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Books Guy Vanderhaeghe on why he wrote his new book, why which character he wishes he’d created and more

Guy Vanderhaeghe

Photo illustration by The Globe and Mail

Guy Vanderhaeghe's books include A Good Man, The Last Crossing, The Englishman's Boy and Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, which was recently published by McClelland & Stewart. He's a past recipient of the Governor-General's Literary Award, the Writers' Trust Timothy Findley Award, the Harbourfront Festival Prize and the Order of Canada. He lives in Saskatchewan.

Why did you write your new book?

My first book was a collection of short stories and I grew nostalgic for the form. Daddy Lenin revisits my beginnings as a writer. Nadine Gordimer likened the short story to the "flash of fireflies, in and out, now here, now there." After giving something close to two decades of my life to researching and writing historical novels, I wanted to return to the darting, glimmering light of short fiction and take a break from the high-beam, steady glare of the novel.

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Which fictional character do you wish you'd created?

Huck Finn. Ever since I was a child I've been obsessed with Huckleberry, probably because as a kid I fantasized about doing what he did. Huck seized the day, shucked off all the stupid rules and conventions of respectable society and surrendered to the pull of the river. I think it was Hemingway who said all modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn. If that's true, who wouldn't be happy to have created such a character?

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel, and why?

I'd rather be invisible. I think that's the condition all writers ought to aspire to.

Which book do you think is underappreciated?

There are a lot of underappreciated books, far too many. But since I've always had a weakness for lost causes and for writers who achieved some acclaim and then experienced a precipitous fall from grace, I'll pick a novel by James Gould Cozzens, a name nobody recognizes any longer. In 1957, he had an enormous popular success with By Love Possessed. But Dwight Macdonald savagely pilloried the novel in Commentary, a review that did a lot to kneecap Cozzens's reputation as a "serious writer." Macdonald was mostly right about By Love Possessed, but an earlier novel by Cozzens, Guard of Honor, is one of the great novels about the Second World War, easily the equal of Mailer's The Naked and the Dead or Jones's From Here to Eternity. The subject of Cozzens's novel wasn't GIs in combat, but the U.S. Army stateside, a vast, intricately meshed, lurching bureaucracy that had become essential to the conduct of modern warfare. But Cozzens also understood this organization's capacity to inflict enormous damage on itself. Guard of Honor remorselessly details how soldiers, presumably safe in the United States, meet death because the machine, once set in motion, proceeds with its own robotic logic. In many ways, Cozzens's picture of war is more acute and more mature than more celebrated works.

What's the best death scene in literature, and why?

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The Death of Ivan Ilych, not surprisingly given the title, contains the best death scene in literature. As much as I love Dickens, who the Victorians considered the undisputed master of the long, affecting deathbed goodbye, Dickens was a pornographer of mortality, offering readers the promise of an afterlife as a sunny possibility. Tolstoy was more honest; he showed that dying is hard work, which is certainly true of any of the deaths I've witnessed. Ivan Ilych spends his last three days screaming, struggling against the invisible, resistless force that is trying to thrust him into a black sack, a claustrophobic image that is surely one of the most terrifying in literature. I read Tolstoy's novella when I was 19 and Ivan Ilych's death has haunted me ever since. I suspect that it's the realistic dress rehearsal for the end.

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