Tag Archives: Canada

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

On the day that Eva Carroll receives her first pension payment she leaves home. This is not unique behaviour for an older women in this series: Lady Slane, left home, when her husband (a Very Great Man) died in All Passion Spentby Vita Sackville-West. We are in the late 1960s when 65-year old Eva closes the door on her living but arthritic husband of forty years and a house in a nice part of Montreal. But the price of her freedom is high. Like Lady Slane, she confounds the wishes and understanding of her own offspring.

The Book of Eve is the 36thin the series about older women in fiction. You can find a list of all the previous posts with links, together with more recommendations from readers on the page About The Older Women in Fiction Series.

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe

The story is set in Montreal. Eva leaves her comfortable life and her husband of 40 years when she receives her first pension cheque. The marriage has been unhappy for some time, especially since her husband Burt became arthritic, demanding and penny-pinching. She strikes a defiant note from her first paragraph:

The real surprise – to me anyway – was not really what I did, but how I felt afterwards. Shocked, of course. But not guilty. You may say, and be right, that the very least a woman can be is shocked when she walks out on a sick and blameless husband after forty years. But to feel no guilt at all – feel nothing, in fact, but simple relief and pleasure – that did seem odd, to say the least. How annoying for God (not to mention Adam), after all, if Eve had just walked out of Eden without waiting to be evicted, and left behind her pangs of guilt, as it were, with her leaf apron? (1)

Eva goes to live in a down-at-heel area, finding a couple of rooms in the basement of a boarding house. She finds herself having to cope with almost no money and learns to live more frugally. She also develops an ability to find things on the street, which she then sells to the local pawnshop. She discovers the pleasures of the library and of reading whenever she wants.

She learns the pleasures and then the challenges of living on her own. Her son, who has a family of his own, cannot believe that she will not return to her husband, that she is not just making a point.

Her life had been so circumscribed by her husband’s demands that she had no friends. Now the other residents in the boarding house provide some community for her, along with a local cat.

But it is not so much about leaving her husband, more about fulfilling her desire to explore life, to have some freedom, to do the things she wants. This includes, somewhat reluctantly, developing a loving and sexual relationship with a man who also sought freedom.

Constance Beresford-Howe writes in a conversational style, often omitting the noun or pronoun in a sentence. God is often referred to, as in the quotation above. Her narrative races along, in a believable way. We are meant, I think, to take this as everywoman’s story from before recorded time.

Eva Carroll

The older woman, Eva, in this novel is 65 years old. She made her appearance when ideas about women’s independence and liberation were recently being widely expressed again. There is reference to Quebec’s laws about what women were entitled to from marital property. Nothing, even if she had made a contribution, as Eva had.

The early part of the book recaptures that excitement of the late 60s, early 70s, for feminists (Women Liberals as one character calls them). Life and its opportunities seemed to be about to open out for women.

But before this happens she is finds herself very alone, and with no one to care for her. She has a grim vision of the alternative.

Who needed or cared about me now? What use was I, fat old parasite, member of the third sex now, an irrelevant and uncalled-for detail of the human race. And a swift exit had at least some dignity, unlike those horrible lingerings to be seen in nursing homes, where death is the friend who too seldom drops in. No, much better to accept it now, and go. (32)

And she meets all kinds of contradictions and challenges. Her path is not an easy one.

Constance Beresford-Howe

Constance Beresford-Howe was a prolific Canadian writer, who lived from 1922 until 2016.

She was born in Montreal where she was educated to a high level, and then taught English literature and creative writing in universities, both in Montreal and in Toronto, retiring in 1988. She came to live in Suffolk for the last 10 years of her life.

Unlike Eva, she was happily married for 56 years, and she and her husband adopted a son. She was very unflashy and unpushy about her novels, and not many of them survive in print. She wrote ten novels between 1946 and 1991. Only The Story of Eve has been in print since its publication in 1973.

Recent posts in this series:

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon

Great Granny Webster by Caroline Blackwood

The Winds of Heaven by Monica Dickens

The Book of Eve by Constance Beresford-Howe, first published in 1973. I read the edition published by McClelland & Stuart in 2001. 211pp

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?

 

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Reading in 2012

DSC00108

So many good books read in 2012. I keep a record, a brief commentary, publication details and date finished. I’ve been reading so much more in the last few years. Most of it I am pleased to have picked up. There are a few books with which I did not persist, I wasn’t interested in what happened to the characters. I wasn’t convinced that I would get anything out of it. I can’t even remember their titles and I don’t record these. I can’t see anything especially satisfying about finishing everything one starts. Too much to enjoy to waste time on some.

Some books have taken quite a time to finish. The chapters of Sarah Bakewell’s book How to live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer varied in length. I enjoyed reading them, one at a time, between short stories and novels.

Then there were the Elizabeths: Taylor, Bowen and Jenkins. We looked at extracts from the first two in a writing class. This sent me back to In a Summer Season, and The Heat of the Day. And Elizabeth Jenkins’s Harriet and The Tortoise and the Hare show how one writer’s style can vary. Harriet is a fictionalised version of a murder, an account of selfishness and disregard. It was a disturbing read. Beautifully produced Persephone Book publication.

I caught up with Diego Mariani’s New Finnish Grammar. The author is a linguist, and tells a bleak tale of a man cut off from everything because he looses his language. He has no history, no social engagement, no conversation, no communication, no love, no belonging, no identity. Even his name isn’t his name. It’s about words, grammar, images, letters, stories, myths, history blended with insights into the fiendishly difficult Finnish language.

Newly published in 2012: Canada by Richard Ford. Unsettling to read, an insight into boundaries, crossing boundaries of all kinds, written in that flat compelling style of Ford’s. Hilary Mantel brought us the second of her trilogy about Thomas Cromwell in Bring up the Bodies. She’s a worthy Man Booker prize winner.

And finally, life changing possibly, Robert Macfarlane, writing about walking in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot. Such a generous book, there is always space on the path alongside him, and he’s an informed and interesting companion. He introduced me to Edward Thomas, so next year I’ll read Matthew Hollis’s biography.

No room for Persephone’s 30 Short Stories, published to celebrate 100 volumes, or Anne Enright, Edmund de Waal, Malcolm Bradbury, Ali Smith, or the scores of other books I enjoyed.

Now I’m off to curl up with Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour.

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