Expatriate Alienation Refined

  • Norman Levine
    I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well: Collected Stories. Biblioasis (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Emily Ballantyne

Norman Levine, celebrated for his craft as a lean and lonely modernist short story writer, has been somewhat overlooked for his contributions in Canadian literature, perhaps in part because of his long-time commitment to living as an expatriate in England, and in part because of his decidedly unappreciated critique of Canada in his 1958 travel memoir, Canada Made Me. As a result, he is infrequently considered alongside his contemporaries—many of whom also spent significant time abroad in their writing careers—including Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, and Leonard Cohen. The posthumous collection, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, brings together forty-two of Levine’s stories, bookended with an introduction and afterword-memoir by John Metcalf. Metcalf makes a strong case for a reconsideration of Levine as a writer’s writer, beloved because of his commitment to refining his craft and staying true to his style: spare autobiographical prose about the imperfect nature of human connection. I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well offers a detailed, circular reflection on alienation, loss, and compassion that refracts within and across each story in the collection.

Levine is doggedly committed to his style and his subject. He writes personal, reflective fiction that features male first-person writers who share many features of his own experience: growing up Jewish in Ottawa, serving in World War II as a pilot, attending McGill, moving to England to write his first novel, moving frequently around rural England to escape poverty, living in artist communities in offseason resorts, working as a writer in residence, and, in all circumstances, sacrificing for his art and chasing his next paycheque through various hustles. The stark alienation of his protagonists is disarming. They are observers that relish in the richness of transitory relationships that are remembered for a lifetime. Though the protagonists frequently have only fleeting connections with those around them, those connections are deeply felt, and remind us of our profound capacity for affiliation and human bond.

Most of the protagonists in these stories are hard up for money and live hand-to-mouth. As a result, the narrators are often reliant upon the compassion of others, including strangers. In “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice,” a series of vignettes describes a husband and wife who separately leave home to escape their poverty. “Gifts” tells two parallel stories seventeen years apart, wherein the narrator experiences compassionate giving in two scenes In the first, he meets and assists bank robbers who redistribute their stolen wealth in $40 increments to houses in the surrounding area; years earlier, he reflects upon a time he anonymously received a smoked salmon when he had run out of food to feed his family. Brief interactions overcome alienation and slake the thirst of lonely souls.

Distance and alienation are also explored through reflections on death and grief. Gravestones are all that remain of a Jewish settlement in “Continuity,” and yet the most fascinating aspect of the story is the protagonist’s interaction with a researcher and professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, who brings these places to life with his rich knowledge of their history. However, late in the collection, we encounter a narrator who is concerned about the power of observation to build a human connection. In “The Man with the Notebook,” the protagonist discovers that he can somehow cause death when the people he profiles seem to die without explanation. Though this seems dire, perhaps the difference in this story is that observation does not end with connection; the observations he records only really matter to him when he makes the connection to death.

Overall, Levine is at his best when he shows how even the loneliest and most desperate of situations can result in goodness and shared human experience. Levine uses his short fiction to explore his own autobiographical narrative; he returns to and sharpens his own past by recollecting on the small relationships that have illuminated his life.

After reading the collection, I remain ambivalent about Levine’s position in the broader field of CanLit. One thing I know for certain: it is inexcusable if his absence is justified primarily because of a faux pas from the late 1950s. The reasons for Levine’s absence in Canadian literature frequently circle around a particularly bad experience with McClelland & Stewart. His bleak, critical portrayal of Canada in his memoir Canada Made Me effectively lost him a Canadian audience. As Metcalf recounts twice, in both his introduction and the concluding memoir titled “Kaddish,” when Putman agreed to publish the book in England, McClelland & Stewart sold a contractually agreed-upon five hundred copies in Canada, but refused to place the book under their own imprint or to order more copies once they ran out. After this fiasco, Levine was somewhat blacklisted in Canada, and was out of print in the country for seventeen years. I am glad to see Biblioasis revisit Levine’s work, if only to offer new readers an opportunity to read his work as part of the Canadian modernist canon that sometimes forgets authors who chose to see the value in remaining self-imposed exiles from Canada.

This review “Expatriate Alienation Refined” originally appeared in Rescaling CanLit: Global Readings Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 238 (2019): 155-156.

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