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Current Issue: #221 Science & Canadian Literature (Summer 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 221 (Summer 2014) is now available. This special issue focuses on science and Canadian literature and features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Approaching Earth

Reviewed by Tamas Dobozy

Josef Skvorecky and Steven Heighton write different stories about the same Earth. Skvorecky, a long-time scholar of American literature in general and Hemingway in particular, works concise, plain sentences into a rambling, fragmented story about Czech soldiers in the American Civil War, while Heighton, often referred to (accurately or not) as a kind of contemporary "romantic," employs a highly poetic and lengthy style to tell (with the exception of the novella Translations of April) traditional narratives. What Skvorecky and Heighton do have in common is a sense of mystery at the heart of life, and by mystery I do not mean post-modern notions of the inexpressible, of something beyond the limits of language as it is presently structured, but of an agency that eludes human knowing. For lack of a better term, both Skvorecky and Heighton are spiritual (but not religious) writers.

The Bride of Texas records the lives of several Czech characters before and after their immigration to America in the middle of the 19th century. United by their involvement in the "Lincoln Riflemen of Slavonic Origin," Skvorecky’s characters work out their complex relationships to the past and their adoptive country against a backdrop of slavery, civil war and a rain of hot ash. One level of the novel deals with the Czech immigrants Cyril, his sister Lida, and Sargeant Kapsa, while another follows Lorraine Henderson Tracy (the true name of the popular novelist Laura Lee) as she struggles with her feelings for General Ambrose Everett Burnside, and with her vocation. The dilemmas of each character reflect the dilemmas of the age. Cyril struggles to find his lover, the slave Dinah, separated from him by the events of the war. Lida, forced to leave the boy she loved in Bohemia, attempts to advance herself socially through marriage. Kapsa, fleeing the murder of his commanding officer in the Hapsburg army, attempts to reconcile himself to a past forever lost. Lorraine tries to justify the compromise of her proto-feminist ideals to the demands of mass market publication. In the case of each, Skvorecky provides a corollary for the civil war. Cyril’s situation invokes the crises of miscegenation, with all its attendant ramifications, political and cultural. Lida’s story reflects the conflict between the idealist who has never allowed herself to love another, and the capitalist, who views romance strictly from a material perspective, and war as an opportunity for advancing herself (idealism and romance, Skvorecky tells us, abolition and economic dominance respectively, were two reasons the North engaged the South in war). Kapsa, as the soldier who has fought for both the oppressors and the oppressed, recalls how different uniforms can turn countrymen into mortal enemies. Lorraine’s account of self-censorship in light of Burnside’s more wide-spread censorship of the media addresses the kind of compromises required by war-time (though her war is fought against an entirely different enemy).

Skvorecky’s plot resolves itself in a series of tutelary coincidences that serve to inform the moral life of his characters and counter strictly political readings of the past. Apart from the sudden upsets of war, which his bumbling Czechs survive more by luck than skill, a series of coincidences indicate Skvorecky’s attitude towards history. The most important of these are the many "accidents" that allow the "good" side, the union army, to win the war and put an end to slavery. Another is Lida discovering her childhood sweetheart dying in the Confederate infirmary, an experience that shatters her cynical composure. By similar coincidence, Kapsa learns the whereabouts of his former lover, Ursula, and through this meeting comes to terms with his longing for an idealized past in a country that cannot exist. Skvorecky’s pattern of coincidence reminds us that history is as much accident as socio-economic inevitability; neither archival records, nor the study of social and moral agendas, nor the novel itself, can fully account for the pattern of human movement across the earth. Skvorecky’s coincidences hint at a metaphysical agency (more benevolent than not) behind the historical process.

The blurb on the back of Steven Heighton’s collection of short stories promises an "exploration" of "the interlocking worlds of the erotic and religious." The book delivers. Both the ending of the story "Downing’s Fast" and Translations of April offer a recovery of love through death, a death often paired with the ocean and drowning, common symbols of spiritual rebirth and fertility. However, nowhere does Heighton’s prose give us a clear-cut indication of where the process of spiritual awakening takes the characters. Downing’s last thought is "maybe," and the story ends with a crowd gathered around his corpse. Heighton plays it safe, offering spiritual rapture followed by a swift descent back to Earth; the fifth section of Translations of April, entitled "The Flower in the Face of God," follows the same pattern as the ending of "Downing’s Fast": a sailor experiences an illumination which releases him from all physical needs except to tell at least one person of his experience before dying. Throughout the collection Heighton implies a transcendence through the trans- mission of story, of "the living word" (story absorbed and made part of life) as a form of solace to both teller and listener. The act of recounting forges a communion that survives time and offers an antidote to earthly desire: in Translations of April the "what if" of storytelling allows for the recovery of a lost lover. The book offers case studies in defense of the opening quo- tation from Chagall: "Everything may change in this demoralized world except the heart, human love, & our striving to know the divine."

On a technical level, both writers struggle with excess. Skvorecky seems to include every anecdote and historical fragment his research uncovered, to the point of exhaustion. The narrative fragmentation suggests that history is indeed unrecoverable in text, that the record contains gaps human evidence cannot account for; however, it also makes for a narrative so disintegrated that the book becomes first painful, then tiring, then impossible to read. Heighton suffers from excess at the level of the sentence (an exacting editor might have fine-tuned this writing to perfection), many of which are overly long and florid (two or three adjectives where one would have been enough) to offer anything except that rapture in storytelling which occupies most of the collection.

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MLA: Dobozy, Tamas. Approaching Earth. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Mar. 2015.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 176 - 178)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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