Tag-Archive for ◊ Canada ◊

• Saturday, April 27th, 2013

Eva Hoffman (née Ewa Wydra) was born of Jewish parents in Cracow, Poland in 1945. Despite being musically gifted she had to abandon her piano classes at the age of thirteen, to emigrate to Vancouver, Canada with her parents and younger sister.

After graduating from high school, she travelled to the USA upon receiving a scholarship for studying English literature at Rice University, Texas where she obtained her M.A., followed by Yale School of Music from 1967 to 1968. In 1974 she received a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University.

She studied psychoanalysis and commenced a training analysis course in London, England but had to give it up as it was too ambitious for her.

Eva Hoffman has been a professor of literature and creative writing at various universities and colleges. She worked from 1979 to 1990 as an editor and writer for The New York Times and has received several awards and prizes for her work.

She married Barry Hoffman in 1971, divorced in 1976 and moved to England in 1993 where she now lives in Hampstead in north London.

Eva Hoffman is the writer of Lost in Translation published in 1989, Exit into History in 1993, Shtetl in 1997, The Secret in 2001, After Such Knowledge in 2004, Illuminations in 2008 and Time in 2009.

Isabel Merton, the novel’s protagonist is a New Yorker. She is a famous, gifted pianist who often goes on concert tours all over Europe. She is overpowered by her passion for classical music to the extent of separating from her loving husband, Peter, in order to dedicate her life to this fine art. She is hoping to reach the nirvana through this highly pure form of pianistic sounds.

While travelling across Europe for her concerts, Isabel’s path crosses in several cities with the charismatically handsome, Anzor Islikhanov, a cultured Chechen activist, an itinerant like her. They both have a passionate character in common but different commitment targets. The inevitable happens – they fall in love.

The passing passion between Isabel and Anzor is doomed to fail despite the love and attention they need due to the lack of parental affection and care from which they both suffered. Anzor’s dog is killed by his cruel, apathetic father, for a futile reason and Isabel’s divorced mother abandons her and her younger brother, Kolya. Kolya ends-up dying of a drug overdose, even though Isabel was always trying to comfort him and substitute the uncaring, absent mother.

Isabel’s entire life is driven by her devotion to her art, it’s her “raison d’être”.“She summons the poetry of Chopin’s last Ballade, so shot through with anger and anguish, as if it could heal death and all sorrow… As if, after they’ve been broken and injured, things could be made whole”. We learn from her former German teacher’s diary, Ernst Wolfe, that she had a promising future as a pianist. This diary she carries with her and reads during her travels.

As for Anzor, his life is dedicated to his homeland. His patriotism has turned into rage, hatred and revenge against the Russians. For him fighting is the only solution to gaining back the country’s sovereignty, his honour and self-respect. He says to Isabel: “We’re fighting for our survival. Our freedom… Freedom as that artist would never understand it… I cannot breathe free when my country does not breathe free”. After listening to Anzor, Isabel “wants to flee to her practice room; to her music, in which violence and rage are already transmuted into beauty…As if violence held no dominion over beauty”. Because she has no other means “with which to answer the guerilla, or the terrorist. Or herself”.

Illuminations is well written and has interesting themes, like the beauty of classical music in contrast with the ugly violence, in addition to romanticism and psychoanalysis. The musical metaphors involving Chopin, Schumann or Schubert are very well described showing the author’s knowledge and natural affinity for music. As Isabel says to her interviewer, Mariella, about classical music: “This beautiful vocabulary of the soul… where else do we find it? …music doesn’t refer to anything. Except itself. So it doesn’t tell you anything. It doesn’t explain anything and it is…Illuminations”.

The drawback of this novel is its repetitiveness which induces monotony, maybe intended by the author? Because, whether it’s London, Paris, Prague, Sofia or Vienna, it’s always the same airports, the same hotels, the same concert halls, the same apprehensive feeling before every concert and the aftermath, emptiness and forlornness. Also the recurrent conversations between the two protagonists are always the persistently bitter Anzor talking about the injustice his people are enduring while the world is turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to their problem. As for Isabel, she always listens to his conversation with complete bewilderment as she is trying to comprehend his logic.

A novel for classical music lovers about the role and power of music in a world driven by materialism and violence and the contrast between the two values and their relevance in today’s life. It’s written by a musically trained author who preferred to pursue a career in writing rather than follow her pianistic talent.

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• Sunday, March 24th, 2013

Alistair MacLeod was born in 1936 in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada. When Alistair MacLeod was ten his family moved to a farm in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island and after high school, he studied at St. Francis Xavier University, graduating with BA and B.Ed. degrees. In 1961 he obtained an MA degree from the University of New Brunswick and in 1968 a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

He taught English for three years at Indiana University followed by a post at the University of Windsor, Ontario in 1969 as a professor of English and Creative Writing. Alistair MacLeod is a father of six children. He is retired and lives with his wife in Windsor, Ontario and they spend their summers on Cape Breton Island.

MacLeod has written a number of short stories: The lost Salt Gift of Blood, published in 1976 and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun and Other Stories in 1986. All his short stories have been collected into a single volume entitled Island: the Collected Stories of Alistair MacLeod.

He has also written novels: No Great Mischief, his first novel, which took him thirteen years to write, was published in 1999 and received several awards and nominations. To Every Thing There is a Season was published in 2004 and Never Die Wondering in 2009. In 2008, Alistair MacLeod received the insignia as an officer of the Order of Canada for all his work.

No Great Mischief recounts the saga of the Scottish Highlanders, the clan MacDonald. In 1779, at the age of 55, Calum Ruadh (Calum the Red) MacDonald leaves his native Scotland with his large family – his wife, his twelve children and his dog – in an attempt to escape poverty and try his luck in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in Canada.

Two centuries later, in 1980 in Ontario, Alexander MacDonald, the narrator, is a successful orthodontist. At the age of three he was raised with his twin sister by their grandparents, while his three elder brothers were left to raise themselves following their parents’ drowning with 11 year old brother Colin, on a treacherous frozen sea in early spring. The novel starts with Alexander MacDonald going for his weekly visit to his broken-down, impoverished, alcoholic, elder brother, Calum, who lives in a run-down part of Toronto.

Alexander MacDonald is the great, great, great grand-child of Calum Ruadh MacDonald and one of the three cousins, called Alexander MacDonald in the novel. He evokes his clan’s stories, past and present, with its sad and tragic but also hopeful and joyful moments. The author mentions great battles like, Glencoe, Killiecrankie and Culloden in addition to other important events in Scottish history, as well as old traditional Highlanders’ Celtic songs. These stories have been passed on from generation to generation as part of their Scottish heritage, ensuring they are never forgotten but at the same time not forgetting that “living in the past is not living up to (one’s) potential”.

In the past the MacDonald clan faced hardship in their native land. Now exiled in Canada, the adversities continue, which make them resigned to their fate. They believe very strongly in keeping their identity and their dignity, while remaining loyal to their families, clans, countrymen and by following the old saying that “blood is thicker than water”. The credos they value are also: “We are all better when we’re loved” and Robert the Bruce’s quote from 1314: “My hope is constant in thee, clan Donald”. The MacDonald’s clan fought alongside Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

The author underlines that even the MacDonald’s dogs and horses are faithful to them, like the members of the clan are loyal to each other. They kept the same family of dogs over the centuries. As Grandpa said after the death of their devoted dog: “ She was descended from the original Calum Ruadh dog… It was in those dogs to care too much and to try too hard” and Calum’s trustworthy horse, Christy, who “always kept her part of the bargain”.

The novel’s title refers to a letter written by General James Wolfe who describes in a disdainful way the Highlanders who were fighting under his command on the Plains of Abraham, outside Quebec city in 1759. He writes: “They are hardy, intrepid, accustomed to a rough country and no great mischief if they fall”. The General “was furious at the Highlanders because they wouldn’t retreat until they had carried their own wounded from the field” despite being ordered to leave them on the battle ground. They braved the enemy’s fire and disobeyed the order of the General because “they were probably fighting with their hearts rather than their heads”.

No Great Mischief is an elaborate touching story, emotionally strong, interspersed by ancient Celtic myths and anecdotes. The main themes are: the exile and the attachment that exists between the man and his own land, family blood ties, loyalty and dignity, going through several generations.

A poignant and tragic account at times, hilarious and light hearted at others. Beautifully written with well developed characters – grandpa and grandma being particularly endearing. It’s an authentic, heartfelt depiction of the belonging, allegiance and expectations of the exiled Scots from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where MacLeod, himself was raised in Scottish surroundings with an oral rich tradition. The detailed description of the landscapes and especially the ocean, which is often described in various part of the story, enhances the account of this enticing novel.