SOURCE: "Quiet Manifesto: Carol Shields's Small Ceremonies," in International Fiction Review, Vol. 3, No. 2, July, 1976, pp. 147-50.
[In the review below, MacDonald praises Small Ceremonies and places Shields within the Canadian literary tradition.]
At a time when some Canadian writers are getting on cultural bandwagons, or are partially blinded by the myths which they have created for themselves, it is refreshing to come across a novel like Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields. Her novel, as the title suggests, concerns itself with the small acts of a quiet family in a relatively peaceful Canadian academic community. Very little happens in the novel, yet subtly and with considerable skill Mrs. Shields unfolds the character of the narrator, Judith Gill, her English professor husband, Martin, and their two children, Meredith and Richard.
The problems for the family arise after their return from a sabbatical year in England. The Canadian experience of the characters is portrayed against a wider, multi-cultural background which highlights both the more general humanity and the peculiarly Canadian quality of their responses. The "small ceremonies," like the English high tea on Sunday evenings, which define their English experience help them to identify the subtle differences and nuances of their Canadianness.
The setting is Canada in the early 1970's and the characters beyond the Gill family circle help not only to add complication to the life of the family, but also to give a sense of the times in which they live, when large, archetypal action is obsolete and a more intimate understanding is required. Roger Ramsey, Can. Lit. professor at the university, and Ruthie St. Pierre, librarian and translator, live commonlaw in defiance of social morality when society has ceased to care about that sort of protest; Nancy Krantz, Judith's best friend, is an activist in all the "anti-" organizations, but is ultimately unattached to anyone or anything; and most prominent, Furlong Eberhardt, famous Canadian novelist, who teaches in the East and writes in mythopoeic patterns about his "roots" in the West, is blissfully unaware of the reality around him. Unlike the protest and obtuseness of her friends Judith Gill roots her observations firmly in her immediate world, more Canadian even than Eberhardt's, arriving at her larger discoveries through a fidelity to the minuteness of her experience.
Beyond the delicate Jane Austenish portrait of family and friends which is the main substance of the novel (Emma comes to mind), the work poses two major literary questions—one about the relationship between art and life and the second about the relationship between Shields's novel and the Canadian literary tradition. As Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey demonstrates what her art is not and what it hopes to be, so Small Ceremonies is a literary statement with the intentions but not the trumpeting connotations of "manifesto."
There are interesting relationships between Small Ceremonies and Frederick Philip Grove's work which are important on the levels of both art and tradition. Most obviously Furlong Eberhardt, Canadian novelist, has mysterious origins and a Germanic name like Grove. Furlong's real name is Rudyard, which suggests Kipling but also Rudyard Clark of Grove's The Master of the Mill. John Spalding of Shields's novel immediately suggests Abe Spalding of Grove's Fruits of the Earth . Furlong's novels, all of them set in the prairies, also suggest a modern equivalent of Grove. These "clues" are more significant when we discover that Shields and Grove are both involved in a similar aesthetic exploration of whether it is possible to determine the social and individual realities of the human experience through the dialectic of fiction....
(This entire section contains 1895 words.)
A passage fromThe Master of the Mill about this problem can almost be seen as a summary of Shields's concerns: "What is the reality in us? That which we feel ourselves to be? Or that which others conceive us to be?" It is through the tension between public knowledge and private awareness that Shields explores the reality of her narrator and other characters. The consequent ironies pervade the novel and reach beyond the art to include the writer herself.
Carol Shields is a biographer, poet, novelist; Judith Gill, her narrator, is a biographer and, by virtue of her position as narrator, a novelist (she has a sister who is a poet): Carol has recently published a critical study of Susanna Moodie's works [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision]; Judith is busy throughout the novel writing a biography of Susanna Moodie: Carol is married to a professor of civil engineering and has five children; Judith is married to an Associate Professor of English and has two children: Carol has studied and lived in England; the Gills go to England on sabbatical. Although drawn from Shields's own experience this novel is more than loosely disguised autobiography, however. The whole question posed by Grove, of how we know ourselves and others, is involved here. At the end of Shields's novel we find that neither public nor private knowledge of the self, neither biography nor autobiography is final or definitive. Fiction, as the dialectical recreation in precise terms of the individual in a specific social context, is the only public reality.
Judith, the biographer, cannot comprehend what Susanna Moodie was like as a human being even with all the evidence she has at her disposal; she cannot comprehend her husband and children even though they live in the same house; and it is only with great difficulty that she comes to terms with herself, not as an abstract personality but as a member of a family and society where individuality cannot be separated from the paraphernalia of living. When reality is transmuted into fiction Judith, Furlong, and John Spalding, all of them writers, find that it is impossible to "plagiarize from real life" in their art. Biography, fiction, even autobiography is only one limited view of the whole complex of life which defines the individual. Even of Susanna Moodie's own autobiographical novel Judith is forced to say, "But, of course, it isn't really Susanna; it's only a projection, a view of herself." And perhaps Judith Gill is a view of Carol Shields who finds something about herself in Susanna and can only account for the ambiguity of existence in the multiple levels of irony in the interplay between reality, autobiography, biography, and fiction in the novel.
The question of Canadianness is important to the conception of this novel as well, overtly in the person of Furlong Eberhardt, who, like Grove, was not originally Canadian, and more subtly in the relationship the novel establishes with the Canadian literary tradition. Furlong is conveyed to us through ironies as Judith herself is. He is first the great Canadian novelist who sells to an American company the movie rights of his "Canadian" masterpiece which he has indirectly plagiarized from an Englishman. Further irony lies in Furlong's origins which are not Canadian, although he is able to appear Canadian by adopting all the standard Canadian literary myths. However, the ironies do not stop there. The description of Furlong on pages 28-29 of the novel is based on the dust jacket of Kent Thompson's first novel—he has similar American/Canadian origins, though not hidden. But the even larger irony lies in the fact that Carol Shields is, like Kent Thompson, originally from the mid-Western United States, although in this novel peculiarly sensitive to the Canadian scene. Grove, Eberhardt, Thompson, Shields, are all "foreigners" in a nationalistic sense, yet all "Canadian" writers, and here the established nature of Grove's reputation is a necessary anchor to make the other ironies legitimate and real. Shields cannot be easily dismissed as un-Canadian (I do not wish to suggest she is) since her ironies have a genuine Canadian flavor. As with the autobiographical concerns the mode here is irony which encompasses Shields herself, and which suggests some of the ambiguities which arise in attempting to define the Canadianness of the Canadian tradition.
Small Ceremonies consciously and subtly recognizes a Canadian literary tradition and stakes its claim within it, proclaiming gently what it is and what it is not going to emulate. It is not Furlong Eberhardt's type of Can. Lit., "Saskatchewan in powder form. Mix with honest rain water for native genre." Shields avoids many of the standard Canadian formulas which often obscure rather than clarify the ideas implied by them—man vs. nature, urban vs. wilderness, moral vs. natural, materialistic vs. idealistic. Margaret Atwood is the most distinguished of the formularizers and Shields is staying carefully away from that camp. She also consciously sidesteps the tendency which developed in the 1960's to equate "creativity" with the scribbling of the gut reaction in immature prose. With the growing desire of Canadians and Canadian institutions for a Canadian literature this type of insensitive, gut-analysis has spilled over even into published works and is characterized by Ludwig in a "creative writing" class in Small Ceremonies: "Ludwig poked with a blunt and dirty finger into the sores of his consciousness, not stopping at his subtle and individual response to orgasm and the nuances of his erect penis. On and on." Again, on a more eminent level one is reminded here of Beautiful Losers, and Shields's conscious avoidance of that particular type of superficiality, without castrating her own prose, is welcome.
Small Ceremonies reminds one often of Margaret Laurence's Fire-Dwellers, with its emphasis on the housewife coming to terms with herself and her family. There is even an overt echo of Laurence's novel when Judith wants to assure Roger and Ruthie that in spite of their loss of romance "everything will be just fine," a phrase reminiscent of the oft repeated "Everything's all right" of The Fire-Dwellers. Shields's novel, however, avoids the blatant, often vulgar and loud declarations of Laurence's. Because much is similar in obvious things, the difference of tone is most striking. Shields's is a more quiet, more subtle, more delicately ironic portrayal of suburban existence and of what it means to Judith to come to terms with herself and her family.
Small Ceremonies then proclaims itself as existing beyond many of the conventional formulas and myths of the contemporary Canadian scene. It does not indulge in the kind of "mandatory sex scenes" which are often taken as proof of the "honesty" of "self-expression," and so it moves beyond the superficies of that sort of conformity. Above all it conveys in a quiet, precise style the glance, the subtle change of tone, the shortsighted immediacy of interiors and people, and the small ceremonies which are an index of the cohesiveness of any society or family. The novel is an affirmation in its own unobtrusive way of the unity of a Canadian society where not all behavior is loud and archetypal but some is delicate and on the verge of unself-conscious authenticity.
The novel works on all these levels simultaneously with very little loss of control. For a first novel, and given the complexity of the ironies and literary purposes of the work, it is a feat worthy of a much more experienced writer. Small Ceremonies promises much, not of the same, but of a clarity of social vision akin to Jane Austen's, which can lead to further insights into the society Carol Shields has adopted and come to understand. One hopes that she will be able to maintain in future the "balancing act between humour and desperation" which makes the ironies and tensions of this novel enlightening and very human.
Carol Shields 1935–
American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, dramatist, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Shields's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 91.
A Canadian-American born and raised in Chicago, Shields achieved a historic literary feat when her novel The Stone Diaries (1993) earned Canada's Governor General's Award and the American Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, and was short-listed for Britain's Booker Award.
Shields was born June 2, 1935, to Robert and Inez Warner in Oak Park, Illinois, a prosperous suburb of Chicago. She has described her years growing up as safe and happy, but also insular. Shields earned a bachelor's degree from Hanover College in Indiana; while studying for a year in England, she met Donald Shields, a Canadian engineering graduate student. The two married in 1957 and Shields moved to Canada. For the next few years, Shields focused on family, giving birth to five children and following her husband across Canada as his career progressed. Shields took a magazine writing course at the University of Toronto and sold stories to the Canadian Broadcasting Co. and British Broadcasting Co. In her late twenties, she revived an earlier interest in poetry writing. When the family moved to Ottawa, Shields enrolled in the graduate department in English at the University of Ottawa, writing a masters thesis on Susanna Moodie. It was at this time that Shields began writing fiction; in 1976 she published Small Ceremonies. The book received critical acclaim in Canada and Shields was encouraged to continue writing. While she attracted a modest Canadian following with her subsequent works, she did not gain attention outside of Canada until publishing Swann (1987), which was short-listed for the prestigious Governor General's Award. Following the success of Swann, many of Shields' earlier works were released in the United States and Britain. Shields has resided in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a number of years, teaching English and creative writing at the University of Manitoba, where she is now chancellor.
Shields's fiction has focused on the common, almost banal, events of middle-class, middle-age characters. However, far from being uneventful, these characters' lives are marked by identity crises, self doubts, and anxieties. Her first published novel, Small Ceremonies, set in early 1970s Canada, focuses on Judith and Martin Gill, an academic couple, and their children. Through Judith's efforts to write a biography and the family's interaction with one another and others, Shields poses questions about public and private knowledge and how people construct identity. Happenstance (1980) and A Fairly Conventional Woman (1982) continue Shields's exploration of how people come to know themselves and others. Later published in a single volume, the two works follow a married couple during one weekend; Happenstance is written from the husband's perspective and A Fairly Conventional Woman from the wife's. Together the works illustrate the isolation that occurs within the marriage and the degree to which the characters misunderstand one another and themselves. In Various Miracles (1985) and to a greater extent in Swann: A Mystery, Shields began to experiment with form while remaining constant in theme. Swann consists of five chapters, with each of the first four written from the perspective of one of the characters and the final chapter written as a screenplay which reveals crucial information about the cast. The novel focuses on the illusive identity of Mary Swann, a poor farmer's wife from rural Ontario, whose single volume of poetry was published after she was killed by her husband. To each character Swann and her poetry represent something different, and each character struggles to create an identity for her, even as the artifacts of her life begin to mysteriously disappear. The Stone Diaries is written in the form of a journal recording the life of Daisy Goodwill Fletts. In it Fletts discusses the events of her life as she attempts to define its meaning. Larry's Party (1997) focuses on similar concerns of self-identity, but is written from the perspective of an average middle-aged man. In addition to her novels, Shields has written two critically acclaimed short story collections and three poetry collections.
Critics are consistent in their praise of Shields's work. From the beginning of her career, critics have commended Shields's descriptive powers and ability to capture the nature of everyday life, comparing her with A. S. Byatt, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. In reviewing her first three books, Julie Beddoes wrote, "Shields can create vivid and often picturesque characters with such sympathy that one is convinced their eccentricities are the stuff of everyday life." Elizabeth Benedict remarked, "Shields is wickedly accurate about the intricacies of marriage, parenthood and the battle of the sexes, and an astute observer and satirist of social trends." However, most critics agree that Shields began a transformation of her literary career with Various Miracles and has built upon this with each subsequent work. In her review of Swann, Diane Turbide concluded that the novel's plot was better developed and less banal than her earlier works. Other reviewers have noted that nothing truly frightening threatens Shields's characters, although she has captured a more urgent tone in her later books. In addition, some critics have questioned the accuracy of classifying her as a feminist.
SOURCE: "Small Ceremonies and the Art of the Novel," in Journal of Canadian Fiction, Vol. 28, No. 29, 1980, pp. 172-78.
[In the essay below, Page discusses Shields's observations about fiction, biography, and sources in Small Ceremonies.]
Carol Shields' first novel, Small Ceremonies (1976), is short, light and readable, a first-person study of nine months in the life of a woman of forty, scrutinizing herself and her circle. Thus reviewer John Parr appropriately describes it as "a familiar enough life story of quiet desperation except that Judith Gill, who tells her own tale of woe, enlivens it with many satiric flourishes." Another reviewer, Robert A. Lecker, says the book is "a reasonably entertaining story about the significant trivialities of everyday suburban existence," in which "nothing particularly exciting happens," and DuBarry Campau terms it "a pleasant, unpretentious book" with "wit, delicacy, and deft, realistic perceptions."
However, one should not think that the subject is merely suburbia and the everyday—though illnesses, parties, and so on do occupy considerable space. Judith, the central character, is a writer of biographies who has made one unsuccessful attempt at a novel, and Martin, her husband, is a Milton expert seeking more creative ways of expressing his scholarly insights. The other characters include Furlong Eberhardt, an admired Canadian author of ten novels, and the Englishman, John Spalding, who has produced seven unpublished novels before his eighth is accepted. These people discuss and write about many of the problems of being authors—or would-be authors.
Shields, in fact, poses and examines a range of issues about the nature of fiction and of biography. Where do novelists find their ideas? How important is plot? What is originality, and does it matter? What are novelists like? Do they differ from biographers in their perceptions of life? What is the place of fact in fiction? When does biographical speculation become biographical fiction?
Judith has published two biographies: of the first barrister in Upper Canada and of a prairie suffragette of the nineties—both modest and manageable subjects. She turns next to Susanna Moodie, writing the book during the nine months covered in Small Ceremonies. She struggles to understand Moodie—can she really never have told her husband that she was responsible for the Lieutenant-Governor offering him a job? What can a relationship in which she always called her husband by his surname have been like? How did she come to change "from a rather priggish faintly bluestockinged but ardent young girl into a heavy, conventional, distressed, perpetually disapproving and sorrowing woman?" Moodie leaves a few clues of "unconscious self-betrayal," mainly in her novels, particularly in Flora Lindsay, where "by watching Flora. I am able to see Susanna as a young woman. But, of course, it isn't really Susanna; it's only a projection, a view of herself." After the book is completed, Judith tells Furlong she still does not know whether she succeeded in finding and expressing the truth about Moodie:
"And did you do it this time, Judith? Did you really wrap it up?"
I sense his genuine interest. And am oddly grateful for it. "No, not really," I admit. "I have a few hunches. About the real Susanna. But I can't quite pin it all down."
"You mean she never came right out and admitted much that was personal?"
"Hardly ever. I had to look at her through layers and layers of affection."
Shields' novel contains a selection of the kind of documents with which the biographer has to work, and which could—just possibly—provide inspiration to the novelist. Scattered through Small Ceremonies are the letter left by a 9-year-old girl in her room when her apartment is rented out; samples of the lists left by her father; excerpts from Spalding's journal; Judith's sketchy "Notes for Novel"; a snatch of Martin's lecture-notes; itemized biographical sketches of Martin and Furlong; four letters exchanged between Judith and Spalding when he plans a visit to Canada; a newspaper clipping; and even a party invitation. These are really all observed and interpreted for the reader by Judith. She comments on the difficulty of giving life—and true life—to such papers: "There is never never enough material…. Characters from the past, heroic as they may have been, lie coldly on the page. They are inert, having no details of person to make them fidget or scratch; they are toneless, simplified, stylized, myths distilled from letters; they are bloodless. There is nothing to do but rely on available data, on diaries, bills, clippings, always something on paper."
Judith is the perennial observer, slightly aside from life, which she regrets but cannot change: "I became a full-time voyeur. On trains I watched people, lusting to know their destinations, their middle names, their marital status and always and especially whether or not they were happy. I stared to see the titles of the books they were reading or the brand of cigarette they smoked. I strained to hear snatches of conversations." On the last page, she accepts this destiny: "I am a watcher, an outsider whether I like it or not, and I'm stuck with the dangers that go along with it. And the rewards." Perhaps "watchers" make better biographers than do novelists.
Judith's curiosity extends to Furlong when she discovers that his real first-name is Rudyard, and she secretly researches his past. Eventually she finds that he is American-born, though purporting to express a uniquely Canadian consciousness—then she playfully threatens to write his biography. She also enjoys speculating about the unseen Spalding in England, placing him as a "silly, silly, silly little man. Paranoiac, inept, ridiculous." At the end of the book, Spalding turns up, and Martin and Judith discuss their impressions:
"He seems okay," Martin says. "Not quite the nut I expected."
"Me either. Where did I get the idea he was going to be short?"
"And fat! Christ, he's actually obese. Cheerful guy though…."
"He certainly is different than what I expected. It's a good thing we had him paged at the airport or we'd never have found him."
"Funny, but he said the same thing about us."
"That he wouldn't have recognized us in a thousand years. He had us pictured differently."
Judith may be as wrong about Susanna Moodie as she was about Spalding. The difference is the product of Judith's imagination. She resists speculation in her biographies: "If one does enlarge on data, there is the danger of trespassing into that whorish field of biographical fiction." Fiction she finds fascinating but difficult: "Unlike biography, where a profusion of material makes it possible and even necessary to be selective, novel writing requires a complex mesh of details which has to be spun out of simple air…. The most obvious fact about fiction struck me afresh: it all had to be made up." Furlong tells her that basically she mistrusts fiction: "It's your old Scarborough puritanism, as I've frequently told you. Judith Gill, my girl, basically you believe fiction is wicked and timewasting. The devil's work. A web of lies."
Judith likes true stories about people; "my children," she observes, "are like me in their lust after other people's stories." This reflection leads her to look back to her childhood and to realise, "unlike Martin, whose family tree came well stocked with family tales, I am from a bleak non-storytelling family" with just three anecdotes: "That was all we had: my father's adventures in the stairwell, which never developed beyond the scientific rationale for fainting, my mother's teapot and rash and her near-brush with fame." These three are true stories: Shields enjoys the ambiguity in the word "story."
Judith's three family anecdotes were fact, though handed down in polished, practised form. She had facts on Moodie and Furlong, clues and speculations eventually checked against fact for Spalding. What, Shields wonders, are the true, actual, real sources of what is described as fiction? Is fiction "made up," as Judith thinks, or are its origins more truly in life?
Four novels are described within the novel Small Ceremonies. Poor Spalding has written no less than seven novels, all rejected, which Judith finds and reads when she comes to occupy their flat. While she finds them all "totally and climactically boring," she judges the one most likely written first to have "a plot of fairly breathless originality." Judith does not outline the plot, and she can only guess whether it originated in Spalding's experience or imagination: "Had he lived this plot himself or simply dreamed it up? The rest of the books were so helplessly conventional that it was difficult for me to credit him with creativity at any level. Still, it seemed reasonable, since the least of us are visited occasionally by genius, that this book might have been his one good idea." Or, as Judith wonders later, might Spalding have taken the idea from someone else? Or may the plot blend living and dreaming?
Judith reads Spalding's manuscript at a moment when she is dissatisfied with the limitations of biography and is toying with writing a novel. She tells Martin, "I'm tired of being boxed in by facts all the time. Fiction might be an out for me. And it might be entertaining too." But he replies: "You're too organized for full-time fantasy." All she has are nine short notes, one or two of which might be the germ of short stories, the rest at best paragraphs. And at once she faces writer's block.
A year later, back in Canada, she is still considering writing a novel and audits the Creative Writing seminar taught by Furlong, where in ten weeks she is expected to produce a novel. Having drafted a good first chapter, she is stuck for some weeks, then, desperate, suddenly remembers Spalding's good plot and uses it. At the time she has no difficulty in rationalizing "borrowing" another's plot: "A good idea should never be orphaned…. I thought of the Renaissance painters, and happily, gleefully, drew parallels; the master painter often doing nothing but tracing in the lines, while his worthy but less gifted artisans filled in the colours. It had been a less arrogant age in which creativity had been shared; surely that was an ennobling precedent. For I didn't intend anything as crude as stealing John Spalding's plot outright … All I needed to borrow was the underlying plot structure." The moral point raised is a difficult one: to what extent can the use of the plot of an unpublished book, for another book not intended for publication, be considered stolen? No sooner has Judith finished the book and given it to Furlong than she regrets it, because "the bones of my stolen plot stuck out everywhere like great evil-gleaming knobs, accusing me, charging me." So she directs Furlong to destroy it.
Furlong, however, takes over the plot and uses it in his next novel, the third novel we read of, the highly praised Graven Images. Judith is furious when she discovers this: "I had been used. Used by a friend. Taken advantage of. Furlong who had been trusted (although not always loved) had stolen something from me and that act made him both thief and enemy." A month later she manages to confront Furlong who, in his usual bland way, denies her charge: "Writers don't steal ideas. They abstract them from wherever they can. I never stole your idea…. Writers can't stake out territories. It's open season. A free range. One uses what one can find. One takes an idea and brings to it his own individual touch." And so on, ending by invoking Shakespeare as a borrower of plots. Sceptical though the reader is about anything Furlong says, perhaps what distinguishes this third treatment of the plot is precisely Furlong's "individual touch." Earlier, in a television interview, Furlong has given a public answer to the question of where he found the plot: "A writer's sources are never simple. Always composite. The idea for Graven Images came to me in pieces. True, I may have had one generous burst of inspiration, for which I can only thank whichever deity it is who presides over creative imagination." In fact, if there ever were a "burst of inspiration," it was Spalding's. In a neat tailpiece, however, Spalding reads the novel and does not recognize his own plot, though he found it "a ripping good yarn." Have Judith and Furlong actually changed it so much as to make it unrecognizable? Judith's 16-year-old daughter greatly admires Graven Images and makes her own distinction between fact and fiction when she defends the novel to her mother: "It's not supposed to be real life. It's not biography. It's sort of a symbol of the country. You have to look at it as a kind of extended image."
When Spalding finally writes a novel which a publisher accepts, his source is Judith and her family, their names thinly disguised, staying their year in England. Spalding has few facts, though he says that "one can tell something about people simply by the fact that they have occupied the same quarters." He has also drawn on the weekly letters from Judith's son to his daughter. Asked about the precise use he has made of them, he is evasive: "I didn't exactly base the novel on it. Just got a general idea of the sort of people you were, how you responded to things. That sort of thing." He explains this to them, guiltily, "so that when you read it, if you read it, you won't think I've—well—plagiarized from real life. If such a thing is possible." Spalding is clear about his source for this, his first accepted novel, yet he was obviously short of information. Judith, with her experience of the problems of using facts, guesses they may all be unrecognizable: "I have seen how facts are transmuted as they travel through a series of hands; our family situation seen through the eyes of pre-adolescent Richard and translated into his awkward letter-writing prose, then crossing cultures and read by a child we have never seen, to a family we have never met, then mixed with the neurotic creative juices of John Spalding and filtered through a publisher—surely by the time it reaches print, the least dram of truth will be drained away."
Finally, there is the novel we actually have, Small Ceremonies. This takes the form of a journal, divided into nine sections for the months September to May (in 1973–74, from the reference to Princess Anne's wedding), each made up of five or six separate entries. We are asked to infer that this is Judith's diary (presumably extracts from it)—at a time when most of her energies are going into the Moodie biography. She does, however, at times explain things to the reader (notably at the start of the November section, introducing her friends) in a manner not quite within the journal convention. The novel purports to be more nonfiction, Judith still unable to write a novel—even the kind of shapeless snatches from life that someone lacking creative gifts might come up with. One could even see this as Spalding's novel, guessing about the unseen Canadians, and a few passages (such as the description of their house) can easily be seen as drawing heavily on the son's letters to the girl. This view must fail, though, if the description of Spalding's novel as about the Gills' year in England is taken as the truth.
Judith judges Graven Images Furlong's best novel because "it was the first book he had ever written which contained anything like a structure." As biographer and novelist, she knows the central importance of form: "It's the arrangement of events which makes the stories. It's throwing away, compressing, underlining. Hindsight can give structure to anything, but you have to be able to see it." Her husband Martin strengthens this thread in the novel's pattern. He breaks from the grind of writing scholarly articles to weave a tapestry to illustrate the themes of Paradise Lost, how they enter and disappear, blend then separate. Judith is angry when she is told of this, ostensibly because Martin will look ridiculous, more importantly because he has not told her and because he has surprised her when she had placed him as incapable of surprising her. Martin succeeds not only in producing a teaching aid and impressing a conference but also in creating a work of art, which art galleries bid for and which he sells profitably to a collector. Martin has understood and expressed Milton's "arrangement," and has accomplished the leap from words to another medium.
Small Ceremonies does not, of course, solve the mysteries of the art of the novelist, of form, plot, the use of fact, and the workings of the creative imagination. Shields has shown how various and obscure the sources may be, the complexities of the inevitable association between fact and fiction. And, in so doing, she has left us the conundrum of the association between her own life and work—for, in real life, her next book touches on biography; its subject, a critical study of the work of Susanna Moodie [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision].
Others (poetry) 1972Intersect (poetry) 1974Small Ceremonies (novel) 1976Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (criticism) 1976The Box Garden (novel) 1977Happenstance (novel) 1980A Fairly Conventional Woman (novel) 1982Various Miracles (short stories) 1985Swann: A Mystery (novel) 1987The Orange Fish (short stories) 1989A Celibate Season [with Blanche Howard] (novel) 1991The Stone Diaries (novel) 1993Thirteen Hands (play) 1993Coming to Canada (poetry) 1995Larry's Party (novel) 1997
SOURCE: "Ordinary People," in Books in Canada, Vol. 11, No. 9, November, 1982, pp. 18-19.
[In the following review, Horvath argues that A Fairly Conventional Woman fails to live up to the high standards Shields established in her earlier novels.]
Carol Shields began her writing career as a poet, and her first three novels reflect a poetic view, a lyrical perspective. Two of them, Small Ceremonies and Happenstance, were especially notable for their imagery and for Shields's skillful handling of the musings of the main characters. In them Shields portrayed suburban life in great detail, but her descriptions, even of the prosaic, were almost always fresh and insightful. And because of their curiosity and imagination, her characters were appealing. Most important, she wrote with a delicate touch, so lightly that the reader discovered much more about the characters than the narrators apparently intended to reveal. Unfortunately A Fairly Conventional Woman is a weak successor to her previous accomplishments.
Readers of Shields's novels have already met the heroine, Brenda Bowman, wife of the historian Jack Bowman in Happenstance. We saw her only briefly before, because she was at a national crafts convention in Philadelphia. In her present novel Shields seems to have lost command of her character. In Happenstance, as seen through her husband's eyes, Brenda was a fascinating creature, a prize-winning quilter, gifted, artistic, still exciting to her husband after 20 years of faithful marriage. But in A Fairly Conventional Woman, which tells her side of the story of that week-long visit to Philadelphia, Brenda is quite an ordinary person. The title is not ironic.
Brenda's tale begins the day before the trip. She goes through all the motions of everyday life, preparing breakfast and laying out the table, planning the drive to the airport, worrying about her daughter, who's becoming overweight.
But there is so much still to do, and she hasn't started packing. Two of her blouses need pressing: the green one, the one that goes with her suit and with the pants outfit as well, and the printed one, which she plans to wear to the final banquet. At 3:15 she is having her hair cut, tinted, and blown dry at a new place over on Lake Street which has wicker baskets and geraniums in the window and scarlet and silver wallpaper inside. And if there's time, she wants to make a casserole or two to leave for Jack and the children—lasagna maybe, they love lasagna. Not that they aren't capable of looking after themselves; even Rob can cook easy things—scrambled eggs, hamburgers—and Laurie's learned to make a fairly good Caesar salad. They're not babies any more, Brenda says to herself, neither of them.
This unnecessary attention to minutiae is a problem throughout the book. Shields records in meticulous detail, for example, the chit-chat with the man in the seat next to Brenda on the plane:
"Of course, I'm young." He shot her a glance which seemed to Brenda to be partly apologetic, partly sly. "I've got lots of time to develop my, you know, my potential."
"Oh yes," Brenda said. "That's true."
"Hey, look out there."
She transcribes in the same manner the interminably long interview with the woman at the desk of the hotel, the proceedings of the convention's meetings, and the small talk at the reception. What one asks, is the point of all this tedious detail? Is the author trying to show the contrast between the banality of real life and the creative energy of an artist's life? Is she telling us that a gifted artist can also be boring? Shields never makes this clear.
In her other books, Shields used dramatic irony to create friction between the main characters' knowledge of themselves and what her readers learned about them. In Small Ceremonies, for example, the heroine, a writer of biographies, slowly and carefully researched the lives of her subjects. She studied both the dramatic events and the commonplace happenings in their lives. In the end she pieced together a fascinating picture; there was a sense of discovery and surprise. In a similar way, and with equal excitement at the discovery, the reader got to know the heroine.
There are no such surprises about Brenda Bowman in A Fairly Conventional Woman. She is just what she herself says she is—orderly, good-hearted, a realist, neither introspective nor original. The few hints of a more complex character are not followed up: "What did this mean, this new impatience, this seething reaction to petty irritations…. Part of it, she sensed, was regret, for lately she had been assailed by a sense of opportunities missed." We are not told what these opportunities were, nor the difference that seizing them might have meant.
Because Brenda is quite predictable, the tension of the novel's one significant encounter quickly dissipates. Will she or won't she succumb to the temptation of a brief extra-marital affair at the convention? The reader knows long before Brenda decides.
In a few places Shields writes with the imagination of her previous books, as in her description of how Brenda is inspired to design her beautiful quilts:
… the patterns themselves seemed to come from some more simplified root of memory; sometimes they arrived as a pulsating rush when she was pulling weeds in the yard or shovelling snow off the front walk, but more often they appeared to her early in the morning before she opened her eyes, an entire design projected on the interior screen of her eyelid. She could see the smallest details, the individual stitches. All the pieces were there, the colours and shapes and proportions selected and arranged. When she opened her eyes to the light, she always expected the image to dissolve, but it remained intact, printed on an imaginary wall or beating slowly at the back of her head.
And Shields has developed a sharp, witty voice. Anyone who has attended a conference of any kind will laugh aloud at the pronouncements and jargon of the amateur politicos, the turgid analysis by the keynote speaker ("'The history of craft is a history of renunciation,' he croons into the microphone."), and the pretentiousness of the guest lecturer, with her talk on "Quilting Through the Freudian Looking-Glass: A New Interpretation."
Carol Shields is a good writer and should not be judged by this book alone. I look forward to her next novel and hope it will combine the imagery of her previous books with the satirical tone heard briefly in this one.
SOURCE: "A Little Like Flying: An Interview with Carol Shields," in West Coast Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, Winter, 1988, pp. 38-56.
[In the following interview, Shields discusses genre, form, and her writing process as they relate to several of her works.]
[Roo:] You display a good deal of formal versatility in your writing. You have published poems, short stories, novels (and a film script within one of them), and are working on a play. What dictates your choice of form?
[Shields:] This question of form! I am, to tell you the truth, more indifferent to the boundaries between literary forms than your question indicates. Recently I went to Ottawa to sit on a Canada Council Jury and discovered, when we sifted through applications, that those writers who want to apply in a new genre (switching from poetry to fiction, play writing to poetry and so on) must apply in a completely separate, vaguely second-rate competition called 'Explorations'. I was surprised, since writing of all kinds interests me—the formulations of language. Who, after all, can distinguish between a novel and a series of connected stories? It is stunning, and distressing, to think of all the critical energy that has been wasted on genre classification. Is Susanna Moodie's Roughing It in the Bush a novel or a series of essays or autobiography or what? Does Daphne Marlatt write poetry or fiction? Where are we to 'place' the prose poems that are enjoying such a vogue right now, and doesn't that very term—prose poems—wink at our confusion? There is a very real sense in which each literary text makes its own form—certainly this is the case with Mrs. Moodie. Authoritative cultural compartments are puzzling, and I can't help wondering if people don't resent getting stuck in one form, and if the plays they eventually write will be analyzed for 'poetic' structures, or their poems for 'dramatic' voice.
Then you would argue there are no significant formal differences among genres, that you achieve the same thing(s) no matter what form you choose? That each presents no challenges or rewards peculiar to itself?
Well, literature has always been defined by separation, beginning with the division between the written and the spoken, and the genres of our literature—I'm talking about officially sanctioned Western literature—evolved separately, became hardened and set, and were accorded differing degrees of respectability and assigned specific spheres of substance. Conventional theory would have us believe that poetry is a more concentrated, more musical version of prose, that poetry pops off in our heads like a flash bulb, and prose like a steadily radiating incandescence, yet we can all point to prose that is dense and elliptical, and poetry that is sprawling, extravagant, deliberately diluted, serpentine. The matter of form is not really a writer's problem, but it may put a strain on readers' expectations; we talk about a poetry audience, for instance, and believe, without much evidence, that these rarified readers will bring to the text a degree of care unknown to the more forgiving fiction audience. I like to think that these categories of reader response are breaking down as rapidly as the boundaries between genres, and that this process has been accelerated by feminist writing.
Well, this is the point of thinking you're at now. But, since you have chosen to write in different forms, I'll ask if there has been a chronology to your choice of form which is significant to your development as a writer. And, more specifically, why you have published no books of poems since your two back in the early seventies.
My early writing—that done in my twenties—consists of about a dozen highly conventional stories, all of them forgettable. Oh, very forgettable! The short story wasn't a form that interested me much, but I didn't think I could write a novel until I had served some sort of apprenticeship in shorter forms. I know now how foolish this was, and when I began, very late in my twenties, to write poetry, it was because that was exactly what I wanted to do, what really interested me. I was, for about five years, enchanted with the making of these little 'things'. (I remember once reading an essay by Gary Geddes in which he called poems 'little toys' one carries around in the head—that was exactly what I felt.) It was exhilarating. I don't think I ever wrote with such giddy elation or revised with so much ardour. I was strict with myself too. As I finished each poem, I asked myself: is this what I really mean? (Oddly, this was a question I hadn't thought to put to myself before.) There was a second question too: does this poem contain an idea? I knew I didn't want to write poems made out of the lint of unfocused feeling; my reading of such poems had made me distrustful of the form. I wanted to make hard, thoughtful, honest poems like those I had discovered by Philip Larkin.
Years later I turned to short fiction again. I was stuck in the middle of a novel (Swann); I knew what I wanted to do with the book, but didn't know how to make it fly. I wanted to talk about art and culture, who gets to make it and name it, and how it becomes established. But who in my novel was to pose these questions? Surely one voice would not be enough. I also wanted the novel to be a kind of pocket that contained itself, a demonstration, if you like, of what it was all about. Well, it was going badly, and a friend of mine, another writer, Sandy Duncan, gave me some good advice. 'Why don't you just quit', she said. I did—it seemed I needed someone's permission—and the very next day began a novel that became A Fairly Conventional Woman. I went back to Swann after that, feeling I had found a way to solve the problem of voice, that I would need not one voice but a kind of chorus, and then, once again, I ran into difficulties. The novel had become a cluster of mysteries, and the trick was to get them all working together like a set of gears. How could I set this in motion? I decided to rescue myself by spending a year experimenting with different narrative approaches.
I had in mind about twenty short stories which would come from all sorts of imaginative angles, or slants. What a wonder it was to me to step out on to the page, uncommitted to a voice and unfettered by a design—and what an awful terror. But as I wrote one story, the idea for the next was already forming in my head. It was a little like flying, or at least like being a few inches off the ground. I tried hard to keep a loose hold on these stories and allow them to take their own shape. The resulting book, Various Miracles, did not, in fact, make use of all the narrative balls I wanted to juggle, but did open up my writing to the extent that I felt I could go back to the novel, that at least some of its problems could be solved. I suppose that writing year was like a mini-sabbatical. I felt bolder for it, healthier. The range of possibility appeared dazzling—anything was allowed, everything was allowed. And I was so late in finding this out.
I met a friend one afternoon in a book store. We were both going through a bin of books, looking for something wonderful to read. 'But why are you here?' he said. 'You can just go home and write the book you want to read.'
It made me laugh, but he was partly right, I think. I am always trying to write the novel I want to read, the play I want to see, making the very thing that seems to be missing from my experience. It's not just a case of 'wanting to do it better'; it's wanting to know whether it's possible. When I started writing novels in the seventies, I wanted to write the kind of novel I couldn't find on the library shelf. Where were the novels about the kind of women I knew, women who had a reflective life, a moral system, women who had a recognizable domestic context, a loyalty to their families, a love for their children? (Most of the novels written during this period were about women who left their families, who struck off in search of 'freedom', whatever that is.) The closest I could come to a world I recognized was in women's magazines, but the language was so eroded and the sentiment so false that these stories were unreadable. I knew it must be possible to look at the real lives of women. To be contemporary without being—God forbid—hip. And to be serious without being ponderous. I hoped, anyway, that it was possible.
I love theatre, but am often frustrated by the plays I see. There is in many plays a kind of dramatic exaggeration that I find uncomfortable (and, well, I just don't believe it, all that hurling of crockery). There is also a lack of intellectual rigour, and an easy dependence on mental aberration. Now why should this be? And, more serious still, there are surprisingly few plays about the so-called middle class, despite the fact that audiences for drama are overwhelmingly middle class. I suppose the plays I've written—including the one I've just finished—are attempts to find out if this kind of play is possible. Is it possible to make a play about reasonable, sane, articulate people talking about how they survive the life they're born into?
There doesn't seem to be much tidy chronology to my choice of form; I've drifted from one to the other, completing one thing at a time and moving on, finding perhaps a shifting of emphasis with certain tensions relaxed and others brought forward. Like most writers I am always thinking: what next? And then, more worrying: will there be a next? I do want to finish a half-completed book of poems. For a long time I believed I had forgotten how to enter a poem. It may be that I have.
You imply that experimentation began during the writing of Swann. But you had played radically with perspective before: Swann wasn't the first novel to see you write from a male point of view. In Happenstance you sustain Jack Bowman as the centre of consciousness for the whole book. Was that strategy adopted out of the sense that men and women are significantly different, that therefore writing from a man's perspective would constitute a writer's challenge for you, a woman?
I think I started with the opposite view—that men and women are more alike than we think, responding similarly to experience, but perhaps expressing those responses differently. The language of men and women has been differently conditioned, as we all know—by turns covert, self-protective, flamboyant, abstract, cryptic. These differences are fascinating, and a little frightening. But, of course, I knew I had only to write about one man, not 'man', and that lightened the burden of authenticity.
In Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman, Brenda and Jack, whether talking about history or friendship, are remarkably alike, but their ideas are embedded in different language patterns, so that they only seem to be irreconcilable. I wanted these two novels to be about people who loved each other, but who remained, ultimately, strangers, one to the other. The gulf between them is language, not belief, and since most resolutions are made in silence—I do believe this—they are able to find their measure of understanding.
What kind of perceptual and technical problems did crossing that distance between female and male languages present? Why did you want to cross it? What did you think you would gain? What did you gain?
Well, one of the rewards, compensations, perhaps, of being a writer is the freedom to leave one's own skin and see with another's eyes. Old eyes, young eyes, male eyes, blind eyes. Surely there is always some refreshment in taking a different perspective. The world is made new. I think about these things all the time. And, of course, I love to set up a narrative problem and work my way though it. The solutions—or partial solutions anyway—have a way of opening up fresh questions. There is real joy in this.
Why did you make Jack an historian?
History was what I found myself thinking about at that time—what is it? What is it for? How much can it hold? But in a sense all my books have been about retrieval from the past. (I owe this insight to an astute reviewer; I wish I could remember who).
Let's go to your first novel. Small Ceremonies takes the mystery of human personality and human exchange as its subject. Would that be a fair characterization of your work generally?
Yes. The mystery of personality and the unknowability of others. Otherness. Even if we were allowed to go up to strangers and ask the most intimate of questions—and how I would love to do this—we would still remain in a state of ignorance about their lives. And yet moments do occur, as we all know, when we seem almost to enter into another body and sense something of its essence. These random glimpses appear to have little to do with how long we've known someone or the nature of what we might reveal. In The Orange Fish there is a story called 'Collision' that deals (more overtly than elsewhere, I think) with one of those moments when the barriers between two people suddenly and briefly and mysteriously dissolve.
The usual subjects in your earlier novels are women whose primary reality is domestic, but who stretch outwards from their domestic centre, and claim an activity beyond that of wife and mother. How does that extension relate to their domestic lives?
I suppose I start with the assumption that everyone in the world has a domestic life. A bed to sleep in. A bowl to eat from. Walls and windows. Something to provide light. These things, which have to be secured and maintained, are comforting but they're much more than that. More than anything else they locate us in time and space. Perhaps domesticity's ubiquitous and essential nature is the reason it is missing from so much of our literature. In writing about women who had a domestic context—Charleen, Brenda, Judith, even Rose Hindmarch and Sarah Maloney—I had no intention of creating super-women who skillfully combined domesticity with a career. Domesticity is like breathing. It goes on and on. Most people do something else besides breathe—write, teach, quilt, something. I'm writing a book now about a woman who is a folklorist in love with a man who's a disk-jockey.
In those novels, husbands and wives have 'projects' which take them beyond their identities as couples and families. Judith's work as biographer, Martin's tapestry, Jack's book, and Brenda's quilts—how did you conceive of these different projects as they reflect these characters?
Judith is writing a biography, trying to see through some of that opaqueness of personality, and Martin, less tormented than Judith by human mystery, is dallying with forms. Jack's book is a joyless task, part of the career package taken on early in his life. His real calling is speculation, not writing; he is a man who is always thinking—this enriches his life but is not directly negotiable in terms of his profession. Brenda is luckier. She loves what she's doing. Her 'career' has evolved almost whimsically, though she is already feeling by the end of the novel some of the ways in which she will be rewarded or judged. I like to write about work, by the way, and wonder why we don't see more of it in our fictions. Anita Brookner is one of those writers who is careful to include the working life of her characters. And John Updike.
You are fascinated by language in much of your work. Small Ceremonies strikes the note, exploring many aspects—biography, novels (Furlong's, Spalding's, Judith's), anecdotal 'stories' (Judith's, Nancy Krantz's, Martin's, Judith's mother's & father's), letters, even Roger's thesis. What does this emphasis on language tell us about you as a writer?
I was surprised myself at how the people in this book kept trying to define themselves through different forms of language. The various texts and tales they bore seemed to say: 'This is how I see it.' I think about language all the time. Words. Their specific weight and connotative clouds. Language has always seemed to me to be a kind of proof of our spiritual nature. Some of the stories in Various Miracles, and also in my most recent book, The Orange Fish, are about the failure of language, the abuse of language, the gaps in language, and others are about the sudden ways in which language releases our best instincts by connecting us one to the other. For example, Kay, in the story 'Times of Sickness and Health' belongs to a Talk Circle. Barbara and Peter in 'Milk Bread Beer Ice' are brought together through the repetition of the title phrase. I hear a lot of talk these days about the new 'language-centred texts' and wonder what on earth is meant by this. Surely the best writing has always been language-centred.
Your first four novels make sets of twins: Small Ceremonies is Judith Gill's book, as The Box Garden is Charlene Forrest's; but they are sisters, and both books share their attempts to deal with a loveless childhood. A Fairly Conventional Woman is an exploration of Brenda Bowman and her view of herself and her marriage, as Happenstance is such an exploration of her husband Jack. In what ways did the second novels grow out of the first ones? How do they act as companion pieces to their respective predecessors?
The first two novels touch only tangentially, meeting perhaps only in the sisters' different ways of looking at their childhood and their mother. I see Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman (Lord, I hate that title!) as fitting together like a puzzle. Both Jack and Brenda possess a partial sense of the history of their marriage, and the irony of it is that neither realizes, and never will, how close they are in their formulation. Marking off their comprehended territory, teasing it through their separate voices, was the happiest writing I've ever done. (A Fairly Conventional Woman is my favourite book—perhaps I'm not allowed to say this.)
Of course you are! But you say you hate its title. Let me name one I love: Various Miracles. What relation does that title bear to the stories in the book?
In a curious way, we carry certain important ideas the whole distance with us. No wonder writers are accused of writing the same book over and over. We are—might as well admit it—preoccupied by particular ways of looking at the world. I have always been compelled, and comforted, too, by the idea of the transcendental moment, that each of us is allotted a few random instances in which we are able to glimpse a kind of pattern in the universe. All my books, I think, even the early books of poetry, try to isolate and examine those odd, inexplicable moments. The accidental particles of our lives, for instance, suddenly align themselves, bringing about illumination, clarity, revelation or extraordinary coincidence—which are in themselves reaffirming. I suppose each of the stories in Various Miracles hangs on this fragile faith. What is one to do with such moments? We seldom speak of them for fear of being misunderstood, and I am told that our language is poor in the kind of vocabulary these events demand. Nevertheless, they must be paid attention to. They are, as my title suggests, miracles.
These transcendental moments. In your earlier books, you present a fairly realistic picture of domestic life; but in the midst of it you sometimes give your characters such moments, which refresh them and bolster them for more normal times. There is the wonderful ending of Small Ceremonies, for example, or Charleen Forrest's rush of happiness in the subway in The Box Garden. Would it be fair to say that the most important move with Various Miracles was a decision to focus on such moments in life, rather than on the everyday which embeds them? And concomitant with that an escape from the constraints of plot?
I am endlessly interested in this idea of everydayness, what exactly we mean when we speak of ordinary life. In my story 'Soup du Jour' I've tried to come at it directly (more or less directly anyway). Ordinary life, depending on how we define it, constrains or frees us. I am not, to go back to your question, anxious to abandon the material we're embedded in, but rather to reveal it for what it is—necessary oxygen. But plot—now there's something I've never been good at and haven't much interest in but which I felt in my early books I had to provide. I suppose a narrative has to have a degree of tension, but I'm finding interesting ways of providing that tension that avoid the old, artificial rhythms of convergence, catastrophe and reconciliation. It seems to me we can only accept this cycle ironically these days, if at all.
Most readers would argue that with the publication of Various Miracles, a new author emerged, radically different from that other author called Carol Shields, who had written novels to that point. Would you agree?
The praise for my recent books has indeed been offset by a certain amount of casual disparagement of my earlier novels. What can I say? One, after all, has a certain affection for previous work; it seems natural to want to protect that work and to point out ways in which it has been undervalued. There are problems in my early books, but they did deal with serious subjects; I have never for one minute regarded the lives of women as trivial, and I've always known that men and women alike possess a domestic life that very seldom finds its way into our fiction. All four of my early novels have a countertext, too, which is only occasionally alluded to in reviews, a kind of mirror commentary, though it seems awfully pompous to speak in such terms.
Beneath the apparent story is an echo of art: biography and fiction in Small Ceremonies, poetry in The Box Garden. Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman have what I like to think is a fairly innovative form—broken time sequences, correspondences of voice and incident and interpretation. The Box Garden has a structural secret too—perhaps too well hidden, since no one's ever noticed it.
Language has been important to me from the beginning; every phrase has mattered, its shape and balance and resonance. What I have learned, though, in my later books is that I can trust the reader, that I can step off in mid-air, so to speak, and take the reader along. That I don't need to tie up all the ends quite so neatly. That it's okay not to be charming all the time. That I don't need to explain everything. Maybe it comes down to being older and braver. And having a few solid books on the shelf.
I suppose it sounds unacceptably naive to say I didn't know rules could be so easily broken. Part of this has to do with being a woman, especially a woman of my generation. Also, I was somewhat poisoned by literature courses in which we were required to dismember our texts—plot, setting, characters and themes—and I suppose I really believed that writers sat down with this kind of checklist. There was so much prohibition in my schooling. Fragments, for instance. No sin was greater than to leave a sentence fragment on the page. What a surprise it was to find that many of the writers I admired, Updike for instance, used them all the time and to great effect. I was scornful, too, of so-called 'experimental' writing. Bored to death by it. (Most of it really was boring, though I think we need a certain amount of avant-garde writing to keep us alert). But after The Box Garden I decided that I was going to abandon formal plot, and the next two novels were a lot more elastic.
And what else? Reading Russell Hoban. Reading Grace Paley and Angela Carter. Films made a difference, the way they can cut and jump. And reading a certain amount of postmodern fiction—much of it deadly and pretentious, but there were glimpses (William Gass) of new places one could dive from. And I had come to a place where I felt I could risk failing, knowing that I was not going to have an enormous audience anyway. I felt I would always be able to find a publisher—because this is important, after all. And I kept reminding myself that if I wrote the books I wanted to read, surely I would find a dozen or so readers of similar temperament. I wanted to try out a few things—write a one-sentence story, for instance (I never did, but did produce a one-sentence chapter in Swann). I wanted to try writing from a void, completely masking the narrator, but haven't managed it yet. Now I am trying to make a sort of hyper-reality jump and 'bending' tone by writing about love in a serious way. It's hard. When people ask me what I'm writing I find it hard to say I'm in the middle of a love story. I keep wanting to apologize or explain. It's ridiculous.
The epigraph from Emily Dickinson that you use in Various Miracles—'Tell all the truth but tell it slant': why did you use it? What does that mean to you?
In general, I distrust epigraphs, the pretentiousness they hint at, the free ride and borrowed grandeur. Nevertheless, I was unable to resist that line from Emily Dickinson as an epigraph for Various Miracles. Of course I have misappropriated her meaning. She was talking about going at the truth sideways in order to protect herself from truth's blinding brilliance. I am talking about approaching stories from subversive directions; my 'slant' involves angles of perspective, voice, and layered perception and structure. I'm interested in abandoning the old problem-solution story—what a setup it comes to be!—and the punishment of those smug advances in self awareness—'and then John realized …'. I like endings that veer off in strange directions, rising rather than falling, or endings that make sudden leaps into the future or the past, bringing about a different quality of oxygen altogether. And I like to approach stories from multiple perspectives, hidden perspectives, from the eyes of children, through objects even or a stumbled-upon phrase: 'Wendy is back.' What I like best is to set up a story traditionally (the title story in The Orange Fish, for example) then turn it upside down or take it into another reality.
Let's move back to titles—and their role in a book. You have said that the second part of the title of Swann—A Mystery—was your publisher's addition to the finished work, that it was not part of your own conception. Do you find the term useful? Does it give us any insight into the novel?
Titles are a problem for me. Strange; you would think that if you could write a book you could write a title, but with two exceptions—Others and Happenstance—the titles of my books have been the result of editorial decisions. My original title for Small Ceremonies was—but I can't even remember, it was so uninspired. The original title for Swann was The Swann Symposium. It was decided that this was too academic and would appeal to too narrow an audience. My publisher, Stoddart, added A Mystery to the title, and I have not been able to decide whether or not this was a good idea. (The American edition, published in July by Viking, has dropped A Mystery from its title.) I don't read traditional mysteries. I don't know the expectations mystery readers bring to their reading. Swann does have what I think of as a tinker-toy mystery, the disappearing manuscripts of Mary Swann, but the real mystery, the one that interests me, is the mystery of human personality and the creation of art, a question that pops up in all my books, even the two early books of poetry—the fact that art is bigger than those who make it, that it comes from unexpectedly common clay, and that its actual creation resists the analytical tools we apply to it. I've known writers to blink when reading their own books and to ask themselves: 'Did I really write this?' It's as though a writer enters a sort of trance while working, or, by working on a book over a long period of time, is able to draw into that work a multitude of selves.
Are you saying that some of your fiction is 'given' as well as 'made'? That it sometimes just comes from somewhere and you take it down?
I've never really had the sensation that my books were 'writing themselves', although ideas do seem to come my way quite freely. I have drawers full of notes and notions, and people are always passing on interesting observations to me. But I am very conscious of making my books, wrenching them into life. They are not, in other words, 'given' to me. I've never really known what I hear some writers describe—an effortless outpouring, as though a hand were guiding the pen.
Besides the chorus you needed to articulate the problem of art and culture you alluded to earlier, were you after anything else in dividing Swann into various voices? Did it give you anything you weren't expecting?
Swann was a difficult book for me to write. Twice I stopped and worked on other books, only to return to it later. I mentioned earlier the problems I was trying to solve, the kind of integration of parts I was hoping for. How was I to do this? I had tried various narrative techniques in my early novels, first person in the first two, third person in the third and fourth. Writing Happenstance gave me some experience in writing from a male perspective. Parts of Various Miracles made use of an omniscient story teller's voice. It occurred to me that the solution to my difficulty with Swann might be a highly schematic approach using a number of different narrative stances. The most interesting for me to write was the Frederic Cruzzi section which employs a sort of splintered omniscience—my own invention, I like to think: his life as seen through artefacts, friends, dreams, reports, letters, rhetorical exercises, a tour of his house, and so on. The different styles, the different perspectives carry the four main characters through a parallel time frame, and deliver them at the same moment in time and space. Why would I create such an elaborate scheme?—because I hoped it would give the book texture and insight and, ultimately, because it gave me pleasure to write it this way.
Why did you choose to endSwannwith a film script?
At last the four characters in Swann came together. I felt at this point that I was watching them, that they had gone out of my consciousness, released as it were from my controlling hand. I was left with what felt like theatre, and so I decided to end the book with a play. It didn't work. It was too confining, though I tried all sorts of ways of shifting the scenery. The idea of a film script seemed to offer a good deal more flexibility, and gave me a chance, too, to nod in the direction of crime films. I worried that readers would have trouble reading a film script—I had never read one myself—but reasoned that they would find themselves at home in the text after the first few pages. I thought that perhaps a parallel situation might be my own reaction to watching films with subtitles; for the first ten minutes I can't stand it, and then, abruptly, I forget they're there. In some ways I think of the novel as two books, the film script being the second—an extra romp and an additional point of view, and demonstration, on the making of art.
Several reviewers have been unhappy with the ending of Swann; how would you answer their dissatisfaction?
A number of readers and reviewers had difficulty not so much with the screenplay as with my abrupt declaration that all the characters, including Mary Swann, were fictional. That surprised me since I had thought that the idea of fiction as seamless illusion had long since been put behind us. I suppose, though, I knew that some readers would be puzzled, and put out, by the screenplay. I thought it was worth the risk. Swann, after all, is about appearance and reality, about the whole nature of what is fictional, what is invented. I wanted to turn the whole novel upside down, inside out. I'm not sorry.
The question of person you mentioned a moment ago: when I read Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, I felt that the first person was perfect for stories that had so close a narrative focus in the main character. But the next two novels operate just as much 'inside' main character, yet are in the third person. What is the difference to you between first and third person narration? What strategies do they help to further?
I switched to third person in Happenstance because it felt too risky using the first person 'I' with a male character. And I found the switch oddly rewarding; I felt less trapped by voice; I could stay close inside Jack's consciousness, as close as I liked, but could also move him around more easily and bring to surfaces a measure of disinterestedness. On the other hand, there's something spacey and springy about using the first person, and I've found it's useful occasionally to start things off that way and then transpose to a third person.
Let's look at your most recent book. Do you see The Orange Fish as carrying on the experiments you began with Various Miracles? Are you working out the same sorts of narrative problems as in the previous volume?
Yes and no. The book doesn't fully reflect the range of my most recent work. I had originally planned to include seven less traditional stories, my 'little weirdies' as my friend Kent Thompson calls them. (Among them was 'Dressing Up for the Carnival', 'Soup du Jour', 'Dying for Love', and 'Reportage'.) I was going to make 'Dressing Up for the Carnival' the title story, in fact, then scuttled it when my editor, Ed Carson, didn't want that story in. For some reason Ed wanted this book to be more accessible. It wasn't so much that he didn't like these stories—he simply felt they didn't work thematically with the others.
I originally intended the stories in this book to revolve loosely around the idea of ageing—something I was thinking a good deal about at the time. 'The Orange Fish' was an attempt to enter a realm of reality in which age was not linear but rather the result of multiplication. (It surprised me that the story was read by many reviewers not as a fabulation, but as a sermon about materialism and that the couple were thought to be 'real' people.)
When I read the proofs for the book I realized that the theme of ageing had been rather lost, and that what the stories shared was a view of language, how it serves and also fails us. As in Various Miracles, there were certain 'experiments': in 'Hazel', for instance, I wanted to reproduce the chorus of voices in her head—her daughters, her mother-in-law, her best friend, her dead husband—that directed her life, but that gradually faded. (I think we all carry around with us a similar tape-recorded set of directives.) 'Fuel for the Fire' was an attempt to write a non-ironic story.
This change of plan and of title. We'll assume a title provides a way in to a book, and that a title derived from one of the stories is asking us to view the whole from the perspective of that story. So, why The Orange Fish?
Does the title serve the book? In a sense, yes. The eye of the orange fish is ultimately mysterious. Each of the stories, I think, draws mystery from some unlikely object or observation or phrase. The sign Milk Bread Beer Ice, the conch shell in 'Hazel', the blisterlilies in 'Today Is the Day'.) My favourite story in the book is 'Collision' because I think it relocates the whole idea of traditional plot.
When you write, do you simply have a story to tell, or do you have a technical problem you are setting out to solve?
There's always a technical problem, and, oddly enough, the problem, like a coat hook, gives me something to hang the fiction on. For example, I had originally hoped that each section of Swann would stand alone as a novella, and that the film script too would have an independent existence. This doesn't quite happen—everything leans just a few degrees on everything else—but it is the kind of problem that I like to play with. I have a hard time knowing what sets a piece of writing on its course. Sometimes it's just a word or a phrase, sometimes a problem or a puzzle. Often a piece starts with an observation, something odd, something surreal, the one thing that doesn't fit in. I remember once writing a poem about a man I saw who was sitting on his front lawn in front of an ironing board, typing. Another time I wrote a story about an elderly woman I happened to see, who was mowing her lawn, wearing a pair of terrible shorts and a man's hat. Another story came into being when I saw a sign in a hairdressers saying 'Karen is back.' Who is Karen, I wondered, and why is her return being announced to the public? I try to enter the story at the point that interests me most, and after that it's a question of 'piecing' it together.
How does this 'piecing it together' work? Do you have any principles of development that you follow?
I write it over and over, and each time it gets longer, thicker. I think about it while I do other things, walking, driving, shopping, cooking. Sometimes I wake up in the morning with a new paragraph in my head. I have the very real sense when I'm working that I'm making something, and it is this 'making' that gives me such intense pleasure. I especially love rewriting. I love, in my mother's words, 'taking pains.' It's the first hacking out of the first draft that I find so painful, and the fear, always there, that this time it won't work.
You have said that the constraints of your domestic life led you to the habit of writing only a few hours a day. Has that regimen affected the nature of what you have written?
I'm an economical writer, doing a great many drafts, but with no large abandoned projects. I suppose this reflects the time and society in which I grew up. We were taught as children to be task-oriented, to finish what we started. When I started writing seriously in the early seventies I had very little time I could call my own. If I managed to catch one hour a day I felt fortunate, and I usually tried for an hour late in the morning before my children came home for lunch. I might also, on a good day, find an additional half an hour in the late afternoon to go over what I had written, perhaps even adding a line or two. The next day I started again. This was the way my first two novels were written, and they do feel to me today a little thin. Gradually my free time expanded, but I must confess that I'm not much more productive. I can do about two new pages a day and not more. I need to think about what I am writing, let it stir. I remember that one of my children once said to me, 'Mummy, why are you moving your lips?' I was of course planning my next scene. Writing.
Certain things in writing fiction are more problematical than others. But, as you develop your craft, you get the 'hang' of them; some of them become easier. Some, however, become more difficult. What changes have occurred in this regard since you first began writing fiction? What things are most challenging for you at the moment?
I'm trying right now to write a serious novel about love, love between a man and a woman, and have discovered that the language of love has been trivialized in our society and that the literature of love is more than a little fluffy. Lovers are silly people, childish, envied but barely tolerated. How am I going to make this love credible, intelligent?—that's the question I ask myself these days. I worry, too, about age, that certain forms of creativity are taken from us, and also the bravado to bluster our way into a new piece of writing. I worry sometimes that my love of style overcomes the substance of my writing. Sometimes I see clearly enough that a piece of writing is overworked and lacking in freshness, that it is in fact less than honest, and that I've sacrificed something important merely to make the words dance. I once wrote eight pages describing a hotel lobby, right down to the ash trays on the coffee tables—the most terrible kind of indulgence, like painting a fingernail over and over. I know I'm being dishonest when I start throwing in the names of wild flowers or the brand names of cigarettes. That's when I have to sit back and remind myself of what I learned when I was twenty-nine years old and beginning to write poetry. (It's not enough, it seems, to learn these things once—we keep having to repeat the lesson, absorbing it again and again and again) I have to stop and take a deep breath. And speak directly, sternly, to the words on the paper, and ask: 'Is this really what I mean?'
Addison, Catherine. "Lost Things." Canadian Literature, No. 121 (Summer 1989): 158-60.
Argues that Swann is reflective of Shields herself.
Beaton, Virginia. A review of A Celibate Season, by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. Books in Canada XX, No. 8 (November 1991): 51.
Argues that A Celibate Season is well-written and believable.
Beddoes, Julie. "Sweet Nothings." Books in Canada 10, No. 5 (May 1981): 31-2.
Argues that although Shields is successful in developing characters, Happenstance lacks a sufficient plot.
Benedict, Elizabeth. "Below the Surface." Los Angeles Times Book Review (17 April 1994): 3, 7.
Favorably reviews Happenstance, A Fairly Conventional Woman, and The Stone Diaries.
Bessai, Diane. "Poetry from Ottawa." The Canadian Forum LV, No. 652 (July 1975): 36-8.
Reviews Intersect and argues that Shields needs more editing of her poetry.
Campbell, Grant. A review of Swann: A Mystery, by Carol Shields. Queen's Quarterly 96, No. 1 (Spring 1989): 153-55.
Praises the first half of Swann but finds the conclusion disappointing.
Collins, Anne. "Can This Marriage Be Saved—Again?" Maclean's 95, No. 42 (18 October 1982): 78.
Argues that A Fairly Conventional Woman adds little to its sequel, Happenstance.
Fernández, Sandy M. A review of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, by Carol Shields. Ms. VI, No. 4 (January-February 1996): 90-1.
States that neither Small Ceremonies nor The Box Garden is as good as The Stone Diaries.
Giltrow, Janet. "Strange Attractors." West Coast Review 23, No. 3 (Winter 1988): 57-66.
Examines the creation and transmission of art in The Orange Fish.
Gould, Jean. "Our Chaotic World." Belles Lettres 7, No. 4 (Summer 1992): 20.
Compares Shields's The Republic of Love to Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon.
Groening, Laura. "Still in the Kitchen: The Art of Carol Shields." Canadian Forum LXIX, No. 796 (January-February 1991): 14-17.
Argues that Shields is not a true feminist.
Helwig, Maggie. "Constructing Ourselves for Others." The Canadian Forum LXVII, Nos. 776-777 (February-March 1988): 48-9.
Praises Swann as a daring and exciting novel.
Hill, Douglas. "Intimate Pleasures." Books in Canada 14, No. 7 (October 1985): 16-7.
Argues that in Various Miracles, Shields transforms ordinary events into extraordinary stories.
Karlin, Danny. "Mary Swann's Way." London Review of Books 12, No. 18 (27 September 1990): 20-1.
Praises Shields's confident tone and skillful character depictions in Swann.
Kemp, Peter. "Conjugal Arrangements." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4642 (20 March 1992): 21.
Argues that Shields's combination of mythical, modern, exhilarating, and melancholy elements in The Republic of Love enlivens the love story.
Kietner, Wendy. "No Second Stage." Canadian Literature, No. 99 (Winter 1983): 116-19.
Compares A Fairly Conventional Woman to Joan Barfoot's Dancing in the Dark.
Klinkenborg, Verlyn. "A Maze Makes Sense from Above." New York Times Book Review (7 September 1997): 7.
Praises Larry's Party as an unusual account of a man's life.
Ledger, Brent. "Wild, Wild World." Maclean's 102, No. 23 (5 June 1989): 61.
Argues that in The Orange Fish, Shields crafts profound stories out of the banal events of daily life.
Lipman, Elinor. "Making Winnipeg Safe for Mermaids." New York Times Book Review (14 March 1992): 14, 16.
Favorably reviews The Republic of Love.
Messud, Claire. "Why So Gloomy?" New York Times Book Review (7 January 1996): 12.
Compares Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden.
Prosser, David. "Unpunctually Yours." Books in Canada XXII, No. 6 (September 1993): 34-5.
Reviews Shields's play Thirteen Hands.
Rubins, Josh. "They All Want a Piece of the Legend." New York Times Book Review (6 August 1989): 11.
Favorably reviews Various Miracles but finds fault with Swann.
Sigurdson, Norman. "Carol Shields: Raising Everyday Lives to the Level of Art." Quill & Quire 53, No 11 (November 1987): 21.
Argues that Swann is successful because it builds on Shields's earlier novels but adds more focus and drama.
Skuce, Joel. "Natural, Physical Simplicity." Canadian Forum LXXII, No. 824 (November 1993): 44-5.
Argues that in Coming to Canada, Shields creates fine poetry from common incidences.
Thomas, Clara. "Reassembling Fragments: Susanna Moodie, Carol Shields, and Mary Swann." In Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, edited by W. H. New, pp. 196-204. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Examines the poetry Shields wrote in Swann to serve as the voice for Mary Swann.
Wallace, Bronwen. "Going Swimmingly." Books in Canada 18, No. 4 (May 1989): 32.
States that The Orange Fish builds on Shields's earlier collection Various Miracles.
Werlock, Abby H. P. "Canadian Identity and Women's Voices: The Fiction of Sandra Birdsell and Carol Shields." In Canadian Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, pp. 126-41. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.
Compares the presentation of Canadian identity in the work of Sandra Birdsell and Carol Shields.
Whitlock, Gillian. "Fabulous Keys." Canadian Literature, No. 110 (Fall 1986): 157-60.
Reviews Various Miracles and compares it to Marian Engel's The Tattooed Woman.
Wigston, Nancy. A review of A Celibate Season, by Carol Shields and Blanche Howard. Quill and Quire 57, No. 11 (November 1991): 18.
Favorably reviews A Celibate Season.
Wilson, Dean. "Problematic Reaches." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4572 (16-22 November 1990): 1232.
Favorably reviews Swann but finds the final chapter problematic.
Woodcock, George. "Testing the Boundaries." Quill & Quire 59, No. 8 (August 1993): 31.
Reviews The Stone Diaries and praises Shields for her dexterity in handling an extensive plot.
Welsh-Vickar, Gillian. "A Fairly Unconventional Writer." Canadian Author and Bookman 63, No. 2 (Winter 1988): 7.
Interview in which Shields discusses the themes that interest her as a writer.
SOURCE: "Telling It Slant," in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 4, May, 1988, pp. 9-14.
[In the following essay, Wachtel provides an overview of Shields's life and career.]
Four years ago, when Carol Shields turned 50, her writing turned a corner. The titles tell all. Before: Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance, and A Fairly Conventional Woman. After: Various Miracles, Swann: A Mystery, and now, The Orange Fish. "You get older and braver," she says, "braver about what you can say and what can be understood."
Her first four novels presented reliable pictures of middle-class, domestic life. Shields is expert at evoking the feelings and concerns of ordinary people—their ambivalence about their families, their jobs, and their mates. Her characters think. They try to be nice. And they often get stuck in boring situations—with spouses, parents, or colleagues. It's not the mad trapped housewife that Shields finds in suburbia, but relatively happy families coping with change, recognizing some uneasiness around the edges, but committed to the safety of the familiar. It's that world of dirty dishes, tired casseroles, and the acute desperation of school projects. The virtues, joys, and griefs of everyday life are cherished. Shields doesn't satirize; she reassures, but not in a smug or cloying way. Her style is often ironic, affectionately mocking—especially of academic life—lightly humorous, with a delicacy and subtlety of language that elicit (not entirely appropriate) comparisons with Jane Austen. These early books not only deal with prosaic subjects—which are, of course, the stuff of life—but they are "fairly conventionally" written. There's more attention to language and craft than is commonly recognized, but they're essentially naturalistic.
In Various Miracles, Shields's 1985 collection of short fiction, the lid came off. Shields began to experiment with different ways (and voices) to tell stories. She flouted conventions against literary coincidence, building the title story ["Various Miracles"] on a series of "miraculous" circumstances, creating an imaginative interweaving of events that lead to a playful "trick" ending. A character in the story is also a character in a manuscript in the story—a Russian doll-like construction. Shields takes a leaf from the postmodernist's book and writes, "Sometimes it's better to let things be strange and to represent nothing but themselves." The stories lift off the ground, take some sharp corners and find their own way, often at curious angles.
The book's epigraph is Emily Dickinson's "Tell the truth but tell it slant." Shields bends its meaning a little. In Dickinson's poem, the truth is so brilliant that if we look at it directly, we'll be blinded. Shields interprets this obliqueness as an invitation to experiment with a range of narrative approaches—omniscient, direct, fractured. "Telling the story from the slant," she says, "can sometimes lead you into the presence of an unreliable narrator, the narrator who understands everything, except what is central." This is what Shields developed in her next novel, Swann: A Mystery—a wonderful book, more adventurous than anything she'd ever done. Told from the point of view of four solitaries, each in search of a kind of family or connection, the book is a double mystery, about the missing manuscripts of a dead poet, and the profound mystery of human personality.
Carol Shields is sitting at a restaurant, looking like a character from one of her early novels. What used to be called sensibly dressed: a soft cream-coloured sweater fastened at the neck with a gold bow pin. Matching skirt, pumps. Simple stud earrings; pearl ring and gold bracelet on one hand; gold wedding band and diamond engagement ring on the other. Shields is thin, with short blond hair and clear blue eyes behind thick-lensed glasses, which she removes and folds on the table. She has a small, soft, sometimes hesitant voice. She admits to a certain passivity, a reticence. And then disarms by saying, "Okay, ask me something personal." But when you do, she becomes abstract or ducks behind a book she's read. "Print is her way of entering and escaping the world." (Various Miracles)
"It concerns me," she confesses, "that the books I've read have been a big part of the way I experience the world—maybe more than for other people. And I do wonder if there is maybe something substandard about that." Surprising from a woman who's raised five children, published ten books, and who's lived in the U.S., England, France, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. But learning to read at four, she claims, "realizing that those symbols meant something that I could be part of," was the central mystical experience of her life. She speculates that her early fascination with language may have been related to her short-sightedness, that instead of engaging with visual images, she got hooked on language and the magic it contained.
Carol Shields grew up in Dick-and-Jane-land. Oak Park is an older, stable suburb of Chicago, famous for its early 20th-century Frank Lloyd Wright houses. It was homogeneously white and middle class. Shields and her slightly older twin siblings lived with their parents in a large white stucco house. Her father managed a candy factory. Her mother, of Swedish stock and also a twin, taught fourth grade until she had children of her own, and then resumed after the war when there was a teacher shortage. While still a young woman, her mother boarded with Ernest Hemingway's parents, who lived in Oak Park. Shields captured this incident in an early poem, and in greater detail in a new story called "Family Secrets" in The Orange Fish. What amazed Shields was how her mother was never curious to read Hemingway despite living under his roof. In the story, the daughter speculates on her mother's life and its hidden corners, and ultimately treasures her own bundle of secrets.
The only books around Carol's house were her parents' childhood reading—Horatio Alger and Anne of Green Gables and Louisa May Alcott. Her mother read to her a lot—even pedestrian series like The Bobbsey Twins—and until eighth grade, Carol attended the local library's story hour. "That combination of drama and narrative was something I loved," she says. Central to her recollection of this time is her fondness for Dick and Jane—those school readers. "I understood Jane," she says almost ingenuously. "I suppose I imagined a life for her that wasn't really there in the reader, but she was someone I found interesting and related to. Jane was very sturdy and knew her own mind, I always thought. And I loved the way that Dick was so good to her, so protective of her, so unlike most brothers. Everyone was terribly good to everyone else; there were no bad intentions. They seemed like real people to me and their world seemed wonderfully safe and ordered. Probably even safer and more ordered than my own safe and ordered world. This sort of extraordinary goodness is very appealing to children."
She pauses. "What a place to grow up! Like growing up in a plastic bag is how I think of it—a very safe place to grow up." But surely a plastic bag is more suffocating than safe? "It's funny," she says. "I always knew that something was wrong with it, but I never knew what it was until I went away. What was wrong was that there wasn't enough: it was all very good, it just wasn't enough. Everyone went to church. I can't believe this, everyone went to church."
Shields recently went home for her high school's 35th reunion. She stood on a familiar corner and experienced "the opposite of nostalgia"—relief that she'd escaped. Her parents were timid people, so any intellectual expectations she sensed came from an affluent, kindly school system. "All my teachers at that time were unmarried, middle-aged and bosomy," she says, aware of the fulfilled stereotype. "They were wonderful women and very caring." But it was limited—or insulated. "Imagine growing up a few blocks from where James T. Farrell lived and not knowing it." Farrell, an early communist, is famous for the Studs Lonigan trilogy, a powerful indictment of the American dream.
But Shields was locked into her own dreamy childhood. She was the class poet, turning out sonnets that she knew even then were infused with false rhetoric. She was encouraged by her parents and teachers, published in the school paper, and liked to write. Shields didn't actually think she could be a writer until much later—in her late 20s. The high school yearbook said she was the one who'd write the novel. "But I never believed that for a minute. I'd never met a writer. It was like wanting to be a movie star." Her parents wanted her to have a career "to fall back on." This was the '50s and "we all knew we would get married and have children."
Shields went to Hanover College, a small conservative school in Indiana. "I did what most people did: I just sent off for all kinds of university catalogues and chose one that looked like a 'Father Knows Best' college." Shields is mildly self-deprecating, not ironic. She regrets not being "braver" and going to a bigger urban school. She even found herself sucked into a sorority, unable to buck convention. "Education was wasted on me," she says. "I was much more interested in falling in love and going to dances." But she read. And one "lucky" thing was a junior year exchange program with Exeter University in England. It was a great revelation to encounter a truly academic atmosphere where people took their subjects seriously. Carol thrived. She also met Donald Shields, a Canadian engineering grad student, whom she married when she graduated. By this time, she'd forgotten about being a writer. "I was just interested in being in love and having a house—the whole Ladies' Home Journal thing." In fact, when her mother first met Don, she told him she hoped he'd encourage Carol to keep on writing, and Don looked blank. They were engaged to be married and Carol had never mentioned to him that she wrote. It wasn't until they were settled in Toronto, with the first of their five children, that Don suggested she take a University of Toronto course in magazine writing.
"I can't remember much about it except that a woman lectured to us once a week. She wore a big hat and she never took it off. There were about 40 of us and she said, 'When you send in a manuscript, you should use a paper-clip and not a staple.'" At the end of the term, students were expected to write something, so Carol wrote a short story. A few months later, the teacher called. She'd sold her story to CBC Radio—the old John Drainie program, 15 minutes narrated by Drainie. But even this success didn't galvanize Shields. She figured she'd write stories when she had the chance. And about once a year she'd "stir her stumps" and write a story and sell it to the CBC or BBC. She was busy, full of energy. She still read a lot and there was never a year when she wasn't taking "some course or other" in law or English. By the time she was 25, she had three children and was living in Manchester, where Don got his Ph.D. Yet Shields feels that she had a prolonged childhood, that she stayed in a sort of infancy, and didn't really wake up until, her late 20s. There's a line in her fourth novel, A Fairly Conventional Woman, about a housewife on the verge of artistic recognition: "What a dumb sap she was, detained too long in girl-hood, an abstainer from adult life." And although Shields clearly has done a lot in her life, it fits her self-perception as a passive observer, able to mediate with life primarily through books—her own and others'. Intrigued by history and biography, she lives these interests vicariously, through her characters: the biographer Judith Gill of her first novel, Small Ceremonies, and the historian Jack Bowman of her third, Happenstance. Of all her characters, it is with Jack the observer that Shields says she most identifies.
Suddenly, as if to underline her position as bystander, she leans across the table and says, sotto voce, "I've just been to New York and it's a great place to eavesdrop because they talk so loud and about such interesting things. Can you hear what they're saying at the next table? I think she's a writer because she was talking about writing books, but now she's talking about cooking so maybe she writes cookbooks." Shields smiles, resumes eating and demurely waits for another question.
On the boat home from England, Shields read Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique. She thought about going to law school. She joined a "Great Books" discussion group and she had another baby. She also started reading the English poet, Philip Larkin. Excited by the honesty of his writing, she started writing poetry again. At that time, CBC Radio had a Young Writers' Competition. The cut-off was 30; Shields was 29. She wrote seven poems. It was the first time in her life that she took her writing seriously. She won.
"That led me into a period, of about five years, writing poetry," she explains. "It was an enormously happy writing time. I was very strict with myself. I followed Larkin's set of rules: no pretty language. If anything was pretty, out it went. Unfortunately, I also borrowed some of his despair, I think, in my first few poems. I can remember my friends being a little worried about me."
She published in The Canadian Forum and a few other magazines. Then the family moved to Ottawa, where her husband was associated with the University of Ottawa. This meant free tuition for Carol. "Being very thrifty about these things, I decided I'd better take advantage of it." She enrolled in a master's program in English and discovered Susanna Moodie. "First I was going to do a thesis on P. K. Page because I liked her poetry. I even interviewed her when she was in Ottawa. I spoke to her about her work and asked what one of her poems meant. She said, 'I haven't the faintest idea.' At this time I was rather severe about these things, and I thought, 'If she doesn't know what it means, why am I going to try and figure it out?' Since then, I've met all sorts of poets who don't understand their writing and I've even written things I don't quite understand."
Shields was drawn to Moodie's trashy English novels and what they revealed about her Canadian work, Roughing It in the Bush and Life in the Clearings. She was surprised by the sibling rivalry that surfaced between Moodie and her sister, Catharine Parr Trail, who was a little older and more beautiful. She was also struck by the male-female relations in those books. Moodie paid lip service to the supremacy of men and then depicted weak men and strong women. There was a recurring tableau of the recumbent male being nursed back to health by the upright female. Shields wrote her thesis in the early '70s when feminism was in the air, but "being out of things is sort of my hobby," she jokes. Like her socialism—she describes herself as "an instinctive pink"—Shields's feminism is latent. She values the lives of women, especially the women friends she's kept all her life. But, she says, "I never went through those consciousness-raising sessions. A lot of my experience of what a woman's life could be—seeing other patterns of being—came from reading American and British fiction, not from reality." At the same time, Shields was annoyed that most women were portrayed as bitches or bubble-heads in fiction, a lot less kind and dumber than the women she knew. She started to think about writing a novel.
While still in graduate school, however, she published two small books of poetry, Others and Intersect. "Portraits" is how she thinks about those poems. They're about friends, parents, children; a married couple's bedtime rituals, a family dinner, anniversaries, a child learning to talk—the furniture of her novels.
During work on her thesis, she also got her first job—editorial assistant for a scholarly quarterly, Canadian Slavonic Papers. A "jobette" she calls it, conscious of its relative insignificance. But it was important, not only because she passed it on to Charleen, heroine of her second novel, The Box Garden, but because "all those years I was at home with children, I never thought I would have a job." Now she teaches part-time at the University of Manitoba.
Shields dropped out of university for one term to try to write a novel, a literary whodunit, perhaps foreshadowing Swann: A Mystery. It was rejected by three publishers. "But they wrote very nice letters so I thought I would try again." This time she had more confidence, having written one book and a thesis. She wrote two pages a day, every day, and at the end of nine months, she had a novel, Small Ceremonies. Although the book isn't programmatic, there were several things she wanted it to feature: a heroine with a reflective side to her life; a woman who had friends; a context in which there were children; and some of the "leftover" Susanna Moodie material that was too conjectural for her thesis. The result was an intelligent, quiet book about Judith Gill, a biographer of Susanna Moodie, who also tries to write a novel while on sabbatical in England with her husband. The book signposted some recurring themes: an academic environment with a satirical edge; a middle-class woman who's not entirely content; and a fascination with biography coexistent with an awareness of its limitations. Drawn by her feeling of connection with the past, Shields wanted to fill in the spaces, the silences of Susanna Moodie's life. The things Moodie left out of her own writing were the authentic parts; what's there is less so. It's like reading a negative. "How do you retrieve someone who is dead and try to build up with the nib of your pen that personality who was, in a sense, voiceless about things that mattered?" This is a question she poses again in Swann: A Mystery, in which a quartet of characters try to resurrect the silent, dead poet, Mary Swann, who was brutally murdered by her husband 15 years before the novel begins. Shields's answer is to turn to fiction rather than biography because it can delve into the place where "ninetenths" of our lives occurs: in our heads. "The only story with a nice firm shape to it is the story of a human life," she says, "but so much of it is unknowable." Invention can fill in those gaps. And it can record those small rituals that give ordinary life its continuity. Although the title was serendipitous (chosen by her publisher), a sense of the ceremonial—small ceremonies—is very important to Shields. It's how we keep ourselves glued together and hold emptiness at bay. "Habit is the flywheel of society, conserving and preserving and dishing up tidy, edible slices of the cosmos." (Swann: A Mystery)
It's a philosophy present in all of Shields's writing. "Dailiness to be sure has its hard deposits of ennui, but it is also, as Mary Swann suggests, redemptive."
Carol Shields's 40th birthday was another turning point in her life. After three rejections, a publisher accepted Small Ceremonies, her thesis on Susanna Moodie [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision] was also to be published (as Voice and Vision), and she was off for a year in France during her husband's sabbatical. The day after she arrived in Brittany, she started her next novel, The Box Garden, which takes up the story of Judith Gill's sister, Charleen. "I wanted to get back into a novel quickly," she says. "There is a kind of post-partum feeling after a book." She missed her characters and decided to pick up another thread in the same family. The writing went easily and it too was finished in nine months. In some ways less successful than Small Ceremonies, it suffered from her susceptibility to her editor's advice. Small Ceremonies, she was told, didn't have a lot happening. So Shields added plot, a pseudo-kidnapping and police, to The Box Garden. "You can imagine how I much I know about these things," she says. "I should have listened to my doubts."
Shields looks back on those novels, (soon to be reissued in paperback), and is surprised by how stingy she was with detail. "I think I wrote very thinly. Part of it had to do with only writing for an hour a day and not having time to think over what I was doing. I seemed to write in spare little scenes where you're supposed to pick up the interior sense from exterior details. Now I'm interested in interior details—going really where film and television can't go. I like a dense texture, even in short stories."
In "Collision," an odd story in the new collection, The Orange Fish, Shields describes the accidental collision of two people in a tiny eastern European country. An indigenous film-maker and an American tourist development consultant face a downpour outside a restaurant, where each has been dining with others. Neither can speak the other's language. They share an umbrella for a kilometre to the town square. This linking in time is an example of a recurrent motif in Shields's work—what might be called numinous moments. Fifteen minutes and it's over. But "sacredness attaches itself invisibly to certain rare moments." (The Orange Fish)
Naturally, this is based on Shields's own experience. She was in Tokyo, not Europe, but she walked under a stranger's umbrella, rhythmically in step, and felt that she could have gone on like that forever. "I believe in these moments," she says, "when we do feel or sense the order of the universe beneath the daily chaos. They're like a great gift of happiness that comes unexpectedly."
Shields also recognizes their obverse. Days when she senses the fragility of all our arrangements and how vulnerable we are to loss and tragic reversal. "It doesn't matter how insulated you are," she says, "you have these frightening glimpses of the utter meaninglessness of your life. It's a kind of angst when you suddenly feel that you're alone and powerless and nothing makes any sense. It's the opposite of those transcendental moments when you perceive the pattern of the universe." Shields is interested in capturing both those extremes and finding a language to express them. In Swann: A Mystery, these flashes occur back to back when the 80-year-old retired editor, Frederick Cruzzi, is first blissfully happy with his wife and their simple meal together, and then horror-stricken when he thinks she has inadvertently destroyed Mary Swann's poems. It's not simply alternate joy and despair—each comes with the certainty of revelation.
Swann explores that gap between appearance and reality. What is really at the core of a person? How much do we actually see? The poet Mary Swann herself is a complete unknown, a woman who lived virtually without record. Shields creates four sympathetic characters who appropriate her life, and reconstruct it to fit their needs—and as Shields sees it, their desire to connect with someone. It's Shields's first novel without children, something she only realized after it was finished. Her own children have grown, left home. It's given her greater freedom, but even after four years, she misses them. "It's very hard to sit down at the dinner table with just two people," she says.
There are no conspicuous children in The Orange Fish—except for the occasional childhood flashback of the narrator. Shields likes to play with time. History orders the past, arranging events on a time line. She also projects forward into a future from which to look back on this moment in the present. Sometimes, as in the end of the story, "Hinterland," it's a flattened future, like the images in a pop-up book, recognizable and folded inside each other.
The experimentation that was unleashed in Various Miracles is only partly present in The Orange Fish. There is even a story totally without irony—"not a scrap," she says. "I felt I was so ironic I was getting lockjaw." Shields isn't interested in postmodernism per se, but in the kinds of freedom she can get working out a narrative idea. She figures these kinds of styles are in the air and acquired by osmosis. One friend suggested it came from living in Manitoba, Bob Kroetsch-land, but Shields says no, like most things, it's from reading. Her work has struck responsive chords in other writers—from Kent Thompson's "postcard fiction" to Aritha van Herk, who recently wrote: "I have an image of Carol Shields…. I do not know the real woman, at least not well enough to count, but I do know this floating and powerful florentine engraving on air who nets fictions as turned and strange as brass rubbings, the articulate spines of fish, slender piles of knuckle bones."
Donna Smyth, a Halifax writer, was dazzled by the virtuosity of Swann. "The writing is superb," she says. "And as always with a Carol Shields book, you come away with this reverence for the way we are able to celebrate together what we are and what we don't know about each other. It's a real mystery, that."
Why isn't Shields better known? Is it because quiet books are tagged for quiet promotion? That women's lives and a "domestic" circumference are of only marginal interest? Or that her changing publishers over the years has meant a limited commitment to her as an author? Swann is only now coming out in paperback, a year and a half after publication, (and its nomination for a Governor General's Award). But surely the cumulative impact of The Orange Fish and Swann and Various Miracles within four years, plus the American release of Swann and Various Miracles this spring (by Viking/Penguin) will change that. Or is it the old regional conundrum? Shields hasn't lived in Toronto since she started publishing. She's moved a lot so she hasn't even been identified with a particular "region" and her books are set in France or Chicago or Scarborough—not Winnipeg.
In that last-named city, her spacious apartment overlooks the curve of the Assiniboine River. It's the first time she's ever not lived in a large Victorian house, and she wasn't sure about it at first. The place is on the seventh floor and there are trees that come as high as the windows, lots of light and no curtains. The living room has a fireplace and a wall of books. Shields boasts of only two things—"excellent reading lamps everywhere" and art that she and her husband have been collecting since they first lived in England. Her favorite is a Joe Fafard litho called "Bird's Eye" with an egg-shaped world floating in space and his trademark cows. In her kitchen is a print called "The Orange Fish." Now you feel as if you're inside one of her clever stories; the title story of the new book is about a couple who hang a litho called "The Orange Fish" in their kitchen.
Shields is fascinated by the way we share memories: how even people who are very close will remember things differently. And also, the silences between people, the acceptable silences. Of her early A Fairly Conventional Woman (her favourite of all her novels), she says "I wanted to write about two people who were more or less happily married, but who were, in fact, strangers to each other and always would be, and the value of that strangeness."
Shields's next novel, Bodies of Water, is about love and the search for the other, "or maybe not." Shields feels the need for an other. "Our own lives really aren't quite enough for us, we have to live some of our lives vicariously or it's just too narrow. Who we bump up against, what they mean to us, is what's interesting."
She recalls an image by the 8th-century historian, the Venerable Bede. How our actual life is such a little thing that it's like a bird in the darkness suddenly finding a way into the banquet hall and flying through, looking down at all the banqueters, and then flying out the other side. Shields says what a wonderful image that is, then adds, "I always thought how much better it would be if there were two birds flying together."
SOURCE: "Shields' Swann," in Room of One's Own, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2, July, 1989, pp. 136-46.
[In the essay below, Smyth explores the meaning of identity for the protagonist in Swann.]
We believe we are at home in the immediate circle of beings. Beings are familiar, reliable, ordinary. Nevertheless, the lighting is pervaded by a constant concealment in the double form of refusal and dissembling. At bottom, the ordinary is not ordinary; it is extra-ordinary.
(Martin Heidegger, Origins of the Work of Art)
Who is Swann? This question haunts the text, teasing readers and characters into laughter, frustration, recognition. Bittersweet mysteries of life. Shields insists on them, on us as mysterious creatures, riddled with doubt and anxiety, shot through with a capacity for concealment, for relief in the warmth of the body next to us in the bed, in the small pleasures and ceremonies of everyday life, in the song the poet sings.
Mary Swann, farmer's wife, poet. Lived in obscurity outside the small town of Nadeau, Ontario. Died violently at the hands of her husband who then shot himself. No note, no explanation. Only Mary's poems left behind and a few artifacts from the hard-scrabble farm where she lived most of her adult life. One child, a daughter, who lives in California, a world away, selves away from the farm.
Mary Swann, discovered long after her death and brought to the light of literary day by Sarah Maloney, feminist academic in this fictional weave. Sarah writes the "seminal" article on Swann which sets the academic bloodhounds in full pursuit.
Mary Swann, the Canadian Emily Dickinson, murdered? Why? What was inside the head of this ordinary woman who wrote such extraordinary poetry? Morton Jimroy, academic biographer, pursues these mysteries for the biography he is writing in the fiction in which he is a character.
Mary Swann, the poor farm woman who sometimes sent her poems to the local paper, and had several conversations with Rose Hindmarch, lonely librarian and town clerk of Nadeau. Rose creates the Mary Swann Memorial Room in the local museum of which she is curator in the fiction in which she is a character.
Mary Swann, who, on that fatal snowy afternoon, came to the door of Frederic Cruzzi, international intellectual, editor of the local paper, and co-publisher with his wife, Hildë, of obscure but deserving regional Canadian poets. Came to the door with her poems and her frozen feet. Was murdered later that evening by her brute of a husband. Cruzzi, who later with Hildë edits and publishes the poems which appear in the fiction in which he and Hildë are characters.
Fictions within fiction. This existential mystery plays with us like any good mystery, weaving a complicated plot, scattering clues. Not only has Mary Swann been murdered but then, at a crucial academic conference, copies of her notebook, her only poems, articles about her life and work start to disappear. At first the other characters think these artifacts are merely mislaid or lost. Then it becomes clear that somebody is deliberately stealing them. Why? For what purpose?
Multi-tiered, intricately structured, the novel leads us to questions which demand factual answers but the facts are few and hard to come by and seem elusive as fiction. And, out of these facts, the human imagination shapes new realities which some might call fiction. The Swann poems, for example, as Exhibit One. The text reveals them to us as powerful in their own right/write:
Blood pronounces my name Blisters the day with shame Spends what little I own, Robbing the hour, rubbing the bone.
But are these really Swann's poems? Consider, for example, that Hildë wraps the fish bones in the original manuscript—a bag of scraps of song—and then she and Frederic have to painstakingly reconstruct them. Hildë, who is herself a poet but cannot focus her energies in poems, completes many lines which are blurred, wavery, disappeared with fish juice and slime and scales. Consider, too, the final scene where, the poems, having disappeared again, are once more being reconstructed lovingly, with care, in a collective effort by a group of scholars who ordinarily would be fiercely competitive with each other, but, in this miraculous moment of recreation, are absorbed in a divine task. Shields' final "Director's Note" states:
The faces of the actors have been subtly transformed. They are seen joined in a ceremonial act of reconstruction, perhaps even an act of creation. There need be no suggestion that any one of them will become less selfish in the future, less cranky, less consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory, but each of them has, for the moment at least, transcended personal concerns. (Swann)
Consider, too, the name: Swann. Enough to conjure up the past, Marcel Proust's past where memory/imagination/desire are the creation of Time, in Time. In Heidegger's terms, Time as the horizon of Being. Being, which we can only know as being-in-the-world, reveals her to us. Two things then: first, memory slippage into imaginative reconstruction—Sarah's articles, Jimroy's biography, Rose's memorial room, all focused around the elusive figure of Mary Swann (and, as we have seen, the poems themselves). Memory, which "plays tricks on us," as Shields hints when the narrator comments on the bedroom of Frederic and Hildë Cruzzi:
The scenes that have taken place in this room are unguessable. Memory, that folded book, alters and distorts our most intimate settings so that passion, forgiveness, and the currency of small daily bargains are largely stolen from us—which may be just as well. (Swann)
Second, the everyday thingness of the world—these "small daily bargains" signalled by Mary Swann's stubborn "ordinariness." Sarah, thinking about one of Mary's poems, says:
She spelled it out. The mythic heavings of the universe, so baffling, so incomprehensible, but when squeezed into digestible day-shaped bytes, made swimmingly transparent. Dailiness…. Whenever I meet anyone new, I don't say, "Tell me about your belief system." I say, "Tell me about your average day." (Swann)
What is attractive to Sarah is sheer frustration to Jimroy:
And he will have to deal also with the peculiar ordinariness of Mary Swann's letters and even the subjects of those letters. Pleading letters to Eaton's returning mailorder underwear. Letters to her daughter, Frances, in California, letters full of bitter complaint about the everlasting Ontario winter…. (Swann)
Jimroy, the biographer, creates life out of these sordid (to him) details, a life shaped like art, truthful as he can be to the original, honest as he can be in his male abstractness. Wonderful scene where Jimroy takes Rose Hindmarch to dinner in the local hotel to pump her for more details about Mary Swann and they discuss the "blood poem." Jimroy interprets the poem as sacramental symbolism whereas Rose, in trouble with her own menopausal body, sees the poem quite clearly as a woman's statement of biological necessity. Jimroy interprets one of the "water poems" as having similar religious significance, not hearing when Rose tells him that water might be important to a woman who lives on a farm without running water and without a washing machine.
Meeting of Jimroy and Rose is very funny—and meant to be—and yet—neither of them is right and neither of them is wrong. Or, rather, both are. The poems can read either way, both ways; it is the beings who are stuck in their temporal/biological zones just as Mary Swann was stuck in hers but escaped through her poems. Temporary transcendence is what the poems offer readers too. And even Jimroy has his authenticity: his "honouring" of questions; his genuine love of poetry:
When he thought of the revolution of planets, the emergence of species, the balance of mathematics, he could not see that any of these was more amazing than the impertinent human wish to reach into the sea of common language and extract from it the rich dark beautiful words that could be arranged in such a way that the unsayable might be said. (Swann)
Jimroy, the negative, "sour" pole in this fiction. Sarah, his sweet complement and never-to-be sweetness of his own. By the time Jimroy gets to meet Sarah, she has married her juggler and is pregnant. Rose Hindmarch, contrast to Sarah in her unattractiveness, her "spinsterhood," her fate, but Rose with a sweetness of her own, a spirit not daunted. Frederic Cruzzi, contrast to Rose in his sophistication, contrast to Jimroy in his "sweetness," his love of life and people, at eighty more complex than Sarah at twenty-eight. It is Cruzzi who figures, embodies what Heidegger calls "aletheia": unconcealment, truth at the heart of Being and thinking, truth which is both an opening and a concealing. This is the riddle at the heart, of the heart. Cruzzi, word-man and intellectual, for instance, also knows the opposite pole:
Once in a while, walking like this in shadowed woodland at three o'clock on a winter afternoon, or hearing perhaps a particular phrase of music, or approaching a wave of sexual ecstasy, Cruzzi has felt a force so resistant to the power of syntax, description or definition, so savage and primitive in its form, that he has been tempted to shed his long years of language and howl monosyllables of delight and outrage. (Swann)
It is Cruzzi who experiences most directly the existential negative of Being which would/could cancel us out. It begins with revelation, a feeling, a mood. Cruzzi, having been slightly ill, thinks of Hildë out ice-fishing:
just as everyday articles—preserving jars, teaspoons, loaves of bread—take on the look of sacred objects when seen in exceptional light, so he sometimes looked at his wife and saw her freshly and with the full force of vision. (Swann)
These "seizures of the heart," as the narrator calls them, give a meaning to Being—it is the loving gaze which fuses subject and object. But when Hildë reveals that she has inadvertently sullied the Swann poems, the energy pole is suddenly negative. Cruzzi cries out, "No!", throws up his arm, later he hits Hildë, knocks her down as perhaps Mary Swann's husband knocked her down before shooting her. The narrator comments:
For Cruzzi, though he never came close to admitting it, not even to himself, it was a wail of denial. Because the darkness, or whatever it was that engulfed him, had dissolved for the briefest of moments, and what he glimpsed was the whole of his happiness revealed in a grotesque negative image. He was a man weakened by age and standing in a remote corner of the world, a man with a sore throat, a little drunk, and before him, facing him, was a thickish person without beauty. (Swann)
The negative pole of Being nauseates, frightens, cancels the loving gaze, makes a mockery of the meanings we carefully construct for our lives. It is a moment of total loss. This is the existentialist hell which gapes before us and Cruzzi like the medieval mouth of hell and then, mercifully, closes again, withdraws. Cruzzi has not killed Hildë but he might have and they both know it. Later, talking to Sarah about the murder of Mary Swann, Cruzzi uses the phrase "something snapped," thinking of Swann's husband, thinking of himself.
So much for motivation, explanation. Another cliché comes to mind: these things happen. They happen and we construct meanings for them after the event, the crime. We collect evidence, documents, testimony, and elaborate a rationale to make bearable the irrational nature of Being. Sometimes this rationale is called law, sometimes religion or psychology or art. Morton Jimroy, articulate in irritation, thinks:
Didn't these monied Stanford sharpies realize that literature was only a way for the helpless to cope? Get back to your tennis courts, he wanted to shout. Out into the sunshine! Live! Universities are nothing but humming myth factories. Dear God. How we love to systemize and classify what is rich and random in life. (Swann)
This is the same man who cannot bear the thought that Mary Swann read Edna Ferber instead of Jane Austen. We laugh at Jimroy's contradictions but also recognize them as our own. And Jimroy has his own moments of loss, as when he completes the biography of the American poet, John Starman (Shields' names are sometimes deliciously shameless), and finds him a hollow man: "the hollowness rang loud. And it rang with a double echo for Jimroy, announcing not only deadness at the centre of life, but a disenchantment with surfaces. The discovery of emptiness affected him like the beginning of a long illness" (Swann). Around this time, Jimroy also loses Audrey, his awkward but loving wife, because he did not recognize the grace she could grant him.
When Sarah Maloney faces the moment of loss, she decides to marry and have a baby, putting human flesh and love between her and emptiness. Rose Hindmarch chooses busyness but lives more clearly than the other characters in her essential aloneness. Cruzzi lives through the existential awareness of loss before he actually loses Hildë, who dies suddenly.
The loss of the Mary Swann artifacts, memorabilia, and poems, is, then, emblematic of other losses. Maybe this is why the novel ends with Mary's lost but reconstructed poem, "Lost Things," where the thingness of being-in-the-world withdraws itself, hides itself, sheds its human-shaped thingness to become:
part of a larger loss Without a name Or definition or form Not unlike what touches us In moments of shame. (Swann)
We do know, at last, who the Mary Swann thief is but we don't know what will happen to him. And it doesn't matter. This is where Shields really subverts the conventional mystery ending with its punishments about to happen, its loose ends tied up. What really matters in Swann is the group of academics who have become, for the moment, a loving community as they piece together Swann's Songs. In the end, this mystery novel reveals itself as a kind of existentialist divine comedy.
But such a "critical" label does not do justice to the writing, the elegance and energy, the exuberant detail enjoyed for its own sake. Take the matter of meals, for instance. We know exactly what Sarah Maloney has for supper, for breakfast, for lunch (cheese on pita) and what Rose Hindmarch ate with Morton Jimroy at that hotel dinner—double pork chop platter with mashed potatoes, turnip, and mound of apple sauce, choice of rice pudding or rhubarb pie for desert. We hear about Hildë Cruzzi's walnut cake (although we don't get the recipe) and her skill with lake trout, filleted and grilled in butter. Partly, these fleshly delights are parodic of the kind of detail that make up much of the substance of ordinary mystery novels. But they are also part of the sensuous style, the "zest" of Swann.
As always in a Shields' novel, the major characters take on a life of their own. What is interesting here is how cleverly those lives intersect with the plot—it bears a second and third reading to realize how Brownie (Sarah's boyfriend), for instance, decidedly a minor character, is kept in focus until the surprise ending. Other minor characters too are oddly appealing—Audrey, Jimroy's wife, and how she meets up with Daisy Hart in Florida and we just know those two will have a great time on their auto trip.
And then, there is the major character who is missing: Mary Swann. Like the other characters, we readers catch glimpses of her, know fragments of her, develop our own theories about her. For someone not there, she seems very real. Yet her reality is fictitious. More fictitious than Jimroy, Sarah, Rose, Frederic? Than the reader's realities? This absurdity leaves us laughing but also thinking.
Swann has to be a "turning platform"—in Nicole Brossard's words—for Shields as a writer. Here she is more playful, more daring than her earlier conventional novels at the same time as she is parodying a popular conventional form. The text is rich and varied: it includes letters, poems, narration, a cinematic ending. The pace is fast, the cuts and shifts often breathtaking—wait a minute, did the narrator say Sarah got married to that juggler on Christmas Eve?
There are, of course, continuities with the other works: Shields' celebration of life's small ceremonies, of human love, of the "ordinary" in which the miraculous may at any moment be revealed. Her women characters are wonderfully shaped out of the stuff of female experience. Rose Hindmarch rises above cliché to touch us and make us laugh. She is so embedded in small-town Canadian life that we know Nadeau almost as well as Rose because, in some ways, Rose is Nadeau. And yet she is also capable of the transcendent moment: her night with Jean, the Mary Swann Memorial Room, her trip to the Symposium. Sarah Maloney is a rather different character register for Shields—a feminist academic who has a career before she chooses marriage. Through Sarah, Shields gently satirizes both feminism and academia but she also valorizes mother-daughter relationships in the loving portrait of Sarah with her mother.
Swann seems to have released Shields from some of the constraints of her previous work. This "fairly conventional" writer has a depth of talent, a wild side on the far side of the "ordinary" that can, at times, "light up the workshop"—Heidegger's description of illumination of Being. Which makes us think this "swann song" is no closing but an opening for Shields and her readers.
SOURCE: "A Slight Parodic Edge: Swann: A Mystery," in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, Dangaroo Press, 1990, pp. 104-15.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1989, Thomas discusses Swann's illusive and complex nature.]
No writer has shown us more clearly than has Carol Shields in Swann the paradoxical and illusory nature of things we covet, collect, think we possess and, in the end, lose. In Swann exactly 125 of the poems of the murdered Mary Swann were printed in a collection called Swann's Songs by the eccentric, crotchety journalist, publisher, humanist and editor, Frederic Cruzzi. Of the 250 copies originally printed, only 20 are known to have survived at the outset of the story; we learn later of the narrow escape all of the poems had in a crazy domestic disaster in the Cruzzis' home even before publication; in the end, all the eager owners of the poems have lost their copies, and even the love poems, discovered by Willard Lang under the linoleum in the deserted Swann kitchen, are gone—stuffed into a pillow-case and dropped out of a hotel window by Brownie, the book-dealer who has a passion for cornering markets: comic books, Mary Swann's poems, they're all the same to him. He hasn't read a book in years, but as artifacts their sheer physical presence, together with his urge to possess, lures him into the most bizarre labyrinths of stealth, theft and betrayal of trust.
Nor has any author shown us more clearly the flip side of the coin, the celebration of the 'redemptively ordinary' and the comfort that our things bring us. Sarah Maloney, feminist writer, teacher and Swann's central character, self-aware and good-naturedly self-mocking, muses over the shibboleths of her time:
God is dead … the sixties are dead, John Lennon and Simone de Beauvoir are dead, the women's movement is dying—checking its inventory, let's say—so what's left?
The quotidian is what's left. Mary Swann understood that, if nothing else.
A morning and an afternoon and Night's queer knuckled hand Hold me separate and whole Stitching light my daily soul.
Dailiness to be sure has its deposits of ennui, but it is also, as Mary Swann suggests, redemptive.
Sarah, at twenty-eight the author of the best-selling The Female Prism, was able to buy the 'Hansel and Gretel house' which she loves, with her royalties: 'No posters or prayer rugs or art deco here and no humanoid shapes draped in Indonesian cotton. I've got tables; I've got a more than decent Oriental rug; I've got lamps (Lord, make me a Spartan, but not yet.).' She finds her beautiful shoes, dresses and blouses 'richly satisfying': 'I've read my Thoreau, I know real wealth lies in the realm of the spirit, but I'm still a person who can, in the midst of depression, be roused by the rub of a cashmere scarf in my fingers.'
There are two further characteristic Shields signatures in Swann: The characters' and plot's involvement in the random chances that govern so much of our lives, and the aphorisms studding the text. As do many of the stories in Various Miracles, the entire saga of Mary Swann begins with an illustration of the strange synchronicity, or sometimes, serendipity, of events and our tenuous hold on what Sarah Maloney calls 'that lucent dotted line' we would like to believe leads to the future. Exhausted by Olaf Thorkelson, who hounds her to marry him, Sarah goes away to rest in a cottage he knows on a lake in Wisconsin. There, playing house in a ramshackle cabin, reading flyspecked novels and piles of old magazines, she comes upon a little book of poems called Swann's Songs. From this, the first of the novel's many chance happenings, all else follows.
Carol Shields is good at aphorisms and she has fun spotting them around the text: 'Clever men create themselves, but clever women, it seems to me are created by their mothers'; 'the longest hour of the week is the one wrenched from the machinery of habit'; 'The charm of falsehood is not that it distorts reality, but that it creates reality afresh.' All of the quoted poetry of Mary Swann is aphoristic, gnomic, Dickinsonian of course—a congruence comically exploited in the text and, on Shields' part, a remarkable authorial invention and device as well as a solid story foundation: 'She has lately been recognized as a distinguished, though minor, contributor to the body of Canadian literature, and there are those who have gone so far as to call her the Emily Dickinson of Upper Canada.'
Shields wrote the fourth and final part of Swann: A Mystery as a film script, complete with camera and sound directions assembled around and within the dialogue. In it she provided the dénouement of her story, but more than that, much more, she invited her reader to enjoy the dénouement of her writing of the story, not with the smug 'the joke's on you' tone so familiar to mystery-story addicts, but with a happy, edge-of-farcical 'We've all been in this together. Now let's see the final nonsense. And by the way, don't think I'm going to wrap up all the answers for you'. We have certainly all been implicated: the writer in creating her 'mystery', the readers in a willed suspension of disbelief in the interests of their own continued pleasure in the tale being told. One of her 'Director's Notes' blandly gives her game away: 'This scene, in which the four main characters assemble their separate clues, may be played with a very slight parodic edge.' Truth to tell, we've been reading a novel whose edge is more than slightly parodic from the start.
Swann is a work whose plot is engrossing and self-sufficient: it also offers us, if we want it, a very large bonus of fun in the post-modern, critical-theory style. Shields plays the delightful game of deconstructing her own work, inviting us to share, if we wish, her bubbling awareness of all the self-reflexive, intertextual goodies she sets in front of us. The plot-line of Swann is only one of its mysteries; its text is a banquet of them, if we wish to recognize and enjoy them. Parody is not, however, the end and final purpose of this novel: rather, Shields has chosen it as a vehicle on which to build. When she sets up a 'parodic edge' it is, finally, to overplay and dignify it by a humanizing process that makes her characters linger on after the last page is turned, not as familiar caricatures to be laughed at, but as real people to be marvelled at—and remembered.
There is no mystery about who killed Mary Swann, though between page 17, when she enters the text, and page 43, we are treated to a nice build-up. The woman who wrote the 125 poems of Swann's Songs was a farm wife who lived outside the little town of Nadeau, Ontario, and 'that man [her husband] put a bullet right through her head and chopped her up into little pieces.' There is no answer, ever, to the mystery of why he killed her. 'Something just snapped' is the best guess. Other mysteries there are aplenty. Within the entire conglomerate of conventions that make up the mystery story, the 'discourse', if you prefer, of the Whodunit, the prime consideration (and quarry) of the hunt is, of course, the villain. Conventionally, he commits the murder; in Swann, the deed disposed of 'pre-text', the distinctly unconventional villain is out to corner the market on the Swann papers—the existent copies of Swann's Songs, Mary Swann's notebook, the two remaining photographs, the additional love-poems found under the linoleum of the Swanns' empty kitchen.
He is not the only villain though. A whole group of people are out to make or enhance their reputations out of exploiting Mary Swann: Sarah Maloney ('in a sense I invented Mary Swann and am responsible for her'); Frederic Cruzzi, retired newspaperman who published Swann's Songs, her book of poems; 'the' Morton Jimroy, biographer of Ezra Pound, John Starman and now Mary Swann; Willard Lang, the professor who is organizing the Swann Symposium in Toronto, a gathering that provides the setting for the climax and denouement of the plot; Syd Buswell, the scholar in Ottawa who found the four additional poems underneath the linoleum in the kitchen of the deserted Swann farmhouse. Even Rose Hindmarch, town clerk, librarian and curator of the Swann memorial room in Nadeau's Local History Museum, owes a good part of her meagre self-esteem to her reputation among scholars as the one person in Nadeau who had known Mary Swann. The ones we come to know the best, Sarah, Jimroy, Rose and Cruzzi, are all guilty of violating the tenuous reality of the woman behind the poems: Sarah, by bringing Mary Swann into the light in the first place and by keeping Mary's notebook, given to her by Rose, but discarding her rhyming dictionary as if that somehow demeaned the poetry; Jimroy, by wanting things and stealing them and by undertaking to claim her life, death and poetry by translating it all into his biographic version; Rose, by embroidering her few exchanges of words with Mary Swann almost into the intimacy of friendship in order to ingratiate herself with her interviewers as well as to satisfy their insatiable curiosity. And Frederic Cruzzi began the whole process of her second, metaphorical murder by publishing her poems in the first place. A plethora of villains indeed!
The real hero of any mystery story, as we all know, is the Great Detective. Who is the Poirot-Wimsey-Campion-Marlowe-Fletch-Dalziel of Swann? Frederick Cruzzi is his token representative, the one who begins to suspect what is going on before any of the rest of them, but his detective role is displaced in the text, minor compared to the weight and substance of the character Shields makes of him.
'Sarah Maloney' is the title of the first of the five parts of Swann. Sarah tells her story in the present, up until the morning after her marriage to Stephen Stanhope and her leaving for Toronto and the Symposium. In 65 pages we get to know her quite well, well enough certainly to know that she is, as she says of Rose Hindmarch, 'a good woman'. On the superficial level she is a wish-fulfilment figure for the young feminist, a successful academic who achieved that one-in-a-million miracle, a best-seller, out of her Ph.D. thesis. She is given to us, however, as a character-in-depth. Sarah is intensely and ironically self-aware, in love with Brownie who is not the marrying kind, uncertain about Stephen but warmly committed to his baby whom she is carrying, attentive to her mother ('you might say I'm a professional daughter, or at least a serious hobbyist'), and beginning to be uneasy: 'Once I knew exactly what freedom meant and now I have no idea. Naturally I resent the loss of knowledge.' She both cherishes and laughs at the idiosyncrasies that make her a fully believable, complex individual—her love of things, her passion for writing and receiving letters:
Among my friends I'm known as the Queen of Correspondence…. It's a guilty secret of mine that I write two kinds of letters, one-drafters and two-drafters. For old friends I bang out exuberant single-spaced typewritten letters…. But in my two-draft letters I mind my manners, sometimes even forsaking my word processor for the pen.
The love and care she feels for her mother, her friends and her baby make her warmly human, as does the combination of relief and wonder she feels at the strange but harmless outcome of her mother's operation. Sarah Maloney marks an advance, I believe, in our gallery of young feminists: the bewilderment, victim-syndrome, and defensive hard edges of early Engel or Atwood heroines are absent. Sarah's complexity, lightly worn, makes Joan of Lady Oracle, Renee of Bodily Harm and even Rita of The Glassy Sea a little old-fashioned and anachronistic, believable enough in the time of their writing, necessary even, but out-dated today.
'What I need is an image to organize my life. A flower would be nice', she says. Two pages later she gives us the dual image that does organize her life and that resonates with meaning for countless women. She sits down in her kitchen to write her paper for the Swann Symposium on her second-hand word-processor. Sarah not only loves real things, she is grounded in them, in dailiness. She lives with her worlds by bringing them together, enjoying the gleam of her yellow kettle in the one, recognizing the efficiency of her machine in the other: 'Oh that miraculous little green clearing key!'
Part II, Morton Jimroy's story, is told in the third person, a wise choice on Shields' part. She lets us hear enough of his voice to know that a steady diet of it would be too thick with self-delusion and self-pity to bear. By moving away both to show and tell us about Morton she can and does signal sympathy, in spite of the inept pettiness of a fearful, insecure man whose academic reputation as a biographer of the great is all he has. Her portrait could easily have been a caricature, the holding up to ridicule of every bumbling academic from Lucky Jim onward, but she circles around him, balancing parodic highlights with all too human shadows until we understand and even cheer for his hard bought modicum of gallantry. In California, far from his Winnipeg home, working alone on Christmas Day, Jimroy has a moment of transfiguration. He is happy, happy devising his own Mary Swann, happy with the inimitably pompous and totally mistaken phrase he has just penned: 'It is highly probable that Swann read Jane Austen during this period….':
He lifts an arm in salutation, shouting, in his cheery broken tenor, 'Merry Christmas,' and smiling broadly at the same time to show them that his life may be foolish, it may be misguided and strange and bent in its yearnings, but it's all he has and all he's likely to get.
And cold indeed is the reader who doesn't cheer him on.
With Part III, 'Rose Hindmarch', Shields moves more deeply, obviously and daringly into what contemporary critical theorists call intertextuality—for Rose is straight out of Mariposa. She is, at first, like an omitted character in Leacock's gallery, companion to Josh Smith, Dean Drone, Peter Pupkin and the rest: 'Rose Helen Hindmarch wears a number of hats. "I wear too many hats for my own good", she has been heard to say'. Then we hear about her multiple jobs in Nadeau—town clerk, librarian, curator, church elder, town councillor. In the section 'Some Words of Orientation', Shields is speaking in a voice and tone inescapably Leacockian. She leads the reader geographically through the town as does Leacock at the beginning of Sunshine Sketches, pointing out the landmarks with a humour that closely echoes his:
Leacock: Up and down the Main street are telegraph poles of cedar of colossal thickness, standing at a variety of angles and carrying rather more wires than are commonly at a transatlantic cable station.
Shields: The museum, taking up all of the second floor of the old school is small by anyone's standards, though it manages to attract more than 500 visitors annually…. Be sure to see the interesting old washing machine, circa 1913, and to take in the various articles of clothing that include a 'christening gown from the nineties' and a woman's grey wool walking costume, piped in red (1902).
Likewise, in the section 'Here Comes Rose Now', Shields puts her narrator and reader in exactly the same relative positions as does Leacock:
Leacock: Walk on this June afternoon halfway down the Main Street—or, if you like, halfway up from the wharf—to where Mr. Smith is standing at the door of his hostelry. You will feel as you draw near that it is no ordinary man you approach. It is not alone the huge bulk of Mr. Smith (two hundred and eighty pounds as tested on Netley's scales). It is not merely his costume, though the chequered waistcoat of dark blue with a flowered pattern….
Shields: Here comes Rose now, a shortish woman with round shoulders and the small swelling roundness of a potbelly, which she is planning to work on this fall.
Never mind the leather coat and boots and gloves, there's something vellum and summery in Rose's appearance, and she almost sings out the words, 'Good evening'.
So much for the manner and context of Rose's setting and a nice acknowledgement that any Ontario literary small town does well to pay tribute to Mariposa, the first great one. From the start Shields' narrative voice enters the text to direct our sympathy and compassion for Rose as Leacock would never have done: 'There are moments when she experiences an appalling sensation of loss, the nagging suspicion that beneath the hats is nothing but chilly space or the small scratching sounds of someone who wants only to please others.' Once Rose is established in her place, the whole movement of her section is not toward further caricature, as in Leacock, but away from it.
The section could be called 'The Humanizing of Rose Hindmarch', and, finally, it is as complete and satisfying a story and as replete with invitations to understanding and empathy as is the remarkable 'Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass' from Various Miracles. Like Jimroy's section, but more compellingly, I believe, Rose's section ends with a small but very important moment of transcendence. Tired but happy in the midst of her party, Rose forgets the nagging anxieties of her self-doubts and her frightening bleeding:
Happiness seizes her, exhausted though she is by the loss of blood and the preparations for the party. In recent weeks she has had the feeling that some poisonous sorrow has seeped into her life, and now, this afternoon, from nowhere comes a sudden shine of joy….
… and then, out of the blue, she remembers a line from one of Mary Swann's poems. It just swims into her head like a little fish.
A pound weighs more When grief had gone before
With Part IV, 'Frederic Cruzzi', we are satisfyingly, unmistakably in the world of Robertson Davies. How could one avoid connecting 'retired newspaper editor Frederic Cruzzi of Grenoble, Casablanca, Manchester, and Kingston, Ontario, aged eighty', who suffers no fool gladly, writes snappy letters to obtuse correspondents and castigates the yahoos with glee, to Samuel Marchbanks? Or, for that matter, in his wide travels, European sensibility and considerable wisdom, to Dunstan Ramsay? Or, for that matter, with Davies himself—as his persona says in The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks, 'let us call ourselves two sides of a coin'.
In this, the penultimate section of Swann, Shields has a more complicated, demanding task than in any of her first three sections. Not only does she embark on the humanizing of a character with the caricature outline of Marchbanks; she has also to provide all the background to the publication of Swann's Songs. Until now we have been in the dark about this, for the story started in media res as we've had no hint of the adventures of publication. Shields weaves the two processes beautifully together, rounding out Cruzzi in his mellowing present, setting Hilde, the wife he loved, now dead, beside him and climaxing with the stunning—and harrowing—story of the first making of the text of Swann's Songs, whose Proustian title he and Hilde gave the poems and later regretted: 'An inexplicable lapse of sensibility. A miscalculation, an embarrassment.'
The night Mary Swann visited Cruzzi and left him her poems, her husband murdered her: 'something snapped'. The same night, when Frederic Cruzzi found that Hilde had dumped the heads and entrails of the fish she'd caught and cleaned into the bag of poems, he struck out in rage, knocking her down: 'something snapped…. He had never completely understood what constituted a crime of passion'. Later, reconciled, past the shock of his betrayal of himself and Hilde, they spent the whole night salvaging poems, making Mary Swann's manuscript:
By midnight … they were referring to Hilde's transcribed notes, and not the drying, curling, fish-stinking poems on the table, as 'the manuscript'….
By now—it was morning—a curious conspiracy had overtaken them. Guilt, or perhaps a wish to make amends, convinced them that they owed Mrs. Swann an interpretation that would reinforce her strengths as a poet. They wanted to offer her help and protection, what she seemed never to have had.
This is the central surprise and revelation of Swann: A Mystery. There never was a text of Mary Swann's poems authentic to her own words. Cruzzi had agreed to speak at the Swann Symposium, but he was not now, or ever, about to tell the bizarre story of Swann's Songs. We, the readers, are reasonably sure of the identity of the 'villain' who is bent on cornering the Swann market. We are not surprised, then, with the Christmas Eve robbery of Cruzzi's four copies of the poems as well as his file on Mary Swann. But we do understand and share in the confusion and guilt of the old man, and in his limited reassurance:
Gazing at the shelf, Cruzzi felt pierced with the fact of his old age, his helplessness, and the knowledge that a long-delayed act of reprisal had taken place…. As he sorted through twenty years of manuscripts and correspondence, he listened to Handel's Messiah on the radio and felt a feeble tide of balance reassert itself…. By late afternoon he was finished. Everything was in place. Everything was in place, with only the file on Mary Swann missing. He supposed he should be grateful, but instead found his face confused by tears.
For four-fifths of Swann: A Mystery we have been moved from caricature and stereotype to the powerful illusion of 'real people'. Now, the initial Director's Note of Part V, 'The Swann Symposium', instructs us to swing back to artifice and artificiality: this is a 'film', we are told; all the elements are 'fictional creations'; it may be described '(for distribution purposes) as a thriller.' For her final dénouement Shields has moved us into the conventions, the discourse, of yet another genre. She has assembled all the pieces of her puzzle, and now she breaks it all up under our eyes, forcing us to remember that our suspension of disbelief has been just that and only that. Shields is the maker of the text and she can choose the games to play. Her Symposium scenes have wonderful elements of parody of every academic conference in the world. They also have major infusions of farce, with much hide-and-seek among the characters, in and out of bedrooms, washrooms, conference rooms, with sudden dowsing of lights, concealing, locked doors and, finally a pillow-case stuffed with Mary Swann's poems pitched out of a 24th-floor hotel window into the snow.
In the final scene, participants in the Symposium are seated in a circle, 'laboriously reassembling' a new text of the poems:
Director's Final Note: the faces of the actors have been subtly transformed. They are in a ceremonial act of reconstruction, perhaps even in an act of creation. There need be no suggestion that anyone of them will become less selfish in the future, less cranky, less consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory, but each of them has, for the moment at least, transcended personal concerns.
All along Carol Shields has made this text: under her aegis Mary Swann wrote her poems; Frederic and Hilde Cruzzi made their text; now the Swann scholars are making yet another final text. 'Lost Things' is the poem they are reassembling in the final scene, and that poem (or their version of it) ends the text of Swann: A Mystery. This is a wonderful ending, on the one hand a fitting closure to such a romp through techniques and genres, on the other a final Shields signature, a humanizing of the whole group. Things vanish, become disconnected from us, separate us; shared and caring feeling and enterprise join us into community.
To try to analyse Swann: A Mystery is rather like dissecting a butterfly with a hoe. Swann is a 'murder' answering De Quincey's requirements: more than that, much more, it is a novel whose hallmarks are wit, wisdom, play, skill and great good nature, one to be enjoyed—and remembered.
SOURCE: "Carrion Conspiracy," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 20, 1989, p. 2.
[In the following review, Hegi discusses the issue of stolen identity in Swann.]
What happens when literary criticism takes a writer's work so far from her intent that, finally, it loses its essence? Carol Shields asks disturbing questions about the nature of theft in her novel, Swann. Who is the real thief—the person who steals the last rare copies of a murdered poet's book, the scholars who use her poems to seek recognition for themselves, or her husband who brutally murders her?
Fifteen years after Canadian poet, Mary Swann, is killed without an apparent motive, a symposium is held in Toronto, drawing Swann experts from all over the United States and Canada. Shields focuses on four of the participants—a critic, a biographer, a publisher, and a town clerk.
The feminist critic, Sarah Maloney, considers herself Swann's discoverer. Exulting in the "womanly brilliance" she bestows on her postgraduate students, she indulges in a running, internal commentary on her thoughts, feelings, and actions. This tireless reflection is amusing at first but soon becomes repetitive and transforms a potentially complex character into a caricature.
Her correspondence with Swann's biographer, Morton Jimroy, evolves from their mutual interest in the work of the murdered poet. Sarah likes to believe that Mary Swann "invented modern poetry." She keeps it a secret that Swann worked with a rhyming dictionary which resulted in unfortunate choices such as nerves/preserves, shelf/myself, light/bite. Certain that her connection to Swann will bring her recognition at the symposium, she distorts Swann's poems and life to fit her interpretation.
Jimroy is flattered by Sarah's letters and indulges in sexual fantasies in which she seduces him. A lonely, silly, and pompous man, he still carries the presence of his ex-wife, Audrey, with him, romanticizing even those habits that used to annoy him, making anonymous phone calls to her late at night and, eventually, to Sarah.
As a biographer, he is drawn to his own flaws in people he writes about—Pound's "elephantiasis of the ego" and Starman's emptiness. He ignores the "peculiar ordinariness of Mary Swann's letters" in his attempt to link "Mary Swann's biographical greyness with the achieved splendour of Swann's songs." He starts off as an interesting character but, as with Sarah, Shields overworks his peculiarities until he becomes a caricature of himself.
Rose Hindmarch, the town clerk in Nadeau where Swann lived, has been invited to the symposium because she has convincingly exaggerated her relationship with the reticent poet.
The fourth major participant in the symposium is 80-year-old Frederic Cruzzi, Swann's publisher, the last person to see her alive. The winter day Swann arrived at his house unannounced with her manuscript, "her face was small, purplish … eyes squeezed shut … hunched sweatered shoulders and the whiteness of scalp under scanty hair…." He never saw her again because that night, when she got home, her husband killed her.
Cruzzi and his wife, Hilde, founded Peregrine, a small press, and published regional authors they both believed in. Their relationship is alive and convincing. "The two of them occasionally made gifts to each other of their dreams." Cruzzi is by far the strongest character in Swann, revealing a uniqueness and depth that make it puzzling why Shields didn't develop her other characters with the same skill.
As the date for the Swann Symposium draws closer, the last known copies of Swann's book, her hand-written journal, and a few unpublished poems disappear mysteriously. The suspense, however, is transparent since Shields, in the early pages of the novel, introduces the person who has the incentive and proximity to steal Swann's material.
Yet, this deliberate theft illuminates the real theft which is far more subtle and damaging, a theft that has been happening from the moment Swann brought a bag filled with loose papers to Cruzzi, and the publisher and his wife spent all night reconstructing the poems that were nearly destroyed by accident. "A curious conspiracy had overtaken them. Guilt, or perhaps a wish to make amends, convinced them that they owed Mrs. Swann an interpretation that would reinforce her strengths as a poet."
The real theft continues with Maloney's discovery of the poet. "In a sense I invented Mary Swann and I am responsible for her," with Jimroy's leading questions which provide him with material that will bring him fame, with the corruption of Rose Hindmarch as she embroiders stories about her friendship with Swann. It's a theft that implicates the scholars at the symposium who spout their competing theories without regard to the integrity of Mary Swann's poetry.
SOURCE: "A World Made of Words," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VII, No. 3, December, 1989, p. 16.
[In the following review, Fellman discusses Shields's interest in form and personality in Swann and her investigations into order and chaos in the stories in Various Miracles.]
Now that the US and Canada have signed a free trade treaty, perhaps it will be possible for more than one or two Canadian women writers to slip past the US cultural border. High on my list of imports is Carol Shields, whose fifth novel, Swann, and collection of short stories, Various Miracles, have just been published in the US. Shields, who was nominated for a Governor General's Award for Swann, and is the subject of a recent special issue of the Canadian feminist literary quarterly, Room of One's Own, has enriched Canadian fiction writing and poetry, and deserves to be better known in the US. Ironically, although she lives in Winnipeg, she was born and raised in the Chicago area, and takes her settings and her characters from both countries.
The fascination of other people's lives and the essential unknowability of even those closest to us are threads that run through all of Shields' work. She is preoccupied with individuals who work with words and those who perceive the world largely through books. The middle-class protagonists in her first three novels, Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden and Happenstance, are respectively a biographer, a poet and a historian. Although the main characters in each of these novels are psychologically connected, at levels they are not always aware of, they are also profoundly mysterious to each other.
Swann is a bigger, funnier, more dazzling and expansive undertaking than Shields' earlier, somewhat constrained work, concerned not only with the difficulty of knowing other people, but also with the questions posed by the unknown origins of creativity. When it was published in Canada two years ago, the novel was entitled Swann: A Mystery. The mystery is a double one. First and foremost is that of Mary Swann herself. Her drab Ontario farm life offered nothing to explain her "preternatural ability to place two ordinary words side by side and extract a kilowatt, and sometimes more, much more, from them," as one character describes her poetry. Her biographer can find no literary influences on her; not having read any poetry (except nursery rhymes to her daughter), Swann apparently reinvented modern poetry on her own. The second mystery has to do with the gradual disappearance of every artifact pertaining to the poet and of every known copy of her poems. In the course of the novel only one of these two mysteries really gets solved, and that is one that astute readers will readily solve themselves.
The main characters of the book are four very diverse people who have come, in one way or another, to have a stake in Mary Swann's growing literary reputation. Sarah Maloney is a successful young Chicago feminist literary scholar who "discovered" a small volume of Swann's poems by accident more than fifteen years after the poet's inexplicable, violent death at the hands of her husband. Morton Jimroy is a famous Winnipeg biographer of poets. Rose Hindmarch is a part-time librarian and museum curator in the small town near which Swann had lived. And Frederic Cruzzi is a small-town Ontario retired newspaper editor and poetry publisher who had published Swann's poems posthumously.
The motives behind their interest in Swann, revealed in the first four sections of the book, are a combination of the personal and professional. Sarah Maloney is drawn to Mary Swann's poetry because of its affirmation of the redemptive power of dailiness. The ballast of the quotidian is needed in the difficult days of the 1980s, Sarah thinks, and as a feminist she relishes the fact that Mary Swann drew her inspiration from the most mundane of tasks and scenes, creating wonderful poetry premised on the saving grace of routine. Sarah herself needs the reliability of routine; not only does she give her days a firm pattern, but she marries a juggler, someone who can always make order out of flying objects. Having brought Swann to the attention of the world, Sarah now thinks of herself as her maternal caretaker, her protector against the greedy literary men who, she is sure, would eat Swann up "inch by inch."
Morton Jimroy has chosen Swann because after two biographies of poets whom he came to despise as individuals, he wants to write about someone he can admire and champion. Jimroy, however, comes to have as complicated a relationship with Swann as he had with his previous subjects. And in his desire to portray her as an important poet, he begins to reinterpret Swann's poems to minimize the female metaphors, to look for signs that she had transcended her womanhood. "She wasn't writing poems about housewife blues," he tells Rose Hindmarch. "She was speaking about the universal sense of loss and alienation, not about washing machines breaking down."
So eager is the well-meaning Rose to be consulted as the supposed expert on Swann's life that she fabricates whole conversations beyond the minimal greetings she and the poet had exchanged at the library charge desk. For Frederic Cruzzi, the poems are forever associated with his beloved, now-dead wife, who had been co-publisher of their little poetry press, and with his residual guilt for the tinkering they had done, unasked, with Swann's work. All these largely sympathetic characters commit various acts of dishonesty to protect their investment in Swann; Shields gives a wonderfully ironic and funny portrayal of the process of mythologizing a previously unknown literary figure.
For the last several years, Shields has been experimenting with form, and Swann shows the fruits of this experimentation. The four protagonists are each accorded a section of the novel, and in each the style, tone, even voice differ. Sarah Maloney's section reveals her to be an engaging, somewhat self-conscious young woman. Recalling her first meeting with Rose, she confesses, "I often frighten people. I frighten myself, as a matter of fact, my undeflectable energy probably. I did what I could to put Rose at her ease…. In an hour she was won over, so quickly won over that I winced with shame."
Shields' playfulness reaches a peak with Frederic Cruzzi's section, which is something of a parody of Robertson Davies' work. Here there is a selection from Cruzzi's correspondence, a record of his dreams, a description of one of the most important days of his life. There is also a one-sentence autobiography more than a page long, which contains, among other things, a description of Cruzzi's wife-to-be:
a rather large-boned girl with straight yellow hair parted in the middle, who had grown up in the hamlet of La Motte-en-Champsaur (where her father kept goats) and who was possessed of a shining face in which Cruzzi glimpsed the promise of his future happiness, though it took him a week before he found the courage to declare his love—in the museum at Gap, as it happened, standing before a hideous oil painting, even then peeling away from its frame, depicting Prometheus being fawned on by a dozen lardy maidens—
When all four characters are brought together in the last section for the Swann Symposium, which is to be the culmination of their efforts to anoint Swann as a major poet, Shields uses a screenplay form. While inventive, this is not quite as successful as the preceding sections, partly because the satire becomes too broad, but also because the task here is intrinsically more difficult. The convergence of four characters who scarcely know each other, but whom we know quite well, is a little too neat.
Mary Swann was as close to "Anonyma" as it is possible to be in the Western industrialized world. Shields' story suggests that the process of creation, while mysterious, is democratic, and can be communal and open-ended as well.
In Various Miracles, a collection of short stories first published in Canada two years before Swann, Shields explores the parallel to her interest in the mysteriousness of the personality. Here it is our fleeting glimpses of both the order and chaos of the universe that fascinate her. "Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded," begins the title story. A wonderful series of homely coincidences and parallel events is then detailed, including a dream divided between a husband and wife. As the husband awakes from his part of the dream and watches his rapturously dreaming wife, "he felt how utterly ignorant he was of the spring that nourished her life."
For Shields the moments of revelation are more often of unexpected symmetries and "the million invisible filaments of connection" than they are of utter randomness and emptiness. In "Home," each passenger and the pilot on a transatlantic flight experiences, for different reasons, an extraordinary sense of well-being. Their collective happiness causes the walls of their aircraft to become momentarily translucent. In "The Journal," an unknown combination of reasons permits Sally and Harold a night in which "they are minutely and ecstatically joined and where they exchange, as seldom before in their forty-year lives, those perfect notices of affection and trust and rhapsody." These visions of harmony coexist with Shields' depictions of the obverse, the moments of revelation in which people realize the patternlessness of the universe. In "Invitations," a woman seated alone, absorbed in a book, awakens in the stream of people passing by her window on their way to a series of parties a sense of the futility of their destinations, the emptiness and disappointment of their lives. In "Purple Blooms," the narrator gives three dissatisfied people in her life a copy of a book written by a local poet. She sees them all in the park that afternoon, seeking the author's autograph and claiming that the book has helped them make healing connections. The narrator waiting her turn to have her copy signed pulls out another book of poetry to read, this one a celebration of the randomness and disorder of the world. As she reads, with the other people reading over her shoulder, the world around her fades, leaving only "a page of print, a line of type, a word, a dot of ink, a shadow on the retina that is no bigger than the smallest violet in the woods."
The power of the printed word to overcome reality, or, more accurately, to define reality, is the theme of several stories in the collection. In "Pardon," people's deep grievances against each other are miraculously expunged by an unexplained flurry of verbal and written apologies and pardons. In "Words," an ill-considered ban on speech renders people incapable of human intercourse and action.
The 21 stories are economically short. Shields offers intense, layered scenes, rather than elaborated narratives. Each story is a glimpse of a captured moment in a mysterious world. These moments may or may not have deeper meaning. "Only rarely," one of her characters says, "do they point to anything but themselves…. They're useless, attached to nothing, can't be traded in or shaped into instruments to prise open the meaning of the universe … they are what life is made of."
SOURCE: "From 'Dying for Love' to 'Mrs. Turner': Narrative Control in Stories by Carol Shields," in Contemporary Manitoba Writers: New Critical Studies, edited by Kenneth James Hughes, Turnstone Press, 1990, pp. 163-76.
[In the essay below, Weil considers structure and narration in Shields's short stories.]
My first thought this morning is for Beth, how on earth she'll cope now that Ted's left her for the dancer Charlotte Brown. I ask myself, what resources does a woman like Beth have, emotional resources? ("Dying," Made)
These two sentences begin Carol Shields' "Dying for Love," a story that has been reprinted twice within a year of its original publication (1989). After the first paragraph, the story-teller (perhaps better conceived as what we used to call "the implied author") unobtrusively vanishes—or at least does not explicitly refer to herself until the final paragraphs of the first segment:
Despite my uneasiness about Beth's ability to cope emotionally, and despite her insomnia, she somehow manages to get up most mornings….
Beth … wonders what would happen if she took all twelve pills plus the gin. She doesn't know. I don't know either.
This section is the first of three segments in the story. Each is devoted to one woman who may be in danger of dying (because of love or the absence of love). After we learn that Beth empties the gin down the sink and grinds the pills down the garburator, the first segment concludes, "Life is a thing to be cherished, she thinks, and this thought, slender as a handrail, gets her through one more night." Does this last line involve the narrator more intimately than does traditional omniscience? Unnamed, she presents explicitly only feelings, attitudes, and especially worries that are directly relevant to her characters and their situations. (Different readers will quite appropriately weigh differently phrases, rhythms, tones that suggest the technique of leaving insecure any distinctions between teller and creator.) How important is it that Beth and Ted have no last names while Charlotte does? Do all readers sense that the speaker in the second paragraph, partly by revealing intimate details, is constructing the characters?
Habits accrue in that time, especially habits of the night when bodies and their routines get driven into hard rituals of washed skin…. Beth curls, but sinuously; her backbone makes a long smiling capital C on the bedsheet, or used to, before Ted told her he was leaving her for Charlotte.
Within this brief story, and in most of her work, Shields creates a wide variety of relations between narrator and characters, situations, actions; between narrator and "implied author"; between each of these and her readers. Often we feel less encouraged to treat the events as if they had happened to the author than we do in other overtly "confessional" fiction, as, for example, by Alice Munro. Nor do we find here the "conspicuously" artificial sub-genre of alleged autobiography—at least in the literal sense best typified by Machado de Assis in which the speaker (after his own death) tells his story, or more typically, when the narrator is of a gender or an age, or lives in a time, that we know cannot be that of the author. In "Dying for Love" most readers will recognize a very self-conscious narrator, playing with some of the tones implied by her title. How strongly does "dying for" resonate of trite clichés, of transitory pleasures? Do these overtones make it far-fetched to take the phrase literally? Why then does "dying for" rather than "love" dominate in creating the tone?
As we read the story, how convincing are the threats that the cliché-sense will turn into actual death because of what the character, at least, continues to feel is love? But does the narrator feel it as love? Does the author? The second segment begins, "But then there's Lizzie in Somerset; my fears for Lizzie grow day by day. Her predicament is clear and so is her fate, although I would do anything, or almost anything, to assist her in the avoidance of that fate." Then the narrator again disappears. Four pages later, in the closing lines of this segment, she returns.
Who can tell.
One of the advantages in my relationship with Lizzie is my freedom to discard those possibilities she can't yet imagine. All she understands is that both love and the lack of love can be supported.
From the vagueness or false precision of "almost anything" the narrator advances with her character to the finely tuned tone of this final sentence that blends calculation and self-reassurance.
The final, shortest segment begins, "Elsewhere, nearer home, a woman named Elizabeth is lying on her bed in the middle of the afternoon with a plastic dry-cleaner's bag drawn up over her face…." How important for the reader is the change to the overt absence of the "I" from this sequence until the very last sentence of the story? Surely the first three words of this segment remind any alert reader of her presence. But how firm is the pressure? Need the good reader make much of this? Or of the apparently gratuitous "named"?
The segment and the story end in two long sentences. The first presents the apparently factual—if emotionally loaded—statement, "She is a woman whose life is crowded with not-unpleasant errands…." How decisive should we consider the change of tone with the return of the author in the final sentence?
Not that this is much of a handrail to hang on to—she knows that, and so do I—but it is at least continuous, solid, reliable in its turnings and better than no hand-rail at all.
Shields encourages many different responses: of hope, of worry, of emphasis upon strengths or upon fragility. In this final sentence, for the first time, the "I" knows precisely what the character knows. The story has moved from an extremely nervous series of questions about another person, allegedly external, with whom the "I" feels strong empathy: "The nights will be terrible for her, I'm sure of that…." Does the possible sense that the narrator (as well as the actual author) may have created the characters make her detachment much less? And consequently her handrail much more fragile? We sense here an implied author in a well-controlled but insecure relation to the narrator she has created.
In vivid contrast to Beth, Lizzie, and Elizabeth is the focal character in "Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass." Few would be less likely to die for love. Unlike the three distinct "heroines" who share variants of the same first name but receive no other, Mrs. Turner seems at first to be captured in that title of address. Not until the third page, after our sense of her has been well established, do we learn that the high school girls on their way home
are ignorant of that fact … that she, Mrs. Turner, possesses a first name—which is Geraldine.
Not that she's ever been called Geraldine. Where she grew up in Boissevain, Manitoba, she was known always—the Lord knows why—as Girlie Fergus….
This story, a frequently anthologized prize-winner and favourite of many of Shields' readers, begins:
Oh, Mrs. Turner is a sight cutting the grass on a hot afternoon in June! She climbs into an ancient pair of shorts and ties on her halter top and wedges her feet into crepe-soled sandals and covers her red-gray frizz with Gord's old golf cap—Gord is dead now, ten years ago, a seizure on a Saturday night while winding the mantel clock.
At first, this story seems more conventional and familiar than much of the author's recent work. The tone of these first statements seems detached, the unnamed and undescribed narrator hardly sympathetic to her[?] subject. We assume that we are in the world of satire, perhaps of broad comedy (with the temporal jump between sentences), as the story races along with the unencumbered mower:
The grass flies up around Mrs. Turner's knees. Why doesn't she use a catcher …[?] Everyone knows that leaving the clippings like that is bad for the lawn….
… [And worse] Roy is far more concerned about the Killex that Mrs. Turner dumps on her dandelions….
… But he and Sally so far have said nothing to Mrs. Turner about her abuse of the planet because they're hoping she'll go into an old-folks home soon or maybe die, and then all will proceed as it should.
High-school girls on their way home … are mildly, momentarily repelled by the lapped, striated flesh on her upper thighs….
The things Mrs. Turner doesn't know would fill the Saschers' new compost pit, would sink a ship, would set off a tidal wave…. Back and forth, back and forth she goes with the electric lawn mower, the grass flying out sideways like whiskers. Oh, the things she doesn't know!
Smoothly, almost glibly, convincingly, the things Mrs. Turner does not know—not just about grass clippings but about Neil Young, cellulite, "the vocabulary of skin care," the concerns of the chorus of neighbours, and apparently of the narrator—give way to facts that the passing girls and the young parents do not know. Sharply in mid-sentence, the story turns. Until its final paragraph, roughly four-fifths of the story tells us about matters that the girls and the young married couple next door would want to know, but do not even suspect. And finally we learn, too, about the fame of Girlie Fergus, a public persona that she herself does not imagine.
Let us return to look more closely at the major shift in mid-sentence from the "present tense" of an old lady cutting the grass, an old lady so ignorant of facts about contemporary life that she does not even seem to inhabit the same psychological world as any of the unsympathizing characters mentioned. When the narrator moves from the chatty, relaxed, somewhat superior present tense that confidently invites readers to share the story-teller's views, we find the author there waiting to be noticed. There is nothing insistent. Shields gives us a life story that few could have predicted, but which includes only what could well have happened. With the greatest tact, the author creates a past that seems far-fetched but possible. She encourages a range of interpretation: many readers will skim happily along assuming a simple mimetic narrative. Others will feel more aware of an author neatly constructing people and events. The story will work well for both sorts of audience.
In the next paragraph, we quickly learn that Girlie was "the one who got herself in hot water…. Girlie got caught one night—she was nineteen—in a Boissevain hotel room with a local farmer, married, named Gus MacGregor." By the next paragraph Girlie has escaped, sneaking out to catch a bus to Winnipeg, another to Minneapolis, to Chicago, to New York City. However wretched the journey, New York is "immense and wonderful." She loves her job as usherette at the Movie Palace in Brooklyn, quickly moves in with "a man named Kiki…. His skin was as black as ebony…. [She has a baby] boy, rather sweetly formed, with wonderful smooth feet and hands." Deserted by Kiki, she leaves her baby in a beautiful carriage on the porch of a house that "she particularly liked…. She has no idea what happened to Kiki … [or] to her son," but she doesn't worry much. She returns home a year later. Frighteningly embraced and accepted by her family, she quickly leaves to marry "a tonguetied man … who loved every inch of his house…. And he loved every inch of his wife, Girlie, too, saying to her once and only once that he knew about her past … and that as far as he was concerned the slate had been wiped clean." In the single brilliant fast-paced paragraph devoted to this marriage, we learn too of the one time on a passionate picnic when he worshipped Girlie, or at least her body. We barely have time to wonder whether it matters that his sense of knowing all about the past stops at Boissevain. What would he think about New York? What should we?
After Gordon Turner dies, Girlie and her two sisters travel. To Disneyland, to seven countries of Europe, to New Orleans, to Mexico; finally, "three years ago they did what they swore they'd never have the nerve to do: they got on an airplane and went to Japan." This trip and one of its "results," a book of poems, receive the most extensive treatment in the story. Another tourist in the group, the "Professor," a bald, "trim," unsuccessful poet, almost continuously jotting, after his return publishes "a solid little book" which becomes very popular. The favourite poem, always demanded in readings, is his "A Day at the Golden Pavilion":
[It] was not really about the Golden Pavilion [in Kyoto] at all, but about three midwestern lady tourists who … had talked incessantly and in loud, flatbottomed voices about … indigestion, sore feet, breast lumps … who back home in Manitoba should receive a postcard…. They were the three furies … who for vulgarity and tastelessness formed a shattering counterpoint to the Professor's own state of transcendence….
One of the sisters … particularly stirred his contempt, she of the pink pantsuit, the red toenails, the grapefruity buttocks….
Always this reading evokes laughter and self-satisfied applause from the students who know "the irreconcilable distance between taste and banality."
Again in mid-paragraph the narrator steps in and corrects her last statement. A new distance combines with a new strong commitment: "Or perhaps that's too harsh; perhaps it's only the difference between those who know about the world and those who don't." Here the distance, strongly reinforced by the assertion that begins the next paragraph—"It's true Mrs. Turner remembers little about her travels…. What does it matter? She's having a grand time"—suggests a range of legitimate responses for the readers in deciding the stance and tones of the implied author. The irony toward the youths who already know so much about taste and banality at first offers a range of tones for the implied voice. The revision, "that's too harsh," even modulated by "perhaps," forecloses possibilities, ensuring that with more acute precision we see through the smug students and even more through the self-satisfied poet. (Even Gus MacGregor had received a name—if no physical, social, or other description.)
The three concluding paragraphs return us to the present, primarily in Winnipeg, with an explicit yoking of celebration and irony: "Her sisters have long forgotten about her wild days." To the Local History Museum, Em has donated her father's pipe, her mother's wedding veil, and "a white cotton garment labeled 'Girlie Fergus' Underdrawers….' If Mrs. Turner knew the word irony she would relish this. Even without knowing the word irony, she relishes it." This past and her "fame" contrast vividly with the way in which the poem brought her, however nameless, into the consciousness of so many audiences. With careful vagueness, the narrator leaves the patronizing professor who has won "an important international award" and who has sold rights to "a number of foreign publishers." Circling to the first six paragraphs, the final one returns to Mrs. Turner. But now, we see things only through her vision—and that created by the narrator—never through that of the high school girls or the neighbours, or, in another world, of the college students. Mrs. Turner waves to the girls (who have become timid), "she hollers hello to Sally and Roy…." And finally, the narrator makes overt the vision she shares with her heroine, a vision that Mrs. Turner could never come close to formulating: "She cannot imagine that anyone would wish her harm. All she's done is live her life." Mrs. Turner would never make such claims, but she would no doubt feel pleased, if embarrassed, should she read this description (so unlike the crude ungenerous satiric poem). Only now does the author dare to conclude, with symbolic images and finally with her first explicit celebration: "The green grass flies up in the air, a buoyant cloud swirling about her head. Oh, what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting her grass and how, like an ornament, she shines."
The author has chosen a subject and created for her a biography that very few of her readers are likely at first to find appealing. She leaves open crucial questions. How can the deserted child, the devoted husband be so quickly dropped? But her movement from satire and irony to the final praise permits her to lead her reader (as Jane Austen did with Emma and Mrs. Bates) away from participating in the narrow-minded alleged superiority of characters early in the story. That we accept as well the contrasting didactic style which the ending incorporates and transforms suggests how skillfully the narrator has earned our trust.
"Mrs. Turner Cutting the Grass" and "Dying for Love" succeed, I think, for most readers, both those who focus upon the strategies of the implied author and those more casual (say, for example, readers sympathetic and alert, but not studying the stories or, at least, not these aspects of the stories). If one attends to the careful timing and tones of authorial control one should have a richer, more complex appreciation, but those only intermittently aware of this craft need never feel excluded from the audience addressed. Two other stories in Various Miracles, however, make, in their very distinct ways, much more explicit demands upon their readers. The brief title story ["Various Miracles"] (placed first, just before "Mrs. Turner") immediately confronts the reader with the presence of a strongly manipulating author. Even the title, like that of the earlier novel, Small Ceremonies, links a vague or weak initial adjective that normally would not arouse any special interest with a stronger noun which has overtones (or at least distant memories) of religion. The nouns have a formality usually denied by the adjectives, and this makes us aware of a creator intentionally starting with the weaker word.
The initial terse paragraph, both casual and authoritative, establishes the tone: "Several of the miracles that occurred this year have gone unrecorded." Each of the six "miracles" begins with a date and an almost identical form of presentation, although after two very brief miracles, each new one receives a longer description. The first sets the pattern: "Example: On the morning of January 3, seven women stood in line at a lingerie sale in Palo Alto, California, and by chance each of these women bore the Christian name Emily." While some readers will think more of coincidence than of miracles, others will stress the way, perhaps arbitrarily, that the "author" (for the narrator never receives distinguishing traits or past experiences and never explicitly refers to her[?]self) creates and arranges the examples. But the third miracle (dropping "Example") adds a different order of reality.
On March 30 a lathe operator in a Moroccan mountain village dreamed that a lemon fell from a tree into his open mouth, causing him to choke and die. He opened his eyes, overjoyed at being still alive, and embraced his wife … she was dreaming … that a lemon tree had taken root in her stomach … she began to tremble … with happiness and intoxication … her face radiant. What he saw was a mask of happiness so intense it made him fear for his life.
By now, the earlier convincing mimetic realism may seem to have become completely irrelevant. The "miracles" lie in the power of the creator's imagination and skill. To refuse (or fail) to delight in this exultant artifice would leave the reader incapable of enjoying this story.
Particularly deft in expressing another completely different relation of story-teller to material is the much more extended "Dolls, Dolls, Dolls, Dolls." Starting with a long unquoted letter she has received from a friend who was visiting a doll factory in Japan, the narrator then recalls how she herself was given one doll every year until she was ten. She goes on to describe a visit in the suburbs of Paris to "one of the finest archeological museums in Europe" where her daughter insists that the pre-Christian icons might be dolls. The story-teller feels "sick with sudden inexplicable anger" when her husband tries to correct the child, but then immensely relieved when he shrugs, smiles, and says, "'You might be right. Who knows'." The fourth section, corresponding to the final repetition in the title, presents a story in itself as the speaker and her sister share both recollections and a strange forgetfulness about their childhood. These lead the speaker to remember the terrible murder of a little girl, "ten years old, my age" and especially her own horrible fears and attempts to cope with them for the rest of that summer. A battered old doll, Nancy Lynn, "protects" her, although "I knew she was lifeless…. Human love, I saw, could not always be relied upon. There would be times when I would have to settle for a kind of parallel love."
In this vivid story, close to a meditation, Shields presents us with nothing that could not be factually or autobiographically true. In this example of an increasingly widespread subgenre, she achieves a brilliant success, comparable to the best stories of the unheralded master, James McConkey. The work can be considered as memoir, as autobiography, or as fiction. But unlike the stories of McConkey or the gripping monologue No Place Like Home by Shane McCabe (the outstanding critical and popular favourite at the 1990 Winnipeg Fringe Festival), "Dolls" would be in no way diminished if its facts were no more literally true than those of "Mrs. Turner" or of "Dying for Love." Shields achieves here a convincing effect of autobiographic truth in which we never go outside the thoughts and the memories set off in the extremely credible narrator, who might well be the author. We read the story as if its events and feelings were true.
To discuss the oeuvre of Carol Shields in mid-career would require consideration not only of her 11 books, including novels, stories, poems, and a play, but also of her uncollected reviews. Instead, by focusing upon four stories—especially through extensive quotations—we can see how central to her work is the range of tones rather than of subject matter or of location. We can often hear an effective speaking voice, especially in its needling humour. We always find carefully crafted comments upon characters and their situations, but how often do we consider these apart from our awareness of their construction? When her command of various tones results in our immediate assent, we will often subsequently find how our noticing the artifice increases the vividness and the resonance of the scene. Readers may well differ in deciding whether the word "miracle" should apply to extreme coincidence or to the comeback of a losing player or to the creation suddenly bursting out from unpromising material. But we should all share the delight, as we read, when, contrasting the initial description of Mrs. Turner's attire, we discover the exquisite tact of the final sentence in the story: "Oh, what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting her grass, and how, like an ornament, she shines."
Running as sub-texts through this essay have been the varying relations of reader-response theory to the narrator and to the author. More overt have been the relations of the implied author (sometimes the "I") to the characters, the ideas they embody or express, and the events of the stories. Some of Shields' more intriguing resonances come if we now attend consciously to a sequence of relations leading from those internal ones we have discussed to those of the work to the reader. In "Mrs. Turner," for example, as we have seen, the reader is engaged from the first lines in a wide variety of ways. But the reader's retrospective engagement will prove quite unlike his/her initial response. At first, most of us may well share the views of the teen-age girls, the selfish ecologically minded neighbours, or the poem about Mrs. Turner—however little we may identify with those characters in other respects. By the end of the story, most of us will agree that Mrs. Turner is an ornament, for Shields has transformed this initially unattractive character through a final vision without mockery or condescension.
Some will not want to stop at this closure. Isn't the poet, especially, treated with mockery and condescension? However important or unimportant one feels one's answer is to this last question, readers of Carol Shields may suspect that she is—or was—prepared to write other stories about these other characters she has created—so that in the vision of the whole, mockery and condescension give way to compassion and celebration.
SOURCE: "Designs for Living," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4587, January 3, 1991, p. 21.
[In the following review of the expanded edition of Happenstance, Armstrong discusses the significance of daily events in the lives of the two characters.]
The two novellas between the covers of Happenstance are arranged so that which story you read first is a matter of chance. Whichever end of the book you start with will actually be a beginning. The stories are not arranged as a sequence, but read from front to back and from back to front of the book, so that their endings converge in the middle, printed upside down to one another. Likewise, the histories of Jack Bowman and his wife, Brenda, nouveau middle-class Americans from middle America, both in their forties, converge at O'Hare Airport, Chicago, after they have been away from one another for a week.
Domestic rules, like the form of the stories, have been inverted; Brenda has been at a craft conference in Philadelphia, winning recognition ("Second Coming receives Honourable Mention", a local newspaper announces of her apocalyptically named quilt) and surviving, among other experiences, a naked couple in flagrante delicto, who have usurped her hotel room. Her husband, a historian with an ebbing belief in his work, is involved in a more sombre black comedy of bewildered domesticity. He is left with two awkward adolescent children, a friend's broken marriage and a neighbour's suicide.
There is no suggestion that one novella, husband's or wife's, takes precedence over the other. Indeed, this is a way of rewriting hierarchical narrative, just as the form itself points to a renegotiation of the marriage relationship. But the novel is not a post-modern experiment in open-endedness. Rather the reverse. Like an orderly quilt pattern, the narrative time of the two stories comes together neatly, edge to edge. With brilliant formal skill, each story is made to act as figure and ground to the other. As all good patterns do, the design of the narrative produces a number of relationships simultaneously. The stories cleave together, expanding in one tale what is barely mentioned in the other—Brenda's earlier estrangement from Jack, Jack's loving exasperation with his father—turning the same event inside out and back to front.
The same control, working with energetic brio, organizes dazzling contrasts of hilariousness and subtlety, high comedy and sombre complexity. Jack endures the blow-drying of his snow-soaked boxer shorts by a lascivious secretary—who really loves him. A potentially light-hearted affair modulates into seriousness when Brenda learns that her friend's daughter, at eighteen, simply disappeared.
By the end of their stories Jack and Brenda have changed places. Jack exchanges the grand narrative of "History" and truth for smaller dreams and fictions and the unrecorded details which slip out of the reach of documentation. Brenda's world grows larger as she discovers, in parallel with her growing power as a designer, the richness and design of her own life. She begins to acknowledge "the shiver of history" as Jack begins to doubt it. Each constructs a new pattern.
But it is a pattern which is also a patchwork: part of the exuberance of the book comes from the way trivial scraps of experience are used to make and change the pattern of lives, particularly the detritus of the fast-food culture of Reaganite America—lifestyle columns, cooking articles, gossip features, women's magazines, reviews, beauty tips, fake events, reportage. The characters are comically exposed to its coercive banality. Brenda, still escaping from pink bathrooms and matching towels, reads with wonder about a strawberry rinse to nourish pubic hair, and catches herself regretting that she missed out on a televised love-in in the 1960s. Jack is haunted by a magazine article about men's inability to make close friendships and exasperated by his father's library of popular psychology—Take Charge of Your Life, Living Adventurously—which, movingly, does actually allow his father to change a little. And a mean newspaper review causes a suicide. Trivia counts.
Both husband and wife say "I love you" to someone else, meaning it, and yet both confirm the marriage. They choose, and the novel is about choice. That is why it does not point towards post-modern lack of closure despite the innovative symmetry of its form. But is does explore the complexity of choice. Jack, giving up his book on Native American society and the theories which almost historicize him out of existence, still wonders, from his post-Watergate, post-Vietnam context, how far his life was made by "those curious mid-fifties, the sunny optionless Eisenhower days". Brenda, seeing that our stories can have more than one ending, sees also that she has chosen not to do things.
The double structure of the narrative actually achieves a genuinely intra-subjective novel, where two mutually independent subjects exist, not the solipsist modern subject and its distant objects. But choice does not guarantee control: happenstance asserts itself; a lost eighteen-year-old and the presence of a neighbour's brain-damaged child make that clear.
Happenstance has been at work in the back-to-front publication of Carol Shields's work in England. Her most recent work, another innovative novel, Mary Swann (1987, reviewed in the TLS of November 16, 1990), was published here last year. The two novellas under review were first published in Canada in 1980 and 1982. Happenstance is also likely to identify her as a novelist of the school of Margaret Atwood. But, like her characters, she has constructed her work with the authentic independence of an important writer.
SOURCE: "Impressions," in Canadian Literature, No. 130, Autumn, 1991, pp. 149-50.
[In the following review of The Orange Fish, Spettigue compares Shields' writing with the work of Alice Munro.]
Twelve stories in the post-post fashion. They begin casually, they wander about, sometimes they have little story line, perhaps no closure. They have theme, though; they have, usually, a consistent point of view. Carol Shields is a critic, is a novelist, is an excellent writer of short stories; she knows how these things work. She must remind her readers of Alice Munro.
Not that you would confuse Shields and Munro, though the worlds they draw many of their subjects from are often the same: the professional maze, with its own rules for survival; the domestic scene, banal but viewed in an odd light; the perpetual, depressing puzzle of the generations—"Family Secrets" is a title for either author. But though they both deliver the knockout blow concealed in casualness, Shields is clearer, crisper—devastating but perhaps not quite so devastating as the more diffuse Munro.
The title story, initially one that seems an unlikely choice, insinuates its significance, but you know it's there: that momentary flash of numinousness in the dull disorder of existence. The inadequacy of the response. Bulwarking a collapsing marriage, the couple in "The Orange Fish" buy a print of a fish, which briefly gives their lives a focus and a lift. Almost immediately a fish cult develops; they attend meetings and find themselves extolling the fish. The fish appears on pins and t-shirts, it is everywhere, it begins to die.
Parodic. You think, this writer's cleverness cannot merely mimic, it must parody the forms it exploits. So in "Today Is the Day" the annual ritual of planting brings the village women briefly back to an earlier language, an earlier community where both the few words and the silence are fertile, "weaving a stratagem of potent suggestion overlain by a wily, votive grammar of sign and silence."
There is always something wistful in those luminous moments. No transcendence is claimed, but only a brief and unexpected excitement, a glimpse of possibilities, of colour. In "Collision" the East-Bloc documentary-film maker, Martä, shares for a few heightened moments the umbrella of the American Brownstone, consultant on tourist entertainments. Nothing more. The bright moment will not change their lives, nor do they even speak—they have no common language. Two ships that pass in the rushhour, to speak in metaphor as, we are told, "more and more we must do." More and more too, the narrator tells us, we acknowledge the world's activity as the accumulating of biographical minutiae. Life is not action, not conflict, but the endless recording of trivia. Is Shields saying, We write therefore we are? Perhaps not even write, but file. In the age of archives, of self-awareness, self-analysis, what else is there?
Martä's encounter with Brownstone is one of the non-events that overflow the silent record, a significance only within the life because that is all there is, brightness that does nothing, goes nowhere. The gap it fills is not so much a need as an inevitability. In the beginning was the biographer.
These are, as the narrator indicates, stories of metaphor; they are impressionistic, catching spots of time as the painter might catch spots of light. In "Fuel for the Fire" the widowed father brings loads of scrap lumber, anything that will burn, including, finally, bowling pins; and the daughter-narrator draws her metaphorical conclusions:
the sight of burning fires, like right now, this minute, how economical it is, how it eats up everything we give it, everything we have to offer.
As the father's other interest is food, both metaphors inform the conclusion.
There are conclusions, tentative ones of course. Again as in Munro, there is much comment, and more than in Munro much impressionistic speculation on the wry vagaries of life. Increasingly in these post-moderns the impossibility of communication, the betrayals of personal relations, the unforgivingness of time, add up to the futility of life, the uncertainty of everything but death. These "real" worlds conceal the others where the bright moments flash and fade. Where communication fails in silence, so silence can be momentary communication, as the narrator finds after she and her husband have been unscrambling road signs, "the real death of words."
As in Munro's "underground caves paved with kitchen linoleum," these are the "true" world—the world of feeling and fiction—underlying all the realities, and the pretences that have to pass for realities just to keep us going. Like Munro, Shields gets it brightly, deceptively, disturbingly right.
SOURCE: "A Fine Romance," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXI, No. 3, April, 1992, p. 40.
[In the following review of The Republic of Love, Donovan argues that Shields has taken the typical romance and infused it with depth and realism.]
Carol Shields a romance writer? In her latest novel, The Republic of Love, Shields takes the reader on a foray into the cold landscape of the late 20th century. Her two protagonists, Fay McLeod and Tom Avery, personably document their respective states: Fay. a recently involved, now single folklorist who is studying the mermaid myth, and Tom, a lonely late-night talk-show host with three failed marriages under his belt. That they will meet and fall in love is inevitable; it is the stuff of romance novels. And, indeed, it is one of the devices Shields purposely adopts from the genre.
Technically, the book is crisply divided into parallel chapters alternating the narratives of Fay and Tom. Their stories progress separately, although minor characters familiar to them both pass from narrative to narrative. Roughly halfway through the book, Fay and Tom meet and fall immediately in love. Interestingly, although their lives now interweave, the narrative threads of their stories are kept separate, presumably to allow the reader to assess Fay through Tom's eyes and Tom through Fay's. This very successfully gives Shields ample room for irony.
Because of these structural decisions, the essential isolation of each character is underlined. Indeed, loneliness is one of the predominant themes in the novel. It contrasts with the longing for independence that several characters exhibit (Fay's father among them), and Shields also explores this duality—the consolatory woman figure and the impenetrable female, the essentially contradictory nature of the psyche—in describing Fay's mermaid research.
We see the loneliness. Tom is afraid of Friday nights. Fay is afraid to go home to an empty apartment. As Tom notes: "Misery does not love company. The lonely can do very little for each other. Emptiness does not serve emptiness."
Is romance possible under these circumstances? And what is romance, anyway? And what is love? These questions plague the citizens of The Republic of Love, and they are the basis for what surrounds the bare-boned story of Tom and Fay. No one seems to have definitive answers to these simple questions (simple if you live in a romance novel). Fay asks, "What does it mean to be a romantic in the last decade of the twentieth century?" Her brother Clyde answers "To believe anything can happen to us." Later Fay's father says almost the same thing: "You never know what's going to happen. What's just around the corner." This nicely complements a thought Tom has as he ponders that, despite his problems, "he wakes up most mornings believing that he is about to enter a period of good fortune."
Is this naïveté? As if Fay's and Tom's own existences aren't enough to convince them, all around they witness the wreckage of love, the compromises that have been made. Fay looks to her parents' settled life and finds it suffocating (yet, ironically, will later be distraught when her father leaves her mother). Fay says, "No one should settle for being half-happy." And her friend answers, "Really?" As Fay later observes: "The lives of others baffle her, especially the lives of couples." Yet despite the evidence of disastrous manifestations of love, Fay and Tom believe. This is underlined in Fay's folklore studies, for example, when she describes folk credulity: "Believers … develop an aptitude for belief, a willed innocence."
This optimism is certainly part of most "romances," and Fay and Tom fall as completely in love as any couple in a romance novel. The naïveté seems somehow necessary in order for the couple to begin to love at all. Both characters talk about being "alive" when love comes to them. Fay speaks of "the ballooning sensation of being intensely alive," and Tom notes: "So this is what it feels like. To be coming awake."
They try their best to live up to the old-fashioned versions of love. But Fay and Tom don't live on the pages of a Harlequin romance, and Fay observes that while everyone seems to be searching for love, love itself is not taken seriously: "It's not respected." And the world intrudes, as it always will.
Theirs, then, must be an "open-eyed" romanticism; they must choose to love, just as they must choose to believe. Contrary to the cynical world around them, and contrary also to the naïve vision in old movies and romance novels, they must create a life that does not deny dead marriages and dying friends, while also not denying the liberating "coming to life" that their love inspires.
Without these qualifications, Shields would have given us a charming tale with little direct bearing on the times. But Fay and Tom earn their right to love. They know the stakes, and they know the odds. So when Shields allows them to honeymoon in Tom's apartment and the storm outside "maroons" them there, the reader feels that they are entitled to their brief stay on their "island," before the world lays claim to them.
Carol Shields has created a sophisticated story in the romance of Fay and Tom. And the "happy ending," so traditional to the romance novel, is here refurbished, updated, and—most happily—earned.
SOURCE: "Formal Strategies in a Female Narrative Tradition: The Case of Swann: A Mystery," in Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 19-32.
[In the following essay, Sweeney argues that in Swann, Shields focuses on the meaning and ambiguity of feminist literature.]
My department, like many others, is debating how best to incorporate minority authors, marginalized texts, and unconventional genres into the canon—into the canon, that is, which we teach our sophomore majors in a two-semester course entitled "Traditions of English Literature." At a departmental discussion on whether to include Adrienne Rich in this syllabus, one of my colleagues, a narrative theorist and stalwart formalist, said he would gladly teach Rich's poetry in the context of her feminism—but only if he was persuaded that her feminism was expressed in the form as well as the content of her poetry.
I, too, am a formalist. I am also a feminist. I believe that women do write differently than men—because, as women, they respond differently to a literary tradition which is primarily composed by men, for men, and of men, and in which women appear often as muses and mistresses but seldom as readers or writers. Such a masculine tradition, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar explain, prompts intensely divided emotions in a female writer: "feelings of alienation from male predecessors coupled with her need for sisterly precursors and successors … her need for a female audience together with her fear of the antagonism of male readers, her culturally conditioned timidity about self-dramatization, her dread of the patriarchal authority of art, her anxiety about the impropriety of female invention." More important, a female writer may feel ambivalent toward language itself, toward the very acts of reading and writing—since they are both the measure of her powerlessness and the means for her to articulate it. And this ambivalence is expressed in the form and content of the narratives she writes.
Because, as Lawrence Lipking says, "a woman's poetics must begin … with a fact that few male theorists have ever had to confront: the possibility of never having been empowered to speak," feminist theorists must first give a name to the silence surrounding female art. In "Toward a Feminist Poetics," Elaine Showalter coins the term "gynocritics" for such a poetics of women's writing. Josephine Donovan warns that "a women's poetics" should reflect "a woman-centered epistemology" and an awareness of the diversity of women's experiences; Jane Marcus describes a "feminist aesthetic" as the "obstinacy and slyness" with which women write for their silenced sisters, and overcome their own anxious authorship, "by keeping a hand in both worlds"—one of masculine discourse, the other of everyday feminine tasks. Rachel Blau DuPlessis defines a "female aesthetic" more precisely as "the production of formal, epistemological, and thematic strategies by members of the group Woman, strategies born in struggle with much of already existing culture." In women's writing, DuPlessis explains, these strategies include speaking in multiple voices, inviting the reader's participation, "not seeking the authority of the writer," and articulating a "both/and vision born of shifts, contraries, negations, contradictions". Susan Lanser calls for a feminist narratology which would address the surface and the subtext of such feminine texts, as well as the narrative frame that binds them. Reading an anonymous feminine text, Lanser points out that "beneath the 'feminine' voice of self-effacement and emotionality … lies the 'masculine' voice of authority that the writer cannot inscribe openly."
Many feminist theorists, then, have helped to articulate a female aesthetic. I hope to extend their work by describing a female narrative poetics: specific narrative strategies with which women represent their ambivalence toward reading and writing. Many feminist critics have helped to reconstruct a female literary history which demonstrates a female aesthetic; I hope to extend their work by showing how these narrative strategies define a distinctly female narrative tradition.
Any female narrative poetics must take into account Virginia Woolf's artful essay A Room of One's Own, which began as a lecture on "women and fiction." Woolf explains that the female writer usually produces novels, not poems or plays—because for centuries she could observe and record human nature only in the sitting-room, and because "the novel alone was young enough to be soft in her hands." In her novels, moreover, she developed a "natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use," which Woolf elsewhere calls the "psychological sentence of the feminine gender": "capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes." Men sometimes use such sentences, of course; but women design them specifically to "descend to the depths and investigate the crannies" of female consciousness. The feminine sentence—which expresses the most tenuous and shadowy extremes—shows how women manipulate narrative form in order to represent anxious power.
A Room of One's Own also imagines a female literary history, which ranges from "a lost novelist, a suppressed poet … some mute and inglorious Jane Austen" to a series of women named "Mary": Mary Beton, Mary Seton, and finally Mary Carmichael, an experimental novelist like Woolf herself. In order to delineate the formal characteristics of a female narrative tradition, I would like to cite another Mary: Mary Swann, the shadowy heroine of Swann: A Mystery, Carol Shields' satirical novel about the posthumous discovery of a female writer. If the name "Mary" evokes women's common experiences, then "Swann"—with its Proustian allusion—suggests that which is lost or forgotten. Indeed, Shields uses her fictitious "suppressed poet" to reconstruct yet another female literary history—one that includes Emily Dickinson, to whom Swann is compared; Pearl Buck and Edna Ferber, her favorite writers; and a contemporary feminist critic, who discovers her. Like Woolf in A Room of One's Own, then, Shields describes women's ambivalence toward language in a fictive history of female reading and writing.
The content of Swann (what narrative theorists would call its story) concerns the problems of becoming a female writer and of being included in the literary canon. Mary Swann—already dead before her story begins, like many female writers in women's narratives—was a poor and abused farmer's wife, geographically and culturally isolated in rural Ontario, unschooled, and apparently unversed in any literary tradition except for the two popular romances she borrowed each week from her town library. The two most significant facts of Swann's life are that it ended when her husband shot her, dismembered her body, and then shot himself; and that she left behind 125 haunting poems whose compression, resonance, and use of common meter recall Emily Dickinson. Fifteen years after her death, when a young feminist scholar discovers her only book (a cheap pamphlet entitled Swann's Songs), Swann suddenly becomes a literary phenomenon—the inspiration for MLA sessions, PMLA essays, a Mary Swann Memorial Room in her hometown, even a Swann Symposium. Yet she remains elusive. Her biographer can find no useful information on her life; no two readers can agree on a poem's meaning; and even the few proofs of her existence (her photograph, her pen, her notebook, her unpublished love poems, the remaining copies of Swann's Songs) mysteriously disappear. The content of Shields' novel, then, expresses her anxiety about the production and interpretation of women's writing by recounting the life and posthumous reception of a female writer.
More important, the narrative form of Swann (what narrative theorists would call its discourse) reflects this same anxiety. In Swann, Shields uses formal strategies that reveal her ambivalence toward reading and writing: interrupted, indirect, or dialogic narration; mixed genres and embedded texts (in particular, feminine texts which are absent or illegible); depictions of a feminine text's composition, publication, and interpretation; and an ambiguous ending.
The experimental narration of the novel's five sections reveals its ambivalence toward narrative authority. Each of the first four sections focuses on a different character (Sarah Maloney the feminist scholar, Morton Jimroy the biographer, Rose Hindmarch the town librarian, and Frederic Cruzzi the publisher of Swann's Songs); and each is narrated from a different point of view, organized in a different format, and written in a different prose style. The narration of the fifth section is even more playfully self-reflexive: it takes the form of an imaginary screenplay, "The Swann Symposium," in which characters' voices become audible and inaudible in a cacophony of "random phrases", "fragments of conversation," "overlapping voices", and interrupted or misunderstood speech:
GINGER PONYTAIL: … splitting headache—
CRINKLED FOREHEAD: … was a trifle disturbed by his remarks regarding—
BIRDLADY: … blatantly sexist—
GREEN TWEED SUIT: Slash, slash—
GINGER PONYTAIL: Jesus, the smoke in here's thick enough to—
WOMAN IN PALE SUEDE BOOTS: … and the noise—
SILVER CUFFLINKS: … sorry, I didn't catch—
The extravagant multiplicity of narrative voices in the five sections of Swann—whether it takes the form of interrupted discourse, free indirect discourse, or dialogic narration—reflects, I think, a peculiarly feminine ambivalence toward narrative authority. It is as if Shields divides responsibility for telling her story among as many narrators as possible. And yet such attempts to disguise or diffuse narrative authority actually draw attention to her own authorial power. This ambivalence is clearly articulated in the "Director's Note" that introduces the screenplay:
The Swann Symposium is a film lasting approximately 120 minutes. The main characters … are fictional creations, as is the tragic Mary Swann, poète naïve, of rural Ontario. The film may be described (for distribution purposes) as a thriller. A subtext focuses on the more subtle thefts and acts of cannibalism that tempt and mystify the main characters. The director hopes to remain unobtrusive throughout, allowing dialogue and visual effects (and not private passions) to carry the weight of the narrative.
This self-reflexive passage reveals Shields' conflicting desires: "to remain unobtrusive throughout" the novel, on the one hand; and obtrusively to assert her authority as its "director," on the other.
Swann reveals Shields' ambivalence not only about narrative authority, but about narrative itself. It combines various forms of narrative (autobiography, biography, epistolary novel, romance, ghost story, detective story, university novel) as well as other genres (poetry and drama). And it not only alludes to other texts that remain unwritten, such as Rose's letter to Morton Jimroy; it even embeds some of them, such as Frederic Cruzzi's "(Unwritten) One-Sentence Autobiography," "Short Untranscribed History of the Peregrine Press," and "Unwritten Account of the Fifteenth of December, 1965." Swann presents itself, then, as many different narrative and non-narrative texts—but also as a text that cannot be written or, according to Kristeva's definition of the feminine, as "that which is not represented, that which is unspoken, that which is left out."
In addition to mixing narrators, genres, and embedded texts, then, Shields reflects her ambivalence toward reading and writing by representing texts—in particular, feminine texts like Swann's poems—as "left out," illegible, blank, or altogether absent. Swann's body of work is dismembered, like her physical body, during the course of the narrative. Her love poems, for example, are hidden beneath her kitchen linoleum, only to be appropriated by one scholar, stolen by another, and never published at all. Her other poems, published posthumously in Swann's Songs, are written in an ink called "washable blue"—which, when the poems are accidentally soaked, results in "a pale swimmy smudge, subtly shaded, like a miniature pond floating on a white field. Two or three such smudges and a written page became opaque and indecipherable, like a Japanese water-colour." The novel thus represents the feminine text—Swann's manuscript—as an indecipherable image, a blank page, a missing sign.
Not surprisingly, Swann's inscrutable poems resist interpretation and confound her readers. Consider one poem whose meaning becomes less clear each time it is quoted:
Blood pronounces my name, Blisters the day with shame, Spends what little I own, Robbing the hour, rubbing the bone.
In a series of self-reflexive passages (what Gerald Prince would call "reading interludes"), several characters (whom Naomi Schor would call "interpretants") try to make sense of this embedded feminine text. Sarah Maloney, the feminist scholar, reads it as a poem about "the inescapable perseverance of blood ties, particularly those between mothers and daughters." Morton Jimroy, the biographer, thinks it describes "the eating of the Godhead," "a metaphysical covenant with an inexplicable universe." Rose Hindmarch, the town librarian, thinks it concerns menstruation. And Frederic Cruzzi, the publisher, remembers deciphering the poem's almost illegible manuscript with his wife on the day of Swann's death:
The last poem, and the most severely damaged, began: "Blood pronounces my name." Or was it "Blood renounces my name"? The second line could be read in either of two ways: "Brightens the day with shame," or "Blisters the day with shame." They decided on blisters. The third line, "Spends what little I own," might just as easily be transcribed, "Bends what little I own," but they wrote Spends because—though they didn't say so—they liked it better.
What Mary Swann wrote on the page—let alone what she meant to say—remains obscure. Swann also represents ambivalence toward reading and writing, then, in the fate of this embedded feminine text, whose transcription, editing, and publication is so unreliable, and whose readers' interpretations are so hopelessly contradictory.
When Swann's poems literally disappear at the end of the novel, it becomes clear that such feminine texts must be read differently than masculine texts. The last scene of "The Swann Symposium" shows a meeting room in a hotel, "but there is no one at the lectern and no one, seemingly, in charge. People are seated in a sort of circle, speaking out, offering up remembered lines of poetry, laboriously reassembling one of Mary Swann's poems." The novel's ending describes the effects of reading the feminine text in this new way:
The faces of the actors have been subtly transformed. They are seen joined in a ceremonial act of reconstruction, perhaps even an act of creation. There need be no suggestion that any one of them will become less selfish in the future, less cranky, less consumed with thoughts of tenure and academic glory, but each of them has, for the moment at least, transcended personal concerns.
The ending suggests, then, that reading a feminine text appropriately—unlike the earlier solipsistic interpretations of "Blood Pronounces My Name"—empowers readers by allowing them to transcend "personal concerns" and unite with others. Indeed, this collaborative reconstruction resembles the "intersubjective encounter" that Patrocinio Schweickart describes in her feminist theory of reading.
Yet the novel also seems ambivalent about the validity of such feminist reading. Shields embeds this scene of collaboration within a series of unreliable narrative frames: Swann's absent text is reconstructed by a group of academics, who are played by hypothetical actors in a screenplay, which is produced only in the reader's imagination. More important, the text that results from this reading remains ambiguous. The poem that these readers reconstruct, line by line, is reprinted on the novel's last page under the heading: "LOST THINGS By Mary Swann." It comments ironically on Swann's life, her art, and the elusive feminine text:
… As though the lost things have withdrawn Into themselves, books returned To paper or wood or thought, Coins and spoons to simple ores, Lustreless and without history, Waiting out of sight And becoming part of a larger loss Without a name Or definition or form Not unlike what touches us In moments of shame.
This meditation on "lost things" reflects the novel's sense of women's writing and provides a satisfying closure. Yet it is also an appropriately ambiguous ending: because the poem appears only as it was reconstructed, it may not be the poem Swann wrote. The ending of Swann, then, leaves us with another embedded feminine text that remains both absent and present—thus raising additional questions about its interpretation and authorship, and about the nature of female reading and writing.
Carol Shields' self-reflexive narrative strategies suggest her ambivalence toward appropriating the power of language. Those same strategies recur throughout the history of women's narrative: disguised or deferred narrative authority (what in this volume Christine Moneera Laennec, after Christine de Pizan, calls "writing-without-having-written"); dialogic or interrupted narration (what in this volume Patricia Hannon calls "writing by addition" in seventeenth-century French fairy tales); mixed genres, modes of discourse, and mises en abyme; narrative codes, secrets, and subtexts (what Bonnie TuSmith describes, in this volume, as Maxine Hong Kingston's "strategy of ambiguity"); self-reflexive accounts of the composition, publication, or interpretation of a feminine text (such as the mother's story in Caroline Lee Hentz' Ernest Linwood or the handmaid's tale in Margaret Atwood's eponymous novel); descriptions of the dismemberment of female writing; embedded feminine texts that are both legible and illegible (such as the bewildering pattern in Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper," the white bedsheet in Dinesen's "The Blank Page," or the ghostly letters in Wharton's "Pomegranate Seed"); and unresolved or ambiguous endings. The formal strategies that Christine de Pizan, Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy, Jane Barker, and other early female writers used to express their anxious power thus anticipated the characteristics of contemporary experimental fiction by Toni Morrison, Sandra Cisneros, Angela Carter, Kathy Acker, and others: dialogic narration, cross-genre writing, metafiction, and "writing beyond the ending" (as DuPlessis calls it). Indeed, the recurrence of these formal strategies—from de Pizan's fifteenth-century prose to Shields' 1987 novel—defines a distinctly female narrative tradition.
This reading of Swann: A Mystery not only confirms the existence of a female poetics, but outlines a narrative tradition in which women represent their ambivalence toward reading and writing. It also suggests that a combination of critical approaches (narrative theory, reader-response criticism, and feminist theory) can serve critics as the "asbestos gloves," in Adrienne Rich's phrase, with which to handle the question of woman's language about which feminist theory itself is so ambivalent. Finally, in emphasizing the hidden authority of women's narrative, this reading of Swann indicates, as Lanser says, "that the powerless form called 'women's language' is … a potentially subversive—hence powerful—tool."
And to return to my colleague's implicit question: yes, the female writer's struggle with the social construction of femininity does shape the form as well as the content of her writing. In narrative, it has even produced a female tradition of experimental, ambiguous, and self-reflexive narrative strategies—a tradition which is legible to anyone who can be persuaded to read "otherwise" (in Molly Hite's phrase), to heed voices that "never [have] been empowered to speak". That such persuasion remains necessary explains why women are still so anxious about the power of their words.
SOURCE: "Imagination's Invisible Ink," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, No. 8, May, 1994, p. 20.
[In the following review of Happenstance and The Stone Diaries, Pool argues that while similar in nature and focus, the latter is more complex.]
You would expect that good books from a country as close to us (in every sense) as Canada would quickly find American covers. Apparently not. It has taken more than a decade for the first US edition of Carol Shields' Happenstance to appear, and I suspect we might not have it even now if her latest work, The Stone Diaries, had not been short-listed for last year's Booker Prize. Whatever their literary merit, awards are good promotion even for finalists, encouraging publishers to furnish early and out-of-print work. In Shields' case this is all to the good, and I hope we will soon see her earlier novels, Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden. Her work should be read in its entirety, that entirety hangs together so well.
Shields staked out her fictional territory early in her novel-writing life, and has explored it inventively ever since. Her realm of interest is the chronicling of lives, our efforts to find stories that give them shape and meaning. Underlying her own chronicling of people chronicling lives is the point that no one ever really knows enough. Shields' characters may be professional biographers or ordinary folk trying to make sense of their lives; all confront a picture that is inevitably incomplete. Beyond the mysteries of life (the role of fate or choice), we each have a particular perspective that determines what we see and miss, an individual framework that leads to readings that are sometimes comically, sometimes poignantly wrong. Nor do we readily enter other perspectives: in Shields' world, people misconstrue each other regularly, even if—perhaps especially if—they sleep together nightly.
With her eye on perspective, Shields plays nicely with viewpoints, shifting not only within books but even between them. In Small Ceremonies, the central character is biographer Judith Gill; in The Box Garden, the protagonist is Judith's sister. The setup offers great potential to enrich both books, but Shields uses it only modestly here, as if trying it out.
In her next two novels, though, she works this construction ingeniously. Happenstance, which first appeared in 1980, follows historian Jack Bowman's life over five days when his wife Brenda, a quiltmaker, is away at a handicrafts exhibit; A Fairly Conventional Woman, published in 1982, examines the same five days, focusing on Brenda. Together the novels create a vital portrait of a marriage. As the subtitle of this new edition suggests, it is a marriage "in transition." Fittingly, in this volume, the two stories are bound together but open from opposite sides of the book, each upside down to the other.
Jack's story takes place in Chicago, where Shields, now a Winnipeg resident, was born and raised. The Bowmans' suburb is comfortable, a word that applies equally well to Jack. At 43, he has a secure, unpressured research position. Married twenty years, he has two healthy if adolescent children. He meets his good friend Bernie Koltz weekly to discuss such topics as entropy or the death of God. As he sees it, he owes his good fortune to "happenstance," which has "made him into a man without serious impairment or unspeakable losses."
But during Brenda's absence, comfort disappears amidst a slew of comically depicted disasters: Bernie turns up, announcing his wife has left him; a neighbor, an amateur actor, is trashed in a review and attempts suicide; Jack's son has stopped eating; in the background, housekeeping degenerates, the kitchen overflows with gnawed bones, dirty glasses, wadded-up napkins.
Worst of all, Jack confronts a crisis. He learns that a book on the same subject as the one he is writing will soon appear; he may have to drop his project. If truth be told, it would be a relief. Only on chapter six after three years, he can barely face the boring text. "I'm a man who has lost his faith," he says dramatically, posing a bit for this crisis much as he has posed at writing his book.
A philosophizing fellow, Jack has trouble grounding himself in everyday reality. By contrast, there is nowhere else that Brenda lives. So we realize as, during her five days at the conference, she remembers her unmarried mother and unmissed father, and reflects on her years as a housewife and her recent quilting success.
For Brenda, these are heady days. A woman who hasn't traveled alone, she calls room service for the first time in her life. She wins honorable mention for her quilt, is interviewed by a reporter, meets feminists at the conference, is shaken to find her hotel room-mate having sex, gets horribly drunk and sick, meets a man for whom she feels an affinity. Not everything is wonderful, but everything is new.
Shrewdly depicting the same moments as seen by each spouse, Shields reveals different visions of the past as well as different views of the present. In Jack's story, the comedy depends partly on Brenda's forthcoming, continuing presence, which he never doubts. In Brenda's, though her love for Jack is clear, we find her reflecting on her anger, wondering if it means her life has been a mistake. Ruminating guiltily about taking over the guest room for her work, she realizes she deserves it: she is more serious about her work than Jack is about his. This, in view of their history, seems to me the most startling realization of all, one that Jack has yet to come to, though it lies just ahead.
Shields is expert at combining satire and sympathy. Alongside the gaps in Jack and Brenda's comprehension of each other lies the substance of all they share. Canny and unsentimental, this double chronicle captures not just this couple but men's and women's lives and marriages in our time.
If Happenstance is ingeniously constructed, it is nonetheless straightforward compared to The Stone Diaries, an intricate novel and complex commentary on living and telling lives. Simply described, it is the autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth in Tyndall, Manitoba, in 1905, to her death in Florida in the nineties. It is very much a woman's story.
Starting with her birth and advancing approximately by decades, Daisy describes how her mother Mercy Stone died when she herself was born; how a neighbor, Clarentine Flett, cared for her and, in the midst of change of life, changed her life, abandoning her husband, Magnus, and taking Daisy to her son Barker in Winnipeg; how at Clarentine's death, Daisy's father, a stone worker, took her to Bloomington, Indiana, where he flourished in business; how she married a handsome alcoholic who fell out a window on their honeymoon; how, feeling swamped by her "tragic" story as orphan and widow, she went to Canada at 31, to visit—and marry—Barker Flett; how she lived as housewife and mother for twenty years, thrived in widowhood writing a gardening column, fell into depression when she was fired; how she moved to Florida and made a comfortable life. The final chapters, unsparing and grimly funny, chronicle her decline and death.
Throughout, Daisy generally refers to herself in the third person, perhaps because she has stationed herself as an observer, perhaps because she feels an absence in herself, an absence of self. Her detailed chronicle includes stories and descriptions alongside commentary about life, men and women, autobiography in general and the one she is writing.
Shields plays intriguingly here with invention and truth. The novel has not only a family tree, easily conceived of as pure invention, but also family photographs, which are sure to give a reader pause: pictures of whom? Daisy's narrative constantly raises the question of veracity. She cannot know what happened at her birth or past her death, though she relates both. And all her wonderful stories—including the ones about events she could never have witnessed.
Consider one of my favorite tales (unfortunately, condensed here): the laconic Magnus Flett, abandoned by Clarentine, misses her intensely. He doesn't understand why she left. Discovering her stash of novels, he reads them; he especially likes Jane Eyre.
It astonished him, how these books were stuffed full of people. Each one was like a little world, populated and furnished. And the way those book people talked!… Some of the phrases were like poetry, nothing like the way folks really spoke, but nevertheless he pronounced them aloud to himself and committed them to memory, so that if by chance his wife should decide to come home and take up her place once more, he would be ready.
Magnus practices: "O beautiful eyes, O treasured countenance, O fairest of skin."
But Clarentine never comes home. Magnus returns to his homeland, the Orkneys. Years later, Daisy, who never met her father-in-law, visits the Orkneys and discovers he is still alive. At 115, he is famous as the oldest man in the British Isles. But he is still more famous as the man who could recite Jane Eyre by heart.
Now I find this story both moving and hilarious. But what is true here? The "facts" are few. Magnus did, for example, return to the Orkneys. It is interesting to imagine the various routes by which Daisy might have arrived at her tale.
Daisy doesn't hide the fact that her autobiography abounds in distortions and inventions. She warns us often. "The recounting of a life is a cheat," she observes. Daisy, she says,
is not always reliable when it comes to the details of her life; much of what she has to say is speculative, exaggerated, wildly unlikely…. Daisy Goodwill's perspective is off. Furthermore, she imposes the voice of the future on the events of the past, causing all manner of wavy distortion. She takes great jumps in time, leaving out important matters…. Still, hers is the only account there is, written on air, written with imagination's invisible ink.
Daisy knows the power of storytelling: it was by this "primary act of imagination" that she determined to hold onto her life. She is also aware of different perspectives: she records with humor varied explanations of her breakdown, from her new-generation daughter's theory that it was the loss of her job to her friend's assertion that it was sex. And she is aware of her own perspective: her abiding sense of motherlessness and abandonment, the feeling of being "erased from the record of her own existence" (no picture of Daisy appears among her photographs) have influenced the story she tells. So we construct our life stories, the book suggests, seeing or inventing what we need, filling in the picture we cannot truthfully complete.
True or invented, a distinct person emerges from these pages. Her story is a quietly riveting chronicle of an ordinary life, valiant and tedious. If we finish Happenstance feeling "Yes, this is a marriage," we finish The Stone Diaries feeling "Yes, this is a life."
SOURCE: "A Celebrator of the Little Things," in New York Times, Vol. CXLIV, No. 50057, May 10, 1995, p. B2.
[In the following review of The Stone Diaries, Gussow provides background on the Shields's life and career.]
The Stone Diaries, which won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is a rich, panoramic novel in the guise of a biography. As Carol Shields traces the life of Daisy Goodwill, from birth to death, through the 20th century, she creates a family tree and inserts an album of family photographs in the center of the book to underscore the tangibility of her characters.
"When I read biography," she said during an interview, "I always turn to the section of photographs and check the text against the image, again and again, so that when I'm finished reading the book, it opens all by itself to that place."
With the help of her editor, she said, she looked for photos that would reflect her feeling about her invented characters, eclectically gathering them from museums, antique stores and a Parisian postcard market. The last two pages of the photo insert are actually childhood pictures of Ms. Shields's son and four daughters.
At 59, the novelist has five grandchildren; she published her first novel when she was 40. Until then, in very traditional fashion, she brought up her children and managed the household as her husband pursued his career in civil engineering. When she took her first steps as a writer, she said, she felt a certain embarrassment and even guilt: "Sitting in an upstairs bedroom making up stories was not a fit occupation for a grown-up woman." As her confidence grew, so did her sense of storytelling.
Now she writes her novels in her office at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, where she is a professor of English and her husband is dean of the engineering department. Her daughters are the first to read the books when they are finished. Looking back, she said she had no regrets about the long delay in her career. From her perspective, she began writing when she was ready to write.
She was born in Oak Park, Ill., and is a naturalized Canadian with dual citizenship and "a foot on either side of the border." As "a hyphenate," she is in the rare position of being eligible for awards in England, Canada and the United States. In this halcyon year, she has been gathering honors. The Stone Diaries was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in Britain, received the Canadian Governor General's Literary Award and won the National Book Critics Circle Award as well as the Pulitzer Prize.
For many people, she may seem like a new writer, but behind The Stone Diaries is a body of work including six novels and two collections of short stories and a loyal readership, especially in Canada, where she is accepted as one of its leading authors.
Ms. Shields has also written three plays and was in Toronto for the opening of Thirteen Hands, a wistful collage about three generations of bridge players. At the Alumnae Theater, she was greeted as a celebrity, a role she responds to with customary modesty: she is petite, genteel and soft-spoken. After the show, in keeping with the hominess of the work, date squares and Rice Krispie bars were served at a reception.
Although she wrote poems and stories in high school and college, she never really thought she could be a professional writer. For a young woman growing up in the 1950's, she said, such an aspiration was as distant as "wanting to be a movie star." She explained that her parents had encouraged her to study for her teaching license "so I would have something to fall back on, if I were widowed or divorced, or failed to find a husband."
Soon after graduating from college, she married Donald Shields, who is Canadian, and they moved to Toronto. In her spare time, she wrote poetry and published two slim volumes. Years later, with seeming casualness, her husband suggested that she take a night school course in writing, and with equal casualness she enrolled. To fulfill an assignment, she wrote a short story, and the teacher sold it to the Canadian Broadcasting Company, which broadcast it on a short-story series. Ms. Shields, who was packing to go to England with her family for three years, said she was "flabbergasted" at the sudden success.
Later, while studying for a master's degree at the University of Ottawa, she wrote a literary whodunit, which three publishers rejected with encouraging letters. Readers' reports agreed that she was manipulating her characters from a great distance. Because she had been preparing her thesis on Susanna Moodie, a 19th century Canadian writer, she decided to write a novel closer to her life, about a woman who is writing about Susanna Moodie.
Producing two pages a day, it took her nine months: her sixth child. On the day she turned 40, she and her husband were packing again, this time for a year's sabbatical in France, when she learned that the book (Small Ceremonies) had been accepted. It was, as she sees it, another case of serendipity. When the novel was published, one of the first letters of congratulation came from Alice Munro, the writer she most admired. Now the two are friends and have equal stature.
Ms. Shields's novels, which take place in the United States as well as Canada, deal with people quietly facing emotional crises. The writing is marked by sophistication and insight into familial and marital relationships. The novels are filled with chance meetings and seemingly random events, coincidences of life that she regards as synchronicity. As with those in Anne Tyler's novels, her characters are people who might otherwise be overlooked.
The protagonist of Small Ceremonies says: "I am a watcher. My own life will never be enough for me. It's a congenital condition, my only, only disease in an otherwise lucky life." When the passage was quoted to her, Ms. Shields readily accepted it as the author's voice. It is her role as closely watchful observer that has given her books their intimacy.
While others may think of The Stone Diaries as a breakthrough, for her, the most intricate work was her fifth novel, Swann, which deals with academic rivals vying for the life and art of what she calls a "poète naïve of rural Ontario." After that came The Republic of Love, a deeply romantic novel in which a Winnipeg man and woman undergo a series of unsatisfying relationships until they finally meet and instantly fall in love. Ms. Shields recently finished writing the screenplay for the film version, which might do for Winnipeg what "Sleepless in Seattle" did for Seattle.
Writing The Stone Diaries, she worried that the story was thin on plot. Then she came across a statement from the novelist Patrick White, who said that he never worried about plot, he just wrote about "life going on toward death." "I relaxed into that quotation," said Ms. Shields. "It's always seemed to me that this was the great primordial plot: birth, love, death."
In her novel Happenstance, one of the two leading characters is a quilt maker, "a 40-year-old woman who discovers she is an artist, and nothing in her life has prepared her for that knowledge." For Ms. Shields, writing is like quilt making, and the important thing is the creating. "I always feel I'm making something when I write a book, an artifact," she said, "and that's where the pleasure is."
SOURCE: "Sadness and Light," in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXIV, No. 846, January-February, 1996, pp. 46-7.
[In the following review of Coming to Canada, Hamelin praises Shields's poetry, stating that in it readers hear the same poignant voice of her novels.]
It is difficult to read Carol Shields' collection of poetry, Coming to Canada, without preconceptions; by now, we know her voice well and find ourselves looking for glimmers of Daisy Goodwill and shades of Mary Swann. And in fact the poems in this retrospective—which includes selections from Others (1972), Intersect (1974) and an earlier volume also entitled Coming to Canada (1992), as well as 33 new ones—have the same honest, unpretentious intensity as Shields' best fiction. Shields excels at character and description, and many of the poems are like little novels, tiny scenes held up to the light.
In his introduction, Christopher Levenson expresses surprise that the poems are not "as full of sweetness and light" as he had expected. But since most of them are tinged with an awareness of mortality, of missed opportunities, or a certain anxiety, this comment leaves one wondering if Shields is still a victim of what could be called the L.M. Montgomery Syndrome, where women who write about the domestic realm are often underrated. In fact, the reflective and philosophical bent of a number of the poems dispels the myth that Shields is a "women's writer", fixated on the family, and many of her images reveal a crueler or more bizarre underside of reality than is evident in her novels.
Levenson argues that in Others, Shields' preoccupation with the family leads to "a sense of stifling coziness", and adds that but for her wit and technical skill, the poems would be "debilitatingly trivial". And yet most of the poems deal with complex and often negative aspects of life. "The New Mothers" dispassionately describes a hospital where "egg-bald babies lie" like "insects in cases", crying "tiny metal tunes, / hairpins scratching / sky". Nor does "Anne at the Symphony" evoke coziness. Anne, "stilled in ether", permits "an alien clarinet / to scoop out an injury / we can't even imagine." The theory of life transmitted by "vinegar pure" flutes "bleeds like sand / through her faintly / clapping hands". Rather than celebrating "happiness, harmony and order", as Levenson suggests, these poems suggest a sadness and even emptiness behind the reassuring rituals of everyday life.
True, Shields grounds her work in the domestic, but she connects its specific details to larger concerns and sometimes terrifying realities, as in "A Friend of Ours who Knits".
The mittens that leap from her anxious wool annul old injuries and rehearseher future tense.Her husband's career is secured in cablestitch, and her children, double-ribbed, aresafe from disease. knit, purl, she goes faster and faster, increase, decrease, now she preventsstorms, earthquakes, world wars.
In the "Coming to Canada" section of the volume, the speaker's voice is relaxed, personal and outward-reaching. The title generates certain expectations: that we will learn about Shields' feelings about immigrating to Canada, and perhaps that we will see ourselves reflected. But these poems deal mostly with Shields' youth in the U.S. They recreate early sensations such as blowing through a blade of grass, or learning to speak ("when language blew up a new balloon / almost every day"), as well as some more frightening aspects of childhood. In one poem, a child touches her dead grandmother's mouth, seeing this act as the first of many terrifying tests in the adult world. In another, a child thinking about religion concludes that "It was better not / To think about / The Holy Ghost".
Shields is at her best when she places personal details in a broader historical or political context, as in her subtle merging of the public and private effects of war in "The Four Seasons". Less strong are the poems where she confronts philosophical issues directly, as in "I/Myself," where she attempts to describe the nature of consciousness by comparing the complicated back of a radio to the inside of her head.
The title poem, "Coming to Canada", juxtaposes a 1932 postcard, sent on the occasion of an aunt's Canadian honeymoon, with the poet's perception of Canada:
It was cool and quiet there with a king and queen and people drinking tea and being polite and clean snow coming downeverywhere
Years later, this clichéd view is displaced when the speaker settles in Canada, which becomes "here and now and home / the place I came to / the place I was from."
Like many other writers of her generation (one thinks of Margaret Atwood's moving poem about her father in Morning in the Burned House), Shields is preoccupied with the themes of the aging and death of parents or relatives. In "Our Old Aunt Who Is Now in a Retirement Home", Auntie, "stewed / in authentic age" and caught "in her closet of brown breath," "lives from tray to tray, / briefly fingering / squares of cake." "The final outrage", the poet discovers, is "not death, / but lingering". There is an unexpected gravity and sadness in many of her later poems, which confront the inevitability of time's passing and the heartbreak of old age through such situations as the selling of the family house, the painful recognition of aging felt at a class reunion or the choked anger of golden-agers on a tour of autumn leaves.
But not all of the new poems are overtly about time. In "Work", which seems haunted by Susanna Moodie on whom Shields wrote her M.A. thesis [Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision], the poet describes a couple stacking wood:
Afterwards we drank tea and noticed how our hands shook clumsy as paws with the tiny cups, as though the shock of moving from brutal bark to flowered chinahad been too great.
Such elegance and control are more the rule than the exception in this deeply human collection of poems. When Shields strikes the right balance between the personal and the political, the mundane and the philosophical, her writing is powerful indeed. Many poems in Coming to Canada achieve that balance, and in them one recognizes the voice we have grown accustomed to through reading Shields' novels: a quiet, unpretentious voice speaking important truths.
SOURCE: "Smaller than Life," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XIII, No. 7, April, 1996, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review of Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Lipton compares the protagonists from each novel.]
Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, Carol Shields' earliest published novels, unfold in Canadian suburbs and cars; they portray the lives of decent people who slowly pull meaning, sometimes wisdom, out of mundane pain and familiar satisfactions. Indeed, the books are like laboratories where Shields peruses the commonplace and discovers her metier. There is nothing in them that is larger than life. There is something, however, that makes Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden remarkable, particularly for women readers: the protagonist of each book is a woman who writes.
Small Ceremonies was published in Canada in 1976, The Box Garden in 1977. I suspect they were originally intended as one book which didn't coalesce and so was divided into two. The main characters are two sisters who make appearances in both books. Small Ceremonies is told in Judith (McNinn) Gill's voice. She is a successful biographer of the unfamous and a wife and mother in her early forties, contentedly married to Martin, a Milton specialist who teaches at a nearby university. Their two children are Richard, nine, and Meredith, sixteen.
Judith is an efficient, decent person who has a professional interest in gossip and is somewhat given to envy. She is principled and correct and her decency elicits our respect. The family leads a steady, predictable life in a house near Toronto. Their friends include academics, one famous writer, graduate students, wives and mothers. There is no plot to speak of. Events unfold in chapters named for the months September through April; Judith's inner self, her musing writer's self, negotiates the days and seasons, assimilating details, references, memories.
The Box Garden is more structured, but so awkwardly that I was continually brushing aside narrative filaments in my attempt to keep Charleen (McNinn) Forrest, the other sister, in focus. She is a poet in her mid-thirties who lives with her fifteen-year-old son Seth in Vancouver. She earns a living at a boring, unremunerative job, editing an academic journal on botany. Charleen is a stubbornly passive, quite nervous person, always fretting and worrying. She lives mostly in her head and maintains a compulsive conversation with her superego. Unlike Judith, she is not a soothing presence. Her boyfriend, Eugene, is an orthodontist—and here Shields surely pushes the commonplace into your face: Can you take it? You can almost see her smiling, daring you. Charleen's friends can't, and it's an indication of an entirely different Charleen that she doesn't give a damn.
The narrative in The Box Garden takes Charleen and Eugene to Toronto to attend her mother's marriage. While there she meets her stepfather-to-be, spends time with her sister—they are forced to share their childhood bedroom while their male companions are put to sleep elsewhere—observes, if doesn't quite visit with, her mother. As might be expected, the sisters are different types of writers. Judith is matter-of-fact: "I am putting the finishing touches on Susanna Moodie." No Problem. Charleen is ironic: "'[My poetry is] about the minutiae of existence,' I said with mock solemnity." So self-effacing is Charleen that the reader is caught off guard when she refers to her last three volumes of published poetry.
Each sister describes a desolate childhood. Judith says to a friend, "'Do you know what it was that frightened me most about childhood?… That it would never end…. It was the terrible, terrible suffocating sameness of it all … the awful and relentless monotony.'" Charleen is more specific. When Eugene asks about her mother, "But she must have loved you. You and your sister?" Charleen responds:
It's hard to explain … because she had loved us but with an angry, depriving love which, even after all these years, I don't understand. The lye-bite of her private rancour, her bitter shrivelling scoldings. When she scrubbed our faces it was with a single, hurting swipe. When we fell down and scraped our knees and elbows she said, "that will teach you to watch where you're going."
Judith voices an explanation for their vocations: "My sister Charleen, who is a poet, believes that we two sisters turned to literature out of simple malnutrition. Our own lives just weren't enough…. We were underfed, undernourished; we were desperate. So we dug in. And here we are, all these years later, still digging." As Charleen puts it, "My survival was hooked into my quirky, accidental ability to put words into agreeable arrangements. I could even remake my childhood, that great void in which nothing had happened but years and years of shrivelling dependence. I wrote constantly…."
Neither book focuses on the psychological. Self-containment and domesticity set emotional contours. That's life, these books take for granted, all we've got: mothers, fathers, sisters, children, husbands, and lovers-soon-to-become husbands. Neither friends nor professional life figure. This is a world without allure, as if one doesn't even have to make a case for domesticity. Houses are banal, neighborhoods plain, husbands decent, children more or less manageable. There's no noise in these books, no unexpected movements, no smells. Nor is it so chilling that you run to bundle up in wools and flannels, sip hot tea in warm mugs, fall into a trance in front of the fireplace. It's not the acrid sadness of Raymond Carver's stories that makes you want to slit your throat or cry your heart out. No, in Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden, one accepts what one is given—genteel ordinariness with an occasional quiver of love, accomplishment, solace. Banality is the drear backdrop, the white noise against which Judith and Charleen make biographies and poems. And each in her different way wonders: what is a worthwhile life, why write, how do love and writing go together?
Judith manages better than Charleen. She's more stable and organized, her life more routinized. Charleen is a bit out of it, obsessively fretting as she does, self-described as the "pathetic younger-sister-from-the-west." The eponymous box garden is her metaphor. She plants a box of grass in her house and says, "Anyway grass can put up with almost anything." It's a secret garden that only she knows about. One pictures her lost in thought before the box, the static turned off. She can pretend to dullness, write the poems behind her back even as she publishes one book of poetry after the other to critical acclaim. There's nothing there, she can insist, only grass.
Both sisters sense something is wrong with them. Each uses the words "bravery" and "cowardice" too often. Judith comments about her daughter, "If she were braver she would be beautiful." She tells a friend that as a child, "I was a real coward." Charleen says, "I will never be brave. Never. I don't know what it was—something in my childhood probably—but I was robbed of my courage." And a few pages on: "And I, suffering from a lack of bravery, must expend all my energies preparing for the next test. And the next. And the next." Finally, "My hereditary disease, the McNinn syndrome, has riddled me with cowardice…." What are these women missing in themselves? What would it mean to them to be brave?
Would Judith leave her husband and children, become a writer on her own, take back her family name, have intimate friends and lovers, move out of the suburbs? Would Charleen get rid of her busybody friends, get a better-paying job, tell her mother off? Certainly anger is not in their vocabulary. Judith, upon finding out that a prominent friend has plagiarized her own work, says: "My heart was beating wildly; I could feel it through the heavy quilting of my dressing gown. Anger almost choked me, but in spite of it (or maybe even because of it), I fell instantly asleep…."
I have a feeling that these women's self-containment helps them write. The world hurls by on either side of them. They pull in the bits and pieces that they need. The churning is inside. They are masters at creating distance in their lives. One could say that these two books are about writing and distance, and more particularly about the distance these two different women must establish, insist on establishing, in order to write.
Judith says of her close friend, "Nancy who is my good, my best friend, has never been an intimate." Once, when she is quite ill with flu, her husband Martin out of sympathy—and loneliness—lies down next to her, and she says to herself, "I am obscurely angered that he has violated my bed with his presence." Judith likes distance. She gets at people's secrets in her books, she can invade her subjects' privacy. And they can't touch her. Charleen is unable to make the same separations. She says of herself: "I can never quite believe in the otherness of people's lives. That is, I cannot conceive of their functioning out of my sight." Charleen creates distance through obsessing.
One doesn't end up loving these women—Judith in particular—but the trajectory of their lives is intriguing. They are good people who work hard, who try to figure out the decent way to be, not to hurt people, not to disturb themselves too much, to love quietly, soberly. And to keep on writing.
SOURCE: "The Masculine Maze," in Maclean's, Vol. 110, No. 39, September 29, 1997, pp. 82, 85.
[In the following review of Larry's Party, Turbide writes that once again Shields focuses on characters' self-evaluations although this time from the perspective of an average man.]
By the end of a sunny Monday earlier this month, Winnipeg novelist Carol Shields had been put through the wringer. She had gingerly made her way through a scraggly hedge and leant against a tree to accommodate a magazine photographer. ("Make sure you show the manicure," she teased him, flashing russet-colored nails. "It's a rare thing.") She had been interviewed twice, once for print and once for TV, fielding questions about her new novel, Larry's Party. From her office at the University of Winnipeg, where she is chancellor, she had called ahead to a local Italian restaurant to pre-order a 6 p.m. meal for herself, husband Don and a guest. The dinner would be quick because she had to get to a 7:30 launch at the city's handsome superstore, McNally Robinson. And, oh yes, she had picked up a new green dress before heading home for a late afternoon photo shoot, this one for People magazine. Although Shields sailed through it all with a mixture of military precision and good humor, she says it takes its toll. "Just listening to yourself blathering on induces a certain amount of self-loathing," admits the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, 62, who is limiting promotion of her new book to two months. "I simply can't do that for a prolonged period. I have to get home between stops."
Home for the soft-spoken author is a highrise apartment that overlooks the winding Assiniboine River. The spacious, light-filled living room is filled with reminders of some of the 10 works of fiction she has created since her first novel, Small Ceremonies, was published in 1976. Over the mantlepiece is a print called "The Orange Fish," which figures in the title story of her 1989 short-story collection. Below the print is a snapshot showing three of her five children (who range in age from 29 to 39) and her six grandchildren; her best-selling 1993 novel, The Stone Diaries, contained real-life photos of some of those same family members in Shields's fictional biography of her heroine, Daisy Goodwill.
The Stone Diaries was the book that propelled Shields into the book-selling stratosphere. It appeared on all the major best-seller lists, and won her a sheaf of awards, including the Governor General's Literary Award and the Pulitzer Prize, as well as a Booker nomination. The book sold more than a million English-language copies worldwide, paving the way for reprinting new editions of her previous works. It also made film-makers sit up and take notice: Shields's 1987 book, Swann: A Mystery, became a feature film in 1996, and two other adaptations—one of The Republic of Love (1992) and another of The Stone Diaries—are currently in the works. Winnipeg film-maker Bruce Duggan, one of the producers of The Republic of Love, says that Shields's recent fame helped open doors when he went looking for financing for the movie. "When we started we didn't exactly get a thrilled reaction when we'd say it's a love story set in Winnipeg by a Canadian writer," he recalls. "But now, when we say it's a love story by Carol Shields, people are interested."
As Shields unveils Larry's Party, readers are more than just interested—they are plunking down $31 to buy the book in huge numbers. In Winnipeg, more than 900 people turned up at the home-town launch for Larry's Party on Sept 8, snapping up 350 copies, a record one-day sale for a single title at McNally Robinson. Within four days of the book's official Canadian release on Sept. 13, Random House went back to its printers to supplement its initial run of 50,000 hardcover copies. And all this before Shields had done any interviews with national media outlets. Meanwhile, the book has been selling briskly in Britain since its August launch (although it did not make this year's Booker Prize short-list). And Shields has already concluded the first leg of a 10-city American promotional tour.
It's an axiom of the book industry that women read more fiction than men. But Larry's Party may attract more male readers than usual, because Shields has set out to explore "what it's like to be an ordinary, middle-aged guy at the end of the century," as she puts it. The idea germinated with a lunch discussion among Shields's women friends about how the very definition of masculinity has changed dramatically as women's expectations of men have changed. And the story evolved as she canvassed male friends and family about their experience. "Of course," she recalls, "nearly every one of them said, 'But I'm not a typical guy.'" Don Shields, the author's husband of 40 years and the dean of engineering at the University of Manitoba, comments drolly on the curiosity he's encountered about his wife's book: "Every man born between 1948 and 1952 has spoken to me lately."
The novel covers a 20-year span in Larry Weller's life, between ages 26 and 46—"when the bedrock of a life is laid down," says Shields. The author tracks her character through two marriages and divorces, fatherhood, career changes, sexual ecstasy and impotence, illness and fleeting periods of contentment. The book is set during a social era, 1977 to the present, when gender roles have never been more confused. "I wanted to be very careful about not presenting Larry as a buffoon," Shields recalls. "Something has happened to the male image. You can't turn on the TV without seeing men mocked or portrayed as idiots—the way women were in the 1950s, with all those jokes about the mother-in-law or the lady driver or the dumb secretary."
Larry is not a buffoon, though he may seem inordinately good-natured and almost passive to some readers. Born into a loving but emotionally repressed working-class family, Larry grows up to be a mediocre student; he is also painfully inarticulate and beset by the usual sexual anxieties. He more or less drifts into a job as a floral designer. But a honeymoon visit to England and the famous Hampton Court maze leaves him with a passion for the green-leafed labyrinths, "their teasing treachery and promise of reward." His obsession plays a part in breaking up his first marriage and indirectly leads him to a second wife.
Shields also has a fondness for mazes, and says it was "pure pleasure" to research the arcane details of their history and designs. In a stroke of literary artfulness, Shields uses the maze—how its blind pathways and dead ends force people to retrace their steps, how it offers the hope of finding the one true path—as an extended metaphor for Larry's journey through life. But the cleverness of the device does not reduce the vitality of the characters within it. Larry remains endearing, not because of his eccentric occupation, but because he is so intent on understanding himself. Unsettled at 40, he cannot even take his own suffering too seriously. He cringes at the words "'midlife crisis' or 'male menopause,' those trumped-up diseases of trite and trivial contemporary man."
Larry may seem just another of "those barbecuers, those volunteer firemen, those wearers of muscle shirts" who are boringly predictable. But his life is touched by randomness and luck. Shields insists that her own career is very much the product of chance. "I drifted into writing fiction," she says. "I certainly never set out with a plan for a career path. With five children, I was just too busy." Born and raised in Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, Shields was an exchange student in England when she met her husband, a Manitoban there on a scholarship. In 1957 they married and moved to Canada, living in several cities before settling in Winnipeg in 1980.
Shields wrote sporadically during most of the 1960s and '70s while she raised one son and four daughters. "I used to have about one hour a day, and my first novels were very short," she recalls. Daughter Catherine, a librarian who collaborated with her mother on a 1995 play, Fashion Power Guilt and the Charity of Families, recalls that her mother always wrote. "On long family car trips, she would always be-scribbling in a little notebook, with this abstracted look on her face," she says. "We just thought all Moms did that." Shields's early novels—Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Happenstance and A Fairly Conventional Woman, published between 1976 and '82—are gently satirical chronicles of the tensions in middle-class families. While the author continues to mine the same territory, she has become far more stylistically experimental in her recent books.
Shields still works at her writing almost every day, amid her duties as chancellor and her family obligations. She thinks that most novels and movies ignore the pre-eminence of work in peoples' lives. "When I came out of that movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, I was in a rage, just furious," she recalls. "Absolutely no one in that film had a job. People's work lives are written out of most novels, too, and considering how much time they spend working, it's curious."
Shields has served on the board of the Canada Council and for many years taught English and creative writing. She professes optimism about the future of fiction in Canada, pointing to the phenomenal amount of attention domestic novels are getting abroad. "Every time I'm in Europe," she says, "interviewers ask me to explain my theory on the explosion of writing in Canada." According to fellow Winnipeg writer Jake MacDonald, Shields takes a personal interest in nurturing younger talent. "Carol and her husband are like the royalty of Winnipeg book circles," he says. "They always make sure that you get invited to dinner, and they're unfailingly genial and gracious."
That generosity of spirit seems to infuse her fictional worlds, too. On balance, the universe of Larry's Party is benevolent: terrible things may happen, but there is also the redemption of love and friendship, the consolation of words and memory. People can be blindsided by happiness: Larry recalls standing on a Winnipeg street corner 20 years earlier, possessed by a sudden feeling of well-being. "Love was waiting for him. Transformation. Goodness. Work. Understanding. The enchantment and liberation of words…. All he had to do was stand still and allow it to happen."
In fact, while acknowledging that much fiction chronicles the prevalence of evil, Shields believes it is just as interesting to explore why its opposite endures. "I believe in goodness," she says. "I'm amazed by the amount of goodness in the world. And I think that makes me a very unfashionable writer." She notes with humor that even the English language seems to conspire against her. "I had my students get out their dictionaries and thesauruses and look up all the names for happiness and sadness," she recounts. "And do you know, the English language is much richer in the language of despair than joy. There's only a handful of words for happiness, and they tend to sound glib or even silly."
With Larry's Party, Carol Shields proves that there is a language for happiness that is original and engaging. And like all her fictional works—replete with the significance of small lives and small ceremonies—it is a resounding confirmation of the mystery of the ordinary.