As a voracious reader, my enjoyment of a book goes well beyond simply consuming the printed word. It goes beyond my appreciation of the book’s form, beyond collecting, organizing and sharing. I want to know about the authors, about the other books they’ve written, of course, and their influence as well as those they’ve influenced. But more than that, I’m curious about who they were as people, what they were like behind the elegant words, behind the public persona.
So naturally, I’m pretty excited about Portraits of Canadian Writers.
If you haven’t already heard about Bruce Meyer’s latest, let me catch you up. Portraits of Canadian Writers is exactly what it sounds like—offering photographic and textual portraits of some of Canada’s most famous authors. You’ve probably seen some of Bruce’s portraits before, particularly those that have practically become iconic—his photograph of Gwendolyn MacEwen, for example. Others show people who have become iconic, like Canada’s literary queen, Margaret Atwood. But not to be forgotten are the anecdotes included alongside those images: Leonard Cohen composing ‘Hallelujah’, visiting Detroit’s Mexican Town with Alistair MacLeod, wandering the grounds of U of T’s Trinity College with Dorothy Livesay. So many magical moments revealing the personalities of these beloved artists. I am pleased to recognize so many familiar names—authors I’ve met, or heard about or worked with or just enjoyed—but best of all is the opportunity to see them all in a new light.
I can’t recommend this book enough to those who appreciate Canadian literature and who want to see the personal, human side to the famous authors we all know and love. But if you’re still not convinced, here are a few choice excerpts to whet your appetite:
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I have included a third photograph of Leonard Cohen for the simple reason that O’Riordan and I were present at an important moment in Canadian music and literature. After we finished our small meal, Cohen invited us into his living room, where he picked up his guitar and sat down at the stripped pine harvest table. Behind him on the wall was the framed portrait of Kateri Tekakwitha. During the interview, we had asked Cohen about his novel Beautiful Losers, and how it had been read into the official record by her advocate when she underwent the process of beatification.
‘I’ve done a lot for that girl,’ Cohen responded, and smiled enigmatically. He picked up his guitar and began to play. ‘This is a song I’m working on at the moment. I’ve got the opening bars, but I’m stuck on the lyrics. I want it to be a pop song about holiness, if there is such a thing.’
He began to strum the now famous opening bars of ‘Hallelujah’, that have become a universal anthem of love, aspiration, emotional agony and transcendence.
Cohen asked if we could help him with the lyrics. He began to play. ‘Now I’ve heard there was a sacred chord/That David played, and it pleased the Lord …’ and then stopped and kept strumming. O’Riordan thought we were overstaying our welcome and at that precise moment looked at his wristwatch. Cohen saw him, and looked at my friend: ‘You don’t really care for music, do ya?’ Cohen put down his guitar, and we said good night.
A year ago I was at a party after a Mexican literary festival when someone passed me a karaoke microphone and said, ‘Sing something Canadian.’ I broke into Cohen’s anthem, and a gathering of young literature students all joined in even if they didn’t speak a word of English.
‘My favourite photographer,’ Elizabeth Smart said as she lit a cigarette, ‘is Julia Margaret Cameron, the Victorian photographer.’ Cameron had photographed Virginia Woolf when Woolf was a child. She had recorded Tennyson and many other notable English Victorians. She was to British photography what Nadar was to French imagemaking. In this photograph, taken while Smart was living in Toronto in spy novelist Ian Adams’s apartment, I tried to capture a sense of what Cameron would have done had Elizabeth Smart been sitting for her.
There was always a powerful presence of tragic love about Elizabeth Smart. Her voice, although lilting and beautiful, had a waver, not just from smoking, but from weeping. As a young woman, she had fallen in love with the poetry of English poet George Barker, then with Barker himself, who fathered her four children and left her in poverty to struggle for survival. Earle Birney, on learning that she was living briefly in Toronto while Rosemary Sullivan worked on a biography of Smart, remarked, ‘She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.’
Smart is remembered largely for her one great masterpiece, the short novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, a paean to love and failed love, a brief, poignant narrative that chronicles her relationship with Barker. I asked Birney how he thought she had changed over the years since he had first seen her in Ottawa in the late 1930s, and his response was, ‘She looks like she had done a lot of crying.’
What I caught in Smart as O’Riordan and I interviewed her, however, was her ability to fathom the depths of human emotion. She quoted Proust continually on matters of suffering. The one keen eye that looks into the camera speaks of her courage to love.
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