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Learn More About Judith Cowan's Wonderful Take on All Things Frangible and Frabjous

Henry James once remarked that fiction could be instructively — or is that constructively? — compared with the façade of a country estate (with its several windows and doors). Each writer, standing in a doorway or at a given window, possesses a unique view of the same landscape; therefore, no two writers could conceivably create exactly the same story despite the fact all writers live side-by-each in James's fictional residence.

For brevity's sake, the focus proving James's assertion resides most eloquently in the work of a new-comer to the house of fiction in this country, short-storyist, poet, and translator Judith Cowan for, More Than Life Itself, the Trois-Rivières resident's début collection of six memorable entries, appears destined to hang around on the corners of readers' minds long after they've reluctantly consumed the last of the Trifluvian's seamlessly beautiful creations.

"It was a bright, bloated day in June, and a hot wind was tossing the trees as we drove up the long approach to the Pont Laviolette, on our way south across the St. Lawrence River. Then for a few minutes, at the top of the big bridge, the air was cooler. Through the girders I had glimpses of miniature blue waves sparkling far below, although the real-estate man, talking, never looked down. He was a man with a purpose. When I'd told him that I was interested in a house in the old town, he'd glanced up from his desk, studied me briefly, and simply said no.

"'What you want,' he said, 'is a country house, an old country house. Une maison ancestrale. We'll go this afternoon . . .'"

Despite the "soporific heat" which swaths "That Sort of Thing Doesn't Bother Me" in a shimmering haze, Cowan's nameless narrator obediently goes along with Gérald, the real-estate agent and "wonderful driver" who inhabits and possesses "his little car like an alter ego." Gérald's also "a wonderful talker" who reassures the house-hunter he knows exactly what she wants and, perhaps because he expects no other home-buyers-to-be in "the heat and the glare," ferries her 30 miles out of town so that she might view "une maison ancestrale":

The house for sale was a disappointment. It was over a mile from the river, it had no trees, it was a blistering frame-built hovel, and there were cows in the field next door, munching in a cloud of flies, so I told Gérald that no, I didn't want it. Even in June I could imagine how the winter winds would blow right through the place and besides, I said, this was no house for a woman to live in alone. No, he conceded, perhaps it wasn't, and we turned around and went back to the village [of Saint-George-de-Chaillons].

Whether Cowan elected to open her collection with this story because of James's comparison is a matter for speculation; however, the stories in More Than Life Itself would seem to support such a conjecture. The formal shapeliness of each of the subsequent entries reinforces precisely this notion and subtly conveys to readers both Cowan's aims and antipathies at the outset.

On the one hand, the author suggests, an ancient and dilapidated structure won't do; on the other, a house in the never-mentioned "new town" would most likely prove equally unsuitable. What the narrator seeks, it seems, is the kind of house built on a solid foundation with a little character and history, in excellent enough shape to hold its heat in winter while affording an uncluttered view of the river which, incidentally, winds through these stories as inexorably as time itself. In short, the narrator requires a modern structure built to last, an apt description for the stories themselves included in More Than Life Itself.

"If," wrote Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon, "a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water."

Not only does Hemingway's dictum on dignity apply to the narrative accomplishments of top-notch new minimalists such as T.F. Rigelhof (Je t'aime, Cowboy), Kenneth J. Harvey (Directions for an Opened Body), Bill Gaston (North of Jesus' Beans), and Judith Kalman (The County of Birches), it applies equally appropriately to Cowan's work itself. As an impulse (if not a movement), the new minimalism sought (and continues to seek) to collapse much of the tedia of modern fiction in order to paradoxically expand its scope.

Its methods — well known among paragraph readers and practised with exacting rigour by these (and like-oriented) Canadian authors — involve a sensibility that surfaces do yield delight in juxtaposition with scantily described characters, settings, scenes, props, and so on. Hence, although "That Sort of Thing Doesn't Bother Me" provides only the most cursory of physical descriptions of Gérald, the narrator, François (Gérald's friend from their days as divers whom the pair visits on the return jaunt from the unsuitable property), and the milieu in which the plot unfolds, readers exit the story with shockingly vivid portraits shored up against a certain understanding of the narrative's three main characters and what has transpired among them.

At one point, for example, Gérald takes the home-seeker to visit François chez lui at the mobile home the cop with the Sûreté du Québec's installed in the driveway of his bungalow after his wife and children left him a couple of years earlier for God knows where: "'I'm not even sure I'd recognise my own daughter,'" he said. "She's 18 now and I haven't seen her for two years. You know they sent me out to the Magdalen Islands? It's not like here . . . And there were no women. You know what I mean? No women.'

"He didn't look at me when he said that but he looked hard at Gérald.

‘Il n'y avait pas de femmes lá bas.'

In response, Gérald gives François "a searching, puckered look" before the agent asks him about his injured left hand: "‘It was an accident,' he said. ‘I mean, I told them it was an accident with the lawn-mower and they accepted that. But it was an accident with my gun.' . . . Neither of us wanted to ask him how an officer of the Sûreté could just shoot himself in the hand.

"Still not looking at me he said, ‘Why is it so hard . . . why is it so hard to meet women? And when you do, why do they expect so much? I don't expect anything any more . . .'"

Subtle references to poorly healed wounds, history, and time punctuate "That Sort of Thing Doesn't Bother Me," the line François utters in the course of describing the retrieval of a corpse (of a suicide victim) from beneath the St. Lawrence's ice-bound winter waters. "And anyway," François concludes,"he wanted to die."

Readers can learn on their own whether the narrator does find a suitable home or not; it would serve no purpose to reveal the story'sending; however, readers will also discover the seemingly casual relationship between Gérald and François turns out to be an intensely intimate one, having as much to do with the men's wives, lines of work, and shared history as it does with the (perhaps subconscious) reason why Gérald decides to show his prospective home-owner such an obviously unacceptable property. It is, to its everlasting credit, anything but a love story.

And, Don't Miss This Bliss . . .

While the first story focuses on the complicated relationship between two men, the title story examines the life and times of a 53-year-old Québecois ivory tickler whom readers also meet in a moving vehicle: "Driving north-north-east, Régis barely looked at the road. He sighted along it and above it toward that point of infinity where the thread of crumbled asphalt vanished into folds of coniferous hills. Behind him was no real sunset and ahead only a darker spectacle, a great ragged rush of evening cloud, curdled light, and fading highway slowly streaming into a dark vortex of landscape."

Cowan deftly provides readers with indelible snapshots of the aging piano player and the lay of his life, the endless stretches of road he negotiates travelling from gig to gig working the small-town lounge circuit in order to provide for his recently acquired wife, young son, and baby daughter.

Later, readers understand "the natural musician" had been "thrust into a collége classique by a priest who had probably hoped to make another priest of him. And it was thanks to that priest, a man who had been bitterly disappointed in him, that he had set his hands on a piano keyboard for the first time in his life. As soon as he touched it he found his life's work. The music was simply there in his hands."

Hands and lonely roads, lounges and little cars, wounds and wedding rings, scars and cigarettes — all recur in Cowan's fictional constructions, as benignly potent and necessary as oxygen or faith.

Régis, in fact, "loved the lonely road. It was a kind of spiritual home for him, familiar as anything else he'd ever known, the spruce-clad hills as inspiring to him as they must have been to the coureurs de bois among his French ancestors . . . Régis did not know that he was a romantic, and thus he was sincere in his feeling of accomplishing a mission when he drove off into the night . . ."

More Than Life Itself speaks eloquently on several levels, stripping away much of the artifice of the genre in favour of expressing reverence for its form, evidenced most readily in the author's ability to know what eighth of the iceberg to show and which curves prove most flattering to a given entry's momentum.

At her minimalist best, Cowan knows few equals. Her unblinking attention to the subtleties of grief, loss, and desolation plays counterpoint to her equally clear-eyed view of an extraordinarily memorable parade of ordinarily forgotten little people. What distinguishes Cowan's talent is the fact she does so with the dignity of Hemingway and the decorum and respect Alice Munro accords her characters in situ.

Take 61-year-old Marian, wife of the near-deaf 59-year-old Evan and protagonist of "Monterey Gilbert," the exquisitely wrought story which completes More Than Life Itself:

Marian was Scottish, she'd been a war bride, and . . . she'd arrived on Evan's family farm knowing nothing about Canada and nothing about farming. As a girl she'd studied painting at art school in Edinburgh, where her teachers had told her that she was talented. It was so far away now and such a different world. A world of well-established manners and — as it now seemed to her — quaint idealisms. Never, at the age of 20, could she have imagined how her life would turn out, that as an old woman she would find herself tramping a frosty field in Québec with a gun on her arm, looking for a couple of coyotes that she didn't plan to harm and wasn't going to find. Nor could she have imagined her reasons. The loneliness that Marian knew was far beyond anything she could have foreseen when she was young. Trying to remember what her youthful notion of loneliness had been, she tramped on.

The unfolding narrative shadowing Marian as she searches out the coyotes involves not only her own life with Evan but also that of her neighbours, retirees Esmé and Monterey Gilbert. What emerges is an austere portrait of a woman confronting her own mortality and fallibility after dozens of years of intransigent indifference to both her home and country. Marian's a harsh and unyielding old dame who nevertheless arouses readers' compassion precisely because she cannot see what is in front of her until "the horror of the dark presses at her back."

The epigraph gracing More Than Life Itself, "Écueil," a poem from Alphonse Piché's Voie d'eau, contains a clue to the volume's raison d'être as well as providing its readers with something akin to a key which unlocks the author's aims and methods. In it, the narrator speaks of la hideur des ports disparue which yields to le baiser des horizons before resolving itself in le flanc déchiré ouvrit la mer á la vie.

At certain blessed moments, suggests Cowan, the impoverished foundations of contemporary life open to reveal a rift in the fabric of existence, allowing for a clear and glorious view of the river rushing endlessly towards the sea (in this case, from a porthole rather than the more traditional picture window James would most certainly have favoured).

"Living in the House of Fiction in Canada: Judith Cowan's More Than Life Itself"
was originally the cover-story feature of Paragraph's Fall/Winter 1998-1999 edition.
© 1998-2008 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.
(Special thanks to Bev & Don Daurio.)

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