Reviews and Appearances

Provisionally Yours received good reviews in 2019  in The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail (behind a paywall here)  and Publishers Weekly, the latter calling the book “an urbane thriller”.

An audio interview on Shelagh Rogers’s show, The Next Chapter, on CBC radio on May 25   is available  online at this link.

I was in Lithuania five times in 2019, where the translation was getting  a lot of exposure and I found myself in the media, such as the cover of the weekly magazine below:

…and again in the local People Magazine (Žmonės):

I have been sitting on a Lithuanian advisory committee to the parliament, and here is a photo below of what that looks like. I travelled there in March of 2020 to sit on the committee again, and was stranded in Vilnius for six weeks after airlines stopped flying during COVID-19 lock-downs. But it was a pleasure to be there, even tutoring a pre-schooler in French before being flown home by a Canadian government charter scooping up strays in Eastern Europe.

Sitting in the Constitution Room in the Lithuanian parliament building, listening to a speaker on human trafficking.

 

While “stranded,” I used the time to start a new novel. See below.

In the sum of 2020, I have continued working on a manuscript called  Skylark, Badger, Mole, now into its fifth year of development. Ah, the marathon of the long haul.  We are in negotiations for film/TV rights to Provisionally Yours, so that might turn out. Italy and Ukraine are interested in translations of earlier books. And in the meanwhile, I am writing a new novel set in the bohemian circle of artists and writers in cafe society in the Khrushchev era. Its working title is The Seaside Café Metropolis.

I recently helped launch The Occidental Hotel, a novel by my friend, the late John Bentley Mays. For more on that, see the post in my blog.

Remembering the Late John Bentley Mays and Launching his Posthumous Novel, The Occidental Hotel

Postscript

 

 

My friend, the writer and critic, John Bentley Mays died four years ago, but he left behind a novel completed just before his death, and it was published recently by Guernica Editions. Here below the image of the book cover is my introduction to that novel, describing what it was like for  work through that manuscript with John, the book also has outstanding essays by Anne Collins and Richard Rhodes.

And here is a four-minute video we made about John and the book and a link to a passage published in Open Book.

 

 

 

John Bentley Mays wore shapeless sweat pants and a baggy sweater when he walked into Little Italy’s Bar Diplomatico to meet me. He was unshaven and since he wasn’t wearing a hat, the prominent scar on his forehead where skin cancers had been cut out repeatedly made him look like a war vet of some kind. He was there yet again to discuss with me the progress of the novel he had been struggling with for years.

 

This version of John was a far cry from the dapper Truman Capote knock-off I’d met along with his writer wife, Margaret Cannon, in the early eighties, when John was a sizzling Globe and Mail critic who made Canadian art essential and important enough to fight about. He could be scornful of sacred cows and worked hard to elevate young artists. A brilliant conversationalist when in good form, he could take a conceit and spin it into a talk worthy of an essay. His writing was a delight to read, full of unexpected turns and insights.

 

First evangelical, then Anglican, then Catholic, first an alcoholic and then a teetotaller, first art and then culture and architecture critic, he had had his share of ups and downs.

 

A lifelong depressive, he’d been fed a variety of drugs and gone through a variety of treatments including electroshock therapy, and all of these seemed to work for a while and then failed him. Among the things he carried was a fraught Louisiana childhood—a murdered father and a mother who died young so John was shipped off to older sisters when he was a child.

 

He left behind his southern gothic background to come north where art and Toronto and his wife, Margaret, were his antidotes to an unhappy childhood worthy of William Faulkner.

 

The one quality he had was an ability to write though the pain, and now he was writing a novel. We met repeatedly at the Dip to discuss the first fifty pages, then the first hundred pages, and then the first one hundred and fifty pages all the way from 2013 through to 2016.

 

John always rewrote from the beginning and continued to the current end, so I must have read parts of this novel six or seven times.

 

I was shocked and appalled, admiring and afraid for his reputation as John wrote an unconventional piece of work with one of the most horrible anti-hero narrators I had read since John Fowles’ The Collector. And there was no escape from this monster, who suffered no comeuppance, but who, like a poisonous spider, sat in a web with different threads: elements of art criticism; ironic comments on modernity; outlandish pulp adventures worthy of Edgar Rice Burroughs; mood pieces like those of W G Sebald; and explorations of Nazi youth ideology as it affected the late German artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986).

 

John was fascinated by Joseph Beuys, and one of the unconventional aspects of this novel was that it contained images from some of this artist’s performance pieces. The stand-in for Beuys in the novel was a character named Jupp, someone John used to explore in a fictional way Beuys’ own Nazi youth.

 

Beuys had been a Luftwaffe pilot during the Second World War, and later biographies accused him of having been not only a soldier, but a true Nazi. John both admired Beuys and was deeply troubled by this past. John held his dismay and esteem for Beuys in some kind of tension in his mind.

 

The fictional Jupp was an object of obsession for the narrator of this novel, a murderous, racist southerner holed up in the crumbling Occidental Hotel, a place that is a shell of the American postwar optimism during which it was built. Modernity was a lifelong obsession for John, primarily through its expression in architecture. Some form of modernity was going to free John from his biography of gothic southern history, but it never managed to do so. John wrestled with these two elements for his entire life, dealing with these themes and many others in some of his nonfiction books such as Power in the Blood and Arrivals.

 

I cautioned John that many Canadian readers would hate this book because it provided no exit. We see various depictions of hell with little solace or redemption. I warned him that he would be confused with the narrator of this book, and he told me the narrator was the man he would have become had he stayed in the south. John said he had no intention of shocking Canadians. He wanted to reprimand Americans, especially after the horror of the 2015 Charleston Church massacre, in which a white supremacist shot and killed nine black parishioners in a church and wounded three others.

 

For three years we talked about this novel. I suggested that John was dealing in arcana because hardly anyone outside the art world knows who Joseph Beuys was. I accused him of delivering a bleak vision, and he agreed that he was working in the realm of dark romanticism, but would not give up. I was fascinated by this work, which felt decidedly European to me, like nothing else I was seeing in Canada.

 

On September 2, 2016, John sent me the final draft of his novel. It was highly polished, as all of John’s work tended to be, but I don’t think it was perfect. I suggested he make a few changes to speed up the action in the first part of the novel, and he seemed to agree with my ideas. We made arrangements to meet again at the Dip on September 21 to discuss my notes. On September 16, he died of a massive heart attack after walking up a hill in High Park with his long-time friend, the literary critic, Phil Marchand.

 

A manuscript by a deceased writer is a hard sell, but Guernica Editions agreed with me that this novel is an important addition to Canadian letters for at least two reasons. First, it is an unblinking look into a heart of darkness of a kind we almost never see in this country. It is frightening and necessary. And second, it is the final document of a razor-sharp mind that helped form Canadian culture over several decades.

 

Reading Anne Applebaum in the Time of Belarusian Protest

 

August 25, 2020

 

Anne Applebaum’s latest book is a study of her friends and acquaintances who turned over two decades from liberal-minded optimists to supporters of authoritarians such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jarolslaw Kaczynski in Poland, and one might say “aspiring” authoritarians such as Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

These authoritarians project messages of anxiety with the present. They look back to a past they claim to hope to recreate. Their stories deal in nostalgia, anger, resentment and a series of other sentiments that might make them veer into anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, and anti-democracy. Meanwhile, in the population there is a longing for the assuredness of authoritarianism that might lead into a condition named in Applebaum’s title: The Twilight of Democracy.

It struck me as I read this short book, a really personal account of the shifting zeitgeist, that it was a modern version of Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind. In that book, Milosz described several writers who sold themselves to communism through a need to advance themselves, to seem important, to become public figures.

Aspiring authoritarians are always with us, but their influential supporters, whom Applebaum dubs as clercs, are the ones who take the message to the people and enable the strengthening of their leaders’ authoritarianism.

Of the Polish version she writes:

“Resentment, envy and above all the belief that the ‘system’ is unfair — not just to the country, but to you — these are important sentiments among the nativist ideologues of the Polish right, so much so that it is not easy to pick apart their personal and political motives.”

Varieties of these feelings can be found throughout the west.

All of this rings true to me, and it alerts me to another depressing characteristic among my Canadian and American friends and acquaintances in the time of protest in Belarus against the authoritarian Alexander Lukashenko. Just a few days before this writing, he strutted with a rifle in his hand to show his resistance and disdain for the tens of thousands of anti-authoritarian protesters in Minsk.

How this will all play out in the long run is uncertain, and I am writing as these events unfold.

The situation in Belarus seems not to be all that important or interesting to them, in particular the ones with knowledge of the region.

Many of my friends were around at the time of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. We looked upon the future then with great hope.

Of course, most futures bring us mixed results, and the fall of the Soviet Union did not bring all the social and economic benefits many in Eastern Europe hoped for.

But it was better for that authoritarian regime to have fallen than for it to have stayed in place.

Yet I sense no swelling support for Belarus. Most people in the west would have a hard time finding it on the map and know even less of its history, even after Svetlana Aleksievich won the Nobel Prize in 2015.

That’s not surprising, because Belarus is “far away”, after all, in the sensibilities of most westerners.

What does surprise me, though, is the relative lack of interest or support for these protesters among some of my friends and acquaintances of East European background. They do know where Belarus is, and they do know what type of authoritarian Lukashenko is.

Is this blasé attitude due to the depression brought on by Covid-19? Is it skepticism due to the mixed results of the Ukrainian Orange Revolutions? Is it disappointment with the sad demographic decline in Eastern Europe three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union?

I’m not sure. But one thing is irrefutable – the fight has gone out of some people. The hope for a more democratic world has evaporated. Problems at home are serious, of course, but now they completely overshadow international concerns at a time when we cannot easily travel.

This is an old condition, recognized decades ago by William Butler Yeats in his now-famous lines from his poem. The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

If the best do indeed lack all conviction, then we are surely in the Twilight of Democracy that Anne Applebaum describes.

 

 

European Homelands of the Imagination: A Personal Account

A Talk Given for the Goethe Institut at the Thomas Mann Festival in Nida, Lithuania,

July 13, 2019

 

Let me begin my consideration of European homelands of the imagination from afar both in geography and in time.

I wish to take you to the edge of Weston, a small town in Canada in the nineteen fifties and sixties. This town is expanding into the farm fields around it, fields which have been bought but not yet developed – within these unplanted fields stand a few abandoned farm houses with broken windows, and on the ground lie ponds slick with slime; the untended vegetation is beginning to include Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, and poplar seedlings.

If Weston is about to consume the countryside with new suburbs, then the town itself, a main street with shops, is being eaten by the expanding city of Toronto, which will finally take it in one bite in 1967, when the place will lose its own mayor and police force. But Weston will sit inside Toronto for a very long time, like the undigested body of a frog inside a snake.

This is where I was born in 1953.

In this suburb-to-be, not yet a suburb, lived a scattering of working-class and middle-class families, all products of the war and then the postwar boom. In North America we remember this time fondly as one of wealth and growth and slow enlightenment about civil rights, but it had had its horrors. My friend of Japanese heritage, Mike Adachi, had parents who were interned as aliens during the war, and lost all of their property. My friend Allen Jamieson’s father had been a Canadian soldier in Hong Kong when it fell to the invading Japanese army, and he spent the war in a prisoner of war camp where he lost most of his sight due to malnutrition.

And then there was my family, Lithuanian immigrants who had fled the Red Army with their baby in 1944, and lived in a Displaced Persons’ camp in Oldenburg where they had another baby, before emigrating to Canada in 1948 and eventually giving birth to me.

If I sat in the kitchen with my mother and father as they were drinking tea after dinner, and if they were not rushed, they might tell me the story of their last home in the Lithuanian city of Alytus, which they had fled in the summer of 1944. I  possess one of the few family photos of that time, taken about a week before the arrival of the Red Army. My mother smiles innocently in the garden and holds the hand of my toddler brother, not quite a year old. On the other hand, my troubled father looks down, a briefcase in his hand, his mind clearly elsewhere.

My naïve mother had said to the maid they would need to clean the upstairs windows soon, but the maid replied the Soviets would be there within a week, so there was no point. When my mother asked my father about this, he explained he had a horse and wagon ready, a store of food, maps and currency and they would leave within a few days, as soon as they could hear the sound of the Soviet artillery. After all, his brother had spent a year in prison under the first Soviet occupation, and was lucky enough to escape alive, but lost all his teeth during beatings under interrogation by the communists.

Ever more successful in Canada with the passage of time, my mother and father bought a new car in 1958, as well as a lot near a beach where they intended to build a summer cottage. But for all his success, my father had a farmer’s distrust of extravagance and refused to buy a radio for the car. Instead, he and my mother talked, as we three boys in the back seat leaned forward to hear the story of fleeing Lithuania. My mother learned to recognize the sound of airplane engines because the Soviet planes strafed the columns of refugees. If she did hear a Soviet plane, she ran for the ditch with her sister, and my father took the baby to join them. Their little horse was forever calm, and stood waiting on the road as the bullets flew all around.  My mother and father remembered that horse fondly. A kind German officer told them one night to hurry across a bridge before it was blown to slow the advancing enemy, and the exhausted horse managed the job, bringing them eventually all the way to Oldenburg and safety. There they hunkered for a few years in a DP camp, gave birth to another of my brothers, and eventually came to Canada where I was born.

We grew up in perhaps the best place and time for people like us, when the economy was expanding and no wars were being fought on our land. We were like survivors of a shipwreck, people who landed on a paradisiacal shore, the Swiss Family Robinson with a refrigerator and a car. We were foreigners, but unremarkable among many other European immigrants. Millions died and millions fled; millions were displaced like pieces recut to form a new jigsaw puzzle.

But for all of its wonders, for all of its wealth, Weston was not my homeland, even though it is where  I grew up, a place which I remember so fondly to this day – outside the smell of cut grass lawns and the sound of young men washing their cars for Saturday night dates; inside the sound of the vacuum cleaner bumping against the baseboards by the carpet and the smell of bacon and eggs being fried for lazy weekend boys.

The immigrants of that time were called Displaced Persons, or DP’s for short, and I somehow remained profoundly displaced in the land of my birth.

Consider the work of Salman Rushdie, who  has written about imaginary homelands too, although his book of essays has to do mostly with post-colonialism and Britain.  I take an important observation from Salman Rushdie. In his view, the migrant is the central or defining figure of the twentieth century. Tantilizingly, Rushdie also writes that we live in ideas and through images we seek to comprehend the world. That is precisely what I am doing here.

I focus on European homelands. Partially this is a reflex, an unthinking action.  But beyond that, as a man of European heritage, I feel I have some right to this enquiry in a ways I would not have elsewhere.

So we should agree with Rushdie that there is nothing remarkable about emigrants of that period. Many if not most of their children managed to assimilate in the places where they landed, often retaining some fondness for their heritage such as a taste for the food of their parents and grandparents. Provided they were safe, some might even have gone back to the places their parents came from, such as Ireland or the United Kingdom.

But the fact of the iron curtain made going back to Lithuania impossible. It was not merely a question of the iron curtain. Other countries lay behind it too, but the Baltic States, Lithuania among them,  had been incorporated into the Soviet Union and thus disappeared from the map.

Imagine, a whole country disappearing! Parts of other countries disappeared, such as the land we stand on in Nida now, but Lithuania’s vanishing was total. At first, people in the west might have remembered its name, but as time passed, they forgot all about it.

Let me return for a moment to Weston, Ontario, the place where I was born. We children felt displaced there, not only because we came from Lithuania, but because in the dawn of the television era, Weston was so remote from the centres of the world as to have no meaning in and of itself. For children of the era, television and comic books were our true homes, and the places depicted there were American. Our true homelands lay in the exciting places of adventure like the western ranch on Bonanza, or the funny and urbane New York of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Honeymooners, and I Love Lucy, or the Hollywood of The Steve Allen Show. In comics it was Gotham City for Batman or Metropolis for Superman, or again, New York City for The Fantastic Four.

I lived with so many levels of exile, I barely existed, indeed felt as if I did not exist at all. A young man with parents from nowhere, a place that literally did not exist on the map, lived in a place that was almost nowhere. I was not alone of course, because the Estonians, Latvians, and Ukrainians felt the same way. We even had our own basketball league, which might as well have been called “The Vanished Nations League.”

Everyone needs to be someone, and every someone needs to be someplace.  I could solve the problem of my nonexistence by becoming a writer. Proof of my existence would then lie on the page. But I could not easily solve the problem of being some place. I have been searching for homeland for most of my life, and frequently it has been a homeland of the imagination.

My first homeland of the imagination lay in the ruins of the British Empire, called in my time The Commonwealth. Every Canadian elementary school room had a map in it, and on every map the countries that belonged to The Commonwealth were coloured pink. Weston was farther from London than it was from New York, but it was closer to my childish heart because I felt that everything within the vast pink expanse belonged to me. My homeland was England, but I might find echoes of this homeland in India, Australia, or South Africa if I so chose. As I began to turn into a compulsive reader, I read the story of this imaginary homeland again and again, through Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Nesbitt, and H. G. Wells. Their home was my home, and their language was my language, even though the writer I most admired, the poet Dylan Thomas, was actually Welsh.

If a homeland is a place that brings you comfort and security, this imaginary European homeland of England and by extension The Commonwealth, consoled me for many things – for being a failure at sports, for living in the godforsaken emptiness of Weston, and for having a father who never really adapted to Canada, and a mother who was often very sad. My one homeland of the imagination, the English one, was full of bravado and empire. My other one, my Lithuanian potential one, was full of melancholy. These homelands were like two angels on my shoulders, or  to be Freudian, my English homeland was my childish superego, and my Lithuanian homeland was my id.

But the English homeland did not last. It was destroyed by the offhand comment of my friend Vaughan’s grandmother. He was an English boy and when his grandmother came to Canada to visit him, I stood in the corner of the room, filled with admiration for her very English Englishness. When I was introduced to her, she said: “What a pretty boy. Such a shame he’s a foreigner.”

Such a fragile homeland this Commonwealth was! So easy to destroy with an offhand comment! And I should not wring my hands about this comment because it awoke me to the reality of my condition. The Commonwealth was not my homeland, imagined or otherwise. I would need to go looking for my homeland, but from the ruined British homeland I took one prize – namely the English language. It was the tool I would use to forge myself and to find my own homelands as well.

Well then, what about the homeland my parents had left behind? My mother had bouts of gloom for the loss of it. She spoke repeatedly about the place where her own mother lived until she died in the late fifties. This very same grandmother once wrote to say how sad she was that she could never meet me because she wished to buy me a bag of candies. To a child, a bag of candies represented a fortune as well as love, great wealth when candies were sold by the pound, but no one ever bought them for me because my grandmother lived in a land that did not exist.

This homeland of my parents therefore existed for them, but it did not exist outside the walls of our house or the walls of our Lithuanian church, or the yard of our Saturday morning Lithuanian school. If my Commonwealth English homeland came to me through its authors, my parents’ Lithuanian homeland came to me through the oral recounting of my their childhoods. These stories recounted a life in the equivalent of the city of Troy before it was destroyed, and their great migration was the Aeneid. Once Troy has been sacked, there is no going back.

One  of my lost European homelands, the Commonwealth one, was written, and the other homeland, the Lithuanian one, was spoken, but both were imaginary.

I should add that my mother did read me a few stories from Lithuanian books. Two of the stories were by Jonas Biliūnas. The first  was called Brisiaus galas, about an old dog who dreams of adventures with his master, only to be shot by this master when the dog  is too old. The other story, Kliūdžiau, was about a boy who takes his bow and arrow and in a moment of bravado shoots and kills a neighbourhood cat, after which he is filled with remorse. The third memorable story was Grybų karas, in which the mushrooms decide to go to war, but die of rot before they can execute their plan.

My Canadian friends laugh merrily when I tell them of these Lithuanian children’s stories, so dark and so pessimistic compared to the happy tales of Disney.

So what about my parents’ homeland? It could not be mine. Their homelands were both their childhood homes and family, and  their youths as well, when they were young and easy and green and carefree. In my own cocky youth, I considered my parents to be nostalgic, and there was no more dismissive term in my adolescent vocabulary. Their memories were not my memories and I was casually cruel about their irrelevance. I would find a homeland, perhaps, but I would find it myself.

If I did not feel Canada was my homeland, and if the Commonwealth would not have me, and the dismal Lithuania was not for me either, what was I to do?

My search for homeland went into the university library where I spent many days and nights when I was a student and the place where I wandered the stacks of the European history section, searching for the word “Lithuania” in the indexes of European history books. Often I did not find the word and even when I did, the entries were always brief and sometimes dismissive, as in a leftist history which referred to interwar Lithuania as worthy of a “comic opera.” Disturbed and wounded, I would return to a carrel where I was studying English literature and might be writing a paper on Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner.

So the language of my abandoned Commonwealth homeland took me to other ones, the Northern Michigan landscape of Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories, or the YoknapatawphaCounty of Faulkner. Theses were homelands I occupied for a while, though not European ones, unless perhaps the Italy of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, a novel whose hopelessness appealed to my youthful nihilism.

That library was a kind of refuge – bookish men, women and children have found asylum in libraries ever since wars, competitive sports, fractious parents, whining children, moronic television shows, leaf blowers, motorcycles, food processors and other dangers or irritants have driven them away from the rest of life. Libraries have been celebrated often, most notably by Alberto Manguel, who spoke of sitting in his French provincial private library, listening to how the books connected to one another at night.

But the library is not the destination of this voyage of European homelands of the imagination. It is instead a point of transit, a portal. It is the place that takes you to the homelands, whether in fiction or nonfiction because both are imaginary once they are in books and no longer concrete.

Through it, I might have entered one of Ray Bradbury’s homelands, which sounds so warm and so strange in The Martian Chronicles:

It was quiet in the deep morning of Mars, as quiet as a cool black well, with stars shining in the canal waters, and, breathing in every room, the children curled with their spiders in closed hands, the lovers arm in arm, the moons gone, the torches cold, the stone amphitheaters deserted.

Through that same portal, with so many choices,  I might have entered into one of Norman Davies’s histories  – because Lithuania was not the only place that had disappeared over time. This very fine historian, the author of many volumes but for us most pointedly of Vanished Kingdoms, says of the ancient Prussians of the tenth century, that they lived on the Amber Coast and  their name might mean something like “Water Tribes” of “People of the Lagoons.” Such potential romance in this sort of naming! Such potential for a homeland, but perhaps a little too far back in history.

What need for all this going into fantasy or ancient history through libraries when Lithuania gained its independence decades ago, and thus I could have found it to be my homeland? My son lives there and so does my grandson, but the land of Lithuania is more often the land of the supermarket called Maxima for me now when I am on the street, or other stores where I go to buy snacks for an overactive five year-old. But my imagination does not inhabit this world. It does not provide me comfort or space for roving in the way my imagination seeks.

Umberto Ecco says we know perfectly well the real world exists, but we decide to take the fictional one seriously – let me modify that to say we take the imaginary world seriously.

I have taken you on a rambling journey and it wouldn’t be fair to leave you without reaching my goal. Through this library portal I have indeed found my European homeland, and it remains an imaginary one, an evocative one as strange as the Mars of Ray Bradbury, but so close I feel I inhabit it in my mind if not in my body.

I am speaking of another writer I found long ago, namely Czeslaw Milosz, who in his Issa Valley and Native Realm wrote with great love and detail of his childhood home in a crumbling Lithuanian manor house where everyone spoke Polish, the language of his writing too. This landscape of creaking wagons and birdsong among the trees is alive to me. I can smell it and feel it and find comfort in it.

But it is only one part of my European homeland of the imagination. I don’t inhabit the world solely of Milosz because others have evoked this world as well. I think of Tadas Ivanauskas, the great naturalist of Lithuania, the founder of the Kaunas zoo. In his Aš Apsisprendžiu, he writes of a childhood in a manor house where the hunting dogs sprawled wherever they liked, the lamp oil was measured out each evening, and a barrel of vinegar stood in the living room forever because no one knew how it got there, but since it had stood there since the beginning of time, it might as well continue.

There are others who have written well to evoke their landscapes, not just the inhabitants of manor houses – the former officer of independent Lithuania, Konstantinas Žukas, in his Žvilgsnis į praeitį or the head of Lithuanian counterintelligence, Jonas Budrys in his Kontražvalgyba Lietuvoje, and many other less celebrated, but equally engaging writers who have created the atmosphere of their Lithuanian homelands.

Their homelands have become mine.

These homelands, like those of my parents, are gone from everywhere but the imagination. Czeslaw Milosz himself said upon revisiting his childhood home, that not one stone stood upon another in any recognizable way after the passage of a few disastrous decades. Yet Milosz in most of his later prose works returned again and again to this place because it was the place that had formed him. I who sneered at the nostalgia of my parents learned to respect their views through Milosz.

But critically, both my parents and Milosz spoke of memories, whereas I speak of imaginary European places, imaginary in the sense that I never inhabited them in my childhood and they no longer exist now.

These homelands of the imagination are richly described and welcoming, waiting for me and others like me as if they were chairs by the fire on a cold and windy evening. I enter these homelands in my writing and I live in them in my mind. My novels are nothing more than extensions of these memoirs,  but my work is written in English. I step into these worlds and I rearrange the furniture to suit my story, and I add or remove characters as I might invite or not invite guests to a party.

The European homeland of the imagination has certain advantages over a physical homeland. One need not spill blood for it. The imaginary homeland is a danger to no one else. It is a private refuge unless I use it to ask readers to join me. As the American historian Kate Brown says in her Biography of No Place, she writes of a place that no longer exists and the people who no longer inhabit it. I once felt as if I did not exist, and to find my imaginary homeland, I similarly had to go to a place that did not exist anywhere but in books.

I have written here about one of my own European homelands of the imagination, but there are other potential ones. When I am in the Lithuanian village of Lynezeris near the border and my mobile phone registers Belarus, I think of the homeland evoked by Alexandra Alexievich. Here in Nida when I am out on the Baltic beach, my phone picks up Kaliningrad and I think of a long-gone colleague of mine in Canada, Margitta Dinzl, who was carried out of East Prussia on the arms of her mother at the  end of the second word war. She spoke so vividly to me of this place, one she had never seen in adulthood, over forty years ago, that I can practically smell it, yet it exists nowhere else but in her mind and now seeded in mine. And when I say seeded I mean exactly that. My imagination begins to work on these places, to make them potential zones of comfort for me and the places begin to grow if I let them.

In her old age, my mother-in-law began to suffer from dementia. She saw ghosts: her dead friend from down the road knocked on her door. What surprised me was another change that came upon her.

She could no longer feel at home. When I rose from her kitchen table in a house she had inhabited for fifty years, she would say to me, “Are you going my way? Do you think you could take me home?” She had begun to disassociate herself from her surroundings. She no longer felt their comfort, their reassuring warmth.

She too had an imaginary home, one that was elsewhere, but she could no longer enter into it. She was looking for it because the search for a homeland is a lifelong quest. Home evolves and shifts.

European Homelands, even imaginary ones, can slip away. We leave them by choice or memory loss, or the world of politics and economics erupts and forces us to leave them. But they are not in one fixed place. We want them because their comfort is as welcome as birdsong in spring,  yet this wellbeing can vanish as quickly as a season’s end, and we need to migrate with our imagination to find our homelands again. I am a writer who lives in his imagination and one who has found his true European homeland there, at least for now.

Antanas Šileika

 Writers and Some of their Works that Have Been Cited in this Essay in the Order in Which They Appear

 

Johann Wyss  – The Swiss Family Robinson

Salman Rushdie  – Imaginary Homelands

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Conan Doyle

Elizabeth Nesbitt

H G Wells

Dylan Thomas

Jonas Biliūnas – Brisiaus galas, Kliūdžiau

Justinas Marcinkevičius – Grybų karas

Ernest Hemingway –  The Nick Adams Stories, A Farewell to Arms

William Faulkner

Alberto Manguel – The Library at Night

Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles

Norman Davies – Vanished Kingdoms

Umberto Eco – The Book of Legendary Lands

Czeslaw Milosz – Native Realm, Issa Valley

Tadas Ivanauskas – Aš Apsisprendžiu

Konstantinas Žukas – Žvilksnis į praeitį

Jonas Budrys – Kontražvalgyba Lietuvoje

Kate Brown – A Biography of No Place

Alexandra Alexievich

Biographical Note:

Antanas Sileika is the author of six books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent novel published in Lithuania and Canada is Provisionally Yours, and its subject, among other things, has to do with the annexation of the Klaipeda region by Lithuania in 1923.

 

 

Provisionally Yours Launched in Canada

 

On March 19,  I officially launched my new novel, Provisionally Yours at Ben McNally’s book store in Toronto. The novel is now available in Canada and will be launched in the USA in June.

I’ll be reading from it at the GritLit festival in Hamilton, on April 13, at the Eden Mills literary festival in early September, as well as Windsor in May and other places to be announced.

Here is what the flaps have to say about the novel:

After World War I and the collapse of Czarist Russia, former counterintelligence officer Justas Adamonis returns to Lithuania, a fragment of the shattered Empire. He’s not entirely sure what he’ll find. His parents are dead, he hasn’t seen his sister since she was a teenager, and Kaunas has become the political center of the emerging state. He’s barely off the train when he’s recruited back into service, this time for the nascent government eager to secure his loyalty and experience. Though the administration may be new, its problems are familiar, and Adamonis quickly finds himself ensnared in a dangerous web of political corruption and personal betrayal. In its vivid rendering, Antanas Sileika’s Provisionally Yours  is an exploration of nationalism and realpolitik—as well as an unforgettable story about treachery and the enduring human capacity for love.

“A perfect calibration of pace and depth, a lucid, stylish and bittersweet chronicle of a country’s rebirth, and a thriller that is also a meditation. I loved this novel.”—Samantha Harvey, Man Booker-nominated author of The Wilderness and The Western Wind

“Sileika is a master at portraying moral ambiguity. Set in an overlooked corner of Eastern Europe, Provisionally Yours has the gritty realism of a noir and the pacing of an espionage thriller.”—Nino Ricci, author of theLives of the Saints trilogy

“Offers the delightful unearthing of a little-known corner of the world—post-war Lithuania. Espionage, illicit love, bureaucratic bungling, marvelous descriptions of food and drink, strong women, desperate men. And subtle humour. And ultimately sadness, brought on by amorality in the struggle for power. A fine read.”—David Bergen, Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning author of The Time in Between