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Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), is completing a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. In this series of dispatches, Canty shares his reflections on some of the city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (You may wish to read Canty’s early lines, his first, second, and third reports as well.)
As a preamble to this fourth report, where books play a fundamental role, I have the great pleasure of telling you that my book, Les États-Unis du vent, has been long-listed – this despite the fact that it is not really a novel, but something airier, whose true name will likely never be known – as one of the twelve Quebec novels of the year by Le prix des libraires. Five finalists will be announced in January 2015. I am a happier man. Thank you.
Warning: in this message, there are initials.
Before leaving Canada, I was discussing his admirable anthracite and overpriced raincoat with A., a very vertical designer, who cuts a Giacometti-like figure. He had acquired it at a relatively low cost from one of his elite roster of clients and was steering me towards aesthetic grace and comfort, impressing upon me, “You’re going to need it.” I thought, but did not reply, There’s what you need and what you want, dear A. Ignoring this wise saying, proffered by a West Coast gal who was trouble, had cost me dearly in the past. Quietly calculating the joint abundance of my economies and the means put at my disposal by the province of Québec to allow me to live in London, I judged as reasonable the desire ($$$) as well as the need ::::-/ to acquire a local mackintosh, answering to the images in my mind, in the hope of melding into them, and into the crowd, its British ordinariness… The solar contraction would last for months, and I await the November climate slump to verify my expectations of it. I would then have weighed the question of raincoat aesthetics long enough to suffer its daily consequences.
We are not all equally born men of action. I find some consolation in the fact that this long hesitation confirms my character, and that, in some way, it perfectly matches that of this country. “I can’t imagine you hurrying anywhere.” My gait, on the pedestrian crossing leading from London Bridge to the Borough Market, l’air de rien in the mid-length black overcoat that I have now worn on and off for more than fifteen years, motivated this apt observation from E. This English rose (she said it), whom I met in Montréal, has been working with textiles for many years, and she masters the bespoke techniques that are part of Britain’s glory, corollas of clothes perfectly espousing the body’s motions. She had recognized my stride from the back, under my coat’s dark swishing, and had endeavoured, with assured steps, to precede the time and the place of our rendezvous, and thus myself, which, at the pace I walk, is not such a feat. I know, as another wise saying goes, that I think too much, but I wouldn’t say it’s an exaggeration to claim that since the day of my arrival in London people have been approaching me to ask for directions. Maybe I don’t even need to sport the local raincoat to find myself here? I wonder whether this misplaced attention is aimed at my inner Irishman, or due to the contemplative slowness of that sir that people have started addressing in my stead. I must, however, admit that when people ask me where to go, my accent – there are people who truly don’t get it – almost invariably ends up selling me short. If the person addressing me has some time on his hands, and we choose to share it, we will soon be a mere step away from veering off topic, and asking each other where we come from, to which I like to answer Québec, which inevitably leads to Canada. We then find ourselves, in the midst of conversation, in the middle of London, talking about the middle of America. Inevitably, “What do you do?” comes next. And that is usually the point at which the universe bends and everything comes back full circle to the question of literature.
One afternoon at the beginning of my stay, rekindling the raincoat’s promise, I stepped into one of the gentlemen’s boutiques lining Lamb’s Conduit (wondering all the while if the reference was intestinal), a dainty pedestrian passage in High Holborn. Persephone Books, a feminist outlet, is politely poised in the middle of it all. Its front window displays an assortment of identically blue-grey covered reprints of quintessentially British works from obscure auteures and their closest sympathizers, or of Good Things in England, that good old cooking manual, containing some of the most closely-guarded and tastiest family secrets in the land, in which pigeons, lentils – also lambs’ guts, no doubt – play astonishing roles.
“Let us know if you need anything,” says the auburn-haired woman, all smiles and plaid and woollen jumper, who staffs the floor. Her sidekick is a young man dressed head to toe in the boutique’s offerings. He seems a tad too delicate – not in that way – to play the model’s role for these gentlemen’s wares. I ask to try on a stone (pale beige) raincoat, in a concession to Columbo, that judge of tragic manliness, and another, a blue one, by natural inclination, and no doubt because I am thinking of Commander Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, even though it belongs to a woman in the song. The young clerk disappears downstairs, climbs back up with a few sizes in hand. Considering his posture’s punctuation, the distance imposed between the world and him by his glasses, I tell myself that he has not quite found his vocation here. Here I stand before the mirror. The team affirms, “This suits you well.” Well-oiled routine. When I ask, the boy decides to say, “I have the same one and I love it.” He admits, after the usual line of questioning, to cultivating literary ambitions. This is not a good place to talk about cars or la tauromachia, and he attempts to base his sales argument on the technical virtues of the interweaved Ventile cotton, a bespoke material, so tough and light that it can be said to have saved many an aviator, crashed in enemy territory, from hypothermia and the excesses of the typisch deusche, as he crossed through the lonely wastelands of a war film, for one. I would later conclude that Ventile is a more expensive (and English-er) version of Gore-Tex … “What are you working on?” “It’s hard to explain, but I’m in London, and I prefer blue.” Of all American authors, his favourite – it is the case with all the Londoners I talk to – is socialist Steinbeck, although he admits his affection for Papa Hemingway’s muscled minimalism, Bukowski’s sadly dangling dongs, and the stylized pathologies of the Brat Pack. Bret Easton Ellis is his main man. He claims the author’s works as the main inspiration in his quest for a self-definition of literary manliness. I admit that I have not frequented their works overmuch. Darling, this deep-blue cut really does wonders for me. Maybe I shouldn’t talk. Whatever. I argue, engaging in a delicate aesthetic tug-of-war, for the virtues of more improbable beauties.
This combat mack – I think the merchants have spoken the truth in saying it suits me – alas, is more costly than I can spare, a cool thousand (Charles Dickens, then Nathanael West), if the ransom is counted in American cash. The man in the blue raincoat turns (Robert Bly, almost). The colleague-in-chief writes down the details on a clothes tag. He asks if he can contact me for a read-over of his unpublished prose. I acquiesce with true-blue Canadian politeness, while wishing he’d offer some kind of discount, an exchange. That hope would soon fade, with my thoughts of the raincoat, in a two-month long slow fade as the British sunlight persisted.1
Later that night, I am in Bermondsey, walking along to an exhibition with D., having just told her of my adventures in postwar high fashion, when we cross paths with the raincoat salesman, that boy with the fragile profile and heavy affirmations, in a Pisa-like lean, trying to convince the young woman at his side by blabbing on about – what? He does not recognize me. There is a bit of a chill in the air, and I note that he is not wearing the much-admired combat raincoat. You really have an interest in others? Or you’d just like to be one of them? Put your money where your mouth is, son. I hope I am not hurting your feelings. Americans, after all, have such colourful, sometimes not very polite, sayings. There is the wisdom you like and the wisdom you need.
One more proverb, according to A. (a friend of pure heart and delicate typographical touch, who is in that sense only a man of few words): the book is the most beautiful object in the world. I think that the above story’s true moral, while certainly in line with my sensibilities, resides elsewhere, probably in the toilets of the British Library. Let me explain.
Those who want to access the reading rooms of that august institution must leave all their possessions in basement lockers and enter carrying their essentials in a plastic bag. Everything in these halls of learning calls for transparency. The storied works of old are preserved in a great prophylactic glass cube running through the many floors of the building, as pure and proud as an intention. I have just come out from an intense reading session, in preparation for an essay on the stories we like, the stories we loathe, which was recently published in a Montreal publication.2 I am abuzz with the density of signs and must liberate myself. There are a lot of people in the johns, like everywhere in London, and we must line up to dry our hands at one unrolling textile towel – a tug, a swish of the hands, goodbye. I am two places away from my turn when the man who precedes me turns to offer me his place, which I of course decline. This book lover has somehow preserved, behind or inside his drooping features, his childhood face. He sports a blue two-piece suit, an impeccable tousle of grey hair, and the buckled semicolon-bent posture of one who has spent too much time hovering over the mirror of books. When his turn comes, he takes great care to touch the towel only once with the tip of each of his fingers, before pulling another length towards him, with the porcelain delicacy of an aesthete at high tea, one two three four five ten fingertips, ten lengths of cloth, before he turns towards me, smiles, and says: “I did it in order not to hurt an old book.” I tell myself so much care for literature has made his life harder – also that the roll turns and is probably unclean the second time around – as he leaves the linoleum, his Pisa lean making him strangely crooked. “Wait, sir! I know an acupuncturist, and an osteopath!” Real men and real women learn to watch each other’s backs. They are some of the most beautiful things in the world. There are different actions, different men. Maybe he’s left his blue raincoat in the basement. It’s my turn to dry my hands. Don’t think too much. Do what you have to. And the others might follow.
1 His colleague then learns my surname. She will make good use of it in the near future. I am still hesitant, despite the financial risk, and I have the notion of “dialing up,” shifty as a spy, the number of the factory, hoping for some kind of deal. This is Daniel? My treacherous accent has given me away. In the end, the double agent always loses his lonely bet.
2 « Encore des histoires », 3900, The magazine of Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui (Montréal), vol. 5, September 2014, 21–25. Robert Wilson is quoted therein: The truth is just stories we choose to believe in.
_Go on to Canty’s fifth report