Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Not the the Gillers but...

At the end of Granville Street
Toronto looked dirty, mysterious and romantic, like something out of a noir film, as my taxi crawled along the Gardiner to Pearson Airport in the late November rain. I was on my way to attend the Bressani Prize ceremony at the Italian Cultural Centre and do a reading at the Istituto Italiano di Cultura in Vancouver (yes two separate entities) the next night. My little book, Made Up of Arias,  won the Bressani Prize in the category of "Short Fiction". Traffic crawled. Stopped. Crawled. As luck would have it I had left my umbrella at work and faced a rainy few days.

Clearly I should have asked for assistance in dressing this morning as I have put my black leggings on inside out and the black socks that I stole from R's side of the sock drawer have enormous grey "X"s on the ankles which are evident for all to see.

I had no idea how bare bones this WestJet flight would be - a more than four hour flight and no food, no movie? Just the occasional soft drink and a couple of cookies? Buy food you say? My cheap gene rebelled ... okay, well maybe just a turkey with brie sandwich and a coke... I notice, with some trepidation, not one but two babies adjacent to me, one on the left, one on the right. Oh no, I have turned into a person who gets rattled by a baby's crying on a plane. Luckily, the cute little butterball named Sophia next to me is delightful and never utters a cry - she even holds my hand for part of the plane ride.

Compelled to watch TV, or read, I get my fill of the E True Hollywood Story on the Kardashians (shh, please don't tell the husband), What Not to Wear and the prognostications of the brain trust on The View.

I know "a guy who knows a guy" (actually my cousin S's husband D) who used to work for an upscale hotel and was able to get me a very good rate on a room at the Hotel Vancouver in downtown Vancouver. Can you say lux?? Another offer was kindly extended by the Italian Cultural Centre for a discounted rate on a Holiday Inn in East Van near the Centre. But even I know about East Van...

Okay, confession time, ALC is a nervous traveler and I have rarely had occasion to travel without R who is excellent at managing directions, transportation, etc ... so I wanted a safe hotel in a good area so that I could sleep well at night (which is also a problem when I travel). I was very grateful to D for making this connection for me.

My room is not huge but quietly elegant, well appointed and very quiet. I spent the afternoon recuperating form travel (by that point I had been up and about for ten hours traveling) so I decided to do some reading and copy-editing of the “Uncanny” issue for Descant.

I had a light dinner in the restaurant in the hotel, not cheap mind you but not crazily expensive either. And I wondered what the staff was wondering about me as I sat and read and tried to blend in.

I made my way to East Van where the award ceremony was to be held at the Italian Cultural Centre Society. How much did I love that the Sikh taxi driver was loudly listening to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the way over there?

The crowd was small but friendly and appreciative. The four winning authors were lined up in the front row. Anna Foschi, co-founder of the Bressani Literary Prize, introduced each writer and then one of the four judges read excerpts of the comments about our work: Pasquale Verdicchio from San Diego for "Poetry", Caterina Edwards from Edmonton on the theme of "Emigration from Italy", myself in the "Short Fiction" category, then Michael Mirolla from Toronto for "Long Fiction".

The writers Caterina Edwards and Genni Gunn
I can’t tell you specifically what the judge said about my work (I was in a bit of a daze) but I can tell you it made me tear up so by the time I got to the lectern I was feeling emotional and could only speak about how special the book was to me and that it was written through two pregnancies – one successful, one not – and how close I felt, while I wrote Arias, to both my then unborn child J and my mother Antonia who had also lost her first child. I was trying to create a magical atmosphere where the man character, a child named Lilla, was as enchanted and intrigued as the mother Seraphina by the wonderful fantasy world that Seraphina had created.

Receiving the Bressani Prize for Short Fiction
Photographs were taken, very nicely too by Giulio Recchioni, Assistant to the Cultural Director at the Italian Cultural Centre Society, and we each read a few pages of the work. I think we were all visibly nervous. I couldn’t help wondering where all the gioventu (young people) were? Aside from the assistant from the society who had coordinated this event I was among the youngest there and by any measure I can no longer be described as young (immature maybe, young no).

Caterina’s friend, the Vancouver writer Genni Gunn, offered to take us to a restaurant – we were all famished. Traveling from East Van to the downtown core we passed through a very troubled region of the city. The shift from quiet residential area to a frightening streetscape with people experiencing their own special kind of hell was shocking and abrupt. Then just as quickly we were in a very "shiny happy people" sort of area with great restaurants and good neighborhoods. 

Caterina, Genni Gunn and I went for Japanese/Korean food at a great little place called Shabusen  - excellent and inexpensive. Great fun dishing on the lit scene with my gals and Caterina was kind enough to pay for our meal.

Home by 11.30p (2.30a Toronto time) - quickly and blissfully asleep…

Friday, November 26, 2010

Who's a Gargoyle Now?

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Random House, 2008) 465 pages

The beginning is as lurid and disturbing as the rest of the book. After a booze and cocaine filled ride during which our unnamed protagonist hallucinates that arrows are being shot at him, he drives over a cliff and is trapped in his burning car. He suffers horrible third degree burns over much of his body and is then confined to a hospital to recover for the next eleven months.

A former porn actor turned porn filmmaker, he faces a long and painful convalescence in a burn unit. Andrew Davidson is meticulous in documenting the recovery process, both physical and emotional. This is the most convincing part of the novel.

The narrator is pursued by a relentless inner voice which he sometimes characterizes as the bitchsnake. She expresses all the self-hate and fear that he feels. This internal diatribe is shown in a concrete way on the page by the use of a block of black with white type on it; hence, we always know when she is speaking to the narrator.

Despite a hardscrabble beginning - a mother who died in childbirth, an absent father, crystal meth addicts for foster parents, little or no education - he is literate, razor sharp and articulate. He soon meets his match in Marianne Engel (German for angel if that is not immediately obvious), a psychiatric patient who wanders into his room. She soon tells him an engaging story (or fantasy) about their past lives together set in Medieval times.

Marianne, whom our narrator thinks is either a schizophrenic or a manic-depressive (he can't tell which), spins a fantastic tale of being abandoned at a convent in the 1300s and raised by nuns and of her exhibiting unusual powers of intellect - the ability to understand any language spoken to her. She is conscripted to labour in the scriptorium in the convent.

More fantastic still is the story spun for him by Marianne about his past life. He was a former mercenary, shot in the chest and set aflame. He was brought to the convent for medical care for his burn wounds by a fellow mercenary named Brandeis. Marianne nurses him back to health despite the disapproval of the other nuns - the young Marianne has acquired a few enemies along the way. Eventually they leave the convent together with the blessing of the priest and nun who initially took in and raised Marianne.

My first misgiving about the narrative: How likely would it be that the nuns would permit a young woman, presumably a virgin, with no experience of the outside world to leave the confines of the convent with a wounded ex-mercenary? How would they survive? With what means? They form a life together - he as a stone cutter, she as bookmaker of religious manuscripts. The idea of romantic love as a justification for this sort of reckless behavior is centuries away...it would have made no sense at all to Marianne's protectors at the time.

The present day Marianne has other surprises for our hero: a body covered in formidable tattoos, including angel wings, which she reveals when she strips nude for him in the privacy of his hospital room. There are her innumerable hearts (don't ask) which she is compelled to give away by her Three Masters. She has unexplained wealth which she lavishes on stone carvings of gargoyles, a large house, endless means. She is able to provide a huge feast for hospital staff and patients and cover all of the narrator's medical expenses, bringing a suitcase full of hundreds of thousands of dollars to the hospital - all from her stone carving we are told.

As a porn star, the narrator was promiscuous, very good looking, drug and alcohol-addicted, a womanizer, a sexual volcano and rogue...yet he is also learned and sensitive and articulate. How did this come to be - the contrasting images are at such odds with each other. It's not that it is impossible to be both but how...from such humble and fraught beginnings?
The novel reads like a grotesque nightmare or fantasy (depending on your point of view) where Davidson seems to prey on every man's worst fears - the loss of one's physical attractiveness, the loss of one's livelihood and business pushed into bankruptcy, a complete and devastating loss, even the loss of his penis, burned to a crisp and removed by the doctors after the accident.

And here's the fantasy part: he is approached by a beautiful, mysterious woman (literally named angel) who vows to save him both physically and figuratively with limitless resources and few inhibitions and who transfixes him with a romantic, unbelievable tale of their past love.

Once ensconced in Marianne's home he allows Marianne to minister to him; allowing her to bathe him; administer his morphine; she gives him a credit card, and, she continues with the story of his past life.

The conceit starts to grate - perhaps an emotionally and physically damaged man, with no family or friends, broken by life's circumstances would be entranced by the enigmatic Marianne with her exotic clothes and learned Japanese and tattoos. I, however, find myself annoyed and bored by her fairytale stories about Japanese peasant girls, Italian mercenaries carrying copies of Dante's Inferno and Icelandic boys struggling with their sexual identities. She comes off as disturbed and volatile, not bewitching.

In his new home with Marianne, he often finds her stretched out nude on the stone that she is carving. She works demonic hours - up to sixty hours at a time without a break. Eating nothing, desiring nothing but the completion of her task. Really? That's how stone cutters work? In the nude? Without a break? Without sustenance? Inspired by their art? They neglect their loved ones - almost killing their dogs and neglecting a burn victim who is in their care?

Davidson is a lazy writer reverting to cliches and stereotypes and just plain sloppy plot devices. How is Marianne able to traipse in and out of his room, strip down naked in his room, take responsibility for his welfare when she has been recently released from the psych hospital herself? All of her income comes from stone carving...really? This requires a complete suspension of disbelief. Who the heck is buying all these gargoyles? I just don't buy into it.

Later on a main character is able to pick up a cross bow, never having used one before, and shoot it straight into the heart of another, killing him with one shot, during a snowstorm yet. This same character, who is heavily pregnant, is able to flee her pursuers on horseback, shimmy across a frozen pond, and, survive a near drowning. You know, oddly, when I was eight months pregnant I had trouble navigating my way to the bathroom by myself...

The figures from Marianne's past are such commonplace tropes: benevolent head nun, her protector; the rival in the convent who hates her and her talent; the valiant best friend, a fellow warrior, who saves the narrator from death at the risk of his own life; the beautiful woman of mystery with endless means who will redeem him, the fallen man who is redeemed by the love of a "good woman"...yeesh.

Small but annoying details: when he lists the food that Marianne brings for the staff and patients Davidson spouts a long paragraph of different types of food: neither making it credible or appealing to the reader, merely a long and boring list on page 167 of the hardcover version. How did she bring the vast amounts of food? Where did they put it? Why so much? Why so odd - carp? oxtail soup? Why would the hospital agree to such excess? What does this scene prove or add to the plot?

The resolution of the story of their past lives - the nun runs off with the mercenary pursued by the condotta determined to kill him - is sufficiently gory and sensational but it neither engaged nor titillated me. The book is a disturbing combination of trashy gore and highbrow blather about religious concepts, spirituality, stone carving and medieval printing. Its charm eluded me; its characters irritated; my interest flagged almost immediately once I got into the book.

I leave you with this gem:
I believe in your love for me. I believe in my love for you. I believe that every remaining beat of my heart belongs to you, and I believe that when I finally leave this world, my last breath will carry your name. I believe that my final word - Marianne - will be all I need to know that my life was good and full and worthy, and I believe that our love will last forever.

Huh...who's a gargoyle now?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Love me sweet, never let me go...

When I enter the church hall for my second ever dinner shift at the Out of the Cold program in our neighborhood I am greeted by the sight of the Elvis impersonator who will be entertaining the guests tonight (last week I had referred to them as clients which is wrong apparently but the word "guests" doesn't sit well on my tongue either). True, he is not wearing the trademark white jumpsuit and dark sunglasses but he does have the tell tale dyed black hair, long sideburns and something in his physique that suggests the older Elvis.

There are fewer servers tonight. J, for one, has been sideswiped by some sort of mild virus and we decided it would be best for her to stay home. I am on my own tonight serving table 8. Many first and second timers are on their own. I sense that we are all a bit nervous.

G, the night's coordinator, urges us to be friendly, to talk to the "guests" and not hang back. This is harder for us than it sounds I think as we don't know what to expect - hostility? Friendliness? The perception that we are being condescending to the guests? I see some of the more experienced volunteers with big smiles plastered on their faces and it feels so false to me, so strange. I am striving for friendly seeming but not goofily happy to be there...because the circumstances are not happy for these people in general.

One of the first men in the hall when it opens, wearing a toque and a dark green sweatshirt, stalks up and down the length of the hall searching for a place to sit with an angry look on his face. I admit, the look makes me nervous. He seems like a pretty tough character with his troubles etched all over his tanned face and his clothes in slight disarray. I am mildly alarmed when he parks himself at my table. The rest of the guests at my table (including a thin Roger Ebert look-alike) seem quite tired and quiet which really sets this particular man apart.

But I find that there seems to be little to worry about. He turns out to be the friendliest and most courteous of the group. With each portion of food I hand him he says loudly and sincerely, "Why thank you darlin'!" with profuse enthusiasm.

The meal is very similar to the week before: vegetable soup with sausage, roasted chicken and potatoes with mixed vegetables and then brownie cake and ice cream for dessert. My friend in the toque asks for a number of bowls of soup. And juice. He seems ravenous. Then again, he is not a small guy. But he is polite in his requests.

When it comes to dessert, my friend cheerfully asks for TWO bowls of ice cream. I say, "How 'bout we start with one and see how it goes?" Okay, he cheerfully assents. As fate would have it I have an extra bowl of ice cream and he says, "Just slide it over here dear, I'll take it off your hands!" As I hand it to him he says, "I love you!" I said, "Yeah...that's what my kid says when she wants something..." "You got a smart kid!" he replies. She ain't the only one...

"Elvis" is singing Love Me Tender and Blue Christmas accompanying himself on an acoustic guitar behind me as I serve dinner but, somehow, I think this is the wrong note for the evening. When asked for requests a woman nearby calls out Viva Las Vegas. I keep thinking if you were sitting at this table would you want to be thinking about the lyrics of Blue Christmas? I would not. She wants something more upbeat and so do I. Because there is something about the combination of the music and the faces of the guests that pushes me to the verge of tears at times.

A younger man at the next table with dyed blond hair and new looking athletic clothes tries to catch my eye several times. When he does, he winks and points at me in a semi-flirty way. Don't you know that I am old enough to be your...older sister? I want to ask him and rush to clear the table.

After we clean the tables and move them away to put up the mattresses for the overnight guests, G, the coordinator, asks me to clear away the salt and pepper shakers and would I mind refilling them in the supply room? Not at all. It makes me feel that she trusts me to do a tiny bit extra.

The hall is darkened, the men are trying to sleep on the mattresses we have placed on the floor. They seem infinitely patient to me as it is still pretty chaotic in the kitchen and the departing servers are somewhat loudly getting ready to leave. Students are getting forms authorized for their community hour commitments. The coordinators are giving last instructions to the staff coming on board for the next shift. Volunteers are happily munching on the last bit of dessert that remains - very kindly provided by my friend D, the expert baker. This is no small feat as she has to commit to bringing 125 portions of dessert.

This part of the evening always reminds me of a scene in Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London. While spending time in a "doss house" he observed how docile the men had become, how necessary this was for them to survive the system in order to receive aid and comfort.

Part of the reason that I find these evenings so fulfilling emotionally is that it forces me stop whining (temporarily) about my own life and situation. Look around, I keep saying to myself. You think you have problems? Just zip it and keep passing the food out...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The loss of the tactile

With the introduction of the Ipad (horrid brand name that it is) in January 2010, I was as intrigued as any other person with even a vague interest in new technology. Its functions - marketed as "a platform for audio and visual media such as books, periodicals, movies, music, and games, as well as web content" - catapulted me into the future with visions of my daughter accessing even more advanced tools in her own life as a reader.

Is it likely that she will have as many shelves of books as her parents once had? Or will she find herself with this kind of device that carries not one but dozens, if not hundreds, of books, in one neat technological package? Something that she can throw in her knapsack or bag.

The earliest books were written on scrolls. It wasn’t until 2 A.D. that books were bound at one edge in a format that would now be familiar to us. It’s unlikely that those few literate persons who made the transition from the reading of scrolls to the reading of books, as we know them, suffered a great deal of anxiety about that transition. Regardless of the beauty of the scrolls themselves, they, as readers, were likely amazed and intrigued by the changed and improved format.

One thing that music lovers and cranky Luddites of a certain age regret, even as they embrace the new technology of downloading their favourite music and replacing all of their old albums and cassettes with CDs, is the loss of the tactile pleasures of holding an album, turning it over, reading the notes, looking at the cover art, etc …

As a reader I share the same sensuous pleasure in the construction of a book: favouring the art on one cover over another edition, favouring a hard copy over a paperback, considering its size and heft in my hands, admiring the colour of the stock, scrutinizing the font size, the quality of the paper. In short, fetishizing the whole physical experience of reading. One of my favourite places to read is the Hart House Library at the University of Toronto. The books are old and often decades out of date.The selection is small and haphazardly chosen it seems. The librarian is nowhere in view (neither as a student nor a staff member have I ever seen a librarian in that place).

I have tried to be more judicious about what I buy now thinking (very morbidly) the kid will have to shift all this one day and will, I fear, be cursing the names of, and shaking her fists at, those who gave her life for burdening her with all these books.

As I was writing this piece, I was also thinking of the artist Robin Pacific who promised a few years ago to give away almost her entire library of 1,670 titles at Red Head Gallery. Could I do so, would I do so? After my initial feelings of mortification I thought how liberating that might be as well. Sort of the liberation one might feel in having an entire library on a computer you could hold in your hand.

This technological future for books seems inevitable. It’s possible now, it’s just not commonplace or the norm. Will my daughter cart hundreds of books from one new home to another as she moves about? Not likely. Will she spend $20 or $30 on a book? Probably not. I don’t imagine that’s a loss that she’ll mourn. Will she miss holding a book in her hands? I would like to hope so but I’m doubtful about that as well.

Initially published in an altered form on descant.ca/blog on February 2nd, 2007.

Monday, November 15, 2010

At Table Number One

Lately, I have been a bit haunted by a fictional character that I am writing about. His name is Billy and he is a homeless man. Aboriginal. Violent. Queer. Abandoned by his mother and with no knowledge of, or contact with, his father. Oh, and he hates women. Yeah, I’m glutton for criticism and abuse as a writer.

Billy features in a new novel that I am writing called Vita’s Prospects. He is conceivably the least sympathetic of the three main characters yet it is always Billy that people seem to remember when I read passages from the new writing. It is Billy they always seem to feel for.

I had been thinking about what to do about people like Billy, the real Billys of Toronto. How do you help aside from possibly throwing money at the situation (which I know would help somewhat but not completely)? As they say, if you're gonna talk the talk...

My friend D has been involved with the Out of the Cold program which has operated in the basement of a church here in Riverdale for a couple of years and I was pleased to learn that she was doing it again this year. I asked if I could join her in working the dinner shift at the church on Friday nights.

When we arrive at the church, my daughter and I are both understandably nervous, J more so.There are some forty odd volunteers including a youth group from Timmins. Luckily I am partnered with an experienced volunteer, K, at table number one. My daughter works with two friends from middle school at another table. My friend D valiantly slips into the kitchen with a friend and will spend the next two to three hours scouring dishes.

K fills me in on how the shift will work. The men (and some women) file in. Twenty five or so. Tonight there are more volunteers than people being served.

We introduce ourselves to the group of six who sit at table number one.

Strikingly, a man that I have already mentally named "The Professor" and his friend sit facing towards the front of the hall, towards the servers where we are standing, holding trays. Tall and lean, he is conservatively dressed with simple, dark framed glasses and a very somber air. His friend, an older man, seems a little more lost, a little less tied to the world around him. When we introduce ourselves, The Professor politely introduces himself and his friend who is sitting to the left of him and says very little during the meal.

There is also the "Reader", an older man, who is enjoying a thick, softcover book during the meal. He is small, bearded, affable and completely content to read during his meal and not converse.

There is my "European Grandfather" - quiet, almost courtly, who seems to speak little English, with glasses and a nice camel coloured jacket. He speaks to no one, says nothing except thank you or yes and no. He leaves early, before dessert.

And most curiously, for me, there is the "Varsity Football Player" with the "Manic Girl". He is tall, broad, with a football style jacket and very new sneakers who appears to be carrying all of his clothing in a large, black suitcase on wheels. But his face betrays the middle class demeanor. He looks tired or ill or someone who has not slept well.

With him is very hyper young woman in a baseball cap with a rough manner. They seem oddly matched. She is a tad manic. As soon as she sits down she makes a quick, tipping motion with her hand in my direction. When I ask her what she wants, there is a very loud request for coffee as if she doesn't hear well or can't control the volume of her voice. She is constantly in motion and it occurs to me that she might be a bit high. If she is visibly intoxicated or stoned she won't be granted admission to the meal - those are the rules - but there only seems to be a trace of something in her system.

That's our group.

We start with soup and K and I bring over three bowls each on our aluminum trays. The group is polite and appreciative. Then we bring over family style servings of chicken, roast potatoes and vegetables. One serving per, unless there is extra. 

In the background a volunteer is playing the piano in a corner of the hall. He plays "Bye Bye Blackbird" and this starts to unnerve me for some reason. Later one of the men, one of the clients, will take over and play the Beatles' "Yesterday". I whisper to K, "I wish they would play something more upbeat!"

Oy...I can't help thinking of how these men and women got to this juncture in their lives - particularly the really young man who seems to be carrying all his possessions. When I mention it to R later he comments sadly that maybe that young man is at the beginning of his experience on the street - that that is how you start, with nice clothes, and all your things and then it slowly deteriorates and you lose more and more and then everything.

The rest of the volunteers, many of whom are teenagers, do not seem to be affected by this music. There is definitely love in the air as they hug and get close and flirt in between their serving duties which they are being responsible about. They laugh and giggle and flirt. True, many are probably here for their obligatory community hours for high school graduation and seem unfazed by what is before them. 

I can't decide if this the sheer optimism of youth or obliviousness of the sadness around them.

There is the odd trip back to the kitchen for another bowl of soup or juice and the requests are polite and patient.

After a dessert of apple and cherry pie and vanilla ice cream, the composition of the room slowly ebbs and changes, most leave but there are a handful of men who will stay (and it appears one woman) for the night. Some are already slumped in a corner trying to sleep. We clean the tables, wipe them down, disinfect them. We put them away. We start to pull out erstwhile mattresses and pillows and blankets into the hall.

The shift ends. It's short but very intense, a little emotional. And I am somewhat exhausted by my simple tasks. I seem to have passed the test. The supervisor who gave me an appraising up and down look when I when I first came on shift now give me a tepid smile of approval.

The teenagers are still smiling, still flirting. I wonder if it hurts the men to observe them so when you have so little? I know I feel a slight pang in watching their puppy dog energy. What is before the kids is so strange, so foreign to them that they can't even imagine being in the shoes of these men and women. 

But it is not so fantastic, nor strange in this city...and eminently possible, for anyone.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Beginnings of an Illicit Habit

I’ve been thinking of the consequences of a writer growing up in a house without books. Nary a dictionary nor an encyclopedia, not even a newspaper in sight. My parents were literate in their native language (Italian) and moved smoothly from Sicilian dialect to Italian in speech. They spoke English well, having been here since the early to mid 50s and both owning their own businesses through which they learned their adopted language. They wrote in Italian as well. They valued education a great deal.

But…they had no interest in reading whatsoever. I inferred, although it was never specifically stated, that the habit of reading in others was a considered a wasteful (and puzzling) enterprise.

I came to reading later, much later, than most perhaps for someone who is now a voracious reader - the type who always has a book in her hand, who reads while walking (odd I know), who gives herself a minimum number of pages to read per day, who keeps a book diary of all that she has read for, oh, the last few decades. The type who thinks planning a vacation around visiting Jane Austen's house in Bath would be fascinating. You know...obsessively nerdy about books and literature.

This obsession began in my late teens and, I now think, was as a result of not wanting to deal with certain people or situations. I was the typical sullen, unhappy teenager. I was often chastised by my mother when “caught” with a book in my bedroom reading. From her reaction, you'd think that I had been caught with a bag of weed or a condom.

To be fair, my mother was dealing with her own many griefs and frustrations then.

There was work to be done! Why wasn’t I sweeping or cleaning up or getting ready for the numerous responsibilities of the family business (this involved maintaining two vendors' stalls at the Farmers Market in Hamilton where I grew up and in St. Catherines as well).

It was an all consuming family enterprise and everyone had their specific duties and chores which were numerous and varied: loading and unloading the truck every work day (four times a week), cleaning up the shelves of the truck after a day's work; packing olives into little one pound bags each Friday night for the next day's work; preparing trays for special orders. It made for a gruelling work day.

With my nose stuck in a book did that not scream – leave me alone I’m reading! I read at work, between serving customers, while standing behind the stall (don’t read - it looks like you’re not ready to serve people!). I read at home (don’t you have something to do?). I consumed everything I could get my hands on: school related texts, trashy magazines, feminist texts, books by Simone de Beauvoir, the classics...

So I drifted into reading and fell in love with Gatsby and Daisy. Lizzie and Darcy. Anna and Vronsky. Becky Sharpe. Fully expecting them all to love me back.

First published in an altered form by descant.ca/blog, January 31, 2007.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

2010 F.G. Bressani Literary Prize

The Italian Cultural Centre is proud to announce the winning authors and works of the 2010 edition of the biennial F.G. Bressani Literary Prize:

Pasquale Verdicchio, This nothing’s Place
Category: POETRY

Michael Mirolla, Berlin
Category: FICTION

Michelle Alfano: Made Up of Arias

Caterina Edwards, Finding Rosa

The winning authors will be presented with their awards on Tuesday, November 30, 2010 at 7:00pm in the museum the Italian Cultural Centre. A cocktail reception will follow the presentations. Professor Emerita at UBC Stefania Ciccone, Professor Emerita at SFU Grazia Merler, Italian Government Lettore at UBC, Dr. Mario Inglese, and former Director of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura, Margherita Repetto, acted as jury for the shortlisted candidates of the 2010 edition of the biennial F.G. Bressani Literary Prize.

The biennial F.G. Bressani Prize was instituted to stimulate and enhance the literary production of works by Canadian authors of Italian origin or ancestry to add to the richness of the Italian immigrant experience in Canada by celebrating its literary expression and to honour and reflect aspects of Italian heritage and culture within our ethno-culturally diverse society.

This edition was presented in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Cultural in Vancouver and the Regione Lazio Cultural Society of BC.

The Prize is named after the Jesuit priest, Father Francesco Giuseppe Bressani, (1612 -1672) the first Italian missionary to Canada, who wrote Breve Relatione, and who can be considered the precursor of Italian-Canadian writing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Putting on, and Taking off, the Red Shoes

The Red Shoes directed by Michael Powell (U.K., 1948) 133 minutes

Perhaps the screenwriters, the director Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, did not propose for the film to have the profound meaning that it would have with feminists and female artists in years to come. And yet it still does...more than sixty years later. It remains beautiful to look at despite the frightful melodrama of the acting; it still strikes a chord with many women.

We still have conflicts between dedication to one's art and relationships with the people we love. This is not an analysis of the film but an examination of the issues it raises for women and art.

Such women, and such sacrifices (primarily for love), abound in art... Anna Karenina ultimately kills herself because she realizes that she has sacrificed her relationship with her child, her marriage, her financial security, for her lover Vronsky who has, very likely, tired of her and their romantic passion. In La Traviata, the courtesan Violetta sacrifices her love for Alfredo because she does not want to destroy his life and reputation. Jane Eyre gives up her independence to care for the wounded, blinded Rochester for love. In the House of Mirth, rather than ruin the reputation of Lawrence Selden, the man she loves, by producing letters which prove adulterous relations between himself and Lily's nemesis Bertha Dorset, Lily destroys the letters and buries her own reputation ultimately leading to her public disgrace and suicide. Isabelle Archer remains with her abusive husband Osmond in order to protect her step-daughter in The Portrait of a Lady.

These stories have enormous power. But far fewer stories exist about one's dedication to and sacrifice for one's art.

I wonder if it is still perceived as a selfish to be committed to one's art as a woman? Would you condemn me if you heard me say (with some exasperation) to my husband and child that I needed to be alone so that I could write. I think you might...and if I spent the odd night or afternoon volunteering or socializing with fellow writers rather than doing another load of laundry or supervising homework on a Wednesday night would that be off-putting to you? Is it my duty as a woman, wife and mother to always put my loved ones before my artistic and social interests?

In the film, Victoria 'Vicky' Page (Moira Shearer) is a beautiful, unknown dancer with an aristocratic background who aspires to dance with the prestigious Lermontov Ballet (loosely based on Diaghilev's Ballet Russes). She meets Boris Lermontov (played very bitchily by the German actor Anton Walbrook), the charismatic impresario of the Ballet Lermontov, who tauntingly questions her about her devotion to ballet before he sees her dance:

Lermontov: Why do you want to dance?
Vicky: Why do you want to live?
Lermontov: Well, I don't know exactly why, but...I must.
Vicky: That's my answer too.

Vicky is as compelled to dance as we are compelled to write, to paint, to sing, to act, to live. Intrigued by her saucy answer, Lermontov takes her on as a student. He sees her dance in a performance of Swan Lake in a small, modest venue and realizes her potential. Vicky is then invited to go with the company to Paris and Monte Carlo and when Lermontov loses Irina (Ludmilla Tchérina), his Russian prima ballerina (she wishes to marry - apparently it is impossible to think that she could possibly do both), he begins to see Vicky as a possible successor.

Lermontov pronounces: "A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love will never be a great dancer. Never." When someone notes that you cannot change human nature, Lermontov snaps, "I think you can do even better than that - you can ignore it."

Lermontov creates a starring role for Vicky in the new ballet, The Red Shoes, written by a new young composer named Julian Craster (Marius Goring) which is based on an old folk tale by Hans Christian Anderson. In the ballet, a young girl becomes enchanted with (and enchanted by) a magic pair of red shoes which permit her to dance and dance but the trick is that she is unable to stop dancing even when she wants to. In desperation, she even tries to cut the slippers off her feet but to no avail. The only way that she can stop dancing is by dying, with the slippers on. Prophetic and true for some (many) women.

Either the shoes go (my art) or I do (literally)...

Vicky and Julian as the composer tussle artistically then fall passionately in love during the creation of the new ballet. The ballet is a tremendous success and Vicky is a star. Lermontov becomes enraptured with Vicky and her talent.

Lermontov: When we first met...you asked me a question to which I gave a stupid answer, you asked me whether I wanted to live and I said "Yes". Actually, Miss Page, I want more, much more. I want to create, to make something big out of something little – to make a great dancer out of you. But first, I must ask you the same question, what do you want from life? To live?
Vicky: To dance.

Accordingly, because Lermontov sees that Vicky aspires to the same high standards as himself, Vicky is placed in the lead roles, but all is not well with Lermontov. When he learns of the relationship between Vicky and Julian, he is angry with Julian for "distracting" Vicky from her dancing and confronts Julian. Julian refuses to end the affair and is fired. Vicky promptly quits (for a woman it is always love before art). The couple marry and move to London where Julian begins a new opera. Score one point for love, zero for art.

With some reluctance, because Vicky is still under contract, Lermontov permits Vicky to dance for other companies but the one exception is performing The Red Shoes as Lermontov still retains the rights to the ballet and Julian's music. He will not permit any company to mount it again nor allow any other ballerina to dance the ballet. But he is tortured by his decision and by Vicky's talent which if he doesn't relent, he will never see her perform again. He finally relents and Lermontov convinces Vicky to return to dance in a revival of The Red Shoes.

On opening night of the revival, Julian appears in her dressing room. Perversely, he has left the premiere of his own opera at Covent Garden to convince her to go back with him to London. Lermontov finds them together and the men confront each other.

Julian: You're jealous of her.
Lermontov: Yes! I am. But in a way you'll never understand.

It is beyond sexual desire although I think there is a tinge of that here. It encompasses a desire to possess and control Vicky's considerable talents.

Vicky cannot decide what to do. Julian, crestfallen, leaves for the railway station, and Lermontov consoles her with this: "Sorrow will pass, believe me. Life is so unimportant. And from now onwards, you will dance like nobody ever before."

While wearing the red shoes on the way to the stage, Vicky frantically runs out of the theatre towards the railway station. Julian runs towards her. Overtly, one is reminded of the fate of Anna Karenina when Vicky jumps and falls in front of an approaching train. While she is dying, she asks Julian to remove the red shoes. The performance continues without her with a spotlight representing the missing ballerina. It is tragic but art forges on with or without you...

These were/are our choices then and now? Rejecting one's Art = death? Love = the lack of pursuing one's passion in one's life? And yet despite the tragic ending, this film resonates. Are we in love with the fantasy of giving up everything (art, independence, freedom) we value for love? Yes, masochistically, sometimes we are.