In the third of today’s three Canadian-centric posts, I thought I’d highlight this interview Nigel Beale did recently with John Metcalf, a Canadian book critic and fiction editor at Biblioasis.
The focus of the interview is on “negative reviewing,” and I have to admit, Metcalf’s defense of critical criticism and his various attacks (especially on M.G. Vassanji — more on him in a minute) are pretty over-the-top and hysterical. Makes me want to read more Canadian book criticism . . .
Vassanji’s writing really pisses Metcalf off . . . especially the fact that Vassanji won the Giller prize twice, and that a “member of the illiterate society” would assume that if he won the Giller and Alice Munro did as well, their books must be of equal value. He goes on to explain that his hatred of Vassanji’s writing isn’t just “his opinion” that if you read one paragraph of Vassanji you can tell that he can’t “handle the English language.”
So, here goes. Here’s the opening of the Giller Prize winning The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (longer sample here):
My name is Vikram Lall. I have the distinction of having been numbered one of Africa’s most corrupt men, a cheat of monstrous and reptilian cunning. To me has been attributed the emptying of a large part of my troubled country’s treasury in recent years. I head my country’s List of Shame. These and other descriptions actually flatter my intelligence, if not my moral sensibility. But I do not intend here to defend myself or even seek redemption through confession; I simply crave to tell my story. In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose. I have even come upon a small revelation — and as I proceed daily to recall and reflect, and lay out on the page, it is with an increasing conviction of its truth, that if more of us told our stories to each other, where I come from, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.
“I have the the distinction of having” and “to me has been attributed” are both a bit awkward, although it’s possible that this is intentionally stilted, and that it’s only this particular character who speaks in strange ways . . . But I doubt it.
To end on a positive note, Metcalf claims that the only Canadian novel from the past fifteen years that has meant anything to him at all is Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman, which, well, isn’t available here in America . . . But every single Vassanji book is . . .
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .