.November – December 2018 – I’ll try to stay in as much as possible to do a second draft of a novel in progress, whose working title is Skylark and Badger. I do some of my best concentrated work at the Toronto Writers’ Centre.
I’ve recently signed a contract for a book of stories to appear with ECW Press in the fall of 2016 or the spring of 2017.
I spent the summer in Lithuania, working in KGB archives in the morning and helping to babysit my grandson some evenings. I also gave two talks at the Santara conference in Alanta, Lithuania. Here is an English translation of one of the talks I gave at the Santara conference on the subject of recent books in English with a Baltic theme.
My newest novel makes slow progress as other matters overwhelm my schedule, but each of them shares its own delights, so I’ll content myself with slow progress for the moment.
The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall, a quote from a passage in Bunyan – He that is down need fear no fall / He that is low, no pride. It’s a slightly awkward title but it helps me to keep my theme in mind. I am interested in characters who create themselves after the old order dies and the new one arises. In this case, I mean particularly the collapse of the old order after WWI that followed the destruction of ancient empires and the subsequent growth of many, problematic small states.
In our own time, we saw leaders such as Vaclav Havel, Vytautas Landsbergis, and Lech Walesa step put of the theatre, out of the academy, and out of the factory to become, even for relatively short times, leaders of their people. This type of process happens again and again in history, and not just to the leaders of nations.
I have set this new novel in Kaunas, from 1921 – 1923 and based it loosely on the life of Jonas Budrys, who ran Lithuanian counter intelligence at a time when the new country had no money, no resources, and no friends. I am particularly interested in his spirited defense of the small nation, and his subsequent seizure of Klaipeda (Memel) in 1923. Does a patriot become an imperialist in the blink of an eye? Do political imperatives ever really change? How does one create new morality when the old order has fallen? Is it even possible to be moral, and what does morality mean in both the personal and political arena? Budrys is a rich source, and I’ve blogged about him before.
This time, I am returning to the humour of my earlier writings, because although I want to engage in big themes, I also want to have some lightness for a change. After years writing of the brutal partisan resistance, (and returning to it soon for another project I’ll post about in the future) I need something of a break form the horror of that episode in history.
Eksteins is a brilliant and popular historian who writes about the spasm of modernity that typifies the era after WW1. In this particular book, he traces the story of Vincent Van Gogh and his rise to adulation in the Weimar period in Germany after the war. Eksteins’s thesis is that after the war, the age of enlightenment gave way further to the age of romanticism, leading to zeitgeist that values eccentricity, madness, emotion, novelty and emancipation over reason and moderation. He also believes that we are living in Weimar-type zeitgeist at present, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Having lost the last utopian project, we are left with nothing but the market, which has made us rich, but left us hungry for transcendence and subject to novelty and emotionalism.
Eksteins helps to set the tone for the decade I am writing about in the new novel, but he is well worth reading in and of himself. He earlier book, The Rites of Spring, deals with similar themes and was important to me for background when I wrote Woman in Bronze, about artists in Paris in the twenties.
I am also devouring Tony Judt’s posthumous book, a conversation with historian Timothy Snyder called Thinking the Twentieth Century. I can barely put that book down, and will report on it more fully once I am done.
What looms over me this spring is preparing for the big Creative Writing conference in Toronto, being held at my institution, Humber College, and co-hosted with York University and most other writing schools in Toronto. This conference unites the creative writing teachers and students from across the country and will have, I believe, close to two hundred participants. The logistics concerns alone are enormous, so this event is eating up much of my workday and the vast majority my spare time.
Writers complain that they never have enough time to write, and this is certainly true of me too, but the mix of conferences, reading, and writing and a few other developments I’ll talk about later make for a rich life. I’m not complaining.
When we think of the Versailles Peace Conference, we tend to think of President Wilson and the other big players, but among them were many smaller players as well, looking for independent nation status for former Russian provinces such as Poland, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the Ukraine, Belarus, the Don and Kuban Cossacks as well as the Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Some would get what they wanted, but most would not.
The White Russians insisted that the old Czarist Russia be recreated and all these upstart nations remain a part of the reformed empire. The great powers might have been happy with this solution except it seemed the Whites might not win, and thus it would be better to a cordon sanitaire around the Bolsheviks. As for the Germans, they wanted client states in the places where they had actually beaten the Russians in the East.
Such a complicated place! But there’s a new book, part of series, Makers of the Modern World, examining the intricacies of Versailles 1919 – 1923, called, lugubriously, Antonius Piip, Zigfrids Meierovics and Augustinas Voldemaras, The Baltic States. Obviously, this text focuses on the Baltics and the three men at the conference who championed their cause for independence and succeeded where others did not.
The book is interesting as part of a trend of new histories about Eastern Europe, a place whose story, according to historian Timothy Snyder, was previously fractured into a mosaic of national histories. Now we are getting overviews in English.
Characteristic of this part of the world are the very high stakes involved in the game. The Baltic states had differing histories, but none had been independent for centuries, so what were the odds that they could get what they wanted while negotiating among large power interests?
Yet their unlikely project succeeded.
This small text give thumbnail sketches of the players, many of whom were distinctive, fractious, or eccentric. The Lithuanian Voldemaras, somewhat long-winded and professorial, thought Lithuania had the best chance because it had been a country in the middle ages in a way that the other two had not, but the allies thought the opposite, believing the historical German influence in Estonia an Latvia made them more reliable.
Meierovics died in a car accident in 1925, and the other two died in the gulag after Soviet occupation came in the forties, but their work was restored with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Since my new novel will be set in the espionage circles of 1921 – 1923, this text gives me excellent background material.
Activity at Humber where I run a summer writing workshop now heats up, and soon after that I will go to Lithuania for a few weeks to do more research on the next text, so this may be my last entry for the summer. When I return, I’ll describe a diary of a diplomat in Lithuania in the twenties, a man who did not much care for the place: Lithuania in the 1920s: A Diplomat’s Diary, by Robert W. Heingartner.
Now that my new novel is out, I’ll run a few weeks of commentary about what it is like through the ups and downs of public life after years of seclusion at the writing desk.
Of course, I’m frequently out and about for literary events, but they are not my own and therefore less fraught. What follows is an emotional literary diary.
Since this is my fourth published book and third novel, I thought I would be immune from the pre-publication jitters, but I found myself up many nights at three AM, looking in the liquor cabinet for something to calm me down, and becoming alarmed at the falling level of Tanqueray Rangpur Gin (a spirit available only in the USA for some odd reason).
An early review in the Quill did nothing to preserve the gin stocks when it said some of the language in my novel was stilted (it also said the novel has “moments of startling power”, but the praise does not stick in the mind as much as the blame). I’d gone to great lengths to get the language as an evocation of foreign language – aiming for clarity with some of the rough directness of the peasant manner of speech of the country where the novel was set. Of course, this effect may not have worked for the reviewer, but it was not through lack of attempt to create a feeling.
On Saturday, the National Post ran a long review by Philip Marchand. I was amused that a half-page sketch of my face was printed on the page as well, captioned “Irresistible. As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a page I want to send out to a few girls with whom I didn’t have much luck in high school.
This was generally a very good review with great little comments like the following:
As the novel proceeds, that term “underground” acquires richer and richer layers of meaning….
Sileika’s novel is a gripping tale…
The review did, however, take me to task for not being funny as I was inBuying on Time, my collection of stories published in 1997. The observation is perfectly correct, but it talks about what I am not doing. I’m not writing science fiction either. Sometimes one writes comedy and sometimes one writes tragedy.
I do admire Marchand, though, because he is thorough and balanced. He’s reviewed all three of my last books.
Blaming a novel for not being something else was an appalling approach I noticed in James Grainger’s review of David Bezmozgis’s new novel, The Free World, in March twenty-seventh’s Toronto Star. Grainger does not like historical novels and he does not like family sagas, yet he reviewed the book and blamed it for being a historical family saga (do the seventies qualify as “historical” already?). This is like blaming gin for not being scotch.
Graingers’ ahistoricism is something I see very much in the Toronto literary community but not much anywhere else. I have addressed this curious provincialism in other posts.
Last night I read from the new novel for the first time at a church basement literary event at St. Peter’ Anglican Church in Mississauga. I was up with nonfiction writer Peter Edwards ( a journalist at the Star) Maggie Helwig (who told me she would soon be ordained as an Anglican priest) and The Reverend Jennifer E. Reid, the church pastor, who read some very funny unpublished material (she really should be published).
About seventy people were in the audience in this exquisite stone church in a very fine neighbourhood. I felt beloved as soon as I walked into the room, an unusual feeling for someone more accustomed to the edgier, critical assessments in literary Toronto.
This was a test run of my reading in public. I chose the opening passage of the novel, which involved the murder of five Communist party functionaries and the wounding of two innocents. The scene ends with pools of blood on the floor and splatters on the wall.
I delivered this between the salad and the soup courses.
The audience was attentive and they bought a good number of books, but I think that I’ll choose romantic scenes the next time I read at a dinner. One doesn’t want to think about pools of blood while looking at food on a plate.
This week, I launch at Ben McNally’s bookstore. I imagine other reviews might come, and I’ll talk about them as they appear.
As I was writing this post, I received a call from a journalist in Lithuania and did an interview about the novel for people over there. Everything I write about in this novel, the historical basis, is very well known in Lithuania. They wanted to know what was new about my take on the postwar partisans. I had to say I had nothing new to tell them aside from the fact that any underground war is dirty and human and complicated. What’s new over here, on this side of the Atlantic, is the entirety of the subject matter, quite part form the success or failure of the execution.
And for the next little while, I will cross post in both my Humber and personal blogs as I write not only about the literary scene, but my role in it. This is an odd moment in which I feel both like an actor and a film critic at the same time – it’s like writing in a hall of mirrors.