Kim Echlin's novels include Elephant Winter, Dagmar's Daughter and The Disappeared, about a woman who travels to Cambodia to investigate her partner's disappearance. It was a finalist for the 2009 Scotiabank Giller Prize. The Toronto-based author's latest novel, Under the Visible Life, which was recently published by Hamish Hamilton, tells the story of Katherine and Mahsa, musicians from different walks of life who bond over their shared love of jazz.
What's the best romantic scene in literature?
When the strong-willed goddess Inanna is seduced by the shepherd-lover Dumuzi, their story is told in the most beautiful love poetry of all time. The words feel contemporary. Inanna says, "If only you would do your sweet things to me," and the lovers make love on the honey bed. Inanna says (and this translation is straight from Sumerian):
Over and over
tongue to tongue
over and over
my lover of the beautiful eyes
I could not resist…
And then, after they've made love "50 times," Dumuzi says to Inanna, "Set me free," and she is annoyed and answers back, "You are a small child." We can almost hear her foot stomping, but she sets him free anyway. This poetry is 5,000 years old! Isn't that great?
What's the best death scene in literature?
The dear, old knight Don Quixote is dying after his many adventures and he says, "Let us go gently, gentlemen, for there are no birds this year in last year's nest. I was mad, but I am sane now." He quits life with "an uneasy conscience" about "the gross absurdities" written about him, but during the three days it takes to die, his niece eats, his housekeeper drinks and his buddy Sancho Panza is cheerful. This seems a great way to go: renouncing life's madness (after having lived it fully) while your loved ones wait contentedly nearby.
Which books have you reread most in your life?
At school I studied with a priest called Father Belyea. He taught only a few books each semester. I well remember reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets and Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov with him over many months. We read them deeply, taking time. Father Belyea used to recommend that we reread these books every three years and he would say to us when we disagreed with his interpretations, "When you've read the books as many times as I have, come back to me." As 17-year-olds this drove us crazy, but with him I learned about rereading great books and the genius of great teachers.
Whose sentences are your favourite, and why?
James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy for rhythm, Virginia Woolf for buoyancy and a certain inward toughness, Thomas Pynchon for inventiveness. The King James translation of the Bible is the liquor amnii of English prose style. And in Canada no one can beat the story-telling sentences in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. Listen to the style and voice in this illustration of the word cruel: "I did not grudge Pugsley the drink, after his yarn; but it was a cruel waste of good liquor to give it to those common fishermen."
Why did you write your new book?
Under the Visible Life is about love and I wanted to think about how the hidden lives of our families and cultures – our mother tongues, our customs and laws, the lives of our parents, grandparents – thread through our own lives whether we know them or not. I wanted to think about the resistances we face when we live authentically.
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