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Helen Weinzweig

Helen Weinzweig, an award-winning Toronto author who only began writing well into her forties, died last week at the age of 94.

Weinzweig was the wife of John Weinzweig, the famed Canadian composer, but she came into her own with the 1980 publication of her second novel, Basic Black with Pearls (Anansi), which won the Toronto Book Award in 1981.

In 1989, she was nominated for a Governor-General's Award for fiction for A View from the Roof, a collection of 13 short stories written over 21 years that was published by Goose Lane Editions.

Her first published story, Surprise!, appeared in Canadian Forum in 1967, when she was 52. She immediately caught the attention of the book world with a highly literary and often surreal style that was inspired by writers such as Ionesco, Barthes and Beckett.

In Journey To Porquis, a story typical of her vision, a writer boards a train only to find that the train doesn't stop where he'd planned to disembark, and all the people on board are characters in his novel.

And in Passing Ceremony (Anansi, 1973), her first and only other novel, the action takes place at a wedding between a homosexual and a promiscuous woman and is told via the internal monologues of the guests in attendance.

Weinzweig's books and stories were embraced in the 1960s and '70s by feminists, who saw in them a depiction of women that was missing from the literature of the day. " Passing Ceremony and Basic Black with Pearls were important books at their time of publication, because they were experimental in form, and they remain important because they speak to the experiences of women at a very specific point in time," said Marc Cote, the publisher of Cormorant Books. "These were two novels that for many years were the mainstay of women's studies and Canadian literature classes."

In 1996, a stage version of A View from the Roof written by playwright Dave Carley debuted in a Toronto theatre to positive reviews.

Weinzweig was born Tenenbaum in Poland in 1915 into an orthodox Jewish household. Her parents' marriage was a tempestuous affair that ended in divorce, and she moved at age 9 to Toronto with her mother. When she arrived in Canada, she had never been formally schooled and couldn't speak a word of English, but she was an avid learner and reader and soon caught up with children her age.

She met her husband at a Toronto high school, but they didn't begin their courtship until after she had spent two years in a rural Ontario sanatorium, fighting, and nearly dying from, tuberculosis. The disease left her with one collapsed lung and the other partially damaged, but it also gave her the chance to spend two years doing the thing she loved most in life: reading. "I read myself silly for two years," she told The Globe and Mail in an 1990 interview.

She read the works of her fellow Pole Joseph Conrad, the surreal literature of Barthes and Beckett, and books by Auden, Kerouac, Sartre and more. She also began a process that would inform her work as a female writer: "One of the things I had to learn after reading all this male fiction was, what do I as a woman feel like. ... All the literary forms were men's, all the philosophies were men's philosophies. ... I had to translate these forms into the female."

Weinzweig subsequently spent the first part of her marriage raising her two sons and working to support her husband's composing career - "I promised John when we married that he would never have to stop composing, and I kept my word," she said in a Globe and Mail profile of her husband published in 1989.

Helen urged John to found the Canadian League of Composers in 1951, and then the Canadian Music Centre. Her son Daniel Weinzweig said his mother was a huge supporter of his father's work. "They were quite the cultural team," he said.

But the couple were also intellectually competitive with each other, Daniel said. "That was one of the reasons my mother started writing."

Helen Weinzweig said she began writing in earnest after a therapist encouraged her to do so, but she at first found it a daunting experience. "One of the drawbacks of starting when you're older is you know what good writing is, and you know you can't do it," she told The Globe in 1990. "You have standards in your mind that can never be met."

It took her seven years to find the courage to submit her first story for publication, and then she went on a roll any writer would envy: She was never once sent a rejection slip. "Either I'm doing something right or people are desperate for stories," she said.

The Globe and Mail called Basic Black with Pearls "a brilliant performance" in its review. The novel told the story of a desperately unhappy, and possibly insane, woman who imagines she is a well-to-do adventuress who has an affair with a mysterious foreign spy.

Jane Urquhart, who reviewed A View from the Roof for The Globe and Mail, said Weinzweig's "neat juggling of actuality and surreality is one of the things that makes [her]such an extraordinary writer."

Weinzweig was a difficult writer for mainstream readers, and her nomination for the Governor-General's Award in 1989 provoked a minor controversy when Mordecai Richler's much more accessible novel, Solomon Gursky was Here, failed to make the shortlist.

But the author made no apology for her style and vision. "The writer must use words to reach an imagination not being served by other forms of print or by the camera," she said in her autobiographical sketch in Canada Writes, the membership directory of the Writers' Union. "The reader of his words must be invited to participate in the mental process of the writer by being challenged to explore levels of awareness triggered by his unfamiliar arrangement of words. … For myself, the freedom of dispensing with strict chronology, plots, omniscience, gives me a means of dealing with what has become a personal preoccupation - the slippery footwork required of all of us to stay balanced in the crazy, or if you're lucky, the fun house of appearance and illusion."

Weinzweig was known to be blunt; her son Daniel said she had a "Geiger counter" for detecting cliché and weak thinking, and she was apt to use withering sarcasm on perpetrators. "Canadians hate success," she once wrote in a letter to the editor at The Globe. "Our colonial history of abnegation does not permit anything as unsavoury as success to tarnish our image of ourselves as 'nice.' It has even been suggested that I spent six years writing my last novel in order to create a demand that cannot be filled. Basic Black With Pearls has had rave reviews and has been bought by William Morrow Company in New York. Success and 60 cents will get me a ride on the subway. No one can find a copy of my novel in the bookstores."

Helen Weinzweig is survived by her sons Paul and Daniel. Her husband John Weinzweig died in 2006.