The Lithuanian translation of Underground, called Pogrindis, appeared in Lithuania in 2013. Here’s a link to an article about the novel’s background (in Lithuanian) as well as an interview with Tomas Donela, who has optioned the film rights. As for the novel itself, it’s available from the publisher at the link here.
For details of the book fair, see my blog post. Also her are a few more links to Lithuanian reviews and profiles: 1, 2, and a third one here. (If the last link doesn’t work, as mine is having trouble, you can find the review at Literatura ir Menas).
Here’s a Lithuanian television interview I did for an operation called “Alchemija.”
Just as I thought I was moving on to a new page in literary subject matter, the postwar partisan story has taken another turn with the launch of a fresh polemic against these underground resisters of Soviet occupation in Lithuania.
A contentious new book has appeared in Lithuania, called A Memorial Book of the Victims of Partisan Terror (Partizanu Teroro Auku Atminimo Knyga).
The book has a trilingual introduction by Povilas Masilionis in which he attacks the partisans as murderers and terrorists. Most of the book consists of a list of civilians killed by partisans.
This book comes on the heels of an article by Jurgis Jurgelis comparing civilian killings carried out by pro-Soviet collaborators and anti-Soviet partisans (even my choice of words is fraught here – unavoidably so). Jurgelis suggests a sort of moral equivalency between the two.
On the other hand, Arvydas Anusauskas, member of the Seimas and former head of the Genocide Museum, says that the book is old propaganda reheated by Masiulionis, who, in the Soviet period, worked for the Central Committee of the Communist Party as a propaganda instructor and assistant director of the journal “The Comunist”.
Does pedigree matter? I think it must.
The introduction does reek of a polemic of the lowest sort, but even so, I have to sympathize with the numerous dead listed in the pages. For example, Donatas Glodenis is a thoughtful blogger in Lithuania, a man whose grandfather was killed by partisans (perhaps for agreeing to work in a position of responsibility in a state farm.) To see one’s grandfather memorialized must be moving and important (see his comments on the book launch).
Twenty years after Lithuania’s independence, the battle over history is not going away – it is heating up.
The story of Kostas Kubilinskas is something like an East European joke, and by that I mean it is a particularly gruesome story with tragicomic overtones.
Kostas Kulbilinskas died in 1962 and at the time he was one of the best-loved children’s writers in Lithuania. (I mentioned him in an earlier post about Lionginas Baliukevicius – author of Diary of Partisan.) It turns out he is an excellent example of the type of writer described in Czeslaw Milosz’s Captive Mind, a writer who will do anything to get published. He was a man who became a murderer in order to earn the right to write children’s poetry.
Kubilinskas was born in 1923, one of four children in a poor family. Right from his youth he established himself as a poet of sorts by wining poetry prize at the age of fifteen. He was in high school during the first German occupation, and began to write satirical poems about Stalin and Jews (!). From the very first, it seems he tailored his writing to the current ruling regime. The problem would come when the regimes changed.
Kubilinskas had a knack for rhyme and wrote easily and quickly. Later in life, he was known as the kind of man who could compose rhymes at the printer’s if a magazine had an unexpected white space.
When the Soviets were approaching Lithuania for their second occupation, Kubilinskas decided to stay behind because he felt he was a poet above all and could not leave the land of his language. He imagined he might adapt to the regime by writing for its rulers.
At first this worked well. He joined the Communist Youth League and became one of the promising writers in the new writers’ union. But in 1946, he was identified as a German collaborator and removed from his post. He was unable to publish, and eventually ended up as a teacher in remote village in the south of Lithuania.
It must have felt like banishment to Kubilinskas, but it led to an interesting turn of events. Kubilinskas stood out as an intellectual in these surroundings, and intellectuals were rare and valuable in a land where one crop had been deported to Siberia, another died in the Holocaust, and a third fled before the invading Red Army in 1944. The local ant-Soviets could use a man like that because they lacked writers and intelligencia for their newspapers. Kubilinskas’s friend, Algirdas Skinkys, was in a similar position. Skinkys is almost a double of Kubilinskas, although a lesser double because less talented.
Kubilinskas had said to friends he would go to any lengths for the ability to publish poetry, and the contact with the partisans opened an opportunity for him to redeem himself. He wanted to leverage the partisan contact to gain bigger rewards than the resistance could offer him.
Not trusting the local MGB, Kubilinskas wrote to the chair of the Lithuanian Communist Party, Antanas Snieckus, and volunteered to infiltrate the anti-Soviet partisans. His file was handed over to a Vilnius MGB officer, and Kubilinskas was trained in firearms and deception.
His job was to find local partisan groups, infiltrate them, and assassinate the leaders or bring in troops to do the job if need be. Fearful for their safety, Kubilinskas and his friend Skinkys hesitated to commit murder until they were ordered to fulfill their tasks within the first weeks of 1949 or face the wrath of the MGB.
In a botch job that ended up turning out well for Kubilinskas, he and his friend shot a sleeping partisan in his bunker and then fled to Alytus, a provincial capital, where they summoned MGB soldiers to surround another bunker where several more partisans were killed in a firefight.
The botch occurred when Kubilinskas was identified while fleeing, and thus could no longer be used in other operations to infiltrate the partisans, who issued an execution order against him (which was never carried out).
The botch played to his advantage. Kubilinskas was free to publish as a poet, which he did, with great success. Although he never published much for adults, Kubilinskas became a roaring success as a children’s writer, producing many rhyming stories. He was the Doctor Seuss of Lithuania in the 1950’s.
But Kubilinskas was a drinker, whether because of a guilty conscience or natural tendency, and his alcoholism began to interfere with his work to such an extent that he was sent in 1962 to a sanitarium for alcoholics outside Moscow, where he died under mysterious circumstances, some say murdered by the KGB (the heir of the MGB) for being too talkative. He had lived only until the age of 39. His colleague in crime, Algirdas Skinkys, lived until 1970, reaching the age of 45. The latter, though, never achieved the fame of Kubilinskas.
It seems impossible to the modern western reader that a man so pliable to ruling regimes, and a murderer as well, should be capable of writing lasting poetry, all the less children’s poetry. Yet his choices reflect the reality of Eastern Europe where one had to select among bad choices. Kubilinskas made some of the worst of them.
This egotistical artist was the inspiration for the character called Rimantas in my novel, Underground, code-named Poe for his fondness for the American poet. I chose Poe as his code-name for the gruesome connotations we have for that writer.
What is the fate of the reputation of this murderer? For all his crimes, some readers in Lithuania continue to enjoy his children’s work. Public taste and public morality are two distinct realms, although there are few cases as extreme as that of Kostas Kubilinskas.
Eastern European jokes can be cruel indeed, and the life of Kostas Kubilinskas shows us a man who loved to write for children so very much that he helped murder to get the opportunity to do it.
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.
With my novel, Underground, launched into the world, it is time to think of the next novel, which I have been hankering to get to.
There will still be a lot of talking about Underground and the partisan war because I have media appearances and festivals to attend in the fall, but just now I can get into the research on the new novel and expand the pages of the new book that I have already written.
The new novel’s working title is Fear no Fall – this is a thematic guideline for me, taken from John Bunyan, although I am not sure I will want to keep the title in the end (I lean toward Things Fall Apart as well, but it has been used so often).
He that is down needs fear no fall,
He that is low no pride…
The novel will be set in in the murky world of espionage and counter-espionage among the Russians, Poles, Germans and Lithuanians from 1921 until 1923, when it still seemed like a determined man might seize a nation, or create an empire. After all, D’Annunzio was the poet who seized Trieste, Pilsudski the socialist bandit who became the father of Poland, and Lenin the failed seminarian (released from a German jail) who created the Soviet Union (with a little help from his friends).
My main character might open by saying something like this:
I was a self-made man who was building a self-made world without any of the hypocrisies of the past. After the old world collapsed, all we needed to do was hammer out the rules for a new one and play by them, and we’d build a better future. If our enemies would let us. If they didn’t, we’d have to outsmart them.
While I have done a lot of research and I have the story roughed out in my mind, I continue to read background in Lithuanian and I stumbled across a remarkable memoir by a writer who is entirely unknown outside Lithuania, and probably barely known within it.
The book is called Aš Apsisprendžiu, written by the late Tadas Ivanauskas (1882 – 1970), who came from the baronial ruling class of of Lithuania in the czarist period and lived through dispossession in the Lithuanian independence period and then repression in the Communist era.
Through all this, he managed to be one of the men who created Kaunas university and was what can only be called an ecologist avant le mot, while at the same time a biologist, hunter, and prose stylist.
His ruling class was destroyed, so he is interesting as a representative of the Polish-Lithuanian rulers, (repressed under the czars) whose stories are not well known.
For example, in the period after the 1863 uprising, Catholics were forbidden to buy land. The regime hoped the Lithuanian/Polish ruling class would eventually have to sell to Russians (Orthodox Christians) and disappear. In Ivanasuksas’s family, the Lithuanian family manor lay near Lida, which was Polish between the wars and Belorussian after 1945. They dud not sell, but were driven by the reds during the revolution.
Ivanauskas describes his childhood in the manor with a richness of detail I have not read since Ceslaw Milosz’sNative Realm. With great charm, he describes the interior of the manor where they huddled around the ceramic stove while outside the birds could be seen pecking dried seeds from the pods of tall grasses sticking out of the snow. He describes characters such as “the smoker” who lived in the smokehouse while the meat was being prepared and smelled of smoke all day long. Young Tadas wandered out into the fields like some kind or Wordsworth, all clean and curious in nature. Outdoors-men of the time were hunters, and he became one too, in particular looking to find birds to shoot and mount for the manor room devoted to stuffed animals.
He did not do well in high school in Warsaw because he missed his home so much and detested the forced religiosity of the place, but he prevailed in St Petersburg where he studied science and eventually created a thriving business in providing universities and museums with skeletons and various other specimens required for the study of biology.
Why does he matter?
First, the gorgeous detail in the work is not to be missed. But beyond that, he represents what was swept away by the revolution.
Furthermore, he is interesting because he represents a place and time where language did not determine nationality. Most locals considered themselves Lithuanians, but the upper classes spoke Polish (and Russian with the government) and the lower classes spoke Belorussian. There were some Lithuanian speakers, but one had to travel some distance to find their villages.
But why does he matter to my novel? Because his is the world that existed before my spies try to make a new one. He is one of the ones who will lose (but arguably gain as well by adapting his skills to the new world.)
The prose is so good, that his story of the family boys travelling by cart with their uniformed driver and the dogs to a distant estate for a few days of hunting rivals the prose of Tolstoy’s hunt scene in War and Peace.
And yet the man was a biologist! So much talent to spare. So much beautiful writing hidden in the shadows. He’ll be a big help to me.
In the following weeks, I’ll talk about a few of the other books that I am using. The heart of the matter wil of course lie with Jonas Budrys, his espionage memoir called Lietuvos Kontrazvlagyba, but there are many other excellent sources.
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 great to read with Johanna Skibsrud and Suzanne Desrochers at the Harbourfront Reading Series last last Wednesday. It was a packed audience of over 300 people (the home ice advantage). Suzanne had come to the summer workshop at Humber back in 2006 ,and Johanna had once ben at SLS (Summer Literary Seminars) , with whom I worked in Lithuania a coupe of years ago.
In the new world of book promotion, I’m finding the mass media monolith (alliteration is irresistible) of a short seven years ago when I published my last novel has devolved into a beach of promotional shards.
I think I might even like this landscape better, but it certainly is different.
Rather than speak to a hundred book salespeople at a mini-conference, I am going from store to store for short morning chats before the doors open. While it’s great to meet the people who might choose to hand sell my novel, I feel like I am speed-dating a hundred individuals this month.
When it comes to a blog tours, I stumbled across a joke I had missed when I was interviewed on Steven Beattie’s That Shakespearean Rag. I asked him how it was possible that the Canada Council could be funding blog tours when there are no expenses involved in that type of promotion. He smiled and reminded me the news item had run in the Quill and Quire on April 1. I realized I had missed the joke.
That interview was quite wonderful, at least partially because we talked intensely for an hour and Steven wrote the profile. Much harder are the new style interviews in which the host blog poses a series of questions the author should reply to. These types of interviews do provide a lot of space for an author, but I find I keep searching for ways to talk about my book in a manner I haven’t used before. I’m writing my own profile again and again, which is somewhat harder than merely talking about it again.
Perhaps it’s good to stretch this way.
Of course, one can’t help but be a little repetitive. Amusingly, I have noticed on my Facebook page that the number of “likes” is very high when I link to early interviews and reviews, and much lower later on.
No complaints. It’s wonderful to be out and noticed for one’s work, but one gets noticed in a different way now.
I’ve been very lucky in my reviews so far, having been covered in the National Post, The Vancouver Sun (with a reprint in the Montreal Gazette) and the Toronto Globe and Mail. That last review by Donna Bailey Nurse was particularly insightful.
Newspaper reviews are, of course, the remainder of the old monolith. But TV and radio shows about books have fallen on hard times. There are far fewer of them. Lost in the last few years were TVO’s Imprint, Newsworld’s Hot Type, and CBC Radio One’s Talking Books. Thank God for the ones that remain, namely Shelagh Rogers’s The Next Chapter and Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers and Company.
And what of the contact between writers and readers? The late Paul Quarrington told the story of stopping at a strip mall to buy worms for a fishing trip, only to see someone reading one of his novels on the sidewalk. He approached the man and said he was the author of the book. The reader looked up skeptically from the book and said, “No you’re not.”
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.
The hard copy of the newspaper has a large sketch of me labelled “Irresistible”. It’s a page I wish I could send to some of the girls I admired in high school.
To critique the critique, the review does insist that I am not writing humour – it insists a bit too much because I am indeed not writing humour in this novel – it’s about a fight to the death without a lot of laughs, but perhaps some tender moments.
But there is dark humour in the tone, a bit of “what fools these mortals be”.
Where is the writer who will agree wholeheartedly with a critic’s assessment? He also called the novel compelling and layered, and that’s pretty good.