Canadian Notes & Queries
No. 81/Spring, 2011
CNQ is dedicated to exploring the alleys and roads less travelled of Canadian literature. No fawning profiles of hot authors, in other words. No reports on six-figure advances or who's travelling to Pyongyang on behalf of PEN or what publisher is earning 70 per cent of its revenue from e-books. What matters here is the backward glance (the latest issue contains a lengthy interview with Anna Porter from 1998), the appreciation, the rumination, the memoir.
Indeed, one of the highlights of its spring edition is Marko Sijan's frequently ribald account of his Sisyphean struggle to get his first novel published by Toronto's defunct Gutter Press. It's a tale of big egos and little money, delay and prevarication, self-loathing and sex, told with a refreshing and brutal frankness. Sijan's a rogue and not necessarily a lovable one: At one point he writes that it took him two years to "refine" his novel's 132 pages "because I was very busy teaching English as a second language and having sex with my Japanese, Korean, Brazilian and Mexican students. And smoking pot. A lot of pot." BTW, the novel, now called Mongrel, is set to be published 12 years after Sijan first pitched it to Gutter.
If CNQ likes the back road and the alley, Geist's fondness is for the nooks and crannies of the Canadian cultural scene. It's the sort of magazine you can take with you to the bathroom, filled as it is with dozens of odds and sods of varying lengths, degrees of involvement and tones of voice.
Among the gems here is M.A.C. Farrant's anecdotal salute to her quotation-loving, fiercely atheistic friend on the occasion of his 88th birthday. "Of his birthday cards," Farrant writes, "he liked the one from the arts education friend the best. It contained a quote from Gertrude Stein: There ain't no answer: There ain't gonna be an answer: There never has been an answer: That's the answer." Also winning is Edith Iglauer's memoir of how, at 16, the braces on her teeth resulted in an embarrassing predicament at a country-club dance. Geist publisher Stephen Osborne, meanwhile, writes about the former Iranian high-school teacher who fled his homeland in the early 1980s and "today operates the Mr. Tube Steak hot dog stand at the Broadway SkyTrain station in Vancouver." Fans of long-form journalism will appreciate George Fetherling's "Man of a Hundred Thousand Books," a portrait of Don Stewart, proprietor of Vancouver's long-running MacLeod's Books.
Christopher Hitchens is dying, of esophageal cancer, and en route to his end he's losing his voice. May, in fact, already have lost it, utterly, by the time you read this. It was (and not that long ago) a magnificent instrument, brandy-and-tobacco-cured, mellifluous, capable of pitching an arresting potpourri of modulations.
He offers a moving meditation here on the importance of voice for himself and the rest of humankind, noting we are the only animals "who can deploy vocal communication for sheer pleasure and recreation, combining with our two other boasts of reason and humour to produce higher syntheses."
Of course, Hitchens being Hitchens, the piece is not without humour, albeit of the mordant variety. I love this passage: "When you fall ill, people send you CDs. Very often, in my experience, these are by Leonard Cohen. So I have recently learned a song, entitled If It Be Your Will. It's a tiny bit saccharine but it's beautifully rendered and opens like this: If it be your will,/ That I speak no more:/ And my voice be still,/ As it was before.…" Hitchens acknowledges: "It's best not to listen to this late at night."