October 17, 2012
Canada Reads 2013: Penguin Classics
One week left to get your Canada Reads 2013 nominations in! I’m waiting ’til the bitter end to send mine in, and in case you are too I’m offering recommendations as a free public service! There’s a catch, though, which is that I am trying to bring our heritage back, trying to drag an oldie into the mix to see how it holds up in debate to all the youngsters we’ll no doubt see in the line-up. All of my recommandations will be at least 20 years old, arranged by publisher to give you all a sense of who is keeping what in print, in case you have forgotten.
So far I’ve talked a little about House of Anansi’s A-List, the University of Alberta Press, and McGill Queens University Press. That’s two academic publishers to one mainstream – a bit of an inevitability when you’re talking about who is willing to provide the public service of guarding our cultural heritage for its own sake. But there are big players in the Classic Canadian Literature game, maintaining lists of, also inevitably, some of our biggest, brightest, most well-known literary giants. There is a romantic tendency, on my part as much as anyone’s, to want to use Canada Reads as a vehicle to promote lesser known writers deserving a kick at the Professional Writer can. While I absolutely want to see some unknown titles on a good top-five list, I also like to see a few good old stalwarts. It lends credit to whoever wins – an unknown winner among unknown nominees feel a bit like a straw dog, standing in for something with a real soul. If a book is that good, surely it can stand it’s own against the best?
Penguin Books Canada will probably represent at least one or two of this year’s finalists, whoever they be. But I’m going to look in particular at those titles which have made Penguin’s internationally relevant Penguin Classics line. I’m not going to lie to you, some of these books are on my list of all-time favourite books. They stand up against the giants of literature from any country, any time. I’d be happily shipwrecked with them. I’m so proud to be a product of the same culture which produced them. I hope to Pete that you had to read them in school, if not on your own time, but if you haven’t, do yourself a favour: do.
So please consider:
Robertson Davies, The Rebel Angels
It is an abject CRIME that Davies has never been represented on a Canada Reads shortlist. This is probably my favourite book by one of my favourite authors. From the blurb: “Gypsies, defrocked monks, mad professors, and wealthy eccentrics—a remarkable cast peoples Robertson Davies’ brilliant spectacle of theft, perjury, murder, scholarship, and love at a modern university.” How could you not love this?
Another favourite book from a favourite author! Findley was already up for Canada Reads for Not Wanted on the Voyage, but while Not Wanted is definitely my favourite work of Findley’s, I think Famous Last Words is a more literary, more accomplished novel. Read as a “retelling” of a brilliant poem by Ezra Pound’s, it is a work of unqualified genius. The blurb: “In the final days of the Second World War, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley scrawls his desperate account on the walls and ceilings of his ice-cold prison high in the Austrian Alps. Officers of the liberating army discover his frozen, disfigured corpse and his astonishing testament—the sordid truth that he alone possessed. Fascinated but horrified, they learn of a dazzling array of characters caught up in scandal and political corruption. The exiled Duke and Duchess of Windsor, von Ribbentrop, Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, Sir Harry Oakes—all play sinister parts in an elaborate scheme to secure world domination.”
Did you know Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood are the only Canadian novelists to ever make the Canada Reads finals twice? Neither of them have won, either. Nor do I think they would, because the panelists tend to like to give the prize to books which “need the attention”. But their presence in the field is important, I think, in order to bring the discusion up to standard. So how about Solomon Gursky? The blurb: “Moses Berger is very young when he first hears the name that will obsess him and drive him on a quest across Canada and Europe. His life becomes consumed with unravelling the secrets from the startling, almost mythical life of a man and family shrouded in lies.”