Excerpt from Unless by Carol Shields, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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by Carol Shields

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  • First Published:
    May 2002, 224 pages
    May 2003, 336 pages

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   I hauled it out recently and, while I read it, experienced the Burrowing of the Palpable Worm of Shame, as my friend Lynn Kelly calls it. Pretension is what I see now. The part about art transmuting the despair of life to the "merely frangible," and poetry's attempt to "repair the gap between ought and naught"--what on earth did I mean? Too much Derrida might be the problem. I was into all that pretty heavily in the early eighties.

   2. After that came "The Brightness of a Star," a short story that appeared in An Anthology of Young Ontario Voices (Pink Onion Press, 1985). It's hard to believe that I qualified as "a young voice" in 1985, but, in fact, I was only twenty-nine, mother of Norah, aged four, her sister Christine, aged two, and about to give birth to Natalie--in a hospital this time. Three daughters, and not even thirty. "How did you find the time?" people used to chorus, and in that query I often registered a hint of blame: was I neglecting my darling sprogs for my writing career? Well, no. I never thought in terms of career. I dabbled in writing. It was my macramé, my knitting. Not long after, however, I did start to get serious and joined a local "writers' workshop" for women, which met every second week, for two hours, where we drank coffee and had a good time and deeply appreciated each other's company, and that led to:

   3. "Icon," a short story, rather Jamesian, 1986. Gwen Reidman, the only published author in the workshop group, was our leader. The Glenmar Collective (an acronym of our first names--not very original) was what we called ourselves. One day Gwen said, moving a muffin to her mouth, that she was touched by the "austerity" of my short story--which was based, but only roughly, on my response to the Russian icon show at the Art Gallery of Ontario. My fictional piece was a case of art "embracing/repudiating art," as Gwen put it, and then she reminded us of the famous "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" and the whole aesthetic of art begetting art, art worshipping art, which I no longer believe in, by the way. Either you do or you don't. The seven of us, Gwen, Lorna, Emma Allen, Nan, Marcella, Annette, and I (my name is Reta Winters--pronounced Ree-tah) self-published our pieces in a volume titled Incursions and Interruptions, throwing in fifty dollars each for the printing bill. The five hundred copies sold quickly in the local bookstores, mostly to our friends and families. Publishing was cheap, we discovered. What a surprise. We called ourselves the Stepping Stone Press, and in that name we expressed our mild embarrassment at the idea of self-publishing, but also the hope that we would "step" along to authentic publishing in the very near future. Except Gwen, of course, who was already there. And Emma, who was beginning to publish op-ed pieces in the Globe and Mail.

   4. Alive (Random House, 1987), a translation of Pour Vivre, volume one of Danielle Westerman's memoirs. I may appear to be claiming translation as an act of originality, but, as I have already said, it was Danielle, in her benign way, wrinkling her disorderly forehead, who had urged me to believe that the act of shuffling elegant French into readable and stable English is an aesthetic performance. The book was well received by the critics and even sold moderately well, a dense but popular book, offered without shame and nary a footnote. The translation itself was slammed in the Toronto Star ("clumsy") by one Stanley Harold Howard, but Danielle Westerman said never mind, the man was un maquereau, which translates, crudely, as something between a pimp and a prick.

   5. I then wrote a commissioned pamphlet for a series put out by a press calling itself Encyclopédie de l'art. The press produced tiny, hold-in-the-hand booklets, each devoted to a single art subject, covering everything from Braque to Calder to Klee to Mondrian to Villon. The editor in New York, operating out of a phone booth it seemed to me, and knowing nothing of my ignorance, had stumbled on my short story "Icon" and believed me to be an expert on the subject. He asked for three thousand words for a volume (volumette, really) to be called Russian Icons, published finally in 1989. It took me a whole year to do, what with Tom and the three girls, and the house and garden and meals and laundry and too much inwardness. They published my "text," such a cold, jellied word, along with a series of coloured plates, in both English and French (I did the French as well) and paid me four hundred dollars. I learned all about the schools of Suzdal and Vladimir and what went on in Novgorod (a lot) and how images of saints made medieval people quake with fear. To my knowledge, the book was never reviewed, but I can read it today without shame. It is almost impossible to be pseudo when writing about innocent paintings that obey no rules of perspective and that are done on slabs of ordinary wood.

Copyright Carol Shields 2002. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Harper Collins. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher

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