Thomas Wolfe

Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe...the man could write!

Thomas Wolfe was one of the writers who inspired, humbled and stretched me when I was a constant reader in my teens and early twenties.  Now, on the eve of my train trip through the South, his Look Homeward Angel is the third book, and the first re-read, I have chosen in preparation, for novels evoke the spirit of a region far better than any tourist guide. Except I have to keep reminding myself that this is why I am reading this enormous book, TW's first novel, for the second time, decades later. Once again I am being swept away by his passion, his language, his deft ways with character. For example, he has Stevie, the character modelled on his oldest brother in this autobiographical work, speak of himself in the third person, which immediately shows Stevie to be an egotistical, sentimental, self-justifying failure.

Then we have Eliza, the mother, who talks and talks, the kind of tangential narratives that drive big W.O. Gant, the father, mostly referred to just as Gant, to  howl. In addition to describing Eliza's ways, Wolfe mimics Eliza's talk in rambling passages of dialogue that would make anyone howl. There is a lot of howling that goes on in this novel. Gant howls and builds huge spitting blazes in the stove and eats and eats, great steaming platters of everything. And he keeps an angel carved from Cararra marble on the front porch of his stone cutting/monument shop in Altamont, which is Wolfe's pseudonym for his home town of Asheville, North Carolina. The Angel is present in/as the minds of the characters, too, especially Ben Gant, Eugene's (aka TW's) favourite brother.

The way he presents his fictional father, it seems clear that Wolfe inherited much from the man he calls W.O. Gant; his bigness of language, his stature, his occasional broodiness. His self-centredness too, because knowing Thomas Wolfe only through what he wrote, and I am just beginning to refresh my acquaintance, I see few examples of modesty. He begins with the wonder of origins, how chance determined that his English Grandfather ended up reciting Hamlet to Dutch farmers in Pennsylvania, married, begot five children, but bequeathed only to his son W.O. a yen for travel and a tendency to hold forth in a booming voice. Obviously those gifts filtered down to Eugene/Thomas, who held forth to the extent that he published four gargantuan books during his lifetime and left many more that were published after his death at 38.

As a young reader I loved it that Wolfe placed his characters more or less in the cosmos, beginning with "a stone, a leaf, an unfound door". He seems to have felt acutely wrenched from whence we all spring. Forever alone, but in a romantic way that appealed to me, and perhaps him. At one point he writes about the "full delight of loneliness."  I remember kneeling by a window in our upstairs hall, my chin on the windowsill, looking out to the throbbing summer night, throbbing myself with an aimless passion that my age and his words had kindled.

Though his sometimes florid writing style is not to my taste any more, he continues to stretch me, making me want to observe every detail, be aware of the nuances of every thought, think of every character in terms of absolute specifics. come up with lines like this one, about his father... "a fanatical zealot in the religion of chance..." And this about his stand-in Eugene, reacting to an experience at the World's Fair in St. Louis:

..."His mind, just emerging from the unreal wilderness of childish fancy, gave way completely in this Fair, and he was paralyzed by the conviction, which often returned to him in later years, that his life was a fabulous nightmare and that, by cunning and conspirate artifice, he had surrendered all his hope, belief and confidence to the lewd torture of demons masked in human flesh, Half-sensible, and purple with gasping terror, he came out finally into the warm and practical sunlight."

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.