Reviews

The Emigrants

Norbert Ruebsaat

George Bowering, who has written almost as many books as Pierre Berton but with fewer words, published Errata (Red Deer) in 1988, and if you took it off the B section of your bookshelf from among all the other George Bowering books, some of which you have read or partly read, and a few of which you have even reviewed, and you looked at it again, you would (re)discover some good sentences: “The art in fiction, as in poetry, is that part of language that is not communication . . . The realist writers always used to pretend that they were not manipulative; they used to say that their ‘characters’ lived lives determined by environment and accumulative incidents while their author only stayed around to observe . . . What is important in the fictive event is not the possibility that it could happen in Chicago, but that the reader can imagine its happening in the book . . . I will be someone who did not write books like Fifth Business.” Bowering as a kid experienced his last name, “the second word I learned to write,” as a present participle, and he has wanted since then to not read “first person narration in which the ‘I’ is not writing.” He wants readers to “notice thinking, not buy thought,” and claims that “memory condemns one to sentimentality, which means attachment to things, and to realism, famous for its detachment. Memory can do you no good if you want to make books instead of just writing them down.” Writing stories in books, he concludes, “is female, and suggests realism. Oral tale-telling is male, and suggests braggadocio or bullshit.” Errata contains a hundred page-long personal essays on reading and writing ( “Bowering”) by a Canadian Poet Laureate and long-time practitioner of tapinosis, “the saying of very serious things in offhand language, in vernacular, even in slang,” in a time when “we no longer read the metanarratives of the gods nor even of their modernist substitution, the authority of art,” and you will, should you do so, be glad you took this book from the shelf beside the metre-long Pierre Berton section and reread it on your holidays, because if on the first reading you found it a tad mannered, you will learn now to your surprise that the daily practice of good literary manners is a skill that is left to us in a postmodern time full of forgetting.

In “Ambros Adelwarth,” the third story in The Emigrants (New Directions), W. G. Sebald quotes long excerpts from the titular character’s purported diary, and this character’s diction and cadences duplicate Sebald’s so exactly that one feels uneasy while reading, because one imagines hearing two people speak in a single voice. Sebald quotes long sections of his characters’ direct speech without quotation marks in all four stories in The Emigrants, and here, where such speech is represented as a character’s written text, one suspects, against the artifactual evidence (text-embedded photographs, facsimiles of train ticket stubs, keys, diary pages), that the diary is fiction. Sebald writes that Adelwarth is his late great-uncle, and if one believes this, one accedes to the fact (or fiction) that two men can write in a single voice; if one doesn’t, one accedes to a literary conceit that gives an author the right to quote a text by a formerly living (or an invented) person that this person did not in fact write. The question of what is truth and what is fiction, which is a way of asking what is life and what is death, is further complicated in “Ambros Adelwarth” by the fact that Sebald himself died in 2001, in a traffic accident, and so when one reads him (and his purported great-uncle), one reads a dead man quoting (or misquoting) another dead man; and when one adds to this unnerving experience (which one can get also while reading Dante) the realization that Sebald’s subject, here as in other stories, is the production of death—Holocaust, carpet bombing of German cities in World War II, industrial destruction of the North England landscape—and the complicity of language in such production, one feels downright endangered, which is in fact a fine thing to feel while reading. In Errata, George Bowering, whom one thinks of as being alive, quotes the dead Roland Barthes writing that memory is the beginning of writing, and writing is in its turn the beginning of death. A recent CBC Radio Ideas program revealed that ventriloquists, whose art dates from preclassical Greece where oracles spoke, don’t throw their voices, as is commonly believed, but, by speaking without moving their lips, trick listeners into seeking (and finding with their eyes) the voice’s source in locations other than the speaker’s face. Ventriloquists can also, as they age, experience their inner “dummy” voice (which they produce in their throats while manipulating the dummy’s lips, to humorous misdirectional effect in performance) as their “true” voice (which becomes, in this incarnation, a malevolent spirit). The four stories in Sebald’s collection, meanwhile, may be read like the poems that Anne Carson, the poet and classicist, is thinking of when she writes that the origin of written poetry is tombstone inscriptions.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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