In Metcalf’s analysis, Canadian critics in the second half of the twentieth century (and the first part of the twenty-first) were seduced by misplaced concern for political, social, and moral issues into treating fiction primarily as a vehicle for ideas rather than promoting prose that is “alive.” To counter this perceived heterodoxy, he offers a 442-page “Century List” consisting of the fifty short story writers Metcalf declares to be the best Canada has produced since 1900. (Actually, none of the stories were written earlier than 1950, and many of them were written after 2000—a span of time that just happens to coincide with his own career.) It is an exercise, he notes in the list’s introduction, that he hopes will be a “starting point for a literary discussion which has not yet taken place but that is essential for our literary sanity.”
But, by treating the short story as a purely aesthetic object, Metcalf severs the beauty of prose from the profundity of what it communicates. This not only hampers his appreciation of writers who can’t pretend beauty is apolitical but ignores what makes the writers he does champion worthy of praise. In many cases, it is even at odds with his own practice as a critic. As the culmination of Metcalf’s tastemaking, The Canadian Short Story reveals the risks of insisting on the supremacy of one’s palate: it leads to a cramped vision of literature, one that cannot provide a full account of its pleasures.
Like elevators, page turners are only remarkable when things go awry. And go awry they do. Pianist Charles Owen recalled a 1998 recital in Scotland. The page turner, “a little old lady,” had forgotten her reading glasses. She exhorted Owen to “do a very big nod” to signal the turn backwards for the repeat of the exposition. When the time came, Owen nodded vigorously and, seemingly involuntarily, she shouted “BACK!” The second time around, on reaching the beginning of the development section, she cried “ON!” with undimmed vehemence. At another concert Owen’s page turner kept leaning on the piano’s fallboard—the lid that goes over the keys—so emphatically that it ran the risk of crushing his fingers. Owen had to hold it up with one hand and play with the other. “You know,” he said during the intermission, “I’m really in the mood to turn my own pages for the rest of the night.”
A memorable page turner is rarely a good thing. “I never wanted to do it,” said a musician friend of mine. As an usher at London’s Wigmore Hall he saw his colleague, a fellow music student at the time, “berated onstage” by a very famous accompanist after messing up the first page turn. The pianist started the work again from the top. “If it was me,” he added, “I would’ve walked off and told him to go fuck himself, and taken the sacking that would’ve followed.”
Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth is a big novel full of big ideas, big characters and big sorrows. It is a tale of spies and philosophies and wit, of factions vying for control of the truth — or the public's opinion of the truth. It's an adventure, global in scope and epic in shape, but it's also a story about being unsettled in one's life, about living with consequences, of what happens to us when we are estranged from ourselves. I was fascinated, occasionally contemptuous as the story had me siding with one character over another, and always curious to know more about the world and what would happen and always in awe of Pullman. This book feels like a response to the darkness in our time as Lord of the Rings feels like a response to the darkness in J. R. R. Tolkien's.
in the years after you left
the world remains the same
only planet earth becomes elusive