I couldn’t help myself. The publication of a new book of criticism at PQL is just too exciting not to share. As you all know, I have a well-documented love of good literary criticism. There’s something about the responsibility of passing judgment on another writer’s work that I think brings out critics’ best, most interesting thinking.
Of course, that’s the case with criticism done well. I’m not talking about those book reviews that offer a plot summary and an uncontroversial star rating, but rather those essays that aren’t afraid to write actual criticism. The ones unafraid to write about controversial topics or disagree with popular opinions or pan a literary darling’s latest book. I love criticism that makes me think, that offers compelling reasoning and research. Basically, I love criticism that isn’t afraid to be critical.
This is the type of book that Richard Teleky has written with Ordinary Paradise. The interesting thing about this collection is the way in which Teleky has been able to offer opinions, pass judgements and think through complicated questions without going negative. Now, I’ll be the first person to admit that I do enjoy a good negative review, but there’s something refreshing about an essay that engages critically but respectfully with canonical classics, or considers the import of everything from books about aging to marginalia to traditional perceptions of beauty and heroism. It’s also entertaining to get a sense of some of Teleky’s experience as an editor, working with greats like Margaret Avison and P. K. Page. All in all, the nook has a warm and personal feel that can be quite rare among critical collections nowadays.
After reading the book, I think you’ll find that Teleky’s brand of criticism is a very Canadian one—polite, wide-ranging and never boastful but always academically and analytically rigorous.
About the Book
“While representing the best of human endeavor, works of art have become ordinary features of our lives, familiar and reliably present,” writes Richard Teleky. “They are, however, extraordinary. So extraordinary, in fact, that in themselves they are a kind of paradise.”
In Ordinary Paradise, acclaimed author, critic and editor Richard Teleky considers a variety of artistic forms—from novels and poems to paintings and sculptures to movies and musical compositions—in celebration of the creative achievements that surround us and affect our daily lives. He examines, as well, some of the challenges and tensions in any artist’s life.
The essays in Ordinary Paradise challenge conventional wisdom and exemplify a dynamic and lively critical approach, pointing out troubling trends in contemporary appreciation of art and culture. They reveal the rewarding complexities of the demanding art of translation, the nostalgic power of re-reading in provoking self-assessment, and the fraught connection between language, silence and identity as they relate to marginalized voices. Teleky immerses himself into ideas of truth, beauty and humanity, and in so doing, provides a compelling exemplar for engaging with contemporary culture and learning the innumerable lessons that artistic accomplishments have to teach us.
Pulled from the Pages
From “Glenn Gould and the Mouse”
On a cold wintry Sunday three of us sat around my dining-room table finishing the sandwiches I’d set out for lunch while continuing a lively debate about which of Glenn Gould’s letters would make it into the book we were preparing. For no good reason I still remember the sandwiches: rare roast beef and ham-and-cheese. We’d even played a game that I associate with musicians, identifying each other as a musical key. One of the guests, John Roberts, said that I was definitely B minor.
This working lunch took place back in 1992, not long after I left my job as Managing Editor of Oxford University Press Canada to concentrate on my writing and to return to teaching. But I had agreed to serve as the Press’s editor for a book I’d previously acquired: Glenn Gould’s Selected Letters. The opportunity to work with editors from the Gould Estate was too interesting to pass up because Gould had been a hero of my musical life since I was an undergraduate and bought his extraordinary LP of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. As well, the art deco apartment building where Gould lived for much of his adult life, near Toronto’s Yonge and St. Clair intersection, was only a four-minute walk from my own apartment; in the 1970s I’d actually spotted him twice on the street, heading late at night towards Fran’s, one of a popular chain of restaurants that kept long hours.
The Gould Estate naturally wanted a book of musical substance, which of course suited Oxford, and the editors were chosen accordingly: John P. L. Roberts was then Dean of the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Calgary, and a former producer at CBC in Toronto, where he’d been Head of Radio Music; he was also President of the Glenn Gould Foundation and a close friend of Gould himself. His co-editor, Ghyslaine Guertin, was a professor of philosophy at the College Edouard-Montpetit, an associated researcher at the Faculty of Music at the Université de Montréal, and a member of the Glenn Gould Prize jury. I hoped we would see eye to eye. Fortunately the literary agent for the Estate, Lucinda Vardey, was one of Canada’s savviest, and I’d always enjoyed working with her. She saw the potential for a cult of Gould and had even selected the book’s cover photograph, a sexy, James Dean-ish image of the cool young pianist, which Vardey also wanted to turn into a poster. We were all working on behalf of that creature now referred to as “an icon.”
Before our Sunday meeting I’d read photocopies of all the letters (or at least the ones I was shown) and marked my own selection, keeping in mind Otto Friedrich’s biography Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (1989). A senior writer for Time, and the author of books about Hollywood in the 1940s and Berlin in the 1920s, Friedrich no doubt faced many obstacles in writing about Gould, which perhaps explains why his book is light on personal material. He doesn’t even mention Gould’s affair with Cornelia Foss, wife of the American composer Lucas Foss, though in musical circles it was a matter of common knowledge. The Gould letters I was given were mainly professional notes to colleagues, discussions of upcoming recitals, recordings, and television documentaries, courteous replies to media requests (to name his favorite local restaurant, for example) and the like. Gould the man remained hidden, if not a mystery – a perfectionist who seemed to float above the messier details of ordinary human life. No matter how sexy the cover photograph of the Selected Letters might be, the actual book would please only Gould’s most devoted admirers and other musicians. Careful selection was essential for our book to come alive.
[Continued in “Glenn Gould and the Mouse”]
* * *
If this little excerpt has whetted your appetite, well, I’m very glad to hear it! The book will be off the press and available for purchase very soon, so be sure to put Ordinary Paradise on your wish list this month.