Sunday 12 November 2017

Image from 3bp.blogspot

The novel follows the lives of three families in Budapest through WWII and its political aftermath into the post-communist era. It is a tragic tale, in which the survivors are filled with guilt and regret and the dead continue to wander the streets full of longing.
Irén reflects on the nature of time.
The past is inescapable. It is not only facts that are irreversible; our past reactions and feelings are too. One can neither relive them nor alter them.
We do not appreciate the present. You always realize too late the importance of drawing out the moment while you can, while it is still possible. I was always in too much of a hurry, I just wanted the time to pass.
And when old age arrives, she realizes:

The most frightening thing about the loss of youth is not what is taken away but what is granted in exchange. Not wisdom. Not serenity. Not sound judgment or tranquility. Only the awareness of universal disintegration.

Monday 23 October 2017


The Gestapo kept Kurt Schuschnigg in solitary confinement except for weekly visits by his wife, Vera. He worried about his son, Kurt Jr., who was not allowed to attend school in Vienna and had to be put into a boarding school in Munich.

Vera to Hermann Wopfner, 26 Jänner 1941
We have now removed the boy from classes, and he studies privately with the director of his boarding school. It is an expensive proposition, but it had to be done. He couldn’t cope with a number of subjects and was at risk of failing in the fall. Under the present arrangement, he has to try harder and learns a great deal more. We hope he will pass. This business of his schooling is really a cross to bear!

Vera to Hermann Wopfner, 28 Feb 1941
You are asking about Kurt Jr. That is a difficult chapter. He could be an excellent student if he wanted to. He isn’t stupid after all, but unfortunately he does not want to study! He is terribly absentminded and playful and has no idea of the seriousness of life. Things are improved now because he is taught together with only one other pupil, so that he can be put under greater pressure. Poor Kurt [Sr.] is very concerned about him. I would like to get the boy into a military academy. Seven new schools have been established on the initiative of the army, and he urgently needs discipline. But it is questionable whether I will succeed. I always come up against difficulties, but in my opinion it would be the best solution for him.  

Kurt Schuschnigg to his brother Artur, 7 Mai 1941

Many thanks for taking my Kurt [Jr.] to the opera! Please keep an eye on him if you can and it’s not too much bother. I would like him to develop some interests, and not just in airplanes and tanks! I’m sometimes concerned about the boy. Of course things aren’t entirely his fault. In the final analysis he is a victim of the times. Vera troubles herself a great deal about him, but she can’t work miracles. He is basically a good soul, but easy-going and immature. I am very attached to him! Well, you know yourself how much wife and children mean to a man!  
(My trans. from Sofort Vernichten, ed. A. Binder and H. Schuschnigg)

Monday 16 October 2017


After Kurt Schuschnigg resigned as chancellor of Austria, he was arrested on 12 March 1938 and kept in solitary confinement at Gestapo headquarters.  He married his fiancée, Vera Countess Czernin, by proxy in June 1938. She took over the care of his son Kurt Junior. The 12-year old boy was forced to leave school and lived with his former nanny. Vera arranged for private tutoring at her own cost. In 1939 she secured for Kurt a place in a boarding school in Munich.

Vera to Hermann Wopfner, 9 Dec 1938 
[I am supporting the boy out of my own funds.] So far it worked out reasonably well because it was an interim solution with relatively cheap assistant teachers. Now however the question of the boy’s education has been settled with the authorities, which was not easy, as you can imagine, since I had to find people who suited both me and them (and since I can’t send him to school here)…We need two teachers, which is rather expensive, even if I economize in every possible way. It can hardly be done under 200 Marks per month. Kurt and I would be immensely grateful if you could contribute something to this amount – something small, whatever you think fit. Any amount will help us.

Vera to Hermann Wopfner, 8 November 1939
I have decided to send Kurtl to a school in Munich. I have achieved that much last week…he attends the gymnasium in Schwabing in the morning and afterwards goes to the Salesianum, a boarding school. For the time being he will be there only during the day because a room is available only as of 15 November…The boy is quite happy, and this solution provided great relief to me. It was quite impossible to arrange anything here [in Vienna]. I did not even get an answer to my petition.

Vera to Hermann Wopfner, 18 April 1940
Today he is still a child. All I want is that he will recognize later on that I never even for a second distinguished [between him and my own children]. I am just as strict with my own when they do anything stupid. In my opinion one can’t be strict enough nowadays. I have certainly been brought up in an old-fashioned way, but I know that’s not the worst education. Without moral and spiritual principles I would never have been able to win through this time of great sorrow, this ordeal, and remain unshattered. And I want to arm all my children against sorrow – happy times are easy to weather!

(Translated from Sofort vernichten. Die vertraulichen Briefe Kurt und Vera von Schuschniggs, 1938-1945, ed. Dieter A. Binder and Heinrich Schuschnigg)

Tuesday 26 September 2017


Two short novels Murakami wrote them in the 70s. His mode of operation: When I got home late from work, I sat at my kitchen table and wrote. The desire to write felt like something that had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands…It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.
The result was a kind of diary/philosophy of life.

BEING COOL.There was a time when everyone wanted to be cool. I decided to express only half of what I was really feeling. For the next several years this was how I behaved. At which point I discovered that I had turned into a person incapable of expressing more than half of what he felt.

UNHAPPINESS.  It appeared as though time had stopped, as if all of a sudden its flow had been severed. He had no idea why things had changed. Nor did he know how to search for the severed end…He was s powerless and lonely as a winter fly stripped of its wings, or a river confronting the sea. An ill wind had arisen somewhere, and it was blowing the warm, familiar air that had embraced him to the other side of the planet.

THE CITY. I sniffed rain. A few autumn birds cut across the sky. The drone of the I was everywhere, a mix of countless sounds: subway trains, sizzling hamburgers, cars on elevated highways, automatic door opening and closing.

PINBALL MACHINE – THE MASTER.  He would insert one of the coins to start the machine, snap the plunger a few times, and then shoot a ball out onto the playfield in a bored sort of way. With that single ball he checked the magnets on all the bumpers, tested all the lanes, and knocked down the targets one by one. The drop target, the kick-out hole, the rotating target. Next, he set off all the bonus lights and then wrapped up the job by dispatching the ball into the exit drain with a look of complete disinterest. All in less time than it takes to smoke half a cigarette.

Saturday 23 September 2017


Happened to me, that is:

  • A traffic jam on Gardiner Expressway. Pixellated sign says: All lanes closed. For about ten minutes we just sit there, then inexplicably – no, miraculously-- the traffic loosens up and the flow returns to normal. No explanation.  
  • Baby Elias baulks at drinking from a bottle. He prefers the breast. He cries a great deal, but in the end decides to make peace with me and smiles (without however giving in on the bottle issue). Very few people can combine forgiveness with principles! I see a great future for this kid.
  • A fox crosses in front of my car on Lakeshore Boulevard. He isn’t in a great hurry and stops at the curb to watch my car speeding up again. Maybe he was suicidal. Maybe he just got a kick out of challenging cars. Maybe he was a she. 

Thursday 14 September 2017


This is the story of Dorrigo Evans, a prisoner in a Japanese POW camp working on the Thai-Burma railway. A story of love and death, good and evil, the novel moves back and forth between 1943 and contemporary Australia.

A village overrun by the French: The attack had transformed the Australian defenders into things not human, drying dark-red meat and fly-blown viscera, streaked, smashed bone and the faces clenched back on exposed teeth. When they came upon the broken houses, the dead donkeys and goats, the corpses of their comrades, they smoked to keep the dead out of their nostrils, they joked to keep the dead from preying on their minds.

Fifty years later, Dorrigo is famous and tired of fame. He sensed the coming of a new neater world, a tamer world, a world of boundaries and surveillance, where everything was known and nothing needed to be experienced. He understood his public self – the side they put on coins and stamps – would meld well with the coming age, and that the other side, his private self, would become increasingly incomprehensible and distasteful, this side others would conspire to hide.

Tuesday 5 September 2017


riverun, past Eve and Adam’s, past the whole schmear of history and back and again.  Joyce was forty when he felt the ennui of Solomon --nothing new under the sun. I’m a hundred years old (using a round figure here) and still refuse to believe in the vicus of recirculation. Take the Fall, for example. It hasn’t come around to me yet, and it isn’t inevitable. I knew a man once who managed to avoid The Fall. He was an innkeeper like Everybody in Joyce’s epic, who would not give us his name beyond the normative letters HCE. My man (let’s keep it simple and call him Francis), somehow muddled through and kept upright and wallstrait throughout his life. He left school at the age of ten, thinking once he knew how to count clittering up and clottering down, and  how to read and write (punctuation optional), he knew everything he needed for life, or if there was anything lacking he could pick it up on the way. That little slip (if leaving school can be called a slip) is hardly in the same category as the Primeval Fall unless you turn the classroom into a kind of Eden and reverse the whole biblical story so that not eating from the tree of knowledge is the Great Sin, which I personally believe is true. Starving oneself of knowledge and refusing to ascend from animal to human being is the Great Sin, but Francis can’t be accused of that. He continued acquiring knowledge in his own way and he was human enough, all things considered. Since he wouldn’t go back to school, his mother, Mary, apprenticed him to her brother-in-law who was the owner of a smithy.  In spite of her promising name, Mary was not immaculate, but let it not be said that she abandoned her child to fate. Rather she fitted him out with a new pair of boots to step into his new apprenticeship-life.  The smithy was in an out-of-the-way place. It took Francis half a day’s sturdy walking to get there, by which time his toenails were black and blue, and his heels a bloody mess of oozing blisters because the boots were practically, but not entirely new, having belonged, very briefly, to a child who died of the measles, and whose feet had been a tad smaller than Francis’. This painful state of things was soon remedied by cutting a hole into the upper part of the shoe to make room for Francis’ toes and allow air to circulate very pleasantly on a hot summer’s day. It did occur to Francis that the same hole could become a liability when winter came and the weather turned icy, but he did not wait for winter to come.  He ran away in the month of September because he could no longer stand the drubbings he regularly got from his uncle, and since he had kept the cut-off pieces of leather, he was able to exchange his boots for a solid pair of rubbers after convincing a peddler that the patches might be sewn back on and the boots restored to serve another man with smaller feet. And so he returned to his widowed mother, no longer widowed, who considered both the rubber boots and her son’s return a change for the worse.

(To be continued)

Monday 14 August 2017


This is not your ordinary sex and the single woman story. Well, yes, the heroine, Andrea Bern, is single and has sex, but the question consuming her is: At what point can you call yourself a grown-up? What’s the defining element: marriage, parenthood, emotional survival? The answer (s) are both gut-wrenching and mordantly funny.

Everyone is urging Andrea to read the newest book of wistful memories by a single woman, now married. It’s the ultimate how-to-grow-up book. They are like carrier pigeons, fluttering messages. My coworker Nina, the bangles on her wrist clinking, hands me a copy although I have never expressed an interest in reading it. Old college friends go on Facebook and post links to reviews and say things like “This reminded me of you”. Where is my dislike button? Where do I click to scream?

Andrea has a drunk one-night stand with a guy in her brother’s band. He phoned and asked me point-blank if I was an alcoholic and I said, “No. I’m just young and having fun.” Followed by tears, choking-sob tears, and I made sure he heard it. The trouble is: he brother is right, she is an alcoholic.

What does she get out of sex? I kiss him and he kisses me and we laugh and we are close and I believe so deeply in that moment that I tolerate his bullshit.

Then there is the problem of her aging mother partying with aging men. Is that what I have to look forward to? I am furious with her. I had been tamping it down all night and now my anger is a brilliant, pulsing red, fully blossomed…Talk to us, says one man, some loser. Tell us what’s going on with the kids today.

And last not least there is the problem of her job: Whatever thrill I had in perfecting my job is now dead, because perfection itself is boring: it’s only everything leading up to it that’s interesting.

Welcome to middle age, Andrea!

Thursday 27 July 2017

Sunday 16 July 2017


Charlie has been given six months to live. What’s the best way to use those last months? Spend all your money? Have torrid sex? Find your authentic self? All of the above, and if you are a bestselling author, shock your agent by writing a serious novel.
First then, find your authentic self, but that's not easy when it is buried under your surrogate self, the carrier of some cherished quality, the vehicle for a certain story that needs to be shaped.
Another problem: friends who will not leave you in peace, friends with a psyche like a wildcat prospector, producing eruptions of unwelcome insight.
But at least Charlie succeeds in finding love/sex with Angelique who also helps him to get rid of his money, gambling on his behalf, while he watches the gamblers drifting past like fish in an aquarium.
Yet he cannot find peace and is plagued by thoughts like a cloud of gnats at sunset, made visible by the dying light. In the end, however, his torment is replaced by the congealing powers of resignation and habit.
Meanwhile the characters in his novel take shape: a woman loyal to her husband who is in a coma (are those feelings akin to necrophilia?). The woman and two fellow philosophers discuss the nature of consciousness while stuck in a train stopped at Didcot. What else was there in the end? A man’s biography was the history of what he had given his attention to, and so it seemed worth knowing what attention was, and how it related to other types of knowledge.

Angelique spends all of Charlie's money and departs. He muses whether it would be better not to wait out the six months and to commit suicide instead. It was less upsetting than this limitless white terror, bleaching every object in its universe …It’s always the same story: if you want something done properly, you have to do it yourself.

Tuesday 4 July 2017


My writers' group, Spirit of the Hills, rented a booth to draw attention to our collected works. Here we are -- Reva and I -- doing our stint minding the table.

Friday 23 June 2017


Jan’s career as concert pianist is ruined by auditory hallucinations, a needling high-pitched ringing, a cascade of notes, raining down like hammers from the ceiling of the concert hall. Are they a flood of memories, of words left unspoken between him and his charismatic childhood friend Dirk. 

He was like a new word that, once learned, you heard spoken everywhere. Compelling attention. Mine, yours, anyone’s. Dirk is a consummate actor, but when they two friends are alone, he reverts to his self. The hunch returned. The loping strides. The fiddling with his ear. The sly smile.

This is a novel about music and about a friendship that could be love.

The music: Notes balanced on the thinnest, most fragile wire, ascend and descend. Underneath it all a regular pulse of octaves in the bass clef gives the piece a steady and abiding feeling of hope. And then there is Rachmaninoff: A tumbling that builds up to an explosion of chords, broken and solid, shooting up and sliding down octaves. The tempo increases until runs of notes crash in waves running crosswise. Dirk would like the Rachmaninoff.

The friendship: You and Dirk. I might’ve guessed you two would fall out of touch completely, but it could’ve been the opposite. Pirm smiled and shook his head slowly. You know, Jan, we all thought you two were… He grinned.  Us two what? I said.

There was only one way for Jan to find an answer to that question. To look up his old friend.

A thunderclap runs from ear to ear, like weather starting up again. My arms start to shake. I don’t have much time. I begin to blurt out the words. What I’d meant to say from the moment I stepped in the front door.

Friday 26 May 2017


Angela Palm’s memoir reads like a novel. You keep waiting for a plot to develop, for something to happen to the heroine that will create the familiar story arc, but all that’s happening are thoughts and observations in beautiful language.

Angela  consults a map and finds that she lives in between two red dots indicating towns, like some half-breed spawn of both worlds and alien to both.
Neither town wants her. She is stunned by this new perspective. Everything I saw was familiar – driveways and houses I’d seen before. These were signs of home, but I felt spat out like bad milk.
Because her house is so far from town, solitary pursuits replaced social ones, and a cacophony of ideas swirled in me.
There was, from a young age, already a disconnect between the way I processed experiences and the way others conducted themselves, the way I was critical of my surroundings and the way others seemed to float through them without taking note of anything.

Teenage years
We knew the land as we knew our teenaged bodies. Ripe, firm. Yielding in places. In those days, running was nothing but an extension of self. Like breathing. There was no labor in it, only direction and the feeling of blood rushing in our veins.
She falls in love – if love was a pull, magnetic and inevitable as gravity. If it was a secret, best kept slow and steady and unspoken.

Returning home after twenty years

I wondered which part is most real – the conscious or the unconscious. Whether the place itself is the thing that stays, or its effects on a person. One is concrete and one is embedded in the brain, in memory.


Monday 22 May 2017


What does Marx and Bram Stoker have in common? According to Globe &Mail book reviewer John Semlet, they were both commenting on capitalism: Dracula allegorized a cautious ambivalence toward the emerging capitalist order. Come on, let’s not ruin a perfect gothic horror story by giving it redeeming value. I want to enjoy my shlock without the guilty feeling that I’m reading a social commentary.
What next? Zombies as allegories of Facebook’s addictive power? Superman as allegory of the airline business? Lego as allegory of failing infrastructure? Is nothing sacred?

No, next thing they’ll tell me the Bible is an allegory for sloppy fact-checking.

Thursday 4 May 2017


Next month U of T Press will publish my translation of their correspondence under the title A Nobel Affair (no, I don’t like the pun, but they twisted my arm).

From the blurb: Alfred Nobel made his name as an inventor and successful entrepreneur and left a legacy as a philanthropist and promoter of learning social progress. The correspondence between Nobel and his mistress, Sofie Hess, shines a light on his private life and reveals a personality that differs significantly from his public image. The letters show him as a hypochondriac and workaholic and as a paranoid, jealous, and patriarchal lover

Saturday 29 April 2017


I hope all you pastors out there realize that you need retraining to meet the needs of your congregation.  Sure, a degree in theology comes in handy, and a couple of courses in psychology are helpful, but a recent church bulletin made on thing clear to me: what you really need is a degree in business administration. Here are excerpts from St. Basil’s  annual report which will provide you with some handy jargon:

It is hard to believe how much we have accomplished…though it did not occur exactly how we planned. We saw a 10% drop in attendance, but never mind attendance, the collection went up by 1.2% and the overall operations revenue increased by 27%. And that’s what counts, right?

Let us give thanks to God for the resources we have stewarded. You see, dear brothers and sisters, that’s where it’s at: We stewarded our resources and look what we got: new washrooms, air conditions, new furniture, technology, all at code compliance.

Why do we need  new furniture and washrooms, you ask. To live the hospitality to our neighbours, of course. You don’t understand that phrase, live the hospitality? I personally think it’s a neat new coinage and not as crass as “throwing a party”.

Oh, by the way, we also deal in faith. And that’s part of a much larger strategy of investment. The goal of our work is to create new and more stable revenue sources.  So we have decided to charge you for your faith. New revenue sources include fees for sacramental preparation programs and vigil candles and soliciting significant donations targeted for specific ministries.

Now there is a pastor who knows what’s what. I wish I could steward my resources like that.

Thursday 23 March 2017



Friday 17 February 2017


Fake news, fake media, and now: Fake experts.

A friend of mine was in the hospital recently, waiting for expert opinions on his condition when he caught an eye infection. I brought him an over-the-counter remedy but checked with the nurse on duty to make sure it didn’t interfere with the medication he was taking.
She turned to her computer and Googled the answer to my question. It’s fine, she said. You can go ahead. There’s nothing on Google about that..
Whew. I’m glad I consulted a medical professional – Dr. Google, I mean.

The other day I developed tendonitis in my wrist. I checked the array of available wrist supports and read the descriptions on the back of the packages. In case of doubt, they said, consult your pharmacist.  I did.
I handed him two products and asked which one was better.
He turned over the packages and started reading the descriptions. I pointed out, in the mildest possible way, that I was literate and had already perused the description, thank you very much.  But now I wanted his expert opinion.
He gave me a confused look. For a moment I thought he would turn to his computer and consult Dr. Google, but he decided to fake it and said with sudden confidence:
Take this one. This will do it for you.

So I bought the thing, and what do you know – it worked. Better a fake expert than no expert at all – or what do you think?

Friday 20 January 2017

#AMREADING: Patrick Modiano, The Black Notebook

Paris, 1960s. Jean, a young writer, falls in love with an enigmatic woman. Is Dannie her real name? Who are the menacing men she associates with? What is her connection with Morocco? Jean jots down his thoughts about her in a black notebook, but the parts don’t add up to a whole.

Among those masses of notes, some have stronger resonance than others. Naturally, many signals are garbled, and no matter how hard you strain your ears they are lost forever.

Anyway, the truest encounters take place between two people who ultimately know nothing about each other, even at night in a hotel room. Jean never recorded the name or address of the hotel, the way we tend not to write down the most intimate details of our lives, for fear that, once fixed on paper, they’ll no longer be ours.

Driving through Paris he senses the streetlights signaling to him. It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: a feeling of both presence and absence.

It was hard to remember the places where he and Dannie met because each time we had to leave fast, on tiptoe. I’m sure we left a light on, so that a trace of us would remain, a signal that we weren’t really gone and that someday we’d return.

Jean never made a date with Dannie, and he felt sorry for people who prearranged everything. They would never know how time throbs, dilates, then falls back again when you wait, how it gradually gives you that feeling of vacation and infinity that others seek in drugs, but that I found just in waiting for Dannie.

One time he waited for her in a park. Only a few passersby, owing to the cold. But it was still sunny, and the blue of the sky was my confirmation that time had stood still. I needed only to sit there until nightfall and study the sky to discover the few stars I could name, without really knowing if I was correct.

Thursday 12 January 2017

Louisville, KY, Water tower

Louisville, KY Vote here if you think that the Louisville water tower is the world’s most glamorous pumping station.  What do you call this type of architecture: Belle epoque? Roman empire revival? Epic kitsch?

Midland, TX The architecture of the Midland Super 8 is less spectacular, but if you want to see men with ripped muscles, this is the place. It’s a hotel for oil workers. In the lounge, men in hardhats are eating their dinner out of Styrofoam boxes. They leave their dirty boots out in the corridor – does the hotel have a shoeshine boy who comes around nightly? You know those angelic voices in the elevator announcing the floor. Well, in Midland, it’s something between a drill sergeant and a construction foreman’s  snarl.
El Paso crossing

El Paso, TX I WALKED to Mexico from El Paso. You pay 50 cents at the border, no questions asked. Walking back into the US is another story: line-ups, short for American pedestrians with documents, very long for visitors with or without papers. No line-up in the bicycle lane. Yes, there is a bicycle lane, and we were considering turning back and buying a used bike so we could use that lane.

USA Today. I had a hard time getting that paper en route (I love their continental weather map). I thought  tabloid news had a large market in the land of Trump, but I guess print is dead, and those news are now on Tweet.

American coffee culture: I am Casablanca shocked. Starbucks is everywhere now, and I mean everywhere, right next to MacDonald’s and Super 8 in the most godforsaken little places.