It was a fun book launch, more like a wedding, many said, with a jazz trio and food and liquor and almost three hundred people. We sold a record number of books (213) and had a quick bingo game, won by my Humber replacement, the incoming David Bezmozgis, who tok home a mickey of Crown Royal Whiskey.
And now the first review comes in from Quill and Quire, Canada’s publishing industry journal, and it contains the much-coveted star. I have pasted in a photo that is a bit hard to read, but I’ll put in a link later if one shows up.
My memoir, The Barefoot Bingo Caller, has been more or less put to bed for ECW Press. It will appear in May of 2017. The Lithuanian translation, from Versus Aureus, will appear in the spring of 2017 as well.
I have rewritten my novel, Provisionally Yours, with the help of a good editor and will see his response to it at the end of the summer. This is the espionage novel inspired by the life of Jonas Budrys, the chief of Lithuanian counterintelligence from 1921-1923. His own memoir, Lietuvos Kontrazvalgyba, is an excellent and fast-paced book for those who have the language.
This gives me time to work on my The Rhyming Assassin, my book about Kostas Kubilinskas, the Dr. Seuss of Lithuania, who murdered a man in order to be permitted to publish children’s books.
I’ll be in Lithuania in August to do research for this book, as well as to speak on my writing at the opening of my wife, Snaige’s, big art show at the Moncys Gallery in Palanga, Lithuania, on August 6.
The summer is a great break from working on the Canadian Writers’ Summit this past June, and preparing for the twenty-fifth anniversary of The Humber School for Writers on October 26 inside the International Festival of Authors at Harbourfront. I’ll have time to get some more words down on the page.
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.
Heingartner was a diplomat sorely disappointed to be in Lithuania, and his early observations are unfailingly negative. City hall was dirty and filled with people waiting for something. This description is applied to the opera theatre, and the banks as well. His impressions are not that different from those of people who wander into the poorer parts of Indian cities today.
He complained that there is too much drinking in the town, but there hardly seemed to be anything else to do. Among the more picturesque of his observations:
-chained prisoners are forced to walk through the streets, but not on the sidewalks. They must walk on the road itself.
– single horse-drawn streetcar runs on rails on the cobblestones main thoroughfare.
– when the local diplomats and Lithuanian government officials partied, they partied all night, drive to the local spa of Birstonas in the morning and then return to Kaunas to drop in on friends in the early afternoon, where their fatigue finally began to take over. They sound like characters out of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.
– streetlights were turned off during nights of the full moon in order to save money.
– in the winter, it became dark by three-thirty in the afternoon, and people shuttered up their windows, so the only sound from outside was that of sleigh bells passing in the night.
– Mrs. Smetona, the wife of the president, smoked imported cigarettes and drank Benedictine, complaining that her husband was too impractical, too much an intellectual to rule efficiently, yet we know he ruled as an authoritarian right until the end.
– meat in Kaunas was as cheap as apples. Vegetables were expensive.
– Prime Minister Voldemaras appeared unshaven and drunk with chest hairs sticking out between the buttons on his shirt, yet he was an intellectual who spoke twenty-three languages. Together they drank cognac from 1830.
– one September, there were 17 Jewish Holidays in the month. This circumstance was inconvenient because most of the tradesmen were Jews.
– for Christians, the most important holiday was Easter. There were turkey and ham on all tables. On the first day, the men went out visiting. On the second day, the women took their turn.
– unlike military officers in other countries, those in Lithuania wore spurs when they went to dances – a hazard to all the others.
Lenin once said that power was lying in the streets, just waiting form someone to pick it up.
I have been taken to task for quoting Lenin before, but the comparison I am trying to make is just too apt. The same is true of narratives, of stories which lie around us unnoticed until someone chooses to write about them.
The recent mania for the television series, Downton Abbey, led to a series of articles about its sources. Its primary one seems to have been a memoir by a kitchen maid named Margaret Powell.
In 1968, she penned a memoir called Below Stairs, about what it was like to work in a great house in England before and after the First World War. Amazingly, almost no other source material for this world exists, but this nugget went on to become the inspiration not only for Downton Abbey but an earlier series, called Upstairs Downstairs.
The Lithuanian equivalents are lying around as well, and they are valuable because they give a picture of a little-know part of Europe in the last century.
As my parents’ generation has died out, its books have been tossed or found their way to church bazaars where I pick them up for a quarter. The same is somewhat true in Lithuania, where the table of the used bookseller on Laisves Aleja in Kaunas is one of my favourite haunts.
The books which interest me most are memoirs, often self-published. These are unvarnished and raw and all the better for it because the authors reveal themselves in ways that more practiced writers would not.
One of my most recent finds is a self-published memoir by the late Jonas Demereckis, called Savanorio ir Kontrazvalgybininko Atsiminimai (Memoirs of an Army Volunteer and Counterintelligence Agent).
Born in 1897 Demerckis was a barely lettered village youth who volunteered for the independence army in Jurbarkas. He paints a funny picture of young men in the winter of 1919, travelling out to Kaunas on horse-drawn wagons, accompanied by an accordionist whose bellows came apart due to the wet snow. They were periodically harassed by Bolshevik agitators who encouraged them to join the Red Army.
In Kaunas, during basic training, an officer called out for men who had completed elementary school (grade four) or even had some high school education. Demerckis was one of them. They were taken to a hall and made to write a dictation, and those who could write reasonably well were drifted into office work.
The book is full of colourful anecdotes, mostly having to do with the primitive conditions under which they lived and worked – a barracks without a kitchen – a mission with a wagon to Kybartas to pick up banknotes for a bank – the catching of a Czech spy (?) who had maps of the country rolled into the metal tubes of his bicycle.
Eventually Demereckis was assigned to counterintelligence and worked out of Musninkai, north-west of Vilnius, guarding the frontier with Poland’s closed border (the countries were in a state of war until 1938). There he dealt with Communists, Poles, and smugglers and had various adventures, including fighting off a pack of marauding wolves on winter’s night.
This view of everyday life is particularly valuable to me because it complements the memoirs of Jonas Budrys, who was head of Lithuanian counterintelligence in the early twenties.
But there is so much more good material like this out there, lying around, waiting for someone to pick it up.
I was working through galleys of one of my books last weekend, and while this is not so unusual an activity for a writer, what is unusual is that the galleys were for a book that came out in 1997.
Porcupine’s Quill is doing another printing of that collection of stories, which has never ben out of print, I might add. But the films were so old the proces had to be done again. There is also an ebook of Buying on Time now available at the Porcupine’s Quill site.
I hadn’t read this material for fifteen years and it was a delight to read it again. I had even forgotten some of the jokes and laughed anew (I don’t usually laugh at my own jokes). Publisher Tim Inkster warned me to resist the urge to rewrite. That was very hard to do because I am a rewriter by nature.
But Tim did permit me a few corrections – oddball things. The book had already been through four reprints, but I still found a couple of details we had all missed. I called sandwich meat “baloney” for 150 pages, and then somewhere around page 180 I elevated it to “bologna”.
Most writers do not reread their works, and I never do once they are in print, so this was instructive. The lesson is that a work of fiction is never finished to the writer – one could keep on writing forever, but editors and publishers wisely forbid us to do that.
Partisan Leader Posthumously Named Lithuania’s Fourth President
If the generation of Americans who fought in WW2 is considered the “The Greatest Generation” for its sense of sacrifice and courage, the same can be said out east, on the far side of Europe, where the suffering was far broader than it ever was in the west. In the west some died and others returned to the developing suburban dream, but in the east, some died, some kept on fighting, and the rest were hammered into dust for the mortar used to build the house of Communism.
One of Lithuania’s most famous members of this generation is Jonas Zemaitis, an anti-Soviet partisan fighter from 1944 to his execution in Moscow in ten years later. Zemaitis and many of his generation stayed behind when the Soviets returned for a new round of terror. Some were simply unlucky, a few may have been collaborators, but most were like Zemaitis – patriots who refused to leave their homes. Astonishingly, Moscow seemed on the verge of naming this underground opponent the new leader of Soviet Lithuania in 1953.
Son of a happy-go-lucky father in independent Lithuania, Jonas Zemaitis sought structure and stability by entering the Kaunas officers’ academy in 1926. He was a solid student who trained in the artillery, working his way up to the rank of captain and eventually being talented enough to be sent to France in the late thirties.
Zemaitis remained behind in Lithuania when the Soviets returned in 1944. The anti-Soviet partisan movement was glad to have him because many officers had been taken in the first wave of Soviet deportations and most of those who remained fled before the second Soviet occupation. The resistance needed men who knew military tactics, and they found their champion in Zemaitis.
Early partisan resistance was military in a traditional sense – the partisans took land and defended it. Zemaitis fought in pitched battles from fortified positions with dozens of partisans in the early stages of the fight in 1944 and 1945. But this was a losing proposition against vastly larger forces, and it became worse when the Soviets defeated Germany and could turn back to concentrate on pacifying their captured territories.
Zemaitis was lucky for a time, escaping in close calls again and again – even his wife managed to escape from captivity by the NKVD.
But luck was not enough against superior forces. By1948, the country had tired of resistance and partisan numbers were down dramatically, from 30,000 at the beginning to perhaps 2,000. Increasingly, locals were betraying the partisans and occasionally feeding them sleeping mixtures or poisons. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the partisans united themselves under a single command with Zemaitis as their leader.
In 1950 they were still managing to produce an underground press and even received modest funding of a few hundred dollars from the Americans through Juozas Luksa, a partisan who had made it out to the west and returned.
The end of the game was clearly in sight when in 1951, Zemaitis suffered a stroke which partially paralyzed him. Allies were few and resources stretched thin. He could not shelter in a hospital or even a house, so he spent over a year in a bunker being served and nursed by women sympathetic to the partisan cause. But by then the whole movement had been compromised. Too many captured partisans gave in either to torture or pressure against their families or arguments about the inevitable socialist future, and these men infiltrated their former bands. Such was the case with Zemaitis, whose bunker location was revealed in 1953 by his right-hand man soon after his capture.
Zemaitis and the others were taken alive when the bunker was filled with sleeping gas.
So far, this is a story that is broadly the same as hundreds of others in that place and time. Where it changes is at the end.
In 1953, the murderous and paranoid Joseph Stalin died and his right-hand man, Lavrenty Beria, took over the Soviet Union. Today, Beria has a reputation as the most heartless of Stalin’s henchmen, and some believe he would have continued Stalin’s style of terror had he survived. Yet his actions at this juncture hint at the opposite. Beria was looking for accommodation with nationalist forces in both Lithuania and Ukraine. There are some hints that he even intended to put the partisan leaders in positions of power and discard the old Central Committee leaders who had ruled under Stalin’s regime in Lithuania and Ukraine.
After his capture in1953, Zemaitis was interrogated in Vilnius, but not tortured. This fact was a novelty under Beria’s new rules. Then Zemaitis was flown to Moscow where he met in person with Beria for an hour.
What did they say to one another? What was supposed to happen next? We’ll never know. Beria was arrested the next day and executed before the end of the year.
Whatever good this meant for the Soviet Union (Beria was known as a hard liner and his elimination eventually led to a thaw), it meant the opposite, a return to the old ways in Soviet Lithuania. Antanas Snieckus, the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania, was now secure in his place as he had been under Stalin. Zemaitis was returned to Lithuania by train and interrogated, again, without torture. Under interrogation, he sketched out the entire system of partisan resistance in Lithuania, which had crumbled by then. At least one historian believes he did so to ensure a record of the resistance survived in KGB archives.
In is final statement, Zemaitis insisted that he believed his resistance to be lawful and the Lithuanian Soviet regime the product of an invading force. He said he regretted nothing. Sentenced to death, he was returned to Moscow where the verdict was carried out in 1954.
In 2009, the Lithuanian government declared that he represented the lawful extension of independent Lithuania, and posthumously declared him as the fourth president of the country.
Lithuanian partisans captured by the MGB in the postwar period were sometimes turned into provocateurs or double agents – few could resist the intimidation and torture used against them in interrogations. Some collaborators were more thorough and enthusiastic in their work than others. Among them were Juozas Deksnys, described in earlier posts, and Algimantas Zaskevicius (reported to have contributed to the capture of 300 partisans).
But the most famous of them all was Dr. Juozas Markulis, who taught medicine at the university of Vilnius.
Markulis was born in the USA but returned to Lithuania to complete studies for the priesthood. He never took religious orders. He was handsome and attractive to women, and he shifted instead to officer training in the military and finally into medicine in 1940. He joined the LLA, an underground Lithuanian resistance organization in 1941.
The organization was smashed by the Soviets at the end of 1944, and its archives fell into their hands. Markulis may have been identified at this time – he certainly was turned at this time.
The partisan underground lacked intellectuals – many of the fighters were the children of farmers, and Markulis insinuated himself into a local regional partisan unit where he was much beloved and looked upon as a father figure.
Markulis had two strategies – to unify the partisans in the country and to convince them to move toward passive resistance, tactics that were beginning to work. He was convincing to the partisans and impressive to his MGB superiors, writing long and detailed reports that showed he had an excellent memory for detail.
Working under intense pressure, Markulis could not avoid making mistakes, and one of them was permitting the MGB to arrest Jonas Deksnys, who had been instructed by his brother to maintain ties with no one but Markulis.
Thus it became clear that Markulis was a collaborator and spy and Juozas Luksa himself went to Vilnius in 1947 to execute him, but Markulis escaped.
He lived in Leningrad until 1953, when the partisan movement had been destroyed, and then returned to teach at the University of Vilnius.
His motivations remain opaque. He died in 1988, just before Lithuania regained its independence. His legacy is a name synonymous with treachery – he is the Benedict Arnold of Lithuanian to those who know the story of the resistance to the Soviets.
While I had intended to begin this season with an entry about Robert Heingartner and the shape of my novel in progress, I stumbled across some more partisan biographies while I was in Lithuania last summer and found them too good to remain unremarked upon.
The four come from a book by Rokas Subačius called (in translation) Dramatic Biographies, detailing the lives of twenty-six Lithuanians during periods of first independence and three brutal occupations.
In a radio interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC radio this fall, I said I keep going back to Lithuanian sources because the place has life stories with very high stakes.
Some of the four biographies provided source material for Underground.
The first life described is that of Juozas Vitkus, code-named Kazimieraitis, who was the head of the partisan region of southern Lithuania. Although he did not write about his own life, he was described in detail by Adolfas Ramanauskas, code-named Vanagas, whose biography inspired parts of Underground.
Before WW 1, Juozas Vitkus should have emigrated as a child to America where his father had gone to find work, but his mother became sick on the way and was held back in London and the children were sent to an orphanage. His father returned from America to round them all up and then went back to farm modestly in Lithuania instead of going on to the USA.
Delayed by the war, Vitkus entered high school in 1919 at the age of eighteen. Lithuania’s independence battles were still going on, and he joined the army and was trained as an officer, serving as a lieutenant in battles with the Poles. He trained as a military engineer in Belgium and visited the Paris World’s Fair of 1937. He was a lieutenant-colonel by 1940 during the first Soviet occupation, but was not deported to Siberia like so many officers at that time.
During the German occupation, unwilling to work in an army subservient to the Nazis, he went into civilian life, meanwhile helping to create the LLA, an underground military school in the resistance.
When the threat of Soviet return became real, the retreating Germans agreed to train and arm about a hundred potential underground resisters. While biographer Subacius does not go into detail on this point, one can see where the story of underground fighters as Nazi sympathizers arises. Some took training and weapons from the Germans (and some were undoubtedly collaborators). However, the majority of partisans, as we know, were simply young men, mostly from rural backgrounds, fearful of the returning Soviets and unwilling to join their army.
Vitkus could not easily withdraw before the approaching Soviets because he had five young children. But after their second arrival (the first was in 1940), he found it difficult to find work under the occupation itself because no one would give a former army officer a job. He finally found work in the remote southern countryside as a bookkeeper, apparently intending to stay legal but out of the spotlight and thus less liable to deportation from a provincial village.
However, the partisan resistance as forming around him, and he could see the lack of military training in these informal groups. Most of the higher officers had fled Lithuania or been imprisoned, and Vitkus joined the partisans with the intention of raising their military training. He was the highest ranking officer from the formerly independent army in the partisan movement.
At this moment it is worth standing back from the life for a moment and watching how history played havoc with the best-laid plans. Vitkus, who chose the code-name Kazimieraitis, had no intention of resisting at first, but he felt compelled to do something for the partisans in spite of the fact that his actions put his family and himself at risk.
One of his first tasks was to organize the resistance and to enforce discipline, in particular on some of the criminals who drifted into the partisan movement in the early days. At least seven of them received death sentences for excessive violence in the resistance.
Vitkus’s bunker was at the confluence of two small streams that did not freeze over the winter, and the only way to reach the bunker door without leaving footprints was to wade in the shallow waters with rubber boots on the way.
Vitkus met with Juozas Deksnys, a partisan stationed in Stockholm who came back into Lithuania to check out the local situation. With him, he hoped to set up ties to the international community and to get help for the resistance.
Vitkus also helped organize the seizure of the town of Merkine, dramatized in my novel. The intention was to assassinate local collaborators. In that action two hundred partisans attacked the town with great initial success, but significant losses as well. By 1948, incidentally, the 47 whose names Ramanauskas could remember were all dead.
Even in 1946, the noose was tightening. After the Merkine action, a captured partisan was tortured until he revealed Vitkus’s bunker. Although Vitkus was not caught, two other partisans were killed and their documents discovered, including Vitkus’s diary and a list of sixty supporters, who were subsequently arrested.
The partisans fought on, but the losses were great. Through 1945 through June of 1946, Vitkus lost 250 shot, 236 arrested, and 213 partisans who opted to take amnesty. Only 300 were left in his area.
After a massive partisan execution action against spies, the resulting MGB combing of the forests stumbled across Vitkus while he was washing his clothes by a stream. He defended himself with a pistol, wounding two soldiers, but was wounded in turn by a grenade and taken alive. The MGB did not know who they had. They beat him during interrogation, but he died of his wounds without giving out any information.
His body was dumped in the marketplace in village of Leipalingis and left there until the MGB discovered who they had killed. Then the body was taken away and buried in a place that remains unknown to this day.
When I was in Merkine again this summer, I visited the partisan monument where he and dozens of other fighters are commemorated. It lies very close to another monument to red partisans and Red Army soldiers, as well as the site of a holocaust massacre.
Underground is dedicated not only to men like Vitkus, but to all the others who died in the forests as well.
The editor of Queen’s Quarterly posed a question of me at a time of great stress while my son was a soldier in Afghanistan. The editor wanted me to write about Lithuania.
Afghanistan and Lithuania? What’s the link? Here’s the opening of that essay. The rest can be found in the current issue:
Where I’m coming from; Where I’m Going to
For the fourth year in a row I’m standing at the crossroads of Pylimo and Traku Streets in Vilnius, Lithuania, worrying the place, trying to sift the stories that lie like dust between the cobblestones. I’m slightly sick of this baroque, labyrinthine city – the strangulated cries of the swallows at dusk make me think of the dead souls of forgotten citizens.
Nobody who lives in Vilnius now had great grandparents who lived here – most of the old inhabitants were killed during the war or shipped out after it. Vilnius is old, but the people who inhabit it are relatively new to this city.
They came here after the war, around the time I was born to immigrant parents in Toronto. Although I’ve spent my whole life in Canada, my clan, my people are new to it, and I’m not entirely comfortable in the country of my birth. I keep coming back to this melancholy city of Vilnius, mulling over the past and trying to determine the geography of my belonging.
It’s been a busy week of literary appearances, most of them for my novel, Underground.
On Thursday, April 27, I was at the North York Public Library in front of a small crowd of twenty or so who peppered me with questions on the research for Underground as well as some of my older books.
On Friday, April 29, I was reading for Diaspora Dialgoues at the Central Library. Diaspora Dialogues, run by Helen Walsh and Co, do good work bringing immigrants and immigrant writers into the Canadian literary world. One of the readers that night was Joyce Wayne, a lovely journalism teacher from Sheridan who ran a special program for immigrant journalists. We at Humber took one of her graduates, Myank Bhatt into the correspondence program in creative writing, where he is working with M G Vassanji, and I have high hopes for good literary outcomes there.
On Saturday, April 30, I attended the Random House Open House cocktail party at the Bar Mercurio. All the Random House luminaries were there, from president Martin to Louise Dennys and publicist Randy Chan (delicious hors d’oeuvres included steak tartare) . I talked for a while to Harbourfront director Geoffrey Taylor, who was just back from literary events in Ireland, and then to James Bartleman, former lieutenant governor of Ontario and Humber alumnus. A couple of former Humber publishing students were there as well.
On Monday, May 2, Snaige and I drove to Ottawa for, among other things, tea at the American ambassador’s house. It turns out she is a supporter of literature. There, I met Madeleine Thien for the first time and chatted with Sylvia Tyson and Elizabeth Hay. An embassy official was playing show tunes on the piano, but he took a break as American poet, Robert Pinsky recited some poems by heart. The residence is a stunning pile up on a hill overlooking the Ottawa River with some decent art on the walls including a Georgia O’Keefe and an Emily Carr. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful setting.
Then it was down into Ottawa to Arc the. Hotel, a hipster-cool black place where I felt as if I should always be speaking in hushed tones. On Tuesday night, May 3, I read and spoke in the Mayfair Theatre along with Humber alumna Suzanne Desrochers (Brides of New France) and Sarita Mandanna (Tiger Hills). The old theatre served popcorn during the talk – a nice break from the habitual literary fare of canapés or cakes.
Afterward, I hung around the hotel hospitality suite with the excellent Ottawa festival organizers and David Adams Richards. The sesame shrimp were delicious, and after a few glasses of white wine, I was talking wildly about Canadian literature from Wayne Johnston to Michael Crummey, with David filling in a few discreet details. He doesn’t drink, so his restraint was better than mine.
On Wednesday, May 4, the Lithuanian ambassador, Ms Ginte Damusis, invited me to speak to the ambassadors of central European countries over a buffet lunch on the subject of my novel. We had representatives from Germany, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and other countries. They were interested in my talk of postwar partisans because many of them come from countries with similar post-war histories. The American ambassador’s wife, Julie Jacobson, was there too and all of them took away copies of Underground. Then it was off to Dinner at the Blue Cactus later that evening.
I should have gone to Humber alumna Sarah Raymond’s book launch at Type Books in Toronto on Thursday, but we were held up on the road in Gananoque, visiting my former Humber student Colette Maitland and Snaige’s art friends, Otis Tamasauskas and Jan, and so I arrived home too late to make it.
What would think literary exhaustion would set in, but I am deep into Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. She’ll be in Toronto in a couple of weeks.
It was another busy literary week, starting with a lunch on Tuesday at a King Street restaurant called Buca, to celebrate the culling of over 2,000 story entries for the Toronto Star Short Story Contest. I won’t say much about this because the competition is still unfolding, except this – our bleary-eyed judges were glad to pass on the long list and to settle down for a lunch of “salumi”, as the various cured meats are called in this cooler than cool basement. restaurant.
On Wednesday, I launched my novel, Underground, to a room of about 120 people at Ben McNally’s bookstore on Bay. (There will be a bigger launch/reading on April 13 at Harbourfront).
Friends and writers at that even included Lawrence Hill, Don Gillmor, Joe Kertes, Susan Swan, Karen Connelly, Anthony de Sa, Wayson Choy, Richard Scrimger, Kim Moritsugu, Erna Paris, Sally Cooper, Michael Helm, Andrew Clark, Catherine Bush, Anne Denoon, Michael Redhill, Eva Stachniak (who wrote a big review in a major Polish newspaper), John Bentley Mays, Margaret Cannon, Marni Jackson, Russell Brown, Donna Bennett, Andrew Westoll, Dawn Promislow, Nathan Whitlock, Leo Kamen, Katherine Ashenburg, Marni Jackson; journalists Mark Medley and Stuart Woods; publishers Lynn Henry, Marc Cote, and Jack David, and probably a few I forgot (so many names to drop – so little time). Friends, the whole Thomas Allen publishing team, and family warmed the room.
We drank lemon vodka frozen into a block of ice, homemade blackcurrant cassis and Lithuanian beer and ate bacon buns and napoleon cakes.
On Saturday, I was off to London, Ontario, for a Humber School for Writers event in the morning with Joan Barfoot at the London Public Library. We did mini-edits on first pages of writing for about twelve writers and I took 40 pages home for homework, promising to send back my results.
In the afternoon, I did a signing at Chapters in London, and then it was dinner with friends and a nighttime drive home to Toronto at midnight.
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.