No. Out of sight, out of mind. This is America.


Do you still feel dangerous?
No. I’m old, Anybody who wants can push me over.


I notice there’s no iPad edition of Bumble-Ardy on its way.
And there never will be, if I have anything to say about it. When I’m dead, I won’t have much to say about anything.

Some of his answers strike me as a man who is very conscious and accepting of the end of his life not being far off. Sad but this also allows him the rare opportunity to say what he thinks without worrying too much about the consequences.

The recent interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross really hit an emotional chord with me and in a few spots, I caught myself starting to tear up at how raw his emotion is.


Sunday, September 25, 2011

Spacing, Montreal and the gentrification debate...

This video is a  very interesting discussion about gentrification and what it means for certain Montreal neighborhoods. Not being a native Montrealer, I am often surprised at the knee-jerk response to terms like development and gentrification. I certainly understand that gentrification changes a city radically and there are many negatives. But there are also many pluses to it, as well.

What I appreciate about this documentary is that it looks at the issue with complexity and doesn't rely only on cliches or overly emotionally laden terms like gentrification to do the arguing. It shows different assumptions about what a "gentrified" neighborhood might mean to various people.

This issue is on my mind after the ELAN conference last week. One comment that was frequently heard was that Montreal was no longer as good a place to be an artist or writer as it once was. That it has simply become too expensive and one can't work part-time to pay rent, buy food (as humble as this life might have been) and then write or paint or dance or whatever the rest of the time. It's just not possible, the argument went. And it's probably true. Certainly it's not as easy to do that unless one wants to live far out in the suburbs or the real working class areas of town.

But I guess that's part of this discussion: it is possible to live in Montreal and be a struggling writer. It's just that poor artists don't generally live in Westmount or the Plateau or Outremont or the Village or even downtown. One has to live out in Cote-Vertu or East Montreal where rents are affordable. I don't know if a writer or artist can easily work part-time and afford an apartment out in these areas, but the point is that it is still possible. And there are other options as well (anyway, almost all of the writers I know live in the central part of the city and manage to survive, some even flourish. That doesn't mean it's easy but whose life is "easy"?).

One of the central questions, of course, is whether it will still be possible in the future. After all, it's probably nearly impossible to be an artist and live in Toronto or Vancouver or New York unless one has some independent income or teaches full-time.

That's why documentaries like this and the organizations it features are so key to Montreal's future and future development. I am not of the mindset that development is automatically bad nor do I think that gentrification is a horrible word (there is something about the "us vs. them" implicit in that word that I don't think reflects reality, as if developers were these monsters who live in glass towers: I live in the Plateau and I'm not rich). We need people to ask these questions, we need to people to make sure we question our assumptions. We don't want to give power over to big condo developers who have no interest or stake in how they change a neighborhood long-term. We should have a place for writers and artists to live and create work, and we should be a city that is open to this and encourages it. But we shouldn't stand in the way of things which make our city better and stronger. Investment is good. New housing is good. New retail can even be done well. Development and, yes, even gentrification can be done well if it's done properly...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Major Novels and Major Novelists: Jonathan Franzen, Donna Tartt, Michael Chabon

This NYT piece by Dwight Garner has been raising the rafters on Twitter this afternoon as Tweeters both rail against his argument and wholeheartedly support it.

Garner's premise is rather straightforward: the tendency for "important" novelists to spend eight or nine or more years writing their next big masterpiece is a reflection of the diminishing role that the novel plays in modern life. If nine years passed between Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Freedom, Garner suggests, then perhaps this has as much to do with Franzen's individual style and approach to writing as it does to the fact that we expect writers to hole up in their writing rooms and write huge tomes commenting on shifting cultural tides. We expect masterpieces, in other words. Garner writes:
Suddenly our important writers seem less like color commentators, sifting through the     emotional, sexual and intellectual detritus of how we live today, and more like a mountaintop Moses, handing down the granite tablets every decade or so to a bemused and stooped populace.
It's a provocative argument and certain one that is fraught with exceptions and evidence to the contrary. Garner cites Michael Chabon's work as an example, indicating that he hasn't produced an "important" work in a decade though Chabon has written several other works since his 2000 novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (one novel but several other shorter works of non-fiction, books for young people, and some genre fiction). This case itself seems to contradict Garner's entire premise.

Donna Tartt - 300 words a week?
Yet other cases like Donna Tartt do seem to suggest that we've moved to a new kind of publishing reality for today's serious novelists. Since her novel The Secret History (an excellent book) was published in 1992, Tartt has published only one other novel (in 2002, The Little Friend). Interviews with Tartt, though, suggest that she simply writes slowly. This has much less to do with some cultural or societal shift and much more to do with Tartt's refusal to be rushed or to just crank out books for the sake of cranking out books.

And let's face it: prolific writers such as Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates and Saul Bellow certainly have put out their share of shlock or intellectually soul-less works. Perhaps today's novelists are simply better at gauging when to just shut up when they are faced with nothing to say.

Also, if writers like Chabon can be used to illustrate again, perhaps not everything needs to be so seriously inclined. If one argues that his book Manhood for Amateurs doesn't have the intellectual heft of his better novels, that really misses the point of the work in many ways. Engaging with the culture (even low brow pop culture) doesn't have the same eyebrow raising necessity (whether from academia or professional reviewers in the media) as it once did. We have the gradual disappearance of the gulf between high and low culture to thank for that.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


The City Where I Want to Live

The city is quiet at dusk,
when pale stars waken from their swoon,
and resounds at noon with the voices
of ambitious philosophers and merchants
bearing velvet from the East.
The flames of conversation burn there,
but not pyres.
Old churches, the mossy stones
of ancient prayer, are both its ballast
and its rocket ship.
It is just a city
where foreigners are punished,
a city quick to remember
and slow to forget,
tolerating poets, forgiving prophets
for their hopeless lack of humor.
The city was based
on Chopin's preludes,
taking from them only joy and sorrow.
Small hills circle it
in a wide collar; ash trees
grow there, and the slim poplar,
chief justice in the state of trees.
The swift river flowing through the city's heart
murmurs cryptic greetings
day and night
from the springs, the mountains, and the sky.

                               --Adam Zagajewski

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Land Marks/Paysage

There's a very interesting interview here with Patterson Webster, an artist whose exhibition in the Eastern Townships explores the relationship between the natural world and the place that development plays in it. The interview is done by Linda Leith, who really excels at getting right to the heart of the tension in Webster's work. As Patterson explains:

"Land does mark the people who live on it, as much as people mark the land. The Eastern Townships had more open space a century ago when most of the land was farmed. Now, threes have grown up on old fields, and it isn't hard to find barbed wire that has become part of a tree ... For me it is impossible to ignore these traces of the past. The walls and sap buckets and paths trampled in the woods are like ghosts - constant, haunting reminders of people who lived here before me."

I was thinking about some of this over last weekend as I was camping in the Laurentians up north. Most of that area, too, was covered by farms 100 years ago and the dense forests and bucolic countryside just barely hides the traces of the touches of humans. The trees are smaller than one might expect and even deep in the woods one comes across huge old stumps or stone walls that are crumbling, gentle reminders that the seeming permanence of our development - our cities, our homes, our driveways - is an illusion when one considers the power that nature really holds.

What interests me about Webster's work is her melding of the business side of development with deeper questions of our place in the natural world, given the fact that so much of it seems to be vanishing around us (at least in our age, who knows in 100 years what will  become of all this development). Unfortunately, today is the last day of the exhibition though Webster's website give some more details about the display...