I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, and Other Stories, page 1
Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada
A Night at the Opera
Going Down Slow
An Aesthetic Underground
Lord Nelson Tavern
A History of Forgetting
The Camera Always Lies
Canada Made Me
Vital Signs (a reSet Original)
A Good Baby
First Things First (a reSet Original)
WANT TO KNOW
ANYONE TOO WELL
Foreword and Afterword
by John Metcalf
Copyright © Norman Levine, 2017
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Levine, Norman, 1923–
I don’t want to know anyone too well / Norman Levine.
Collected short stories.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77196-088-5 (paperback).—ISBN 978-1-77196-089-2 (ebook)
I. Title. II. Title: Short stories
PS8523.E87 2016 C813’.54 C2016-901178-X
Readied for the press by Daniel Wells
Copy-edited by Emily Donaldson
Cover and text design by Gordon Robertson
Published with the generous assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, which last year invested $153 million to bring the arts to Canadians throughout the country and the financial support of the Government of Canada. Biblioasis also acknowledges the support of the Ontario Arts Council (OAC), an agency of the Government of Ontario, which last year funded 1,709 individual artists and 1,078 organizations in 204 communities across Ontario, for a total of $52.1 million, and the contribution of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit and the Ontario Media Development Corporation.
Norman levine’s stories stand at the very centre of achievement in Canadian short story writing. His masterful stories are already a familiar part of our mental and emotional furniture. Everyone has their own favourites, but I could not imagine Canadian literature without such stories as “By the Richelieu,” “A Small Piece of Blue,” “We all Begin in a Little Magazine,” and “Champagne Barn.”
The stories may be familiar—but they are decidedly not comfortable. In them Levine conveys various forms of displacement, of discontent, of alienation, of loss. Like Alexander Marsden, the roundabout maker in “A Canadian Upbringing,” Levine left Canada “because he [felt] the need to accept a wider view of life.” Levine stands aside, observing life’s to and fro; he elected to be a permanent outsider as immigrant, as resident alien, as writer, as Jew.
The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says of Levine’s work: “Written in a tight, economic prose style, his stories evoke places vividly and frequently focus on social outsiders, the problems of the writer’s life and his Jewish-Canadian upbringing.” The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Literature in English says: “Levine’s spare, understated prose style is seen at its best in his short stories. Predominantly first-person narratives, they exhibit a keen eye for external details, but their prime concern is with the subjective experience of the outsider.”
While Levine’s writing always seems clear and simple, the stories themselves are far more complicated than the simplicity of language suggests. One might say that his work is as simple or as subtle as the people reading it. The stories usually function as an accretion of images—all of which contribute to the story’s emotional current, adding tiny detail to what will be the finished shape. Levine refuses to explain or interpret his scenes for us, requiring us, in a sense, to compose the story for ourselves. It is that act of composition that turns these stories into such powerful emotional experiences.
Consider “Champagne Barn,” for instance. We are treated to a range of scenes and images: the Senior Citizens’ Home where one of the residents, Mr. Tessier, has watched 68 corpses carried out over the years; the mindless chatter of the narrator’s mother; a restaurant meal with the narrator’s spinster cousin who is in her forties and still a virgin; a meeting with a childhood friend who has become a butcher; a tour of the decaying neighbourhood of the narrator’s childhood. The story ends with the hack, hack, hack of the butchers’ choppers in Reinhardt Foods. The last line: “I would carry that sound with me long after I left.”
As we will carry this story with us. Levine has created a world in this marvellous story—a world deftly suggested and then nailed with telling detail. He forces us to compose meaning from the seemingly random encounters and events in five days of the narrator’s life. Through the vividness of his detail (steely master that he is) he moves us to brood on the narrator’s life, a brooding which overflows the story’s bounds and compels us to confront our own direction and mortality.
This way of writing is essentially poetic and it is no surprise that Norman Levine’s first two books were collections of poetry: Myssium (1948) and The Tight-Rope Walker (1950).
The beat and the still
And the beat, caught, lift,
Of the rook and the gull
Over sea, roof, hill
Disturb this place from sleep.
Of these lines he wrote: “It was the first line—describing the way the bird flew—that made me realize that the leaner the language the more ambiguous it becomes, and the more suggestive . . . The more you tell—the more you are keeping the reader out from bringing his or her experience in. So if you can reduce a thing to a minimum like ‘The beat and the still’—then the reader brings his or her associations to that. So contrary to what people think: the more cryptic you are the more resonance there is.” (Metcalf, J., and J.R. Tim Struthers, eds. How Stories Mean. Erin, ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1993.)
Levine’s work has resonated with readers in England and Europe for many years. Canada has been slower to respond. The Times said that Norman Levine’s work was marked by “timeless elegance.” Encounter said: “Norman Levine is one of the most outstanding short-story writers working in English today.” Le Monde, a paper not given to rhapsody, simply compared him with Chekhov.
* * *
Norman and I remained in fairly close contact. I have long admired the integr
After a brief stint in London, Norman moved to St. Ives—“silence, exile, cunning”—and began forging his style, the main preoccupation of most modernist writers. Norman’s mature work is marked by its fragmentation, unorthodox grammar, and denial of cadence. We can imagine the effect upon his youthful work of daily contact with such blossoming abstract painters as Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, and Bryan Wynter all with their own preoccupation with technical innovation.
If it hadn’t been for St. Ives, and especially the painters
I grew up with, I wouldn’t be the writer I am.
Another thing I got from the painters was the need for immediacy. When they finished a painting they wanted me to see it in their studio. And there it was. At a glance. Through the eyes. Onto the nervous system. I remember thinking: how could I get this immediacy in writing? And I remember Peter Lanyon telling me, in his studio, that all that mattered was the work. ‘You take something from life. Make something from it. Then you give it back to life.’
In an interview with Cary Fagan in Descant 40 (Spring 1983), Levine said:
. . . the visual is very strong for me. I believe a writer, or anyone, should have a good pair of eyes. If I can see something and describe it in very plain language that’s about as much as anybody can do. The straitjacket of language deadens any kind of emotion, any kind of excitement. You’re always working within a deadening effect which language has on the feelings which you’ve experienced through your eyes. So you’ve got to somehow get this excitement from the feeling that helps you select the kind of words in the order that will give you some of that excitement when you read them. That sounds complicated but it isn’t. It’s very simple.
In a special Levine issue of Canadian Notes and Queries Cynthia Flood wrote brilliantly on the evolution of Levine’s style.
Like a painter himself, Levine lays down colour, line, mass, dimension, angle.
‘All vegetation was killed by the sulphur that the wind carried from the Sinter Plant. You could see the direction of the wind. It was like a scar in the landscape. In the distance, on either side, I could see more hills with the blue-black outline of growing trees on them. But here everything was dead. The rocks the colour of ashes and the burned-out remnants of trees sticking up like a field of gibbets.’
That was 1958. An older Levine would peel out ‘You could see,’ ‘It was like,’ ‘I could see, on them’ and ‘sticking up like a field of gibbets’ (he is not a simile fan), but the simple diction and spatial clarity continue.
‘She had kept everything neat and clean. Now a thin layer of dust was on the furniture and on the wooden floor, and on the leaves of the plants in the front room. The earth was dry. I watered the plants. Looked in the fridge. A few potatoes were sprouting. The pears were bruised . . .’
That’s 1991 . . .
We must see the images singly, if we’re to read Levine.
‘Past Bytown Museum that always seemed shut. Past the jail with its high, smallgreystone walls. Up Laurier Bridge. The horse straining.’
So precise. To reach this plainness, Levine abandons plain sentences.
‘The glare from the snow. Washing hanging out. The long winter underwear. Then by an open crossing with the red arm flashing in and out like a heartbeat, the cars waiting on either side. Why can’t I settle for this?’
To strip out all that plugs up prose: that is Levine’s aim. Articles, linking verbs, clause-breeding relative pronouns, wordy modifiers—dangerous. They draw attention to themselves. Worse, they smother energy. Readers, rolling along the shiny habitual rails of subject and predicate, enter the familiar sentence-tunnel knowing when the verb will arrive and the terminal light appear. We read to reach an expected end. That habit Levine wants to break. We are to look. Outside the train.
The following passage from the late story “Soap Opera” describes the narrator’s mother’s apartment. The narrator is staying in the apartment while visiting his mother who is in hospital and thought to be nearing her end.
I opened the door of her apartment. In the half-light I could see the three small rooms. Brought the suitcase in, quickly drew the curtains, and opened the windows. All the clocks had stopped.
The place looked as if it had been left in a hurry. In the kitchen, dishes on the draining-board were upside down. In the bedroom the large bed was not made. A dress was on the back of the rocking-chair. Two-tone, beige and brown shoes were under the bed. The calendar had not been changed in two months.
She had kept everything neat and clean. Now a thin layer of dust was on the furniture and on the wooden floor. And on the leaves of the plants in the front room. The earth was dry. I watered the plants. Looked in the fridge. A few potatoes were sprouting. The pears were bruised and had started to go rotten. I couldn’t understand why Sarah hadn’t tidied up. There was some half-used cottage cheese, a bottle of apple juice, a tin of Ensure. The cupboard, by the sink, was packed with tins as if for a siege. I made a cup of coffee, brought it into the front room, sat by the table and started to relax.
I had not been here on my own before. How small and still. And full of light. The chesterfield set, from the house, was too large. She brightened the settee with crocheted covers—bands of red, yellow, green—that kept slipping down. And cushions with embroidered leaves of all kinds. The same was on the chair, by the side of the window, overlooking the street and the small park. (The Lombardy poplars are gone. But the gazebo is there. And the kids throwing a ball around.) On the other side of the window, against the wall, a large black and white television was on the floor. No longer working. Its use, to support the plants on its top. Beside it: the glass-enclosed wooden cabinet with her best dishes, best cups, saucers, the Chinese plate that goes back to my childhood, the Bernard Leach mugs and bowl that I brought back on visits from St. Ives. On top of the cabinet a family tree. Small, round, black and white photographs in metal frames hung from metal branches. Father and mother, in the park by the river, some fifty years ago. Sara and I . . . when we were around ten and eight . . . the people we married . . . our children . . . with their husbands . . . their children . . .
The first things to remark on about this passage are its simplicity, its fidelity to detail, its seemingly documentary quality. What he sees is what you get, narrator as camera. But is this, in fact, what Levine is up to? For though I would insist absolutely that each detail is itself absolutely—the stopped clocks are stopped clocks, the dust is dust, the bruised pears are bruised pears—the slow (plodding, say the insensitive) accumulation of physical detail, because of the context, (the old woman lying in the hospital, death possibly approaching), the accumulation of physical detail begins to turn into an emotional “atmosphere,” each detail, while always itself, becomes something larger than itself. Not a symbol, God save us! But a tremor in the near-invisible web Levine is spinning.
Given the context of the possibility of the mother’s death, can we persist in reading these paragraphs as flat documentary?
“In the half-light.”
“All the clocks had stopped.”
“left in a hurry”
“the calendar . . . had not been changed in two months.”
“now a thin layer of dust was on the furniture”
“and on the leaves of the plants.”
“The earth was dry.”
“The pears were bruised and had started to go rotten.”
“packed with tins as if for a siege.”
“crocheted covers that kept slipping down.”
“with embroidered leaves”
“The Lombardy poplars are gone.”
Television “No longer working.”
“On top of the cabinet a family tree. Small, round, black and white photographs in metal frames hung from metal branches. Father and mother, in the park by the river, some fifty years ago. Sara and I . . . when we were around ten and eight . . . the people we married . . . our children . . . with their husbands . . . their children . . .”
Things broken, slipping, abandoned, bruised, stopped . . .
Or something much closer, perhaps, to . . . poetry?
* * *
Norman Levine died in 2005. I wrote the following obituary for The Independent at the request of his daughter, Carrie.
It was written in great sorrow and as an act of homage.
Norman Albert Levine, writer: born Rakow, Poland, 22 October 1923; married 1951 Margaret Payne (died 1978; three daughters), 1983 Anne Sarginson (marriage dissolved); died Darlington, Durham, 14 June 2005.
In the late forties, after having served as a pilot and bomb-aimer with the RCAF, flying Lancasters out of Leeming, North Yorkshire, Norman Levine decided to leave Canada’s cultural desert and return to an England he had come to admire. What had attracted him, he wrote was “seeing paintings, hearing concerts, reading new books and New Writing. And, especially, seeing how the English lived and behaved in wartime.”
In those early days he was introduced in a Thames-side pub to poet George Barker who said to him: “Sorry, chum, nothing personal. But coming from Canada, you haven’t got a chance.”
Levine who died at the age of 81 on June 14, 2005 spent many years of his life in St. Ives, Cornwall, proving George Barker profoundly wrong. Like all modernists, he spent his life forging and honing a signature style. His was fragmentary and imagistic, prose stripped to the bone, conventional expectations of rhythm denied forcing the reader into a new, intimate, and uneasy relationship with the word on the page. His most important story collections were Champagne Barn, Something Happened Here, By a Frozen River, and The Ability to Forget.