Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Extraordinary Canadians, both Living and Dead

Oh, if only.

If there were power in "hear hears," solemn nods and sensible sweaters, then the crowd assembled in the basement of St. Brigid's church earlier tonight could truly move mountains. See, this was the last night of the Ottawa International Writer's Festival, and to send it off in style we (yes, I was there, too) were treated to a panel discussion featuring four bona fide heavyweights of the Canadian and international literary scene: Mark Kingwell, Daniel Poliquin and Jane Urquhart, moderated by his former Excellence and, for one brief shining moment years and years ago, personal correspondant, John Ralston Saul.

Yes, it was indeed a tweedy crowd. But it had assembled in the basement of St. Brigid's (though given that the heat was off you could call it St. Frigid's) to hear the authors discuss their respective entries in Penguin Canada's new biography series of "Extraordinary Canadians." With 18 Canadians profiled thus far, you could make a joke that it's a pretty short list. But the subjects in this first go-round are indeed impressive and the matching of authors with subjects is apt. Also innovative is the approach: the subjects must first be dead and their stories can take no more than 200 pages, perhaps Penguin's nod to our shrinking attention spans.

In the series we have Margaret MacMillan profiling Stephen Leacock; Nino Ricci looks at Pierre Trudeau; Adrienne Clarkson takes on Norman Bethune.  For our purposes, Mark Kingwell took on Glenn Gould, Daniel Poliquin smoked a pack with Rene Lesveque and Jane Urquhart went to the strawberry social with Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Sweaters and chinstrokes aside, it was a fascinating evening. The discussion started off with each author commenting on the relationship between the biographer and subject - whether, for example, the author actually liked the person he or she was writing about, and whether or not their opinion of their subject changed over the course of the work. By the sounds of it, each author had a difficult relationship with their subject. Jane Urquhart was the most vocal about her difficulties spending time with Montgomery via her extensive and intensely private diaries - an experience she likened to spending time with a relative you don't really like. Yet each author expressed a deep respect for their subject as well, if only because their subjects themselves had the same difficulties relating to themselves or their times. In Montgomery's case, the international acclaim she achieved through Anne Shirley brought her no closer to being accepted into her Presbyterian society, an acceptance Urquhart says she desperately craved. In Gould's case it was the need to control his image, his surroundings and his art to preserve his aesthetic vision. I found Mark Kingwell's comments the most interesting, if only because I was already a big Gould fan and most familiar with his (and Kingwell's) work. I also found Kingwell's take on Gould - about whom he had little prior knowledge - to the be most interesting. As befits a professor of philosophy, Kingwell viewed Gould as a philosopher whose art was an invitation to his aesthetic vision. With Gould, Kingwell says, art and thought are one and it's only through careful, attentive listening that you can begin to understand what the man was trying to say.

I also got some Christmas shopping done.

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