This is supposed to be the domain of realist literary fiction, I thought. Plenty of genre fiction is character-driven, of course. The best often is. But genre fiction tends in general to slant towards plot and storytelling for the joy of storytelling. As such, I felt more at home writing those kinds of stories. I’d never consciously tried to write what Orson Scott Card might call a Character story before, but I had written Event stories.
The result? My story “The Goddess in Him” will be appearing with NewMyths.com in September 2020 and I can’t wait to share it with you all.
Writing a character-driven story was simple in the end. Because of the way my mind works, it had just never clicked that this was one way you could write the kind of story editors always want: character-driven stories.
I had to begin not with a fully outlined plot, but with a fully-fleshed person.
Back in November, I met Claude Lalumière at the Yellow Door readings, where he read from his phantasmagorical mosaic Venera Dreams: A Weird Entertainment. His latest book details the history of a mysterious city-state and its erotically-charged populace of artists and madmen. It is a visionary piece of work filled with atavistic rituals, ancient goddess cults, and superheroes.
My interview with the author over the phone was published with Cult Montreal. Check it out!
You can order Venera Dreams as an ePub and Kindle edition from the publisher, Guernica Editions.
Canadientalism–that’s Orientalism, but Canadian. Instead of a discourse of largely European imperialist knowledge production aimed at defining the “exotic East,” Canadientalism is a discourse of American imperialist stereotypes aimed at defining the essential nature of the “exotic North.”
In the visual arts, we see Orientalism perpetrating stereotypes of the Arab, everything from turbaned thieves with splendid scimitars to veiled harem seductresses. Spicy aromas wafting around bazaar stalls, jewel-encrusted onion-domed palaces, vivid green gardens of paradise, and the licentious inner sanctuary of the harem–all these are part of standard Orientalist set design.
Canadientalism, on the other hand, is more corny and a whole lot less sexy (unless you have a thing for men in uniform). It perpetrates stereotypes of the Canadian, everything from scarlet coated Mounties with saddled steeds to bucktoothed Laurentian beavers. The aroma of spruce wafting from a lumberjack’s cabin, snow-encrusted igloo homes, vivid green national parks, and the chilly interior the hockey arena during playoff season–these are the stereotypes Americans attach to Canada because they find our apologetic complacency favourable to their imperial interests.
Whereas the Arab is a symbol of terror for many Americans these days, the Canadian is a symbol of timidity. The Americans would never invade their neighbours to the North, at least not as easily as they’ve done in the Middle East, but Canadians can generally be trusted to go along with whatever the Americans decide to do. Sorry, but there’s nothing threatening about a bunch of maple syrup-glazed doughnut eating, Tim Hortons coffee-drinking igloo dwellers. Except maybe Don Cherry, with his exotic suits gleaming like Damascene silk.
Above all Canadientalist texts, one stands above all as a paragon of literary exoticism: The One Thousand and One Hockey Nights in Canada. Loosely based on The One Thousand and One Nights, OTOHNC recounts the story of a Prime Minister embittered by Quebec separatism and the heroic MP who filibusters Parliament with a storytelling marathon that lasts for exactly one thousand and one nights. When the last story is told, the PM is fully cured of his jealousy, after learning so many stories about the whelps who have had it worse off than he has.
On the three hundred and fifty-sixth night, a tale is recounted of a French-Canadian university student and Habs fan who is then transformed into a beaver when he accidentally triggers the wrath of a jinni. The beaver travels to Ottawa to convince the chief of the RCMP that he is human. Seeing that the beaver has above average intelligence and can even play chess, the police chief makes the beaver his own personal pet. This leaves it up to the police chief’s mistress, an Indian princess, to plead on behalf of Mr. Beaver for the return of his humanity.
The following illustration is based on an actual illustration of The One Thousand and One Nights by H.J. Ford, a talented English illustrator active at the turn of the twentieth century. It was a quick sketch in which I hoped to pastiche this illustrator’s style with a kind of humour reminiscent of Kent Monkman’s style in his painting The King’s Beavers, on display in the Canadian exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
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He spoke in a small presentation room called Broadway I in the Saratoga Hilton at Saratoga Springs, NY, introducing for the first time the central concept behind his new novel. It was Guy Gavriel Kay giving the origin story behind Children of the Earth and Sky, due for release this Spring, and I was among the privileged few to hear him read from his new novel–the most anyone has ever learned about his latest historical fantasy.
This was only one of the many highlights over the weekend, but it was the highlight to which I had most been looking forward. I may not own Guy Kay’s complete works, but I have read them all and that includes not just Fionavar Tapestry and all of his historical fantasies, but his poetry volume Beyond this Dark House as well.
Before going into the details of his new novel that were revealed during his reading, let me at first attempt to describe my experience of what went down during the first few days (Thursday and Friday) of the World Fantasy Convention. There were many panels and big-name, even venerable, authors of both fantasy and science fiction–as well as authors of horror and weird tales, and their editors, publishers, and even some literary agents.
I arrived late Thursday evening, but I was on time to attend three plays by Lord Dunsany. The tone of the these plays was British-mannered and satirical and included play where a thief gone to heaven strives to break the lock of the pearly gates–but finds only the stars of the firmament on the other side.
I was rooming at the convention with a celebrity, as I discovered, although to me he was just a normal guy I was able to connect with in order to share a room: Usman T. Malik is an author of weird fiction and very popular in Pakistan, the first from his country to win a Bram Stoker Award. His story “Resurrection Points” was published in Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. II, which was one of the many books I bought at the convention.
Upon first entering the convention, we were handed canvas bags loaded with 4-5 free books. Already this was more books than I had anticipated bringing home, but then again, I had yet to learn the ways of World Fantasy. These books included an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of soon-to-be-released novel The Alchemist’s Council by Cynthia Masson, which I will strive to write a review for before its release date.
The funky thing about this book is that it was published by ECW Publications, to which I have a connection. Robert Lecker, who was my professor throughout several classes on Canadian literature at McGill and for whom I am now employed as a research assistant, was an ex-editor at ECW when it was a magazine called Essays in Canadian Writing. Nowadays, although they kept the copyrighted acronym, the publishers changed the meaning of ECW to Entertainment Culture Writing and are now publishing fantasy and science fiction, among other genres including non-fiction and literary fiction. While I knew Lecker had been with ECW, I was not aware they were publishing in my genre and I was quite surprised to see them at Saratoga!
Thursday night I chilled at the Canadian SF party, listening to David Hartwell, editor of Tor’s Years Best anthologies, talk informally about how a lot of authors nowadays are being taught how to write publishable material, but rare is the writer who can write with voice and rise to greatness. Guy Kay was circulating about the room as I listened, but I missed my chance to speak with him right then. The next day, Friday, I had a better opportunity to do this.
Friday, I attended two panels before walking into Guy Kay’s reading and learning the long-kept secret of the subject of his latest novel.
One of these panels was “Ur-Fantasies: It all Started With…” and it was composed of Tod McCoy, a Seattle-area small press publisher, Roderick Killheffer, a reviewer and publisher for 25 years, Michael Dirda, a reviewer for the New York Review of Books and who was a medievalist in grad school, Rosemary Claire Smith, who was written for Analog using her experience as an archaeologist, and Barbara Chepaitis, a novelist and the panel’s moderator. What were the first, original fantasy texts? Do they stretch back to The Epic of Gilgamesh or even earlier? Michael Dirda talked about his discovery of the Icelandic sagas as a sort of Ur-fantasy; he called them and I paraphrase, “spaghetti westerns on ice.” Barbara Chepaitis called Scheherazade’s storytelling in The Arabian Nights “the first civil disobedience” since Scheherazade’s tales, designed to always end on a hook, keep interesting the king, thus delaying his plan to execute her in order to ensure her marital fidelity. Telling stories, she saves the kingdom from the murderous rampage of the king, who has already killed hundreds of previous wives. Chepaitis also provocatively mentioned the Iroquois Peacemaker’s Epic, which recounts the formation of the Iroquois Confederacy by chief Hiawatha, as a counterpoint to fantasy epics that tend to constantly revolve around warfare.
“Scale in Epic Fantasy–Tensions between the Epic and the Intimate” involved Chris Gerwel, Ilana C. Meyer, Suzy McKee Charnas, and Glen Cook, with Joshua Palmatier as moderator. How can one write an epic fantasy that also treats intimate moments of human relationships? How do you balance character interaction with the wider lens of a Risk board of military conquests? The market expectation, Palmatier opened, is for vast, sprawling epics. But readers relate to more intimate moments. Striking this balance, I must note, is something Guy Gavriel Kay is excellent in doing.
A good example of pace and scale failing was the example of the Peter Jackson Hobbit films, the panel proposed: Tolkien’s story is intensely focused on Bilbo’s psychology and relationship with the dwarves, while Jackson erred in making the 3-part film too epic in scope. Glen Cook told us that he knows pace more intuitively and that it is his habit to write his entire novel by hand, then type it on a computer and go through 2-3 drafts in that way. Ilana C. Meyer suggested the helpful screenwriter’s trick for writing any scene: “in late, out early.” Chris Girwell suggested that first person voice is an excellent way of filtering a wider, epic world through a single character’s perspective. The panel also seemed to agree that multiple third-person POVS can be useful for presenting the perspectives of diverse people positioned in all walks of life, enabling an author to present a wider sense of events than a single perspective can.
Following this panel, I made a dash to catch the beginning of Guy Gavriel Kay’s reading. The following is a paraphrase of the story Guy Kay told us.
The story behind the creation of Children of the Earth and Sky began eight or nine years ago when Kay was touring Croatia with an editor friend while heading for a librarian conference. They were making for the coast and the editor suggested he write about the Uskoks. Kay explained how upon hearing the name, he promptly asked his editor, “What?” in a “suave and urbane fashion,” he assured us. But he really had never yet heard of this culture of Dalmatian coastal pirates operative during the Renaissance. These Uskoks raided the borderlands of the Ottoman, Venetian and Holy Roman Empires in the Adriatic Sea. They regarded themselves as heroes, “warriors of the border.”
What this growing interest in the Uskoks produced is a novel set in the generation following the fall of Sarantium, which in terms of Kay’s ‘quarter-turn of the fantastic’ world-building corresponds to the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Which means we have a novel set in the Renaissance that contains a significant section set in a city state evocative of Venice, with other locales to be revealed in the Spring.
I was slightly disappointed that Kay wasn’t turning towards North America for his inspiration this time around, which was my grand theory, but I felt a growing excitement for his new concept. The cover, which contains an ocean, a backdrop of a map, and a fleur-de-lys, along with a title evocative of Plains Indian mythology, suggested a novel set in New France, however inconsistent that would be with the Plains Indians. Kay had employed Plains culture in Fionavar Tapestry. My theory may have been a long shot in retrospect, but it’s easy to get excited about the actual concept Kay has now chosen: pirates!
Emphatically–and this is interesting in relation to the earlier panel on scale in epic fantasy–Kay describes his new novel as not being about kings, emperors, and courtiers, but about people who are powerless, unimportant. Children of the Earth and Sky revolves around five protagonists from various milieus who struggle to cope with what history sends their way. Illuminating the lives of secondary characters is something Kay has almost always been interested in and which truly showed itself in his two latest Chinese novels, Under Heaven and River of Stars. However, Children of the Earth and Sky will be different in how it focuses on unimportant and disempowered characters.
I heard Kay read the tense opening scene of one of these characters’ stories. This involved a painter who produces a scandalous portrait of a countessa and lives to regret it. You could feel Kay’s strong love of art history expressed in how he weaved sexual tension into the drama of a artist’s struggle, providing insight into the secret behind this painter’s work, a canvas that depicts a woman’s knowing smile. Leonardo Da Vinci he is not, however: he soon finds himself in hot water. The dramatic pauses and practiced pacing of Kay’s reading combined to create a highly professional performance that promised only good things to come with the Spring release.
The epigraphs to the new novel are borrowed from poem No. XXX in Look, Stranger! by W.H. Auden (“We swayed forward on the dangerous flood of history…”) and from the poem “Parable” by Pulitzer-Prize winning poet Louise Glück.
I, for one, am going to try to apply to Penguin for an ARC and be among the first to review it. If I am successful, I will write a review informed by my knowledge of Kay’s entire oeuvre, having previously written a 50-page Honours thesis devoted to his works. As such, you can trust it will be a well-informed review.
Next week look out for an account of the second half of my experience at the World Fantasy Convention, in which I interview Charles de Lint!
On CKUT (McGill Campus Radio) this week on Monday and at the launch for the Veg magazine yesterday, I read some magical poems I composed recently. One was inspired by Gwendolyn MacEwen and John Dee, the other was an elimination of James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and the last was a pantoum, a fabulously musical poetic form if there ever was one. I hope I did it justice.
I also told audiences about a certain poem called “Index” that has been published in the Veg. I wrote this poem in Notepad and tried to pun on and play with HTML format tags, in order to produce two texts in a single poem: one written directly by me, the other intended by me, but actually put together by a web browser. Click on the link below to view the .pdf:
The following is an update of an essay I submitted to a class on Michael Ondaatje taught by Prof. Robert Lecker at McGill. The English Patient, especially after it was transformed into a movie, ignited a controversy about historical representation. Was it ethical to rewrite the death of marginal desert explorer László Almásy by having him burn in a fiery plane crash? The ethics of Ondaatje’s rewriting of history was under particular questioning because of Almásy’s choice to join the Axis powers at the outbreak of World War II. His actions had consequences, to paraphrase the thief Caravaggio in the film. Are there any limits to an author or a director’s freedom when they deal with historical subject matter? This is a question that haunts not only makers of historical films and writers of historical novels, but writers of historical fantasy, such as Guy Gavriel Kay. Fantasy makes no claim to represent reality, which makes it a ‘safer’ mode in which to depict events that reflect, but do not actually depict, primary-world history. Although Ondaatje seems to reject the easy road of fantasy, Kay mounts a convincing case that fantasy can universalize a historical moment to make it applicable to multiple contexts.
“The Almásy Controversy: History, Fantasy, and The English Patient“
Under accusations that he had distorted the life of Hugarian aviator and explorer László Almásy while writing The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote a letter to the Globe and Mail defending his art. In his article “Michael Ondaatje Responds,” Doug Saunders quotes his defense:
From Homer to Richard III to the present, literature has based its imaginative stories on historical event. […] If a novelist or dramatist or filmmaker is to be censored or factually tested every time he or she writes from historical event, then this will result in the most uninspired works, or it just might be safer for those artists to resort to cartoons and fantasy. (qtd. in Tötösy)1
Ondaatje transforms the marginal but real figure of Almásy into the burned-out ‘English’ patient, a victim of a fiery plane crash. Almásy’s fictionalization distorts the reader’s perception of historical fact. Yet Ondaatje desires to depict the private lives of historical figures through ‘the truth of fiction.’ This postmodern approach to novel writing defies the strictures of mimetic, bourgeois representations of history, while rejecting historical fantasy, which transcends the issues at the heart of the Almásy controversy. Like Ondaatje, historical fantasy novelist Guy Gavriel Kay’s non-mimetic aesthetic dramatizes the relationship between the private and the historical. While Kay humbly admits the impossibility of knowing the private lives of historical figures, Ondaatje insists on explicit historical references, which add deeper meaning to the innermost emotions of his characters.
In a keynote speech delivered in Toronto, Kay refers explicitly to The English Patient and the Count Almásy controversy when he asks the provocative question, “Are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives?” The value of artistic freedom must be weighed against the danger of “political propaganda,” which constitutes such works as the Tudor play Richard III. Kay also raises the issue of whether “privacy or respect for lives lived” should be a factor in a novelist’s ethical considerations while fictionalizing historical characters, asking “If they are uttely obscure—like Almasy [sic]—can we do it?” If such depictions do imply a violation of privacy, then Ondaatje pays slight regard to those limits. For example, Almásy died not in Tuscany after a plane crash in the desert, as the novel suggests, but in Salzburg, where he was “appointed head of the Desert Institute in Cairo” just before his death in 1951 (Tötösy 3). If, for example, Ondaatje had rewritten Ghandi’s death instead of Almásy’s, whose biographical details remain obscure for most readers, the controversy surrounding The English Patient would have become a scandle. But can Almásy’s obscurity alone permit Ondaatje to indulge in a historical fantasy?
Critics such as Elizabeth Pathy Salette accuse the film of The English Patient of being “ahistorical” and even “amoral,” since it “trivializes” the distinction between the Nazis and Allies (qtd. in Tötösy 8). This criticism can extend to the novel. One passage states explicitly that “it no longer matters which side [Almásy] was on during the war” (251), which was the side of the Nazis. Furthermore, Caravaggio trivializes wartime alliances and makes a melodrama out of the patient’s adulterous affair when he tells him, “You had become the enemy not when you sided with Germany but when you began your affair with Katherine Clifton” (254-5), the fictive wife of explorer Geoffrey Clifton.2 Taken out of context, these quotations relativize the ethics of alliance during the Second World War, which is a problematic effect of the novel. Within their context, however, the same quotations are really about how private individuals relate to the war. The side Almásy takes has great emotional significance for the explorer friends whom he betrays and to Caravaggio, a thief-turned-spy who lost his thumbs in a Nazi torture while tailing him for the Allies. Ondaatje is more interested in individual emotions within the epic sweep of the catastrophe of World War II rather than what he calls in an interview, “that Ben Hur sense of looking down and encompassing the full scope” (Wachtel 256). He humbly refuses to pretend he can paint such a picture accurately, preferring to piece together “little bits of mosaic” instead (256). Understanding these personal relationships and how they are affected by an overarching event forms Ondaatje’s primary interest in historical literature.
On the other hand, Kay’s historical fantasy novels are able to avoid ethical pitfalls because he avoids explicit reference to historical events. In the sense that they create worlds that do not actually exist, Kay’s novels are non-mimetic; however, they remain intricately researched and founded on an idea of a specific time period and geographical region. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay invokes Moorish Spain during the Reconquista. The Islamic territory of Al-Andalus becomes Al-Rassan, a non-factual but reasonably accurate reflection of historical reality. A reflection of the historical, legendary figure of Rodrigo Diaz de Bivar (El Cid) appears in Kay’s novel under the name Rodrigo Belmonte. Using this manoeuvre, Kay explains, “I would be declaring, without pretense, that I did not know what the real man was like nine hundred years ago, how he related to his wife, his children, his enemies.” Notably, Ondaatje does exactly the opposite in Coming Through Slaughter with regards to showing many aspects of Buddy Bolden’s personal life. Yet, he avoids the claims of biography, which he knows he cannot make, by including authorial self-references that make it evident that the novel is a self-conscious, imaginative construction.
Although Kay’s historical fantasy is not escapist, Ondaatje implies that fantasy would be a dissatisfying alternative to choosing a historical setting grounded in the real world. Douglas Barbour, who happens to be an Ondaatje scholar, calls one of Kay’s novels “the kind of escape that brings you home” (qtd. in Kay), since his novels serve as a kind of historical allegory for real events. This “allows the universalizing of a story” because it “detaches the tale from a narrow context” in history. Historical fantasy can be more ethically responsible than Ondaatje makes fantasy out to be when he rejects offhand the childlike alternatives of “cartoons and fantasy” (qtd. in Tötösy). Unlike Kay, the author of The English Patient requires the freedom to set his art in the real world. Although both Kay and Ondaatje are careful in their humility towards representing history, Ondaatje still feels that a connection to real events is fundamental to his fiction; in this light, The English Patient‘s historical fantasies about Almásy are more radical than the imaginative histories of Kay’s novels.
Despite the ethical dangers of historical representation, Ondaatje makes the case that his depiction of Count Almásy reveals more truth than lies. Ajay Hebel claims that his postmodern novel expresses an “imaginative account of the past as being narratively faithful to the way things might have been” (qtd. in Tötösy 2). This is “truth by lying,” a phrase Ondaatje attributes to Vargas Llosa in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel (258). Ondaatje claims that his departures from history are more honest than his description of facts: he tells Wachtel, “I started to discover I was being more honest when I was inventing, more truthful when dreaming” (257). Rather than relying on written histories, which can be warped, Ondaatje uses historical personas simply as a “costume” or “mask” in which he can “both reveal and discover” himself (Bush 240). In this way, he avoids making truth claims he cannot make, accomplishing the same humility as Kay, but while using a different literary mode. History becomes the playground in which Ondaatje writes about themes that are less about history and more about the personal relationships that exist in private among small groups of individuals.
Lyrical and private moments in The English Patient are Ondaatje’s strategies of responsible historical representation. These moments serve as a shield against potential accusations of historical falsity. Ondaatje’s fascination with “minor characters in history, people who don’t usually get written about” (Wachtel 256) give him artistic space, since figures like Bolden and Almásy have relatively few verifiable facts recorded about them. The blank spaces of their lives can be filled with fictions. Often these lacunae are their personal lives, their private thoughts, their first person perspectives—how the ‘English’ patient relates his story, saying, “I fell burning into the desert” (5). “I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from,” says the mysterious burned man (139), suggesting the ambiguity of his identity as either English or Hungarian. Almásy’s ambiguous identity creates space for Ondaatje’s fictional inventions, a kind of writing that is at odds with history writing itself. Intimacy and emotions rarely get written down in history. Discussing his affair with Katherine Clifton, Almásysays, “You do not find adultery in the minutes of the Geographical Society. Our room never appears in the detailed reports which chartered every knoll and every incident of history” (145). Not only does Ondaatje give Almásy a voice he never had, but he claims that the evidence of the affair is in, paradoxically, the absence of recorded evidence. Such details construct an illusion of fact within the fiction.
Another layer that frames Ondaatje’s subject matter in addition to protecting his novel from the scrutiny of censoring historians is the Villa San Girolamo itself, a private, isolated chronotope. Hana, Caravaggio, Kip, and the patient reside in the villa, which was made a private space after the nurses abandoned it and as the front moved into northern Italy. It is a place and time where Ondaatje’s characters take refuge from the tumult of history-making events, a “tableau, the four of them in private movement, momentarily lit up, flung ironically against this war” (278). Aside from Hana’s personal writing, the events at the villa go unrecorded, making the fictive Almásy’s last days unknowable to any readers of the official historical record. While the four characters inhabit the villa, it is the perfect setting for Ondaatje to explore the human emotions and relationships that pass between each of them. Although Kip imagines “the streets of Asia full of fire” after the bombing of Japan (284), Ondaatje is not primarily interested in history lessons, but in “an interpretation of human emotions—love, desire, betrayals in war and betrayals in peace—in a historical time” (qtd. in Tötösy 8). Fantasy would make these human emotions less authentic, because they would be less recognizably connected to a time and place of significance for the twentieth century. For Ondaatje, being criticized for manipulating history is the price to be paid for the perfect setting in which to dramatize emotions.
Bush, Catherine. “Michael Ondaatje: An Interview.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 238-49.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. “Home and Away.” Bright Weavings: the Worlds of Guy Gavriel Kay. 2002. Web.
Ondaatje, Michael. The English Patient. 1992. Toronto: Vintage, 1993
Tötösy de Zepetnek, Steven. “Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, ‘History,’ and the Other.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 1.4 (1999): 2-12. <http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/ clcweb/vol6/iss3/5>
Wachtel, Eleanor. “An Interview with Michael Ondaatje.” Essays on Canadian Writing 53 (1994): 250-61.
1Regretfully, I could not unearth Ondaatje’s original letter, or the Saunders article; I must quote from Ondaatje third-hand.
2A further violation of the bourgeois mimetic contract, the plot of heterosexual adultery erases the fact that Almásy may have been a homosexual engaged in a relationship with Rommel (Totosy 6).
Embedding myself in the novels and poetry of Michael Ondaatje this semester in an MA seminar taught by Prof. Robert Lecker, I could not help but notice the similarity between the thematic/artistic concerns of the author of The English Patient and Guy Gavriel Kay. Both are great writers and both are Canadian. Upon first glance, this might be where their similarities end. Ondaatje has written postmodern poetry and literary fiction that merges with autobiography, while Kay writes mainly historical fantasy, although he does have one book of poetry, Beyond this Dark House. On closer inspection, they both have similar obsessions. I could possibly write a whole thesis on their similarities and differences, but why write a huge paper when I can just turn out a blog post?
Both of these authors leave me in awe at their poetic prose style and the infinite care and research that goes into their novels. They’re also two writers whose collected works I’ve come close to reading in full–by the end of the semester, I’ll have Ondaatje’s novels and much of his poetry under my belt, and I’ve already read all of Kay’s books. It’s about time we set them side by side and imagine them in conversation–perhaps at a round table debating art, history, and the life of the artist over drams of scotch (I hear Kay, at least, knows a thing or two about the latter).
Scotch night update. Lagavulin 16, unsurprisingly, the blind taste winner, & many called it for what it was.
Without further ado, here are the 6 similarities between Michael Ondaatje and Guy Gavriel Kay:
1. They both use the same John Berger epigraph.
At the end of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay uses the same epigraph by John Berger that Michael Ondaatje uses at the beginning of In the Skin of a Lion: “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one.” Fittingly, the fact that both authors employ the same epigraph confirms what the epigraph itself implies. Both novels also happen to borrow from myth–Ysabel from Celtic myth generally, and In the Skin of a Lion from The Epic of Gilgamesh. (The title alludes to a particular line in that ancient narrative poem.)
2. One is a poet-turned novelist and the other a novelist-turned poet.
Ondaatje began his career writing poetry, from early works like The Dainty Monsters and the man with seven toes, to his more mature confessional poems in Secular Love. While writing poetry, he slowly made the transition into the form of the novel. He eventually became hugely famous for writing The English Patient, a novel that was made into an Academy Award winning movie.
Guy Gavriel Kay is chiefly a novelist, although he intersperses poetry when a particular character, usually a poet, has the occasion to write a few lines. My favourite examples of such poetry come from the Chinese-inspired poems in River of Stars and Under Heaven. He has also published a nice volume of poetry called Beyond this Dark House.
3. They are both interested in where the mythic intersects with the personal.
In The Lions of Al-Rassan, the relationships between Ammar ibn Khairan, Rodrigo Belmonte, and Jehanne bet Ishak–which includes both romantic love and friendship–are between three legendary individuals. Rodrigo, for example, represents a figure similar to El Cid, the national hero of Spain. Kay shows how public duty places demands on each of these figures in such a way that it conflicts with their personal friendships. The result is sublime, believable art. Describing how five University of Toronto students deal with a new mythic world in The Fionavar Tapestry might be Kay’s quintessential exploration of the mythic-personal conflict, although I must say his treatment of such themes in Ysabel is more effective.
Ondaatje’s early poetry in The Dainty Monsters was intensely interested in the intersection between myth and one’s personal life: the section of the book entitled “Troy Town” attests to this, particularly the Trojan War poem “O Troy’s Down: Helen’s Song.” When he began to write novels, he did not abandon this interest. Coming Through Slaughter treats the myth behind jazz legend Buddy Bolden, who went mad playing the cornet during a New Orleans parade. He writes intimate, sensual scenes of Bolden’s personal life that also imagine the possible cause of his madness–the archetypal downfall of substance-abusing musicians. Furthermore, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid deals with the myth of the titular outlaw, made famous from nineteenth-century penny dreadfuls.
4. They are both obsessed with the figure of the outlaw.
Ondaatje’s first published novel was also an experiment in poetry. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid opens with the frame of an absent photo of Billy, and implies that the reader will have to assemble an image of this mythic character themselves. They are to do this extrapolating from the fragments revealed in Ondaatje’s multi-genre collage. This is outlaw poetry, and poetry about an outlaw. As well as being intensely violent and precise in its imagery and diction, The Collected Works reveals the obsession of an author trying to excavate an American celebrity about whom no one seems to have a full picture.
Guy Gavriel Kay finds his Billy the Kid in the figure of Yue Fei, a Chinese hero. In River of Stars, Kay writes the story of Ren Daiyan, who is a fictitious analogue for Yue Fei. An expert bowman who wishes to restore the glory of the Empire of Kitai, Ren ambushes representatives of the Prime Minister’s oppressive Flowers and Rocks Network, which is exploiting the empire’s starving poor. Kay speculates on the origins of a Chinese national legend through the figure of Ren, who eventually becomes a General fighting for the Emperor–a movement from the peripheries of society to the center that may lead to disaster (as it often does in Kay’s novels). The intricate attention Kay pays to how Ren’s story becomes legend attests to his obsession with Yue Fei.
5. They both wrote novels that explore the life of an original and mysterious artist.
In addition to the outlaw, Kay and Ondaatje are obsessed by the figure of the artist. Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter is about Buddy Bolden, who many believe to be the originator of jazz itself. Jazz is also a metaphor for Ondaatje’s own style. Taking documentary evidence of Bolden’s life as a starting point, Ondaatje improvises the narrative of Bolden’s life in a way that mimics the solos of a jazz musician. Ondaatje strongly identifies with Bolden, at one point stating, “When he went mad he was the same age as I am now” (134). Coming Through Slaughter stands as perhaps the greatest jazz novel ever written.
Although Kay is less personally invested in the artist Caius Crispus from his Sarantine Mosaic duotrope, he still connects Crispin to an artwork in real life that fascinated him. A mosaicist, Crispin becomes the employee of Emperor Valerius and charged with the creation of a massive mosaic to cover the inner dome of his Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom. This project is analogous to the decoration of the dome of Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul, during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Can an artist produce a work that can survive the times in which he was born? Is it possible to create a monument that will stand for eternity? While Crispin’s mosaic is designed to withstand political tribulations, Bolden’s jazz is deliberately ephemeral. Yet both forms of art continue to inspire.
6. They each use a different strategy to depict the personal lives of historical characters.
Regarding this issue, Kay explicitly links his novels to Ondaatje’s. Do historical characters deserve privacy? What about living characters? Is it more ethical for a novelist to speculate on the intimate life of Elizabeth II, or Elizabeth I?
In his speech “Home and Away,” Kay describes the rationale for his particular approach to historical fantasy–writing narratives set in locales that invoke historical milieus but do not actually refer to such milieus. In this way, Byzantine Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora become Sarantine Emperor Valerius and Empress Alixana. At one point, he compares his problem of blending the historical and the personal to the ethics of Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient:
And then there are the moral questions. These emerge most strongly when we consider that ‘history’ isn’t just about the distant past. Consider the works that involve real people – living or recently dead – saying and doing things the author has simply made up. There is no way to know if such scenes are true, indeed, put more strongly, there is almost no way that they are true. Does this matter? Should it?
The examples are legion. We look at the real people interwoven with fictional ones in Doctorow’s Ragtime, we consider J.D. Salinger as a character in Shoeless Joe (and pass over a more recent tell-all about Salinger which purports to be non-fiction), we pause before the controversy regarding Michael Ondaatje’s creative ‘invention’ of a life and personality and death for a very real person: Count Almasy in The English Patient. […]
The question – or one question – seems to me to be this: are there limits, or ought there to be limits, to what writers of fiction feel at liberty to do with real people and their lives? Does anything go, in fiction as in Cole Porter songs? Ondaatje, in a spirited defence last year against attacks in the Washington Post, pointed out that we’d lose Shakespeare’s Richard III if we introduced constraints to the free treatment of real people in art. A grievous, appalling loss.
Kay’s strategy to deal with this moral problem is to present his work as entirely fictional. This extra level of removal acts as a humble admission that he does not know what historical characters truly thought during the time they were alive, or what they felt. It also enables him to weave a mythically structured plot that true history, being filled with random events, does not always permit.
Ondaatje’s strategy is entirely different from Kay’s, and yet achieves a similar effect, in one respect. He purports to show you Buddy Bolden or Billy the Kid in their most intimate moments. But rather than presenting a straightforward plot, he presents a fragmented, disunified story from different voices and witnesses. Readers must suture the gaps between various scenes with narratives of their own. It is a style that lets the reader participate in the creation of Bolden and Billy.
Furthermore, Ondaatje makes clear in Coming Through Slaughter that his goal is not the mimesis of a historical subject–that is, the reproduction of a historical reality–but a more jazzed-up combination of fact and fiction. This kind of art serves as a mirror to his own self. “The photograph moves and becomes a mirror,” states Ondaatje, illustrating the transformation of one of the only surviving photos of Bolden. Bolden reflects Ondaatje’s own psyche; the two inhabit each other. His improvised history of Bolden says less about a historical referent that it does about Ondaatje’s idea of the self-destructive artist.
Kay’s secondary worlds are also mirrors–although they are less personal to the author and more like mirrors to history. The patterns of history reflected in novels like Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan continue to map onto events in the modern world–wherever national or linguistic heritages are being erased or competing religions wage endless wars against each other. This gives Kay’s novels, according to sometime Michael Ondaatje scholar Douglas Barbour, “the kind of escape that brings you home.”
In conclusion, I will state boldly that Kay’s novels are a ‘historical fantasy’ reaction to many of the ethical problems and artistic interests that concern Ondaatje as a writer. Together, these two authors share something more than a Canadian citizenship; they are two kindred spirits writing from two very different, yet nonetheless related, artistic philosophies.