FLIGHTS OF IMAGINATION
CANADIAN BOOKS FLOURISH ABROAD
Nine years ago, when publisher Louise Dennys had the bold idea of promoting her Canadian writers abroad, she faced what seemed to be insurmountable indifference on the part of the international publishing community. “We would travel to London,
New York and Frankfurt in an attempt to interest foreign publishers and we would be met by blank stares,” recalled Dennys, a partner in the small, highly regarded Toronto firm Lester & Orpen Dennys. “The first four years were an extraordinary battle. I don’t know how we survived.” A bigger surprise for Dennys has been how quickly things have turned around. In Great Britain, Europe and the United States, she now hears Canadian literature being discussed with the kind of enthusiasm commanded 10 years ago by Australian films. Said Dennys: “I find now when I go abroad, Canadian writing is considered one of the most exciting in the world.”
Enhanced: Led by such well-established authors as Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies, Canadian fiction has made inroads that seemed inconceivable as recently as a decade ago. It would take a government task force to compile accurate statistics on the commercial value of foreign rights sales—Statistics Canada does not collect such data—but the evidence of Canada’s enhanced profile abroad is abundant. Canadian literature is taught in at least 150 overseas universities, including institutions in Hungary and China. Margaret Atwood’s books have sold millions of copies worldwide in more than 20 lan-
guages, and Farley Mowat has been published in more than 40 countries.
Last year, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone were both runners-up for Britain’s renowned Booker Prize. Like The Handmaid’s Tale in 1987, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion was a finalist for this year’s $70,000 Ritz-Paris
Hemingway Prize. So receptive is the current climate that foreign rights to A Casual Brutality, Trinidad-born Toronto writer Neil Bissoondath’s first novel, were sold to U.S. and British publishing houses as part of a deal that totalled $350,000 (see box, opposite).
Restless: Those are surprising statistics for a country that has traditionally lamented its lack of cultural identity. “The voice is there—it is absolutely sure of itself,” said Timothy Findley, whose 1981 novel, Famous Last Words, was a huge best-seller in England and France last spring. “As a community, the width of the imagination and the power of the writing is just stunning.”
The strength of the fall's Canadian fiction output more than justifies Findley’s confidence. Findley himself is publishing his second volume of short stories, Stones—subtle tales set in a soulless Toronto where madness lies closer to the surface than most of its citizens care to acknowledge. Torontobased Czechoslovak novelist Josef Skvorecky
leaves his usual literary territory of Czechoslovak exiles and musicians for another excursion into detective stories with Sins for Father Knox. An artfully linked collection of mystery tales, it features Lieut. Boruvka as its melancholy detective, who is nearly upstaged by Eve Adam, a lusty bar singer.
In Matt Cohen’s Living on Water, the stories are full of lonely, restless characters unable to find fulfilment for their passions. And Penguin Canada is releasing a collection of early fiction by Paris-based Mavis Gallant called In Transit. The stories are written in a more straightforward and less stylized manner than her later work, but they feature the same acid-tinged psychological insight into displaced nationals.
All of those collections will be published overseas during the next year. “Canada is in the very forefront of writing in English in the short-story form,” said Robertson Davies. “When I go travelling, I’m always being asked about Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, now that she has been discovered to be a Canadian. I think she is very Canadian, although she has lived in France for more than 35 years. Her ironic perception of life is very Canadian.”
Prolific: According to Davies, the novel, too, is “very much in high gear.” Leading the pack this fall is Davies himself, whose The Lyre of Orpheus completes the trilogy including The Rebel Angels and What’s Bred in the Bone. And Atwood’s eagerly anticipated Cat’s Eye will be released this week. Two prolific veterans of Canadian fiction, Morley
Callaghan, 85, and W. 0. Mitchell, 74, have each produced fresh, romantically colored works dealing with youth and old age. In Callaghan’s 20th work of fiction, A Wild Old Man on the Road, Jeremy Monk, a oncerespected British journalist, compromises his integrity but passes on his youthful ideals to a younger generation, embodied by aspiring Canadian journalist Mark Didion. In Mitchell’s fifth novel, Ladybug, Ladybug, Ken Lyon, a lonely, retired academic, discovers a new joy in life by taking Nadya, a pool-playing single mother, and her five-year-old daughter, Rosemary, under his wing.
Among the newer fiction writers with books this fall is Gary Ross, who follows his 1986 nonfiction best-seller, Stung, with a second novel, Tears of the Moon. The book is a grim psychological enquiry into life in a maximum-security penitentiary. Playwright and cultural commentator Rick Salutin has produced an accomplished first novel, A
Man of Little Faith, the poignant account of one man’s struggle with the nature of Jewish belief in the postwar secular era. Oscar is a spiritually wounded survivor of Nazi Germany who, having settled in Toronto, is searching for something to fill the void left by his uncertainty about God.
The power of the current book season is yet another indication of what Bissoondath calls “a solid base” from which writers can pursue a wider audience. “I think there is a much more confident feeling among writers in recent years,” he said. “We don’t have to worry about creating a body of Canadian literature because it’s already there.”
Perish: That assurance contrasts with the sense of cultural inferiority expressed by Canadians for most of the century. When Callaghan was publishing his now-classic short stories in such American magazines as The New Yorker, Esquire and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1930s, “no one in Canada was interested,” he recalled recently. It was generally accepted that a serious writer had to go abroad or perish in a cultural wasteland. Eventually, a generation of writers and publishers proved that it was possible to stay and build a literature around Canadian themes and points of view. American public-affairs broadcaster Robert MacNeil, coauthor of The
ASSURANCE HAS REPLACED A SENSE OF CULTURAL INFERIORITY
Story of English, left Canada in the 1950s with the aim of becoming a playwright. The New York City-based news anchorman on the PBS network told Maclean’s: “I deeply regret it now. If I had been smart enough to come back and delve into my roots, my attempts to write fiction might have been more successful. The writers who had the courage and insight to stay have made Canadian literature an extremely exciting phenomenon.”
Intense: Matt Cohen, 45, whose 1984 novel The Spanish Doctor was on the best-seller list in Holland in 1987—and whose stories have been translated into 11 languages—belongs to the generation of writers whose literary careers coincided with, and to some extent fuelled, a period of intense nationalism. “During the late 1960s and 1970s, Canadians went through a period of intense introspection,” said Cohen. “Now the writers who grew up in that era have passed into a more extroverted phase.” W. L.
Webb, former literary editor of the British newspaper The Guardian, toured Canada early this year to talk to Canadian writers for an article on the literary scene. In a recent interview, he told Maclean ’s that he found “a considerable new cultural self-confidence” among the country’s authors. Webb added, “I know from talking to English publishers that any decent house is eager to know what is happening on the Canadian scene and to get some Canadians on its list.”
Impetus: Canadian literature found its earliest welcome abroad in the academic community. During the past 15 years, more than 150 Canadian-studies programs have opened in universities around the world, and there are 14 associations of Canadian studies in countries as diverse as India, Israel, the Soviet Union and the Netherlands. Said Linda Jones, librarian at the Ottawa-based International Council for Canadian Studies: “Usually the interest starts with Canadian literature and that provides the impetus for the establishment of larger study programs.”
The enthusiasm of individuals such as Francesca Valente, director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Toronto, has also been a large factor in promoting awareness of Cana-
dian authors. Valente, who has translated the works of communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, critic Northrop Frye and poets Irving Layton and Leonard Cohen, also ar-
ranged speaking tours in Italy for Frye, Cohen and Layton in the 1970s. In April, she organized and hosted The Italian Connection, a two-day public symposium in Toronto focusing on the ties between the Canadian and Italian literary communities.
Three Italian publishers went to the meeting and purchased rights to translate four Canadian books, including collections of short stories by Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro. “The interest is still largely academic, but that is changing,” said Valente. “When you open the Corriere Della Sera, which is the leading newspaper in Italy, and find a half-page article on the latest novel by Margaret Atwood, you can see the difference.” Valente’s husband, Branimir Gorjup, has also been active in his native Yugoslavia. He has compiled an anthology of Canadian short stories for publication there next year.
Pioneering: Ultimately, the quality of the literature itself is its main selling point. But international recognition has come as much from the efforts of publishers and agents as from the intrinsic value of the product. Said publisher Dennys: “It is not that Canadian writing has become so much g better but that we have § learned how to promote it.” I Dennys herself opened ? doors by pioneering the practice of buying separate Canadian rights to foreign authors (among them Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie and Graham Greene) and publishing them alongside Canadians. “Trade is a two-way street,” she added. “Because we had a strong fist, they began to pay attention.” As former chairman of the Association of Canadian Publishers’ international committee, Dennys has participated in several successful trade missions abroad, including a 1985 expedition to Great Britain.
Elizabeth Richie, a literature consultant to Canada House in London who acts as a liaison between Canadian and British publishers and writers, has witnessed the increasing level of literary exchange across the Atlantic. Indeed, in the past few years, the number of Canadian authors being published in Britain has quadrupled, she estimates. “I think it’s fair to say that this fall practically every major U.K. publisher has at least one Canadian author on its 1 list,” Richie said, noting that 1 Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd. has four
‘CANADIAN BOOKS ARE TREATED AS PART OF AN INTERNATIONAL FLOW’
Canadian titles, three of them fiction: Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, Bissoondath’s A Casual Brutality and Linda Spalding’s Daughters of Captain Cook. Literary agents, a relatively new force in Canadian publishing, have also played an important role. In 1985, Toronto agents Lucinda Vardey and Carolyn Brunton established an office in London, helping to substantially raise the profile of Canadian authors there. Said Richie: “They’ve had fantastic success here.” Agents have tended to be more aggressive than publishers in negotiating international rights, according to Toronto-based agent Nancy Colbert. “The real mystery is why Canadian publishers didn’t catch on a long time ago,” added Colbert. Along with her son, David, and husband, Stanley, Colbert has arranged international sales for such well-known authors as Timothy Findley and W. P. Kinsella, some of whose books, she notes, “sell more in Japan than in Canada.”
Dream: Still, the huge U.S. market remains a formidable challenge to publishers and agents. “A lot depends on the aggressiveness of the agent,” said Catherine Tait, a cultural affairs officer at the Canadian consulate in New York City.
“It is not a phenomenon in New York that anyone comes chasing after you.”
Robert MacNeil says that the American public has little sense of a body of Canadian writing, despite the popularity of individual writers such as Mordecai Richler, Davies, Atwood and Findley. “It’s just beginning to happen,” he added. “A lot of Americans probably think Davies is British.” Atwood’s Cat’s Eye is the leading title on the spring 1989 list of Doubleday in the United States, but, MacNeil says, “a lot of people probably don’t know that Atwood is Canadian.”
Still, a U.S. sale is every author’s dream, partly because of the huge numbers involved. American exposure can even improve Canadian sales. When Davies’s What’s Bred in the Bone made the New York Times best-seller list in 1987, Canadian sales also increased. The boost to a lesser-known author can be even more dramatic. Isabel Huggan’s The Elizabeth Stories was published in Canada in 1984 by Oberon Press to highly favorable
reviews—but few sales. Then, agent David Colbert approached Huggan and arranged a 1987 publication with Viking Penguin in the United States. After the book received a front-page review in The New York Times’ book section and extensive magazine coverage, it helped to boost her profile in Canada.
Hostility: While most authors enjoy the international exposure, promotional tours can
sometimes be difficult in unexpected ways. When Findley travelled to England last spring for the release of Famous Last Words, he encountered hostility in the media for his unflattering portrait of the late Duchess of Windsor. “The tone of it was, ‘How dare that colonial write about our beloved duchess that way?’ ’’Findley recalled. “My jaw dropped, because they hated her guts while she was still alive.” Findley says he found the experience upsetting but admits it was good publicity. “Within a few days, the book had sold out in London. In three weeks, it was on three of the national best-seller lists.”
Freedom: Among the results of foreign book sales is a higher standard of living for Canadian writers. Bissoondath’s earnings from A Casual Brutality have had a dramatic impact on his life. “He has been living on a very limited income,” said his agent, Lee Da-
vis Créai. Bissoondath was teaching English as a second language while working on the short stories in his first book, 1985’s Digging Up the Mountains. Although the collection gained rave reviews, it earned only modest advances of about $5,000. In order to work on Brutality, his second book and his debut as a novelist, Bissoondath quit his teaching job. Said Davis: “The proceeds from the novel give him finally greater freedom to carry on with his writing.” Some authors note that there are also intangible benefits to foreign exposure. Said Morley Callaghan: “I got a letter from a student at the University of Nanking saying how remarkable it was that I could understand so well how he felt about life. That is the gratifying part of it.”
For Matt Cohen, who taught Canadian literature at the University of Bologna in 1984—and who will conduct a reading tour in England and Scotland next spring to coincide with the British release of Living on Water—the opportunity to be read in the larger context of world literature is exciting. “Books play a larger part in people’s lives in Europe,” he said. “And Canadian books are treated as part of an international flow, not just as CanLit, so it is interesting.” For a country whose literature has come of age only in the past 25 years, the new sense of international scope is remarkable. No longer a well-kept secret, Canadian literature now belongs to the world.
GILLIAN MACKAY with DIANE TURBIDE in Toronto and SUZANNE GOLDENBERG in London