Camille Paglia is a professor of umanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, was just published. She has written a book on Hitchcock’s The Birds.
I have come to see two books as strange companions to each other. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is a literary pieta – the inner musing of the dead Christ’s mother as she is kept in protective captivity near the end of her life. I once visited the small house in Ephesus where she was ostensibly housed. Nearby is the great temple of Artemis, and Tóibín has Mary visiting it and cherishing a small figure of the goddess in the same way women today cherish statues of Mary. The little statue brings Mary her only comfort as she remembers the torture of her son on the cross and recalls the silence that came upon her when she longed to defend him. Ashamed of her passivity, she recounts the selfish escape she made to save herself before he died.
Louise Erdrich, in The Roundhouse, has written a son’s testament. Looking back on his childhood, Joe remembers a nearly murderous attack on his Ojibwa mother, who would not speak for fear of reprisal, and whose silence caused his intense desire to discover the truth she will not tell.
Both narrators are sombre witnesses, recounting the sins they have committed in reaction to events.Mary’s is merely the sin of self-preservation in the face of terror, although she has become secretive and unbelieving while her son’s disciples distort her story for their own ambitious purposes. Trapped by circumstance, she is not unlike Erdrich’s boy turned man, whose life revolves around deep reflection on the revenge he exacted on behalf of a mother who could not speak. One son is murdered. The other is a murderer. But it is the mothers who must be heard.
Linda Spalding’s The Purchase won this year’s Governor-General’s Award for fiction, and was short-listed for Rogers Writers’ Fiction Prize.
It isn’t often a writer in his seventies taps into a new range, but Pinboy, George Bowering’s recent memoir of being a 15-year-old boy in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, seems destined to become a Canadian classic. Bowering isCanada’s first parliamentary poet laureate, and a writer often tagged as too experimental to reach a large audience. Pinboy is readably entertaining, wise, and frequently fall-down funny; it is certainly his most accessible book, and maybe his best. It has been short-listed for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, and ought to be a shoo-in for the Leacock Medal for Humour.
Tony Judt, who died of ALS in 2010, arguably became the most interesting and galvanizing intellectual in the English language with his magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Now, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, he, with istorian Timothy Snyder, has produced a posthumous 400-page summary of their conversation about the key issues, intellectual and political, that we face in the 21st century. As the dying Judt’s Boswell for this remarkable conversation, Snyder, whose contrarian Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) has more new information on what happened in Eastern Europe between 1937 and 1945 than any book in 40 years, plays his role with both sensitivity and acumen – no small achievement, since Judt’s mind, as his body failed, was still moving at astonishing velocities. There is much to be grateful for here, from both writers.
Brian Fawcett’s most recent book is the family memoir Human Happiness.
GUY GAVRIEL KAY
Laurent Binet’s unique, superb HHhH has a title even odder than one of my earlier year-end favourites, Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. The title comes from a phrase in Nazi Germany that translates as: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. The novel chronicles the dramatic, too-little-known assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942 and the horrific reprisals that ensued. But there have been other tales of heroism and ugliness from the Second World War. What makes Binet's novel distinctive and memorable is his technique and tone. Binet is deeply reluctant to invent personalities for and impute thoughts to the real figures in his tale. And he very directly shares this with us all the way through. This is a book where the author is intensely present. He’ll describe a Himmler and Heydrich meeting, then stop dead and say, “Wait! What am I doing? How do I know what he thought?” In this way he does two things. He makes the reader suddenly aware of how many other books fudge and guess, superimpose the author’s agenda on figures of the past. And, as powerfully, when he reaches the end of the memorable events in Prague, he has banked so much credibility with the reader that the tale becomes not just convincing but unforgettably moving. He interrogates the relationship of fiction to history, and gives us a major fiction and powerful history.