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 In this clement retreat to which I have withdrawn myself, away from the torrid current temper of my country, I find myself with all the time and seclusion I may ever need for my purpose.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 . . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .