By midway through the 1990 Booker Prize dinner in London, Mordecai Richler knew that his novel Solomon Gursky Was Here, one of six titles shortlisted for the award that year, was not going to win. Neither the fifty-nine-year-old Montrealer, typically rumpled even in a tuxedo, nor his elegant wife, Florence, had failed to notice where the TV cameras were already aimed: at the nearby table of A. S. Byatt, in the running for Possession. Byatt duly mounted the podium to collect the prize.
Possession, an erudite literary whodunit, proved a popular choice, climbing the bestseller lists and eventually becoming a film starring Gwyneth Paltrow. The career of the fifty-four-year-old Byatt, who by then had ten novels and critical works to her credit, was changed by the Booker. Less measurable was what impact, if any, her book had on how fiction was written, and read, in the UK. Even a novel as original as Possession fit snugly into a tradition that arced back to nineteenth-century titans the size of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins. Byatt, in fact, used such sturdy Victorian fictions as models.
But had Solomon Gursky Was Here been chosen by the jury, more than Mordecai Richler’s career might have been altered. (His one previous Booker nomination, for 1971’s St. Urbain’s Horseman, predated the prize’s enormous impact on authors’ sales and reputations.) The elaborate, stylistically audacious novel had no obvious antecedents in Canadian literature, never mind in Richler’s own catalogue. Gursky features numerous intertwined plots spread over two centuries; settings that range from the 1840s London demimonde to the Canadian prairies during Prohibition; and a sprawling cast of characters headed up by six generations of Gurskys, the fractious Jewish clan of bootleggers turned distillery moguls.
by Mordecai Richler
Viking Canada (1989)
by A. S. Byatt
Chatto & Windus (1990)
by Kenneth J. Harvey
Random House Canada (2008)
The Man Game
by Lee Henderson
Viking Canada (2008)
by John Farrow
HarperCollins Canada (2011)
The challenge went unheeded. Though published to glowing reviews and healthy initial sales, the novel wasn’t even shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, then the country’s only major literary prize. Within a couple of years, a quiet consensus had emerged, even among Richler admirers, that Gursky was too long and too complex, its intentions muddled. Richler himself shared an anecdote about a woman who approached him at a signing and said she hoped his next novel wouldn’t take her two years to get through, as Gursky had. “Phew,” the fan said, “what a struggle.”
The book’s fate would surely have been different had it, instead of Possession, been named at that London ceremony. As of 1990, no Canadian author had been crowned with the Booker. Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and finally Yann Martel would go on to win the prize over the next twelve years, with Martel in particular experiencing a spike in sales and recognition at home. But more interesting than increased sales is the possibility that Canadian literature might have evolved differently had the sprawling, capacious Gursky become, in effect, a must-read. It is a major-key work of art, one of those novels Jack Kerouac described as aspiring to explain everything to everybody, published in a culture that specializes in minor-key offerings.
This is not a judgment on Canadian writing. Many of the greatest authors in the language, from Jane Austen to Graham Greene, Alice Munro to Ian McEwan, work in that minor key. Nor is page count a reliable measure of the distinction between these types of fiction. Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is a 1,349-page novel set in a minor key; Ondaatje’s The English Patient, just 307 albeit-packed pages, resonates with major vibrations. And being proximate to the Great American Novel phenomenon — the faded but still-active quest among some American authors to capture their collective drama between the covers of a single book — may diminish Canadian impulses. Shelved between Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and The Corrections, most novels will appear rather slight. The same holds true for books placed alongside the Chilean Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, a mammoth summation of twentieth-century degradations, set largely in Mexico.
Still, size does occasionally matter in fiction, especially if the subject is ultimately the soul of a thing. Literary visions of the souls of entities, whether a single family or an entire society, the course of a nation or a century, take their novelistic time to unfold. Martin Amis once remarked that too much of the English fiction he grew up reading amounted to little more than “250 pages of middle-class ups and downs.” A version of this, it would seem, holds sway in Canadian writing; it is hard not to remark on how many of today’s novels, whether historical or contemporary, occurring in Toronto or Tibet, come in at around the 300-page mark; 300 mostly minor-key pages appears to be our literary comfort zone. That, or it is the size of our literary soul, and anyone pressuring that frame does so at his or her own risk.
The contention, then, is that a warmer embrace for Solomon Gursky Was Here might have helped the handful of Canadian novels of similar scale and intent that have appeared since 1990, and perhaps would have bred even more. Guy Vanderhaeghe, Wayne Johnston, and Margaret Atwood, all established figures, have produced books of Richlerian heft in the intervening decades. In terms of swagger and innovation, however, younger novelists have followed most directly in his footsteps.
Two thousand eight saw the publication of both Kenneth J. Harvey’s 829-page Newfoundland exegesis, Blackstrap Hawco, and the 432-page The Man Game, by Vancouver resident Lee Henderson. (What may be the longest novel ever by a Canadian, W. Paul Anderson’s 1,376-page historical opus, Hunger’s Brides, came and went in 2005.) Spread over a century and written largely in dialect, Harvey’s impassioned argument for the singularity of the Newfoundland experience freebases voices and narrative forms. Standing in for the province itself, generations of the Hawco clan inherit the same profane temperaments and hardscrabble lives, working on seal hunts and in iron mines, manning traplines through brutal winters. Storytelling, rather than empirical truth, is paramount to their self-conception: they tell tales, therefore they are. Harvey’s mythopoetic Newfoundland is a purposeful blur of recorded history and events remembered as a kind of legend — one that, the novel suggests, is fated to remain barely comprehensible to soft-soled mainlanders. As a vision of place and history, Blackstrap Hawco is in every way fierce and unapologetic.
Less brawling in tone or scale, if no less wild at heart, is the Vancouver of Henderson’s debut. His Pacific Rim city, especially the fledgling nineteenth-century version only lately connected by rail to the rest of the continent, is a frontier phantasmagoria, home to card-playing woodsmen and opium-addicted industrialists, indentured Chinese labourers and Snauq Indians. (One dimwit is nicely dubbed “Toronto.”) The fanciful game of the title, invented by a teenage ex-vaudevillian, crosses ballroom dance with mud wrestling, all of it done in the nude. “A waltz with a clap in the face” is an apt description of the sport that obsesses this vulgar, colourful crowd. By comparison, the contemporary Vancouver of the novel’s narrative frame seems pallid, as though the Last Spike served not to finally connect the nation but to disconnect a city from its own true nature. The rest, Henderson infers with bemusement, is cappuccino bars and overpriced real estate.