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Memory Work

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I learned a poem by heart this week. Memory Work they called it when I was in school. Of course much of education is a matter of remembering or learning to remember, but Memory Work was understood to mean learning a passage of poetry and being able to stand up and recite it. I’m not sure how much of it is done now, probably depends on the teacher.

There are still passages from Shakespeare plays that I remember more or less accurately from high school, and I like having those beautiful structures of sound available. Something like twenty years ago I passed a summer alone in an old house on Wolfe Island in Ontario, and I decided to return to Memory Work, setting myself to learn two or three Shakespearean sonnets. In more recent years I’ve added a poem now and then, once as a joint project with friends.

Of course I am in the business of arranging words so it is in some ways a professional benefit to have fine examples close by. The memorized poems are also useful during wakeful spells at night. Reciting a sonnet by Shakespeare or Donne keeps the mind in a state that is both concentrated and relaxed. The poem gives pleasure while encouraging a renewed somnolence.

Yes, I learned a poem by heart this week, and that old-fashioned phrase, by heart, suggests that such remembrance is an act of love. The poem I just acquired is the best-known piece by the American poet John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter,” a poem in five rhymed four-line verses, dealing in a delicate and unsentimental way with the death of a child. I think I first read it many years ago in some anthology, and last week I decided to add it to the personal anthology inside my head. (Or heart.)

A few weeks earlier I memorized a poem by W.B. Yeats, and it too was in quatrains, three stanzas that Yeats adapted freely from a sonnet by the sixteenth century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. I had come upon the Yeats version and the original French in The Jonas Variations, a delightful book of translations and commentary by my old colleague George Jonas. Another poem in quatrains that I learned recently was “The Mower to the Glowworms” by Andrew Marvell.

I mention all three of the poems because it struck me that such short poems in rhymed quatrains often have about them a pleasing mixture of emotional depth and surface wit. Death, age, amorous obsession are confronted, but framed in a minikin elegance—a nightscape of fireflies, a field of white geese. Ransom describes the dead child as in a “brown study”, that old-fashioned phrase for a state of detachment or reverie.

But now go the bells and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.

My advice to anyone who might decide to join me in this practice of memorizing poems is to start with poems that rhyme. Once when young I learned by rote the first twenty or thirty lines of Paradise Lost, which are written in Milton’s strongly rhetorical blank verse; the familiar ten syllable pattern of the lines, with their good strong drum beat, helped hold the words in place. I find Shakespeare’s looser and more suggestive blank verse, especially that in the plays, encourages accidental revision.

It’s altogether possible, I think, that end-rhyme was invented, at least in part, for its mnemonic function (Thirty days hath etc), and certainly end rhyme provides a framework that makes the acquisition and retention of the lines easier. And I like rhyme. In the introduction to his translations, George Jonas describes rhyme as like the wheels on a cart. “It is possible to pull a cart without wheels,” he says, “but you had better quadruple the donkeys.”

Applies to the mules of memory as well.

A Good Imagination

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Recently I was given a 1931 copy of a magazine called The Dickensian: A Quarterly Magazine for Dickens Lovers. My copy presents—among reports from far flung branches of the Dickens Fellowship—essays on the use of alcohol in Dickens’ novels, on his fictional waiters, and on the sources of the songs quoted by Dick Swiveller in The Old Curiosity Shop.

You might call The Dickensian—which still exists, the most recent issue including an essay on Dickens in Norway—a scholarly fanzine.

Browsing in the magazine stirred me to look up a note I’d made while reading the most recent of the many Dickens biographies, Charles Dickens, A Life, by Claire Tomalin. I had read and admired some of Tomalin’s earlier books, including her biography of Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ secret lover in his later years, and she struck me as wise in her use of sources and astute in her reading of human character.

The passage I noted comes from a letter Dickens wrote to Angela Burdett Coutts, a rich woman who was the main financial support of his Home for Homeless Women. “All people who have led hazardous and forbidden lives” he writes to her, “are, in a certain sense imaginative; and if their imaginations are not filled with good things, they will choke them, for themselves, with bad ones.”

Here we find Dickens, who, we like to think, represented an ideal of Victorian propriety, offering a view of crime and delinquency as natural expressions of the imagination—a modernist and subversive position if there ever was one. Maybe it’s a little less surprising when we recall that Dickens habitually walked for hours through the night streets of London when he was working on a book, stirring himself up, observing faces, stimulating his power of invention. Part of the vast energy of his work springs from the mental state created or sustained by these mysterious night walks.

But wait.

STOP THE PRESS, as they used to say, when newspapers took pride in

carrying the latest news with the most accurate details.

I had intended to go on from this point to discuss a conversation between Dickens and Dostoevsky on the subject of good and evil, a conversation described in two recent biographies. It is widely known that Dostoevsky began to read Dickens during his Siberian imprisonment for political activities, and an article in The Dickensian for 2002 offers quotations from a Dostoevsky letter about his conversation with Dickens.

I found myself curious about the language of this conversation. It seemed unlikely that Dostoevsky spoke English, and while Dickens spoke French, it’s unthinkable that he would have spoken Russian.

I turned to Google.

“Did Dostoevsky speak English?” I asked, and almost the first site that turned up presented a series of recent posts, the most remarkable of them being from a well-informed reader whose first language was Russian. He was highly sceptical about the Dostoevsky letter describing a meeting with Dickens and was unable to find any Russian source. Another scholar found that the Russian magazine in which the letter was purportedly first published seemed not to exist. Editors of The Dickensian tried to contact the writer of their original article, only to be told that the author had been severely injured in a car accident and was unable to communicate with them. Claire Tomalin has said she plans to withdraw the material from new editions of her book.

So The Dickensian’s article appears to be a remarkable literary hoax. For a few years the fabrication became a part of history. Now it’s a footnote on falsity. But the meeting of the two giants ought to have happened. Both had vast imaginative resources and an intense preoccupation with good and evil, crime and punishment. Both were fascinated by “hazardous and forbidden lives.” Yes, the imagination says, they ought to have met and spoken, perhaps in French.

Too bad it’s not true.

A Favourite Room

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Not a large room, this gallery, but the four walls illustrate a lifetime of painting in oil, many of the pieces brilliant miniatures, small enough to fit in the lid of a paint box, here framed and displayed in a double row, every few feet a larger painting derived from an oil sketch hung between them.

I am standing in the J.W. Morrice room of the Ken Thomson collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I have a little time on my hands, there’s nothing spectacular on special show in the gallery at the moment, so almost inevitably I walk upstairs and into the far corner where I’ll find one of my favourite Canadian painters on display. It’s a place I return to.

J.W. Morrice was born in Montreal in 1865. In 1889, when he was 24, he completed legal studies at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, and soon after that he moved to Paris to study art. From then on, Paris was the centre of his existence, though he was an inveterate traveller. His friend, Henri Matisse, called him “a bird of passage with no fixed landing place.” Morrice was visiting Tunis when he died in 1924.

The first painting I find myself studying is a little larger than the usual oil sketches, and it is obviously one of the works Morrice did while he was a Canadian War Artist in 1917/18. The loose, rapid, evocative strokes of paint show a cavalry patrol, the mounted figures seen from behind, riding from left to right and upward. The lower right quadrant of the painting shows the tilted posts of a wire fence. The painting hints at danger and urgency, a compressed perspective hurrying the horses and riders past in the rackety speed and suddenness of war.

Across the room is a more typical Morrice painting, of Paris, where a single figure dominates, a woman in black, almost in silhouette as she walks under the trees by the Seine: light and colour, shapes in black and green all subtle, a little muted, a triumph of mood. Nearby the contrasting shades of a little painting of a Venetian gondolier which glows with a sheen of soft gold. Morrice was the most subtle of colourists, I think, as I study another cityscape in veiled pink and mauve. Background figures are rapid dabs of black. Whether in Paris, on a beach in Normandy, observing a street in Trinidad, or sketching a bull-ring in Marseille, he creates a sensuous surface of paint that makes vivid the place and its light. A little sketch of a woman in Paris with two children manages to be precise and yet so abrupt and abstract that it is unreadable in detail. A flattening of perspective increases its force. The draughtsmanship is exact and yet the forms are mysterious. A sense that everything is about to move is evoked by the tension of foreground and background. All this within thirty square inches of oil pigment, collisions of light and dark.

From time to time Morrice returned to Canada and there are wintry paintings of Montreal and Quebec City, seen in tiny sketches and then larger versions, carefully worked paintings. Morrice was a productive painter and there are fascinating collections of such work in public galleries in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

When I wander away from the Morrice collection, I turn my attention to the similarly rapid and evocative oil sketches of Tom Thomson in a gallery nearby, his work brighter, more dramatic, the textures less woven, more insistent, landscape presented as wilderness, a dramatic symbol, not as in Morrice the background to human events. Two very different worlds, I think, created by these two men, both Canadian, born only twelve years apart, both prodigally gifted, each with his own visual language.

David Helwig has recently published two new books, About Love, translations of three connected stories by Anton Chekhov, and Simon Says, seven related stories written entirely in dialogue.

The Cost of Living

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The country is awash in political commentators, some appearing in newspapers and magazines, an increasing number having their say on the internet. Some are well informed, some just spew.

The Globe and Mail’s columnist Jeffrey Simpson has always struck me as a sensible man. Recently he has begun a crusade to increase plain-speaking and clear thinking in the discussion of health care. He’s published a book and the Winter 2010 Queen’s Quarterly presents a summary of his thinking. Health care costs are rising, and Canadian governments, he argues, are so far paying the increasing costs by stealthily taking money from other areas.

Let’s imagine starting from zero, in terms of health care funding. We begin with a country of approximately thirty-five million people, all of them living in a world where a wide range of diagnostic tools is available, alongside a wide range of treatments, many of those involving expensive drugs. There will be a high cost for treating the population, whoever pays it. Even the moderately rich would probably find themselves facing a chasm if they required treatment for, let’s say, leukemia. The disease can, in some cases, be cured, but I wouldn’t even try to guess the cost. You would have to be richer than anyone I know to pay out of pocket. Oh, but you say, there are millionaires who could. This is true only if you define millionaire as someone earning (somehow) a million dollars a year. If you mean someone with a million dollars in the bank, you’re talking about someone with an income of fifty or sixty thousand a year.

The only option that will make complex and expensive modern health care available to everyone is some form of insurance, public or private. The lucky subsidize the less lucky. The tradition in the USA has been to depend largely on private insurance. But the first loyalty of the private insurance company is to its owners. It must make a profit. And one consequence of a system based on private insurance is very expensive health care.

According to Jeffrey Simpson’s figures the USA spends more than 17% of the Gross National Product on health care; Canada spends 12%, still too much, he argues, by the standards of other countries with public health care, though one fact Simpson doesn’t mention is that Canadian geography makes equal distribution of anything expensive. Countries where population is more concentrated will inevitably find it somewhat cheaper.

Simpson is probably correct when he argues that prevention and efficiencies within the system—one of the current nostrums—have a real, but finally limited capacity to save money. Would user fees prevent unnecessary use? When I fell off my bike twenty years ago should I have been charged for the quick trip to outpatients to be told that I had a cracked rib, but there was no treatment? Maybe, though it only took two minutes to give me the information I needed, and it would have cost something to do the book-keeping for any fee.

Some doctors will tell you contemporary medicine is plagued by overdiagnosis. Any new gimmick will tend to make every doctor feel he must use it. Maybe we will learn to use the new techniques more selectively. The demographic situation—too many old not enough young—will improve eventually, though not soon.

But finally, there are two options, increased taxes and rationing of care. We already ration care in small ways. Drug coverage varies in various parts of the country. Not every hospital in every rural area has all the latest technology. But eventually rationing of care will tend to destroy faith in the system itself.

And so? We need increased efficiency and also an increase in taxes, whether a health care tax of some sort or an increase in the overall tax rate. Think of it as a rise in insurance premiums. A necessity in a civilized country. Live with it.

A Brilliant World

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A brisk August wind, whitecaps on the Strait: a certain kind of day that makes me think about summer and the way its momentary intensities emerge, declare themselves: this, now. A couple of years ago I wrote a late summer column about such moments of intensity. Say I repeat myself, well, that’s the nature of summer, not the steady slog of the cold part of the year, but moments of epiphany.

It’s early July. In front of me as I sit on the ground in the shade of a large tree is the Tea Hill beach. Low tide, and strips of sand punctuated by shallow pools of water lead the eye toward the horizon, the bathers standing, walking, sitting in deck chairs, the images growing tinier further out on the sand flats, silhouettes, each miniscule figure looking like a something quickly sketched in black ink on a luminous background.

Those who are actually swimming are far off, virtually invisible beyond the little stick figures who have walked the long distance out toward the water of the Strait. Closer up a young woman in a bikini struts past the children playing in the shallows and then vanishes in the scatter of bodies. Little family groups gather together. An ochre umbrella catches the light.

Summer again, the season of luminous fragments, special events. The way summer is. We can walk more slowly, observe at leisure, sit and wait, and the fierce intensity of the hot sun stirs the brain. We are suddenly like tourists visiting our own lives.

In Charlottetown one day I left the car parked on Pownal Street and walked up toward the area of the Confederation Centre, the location of my bank, drugstore, other places where I’m likely to have errands. By the corner of Queen and Richmond stood a new Gerald Beaulieu sculpture of a bluefin tuna, a couple of meters long, a gleaming metal figure, both realistic and iconic, the scales made of an assemblage of stainless steel spoons that catch and reflect the summer light, a kind of material pun like Beaulieu’s field of grain I saw exhibited at the Confederation centre, the stalks of grain created, as far as I could tell, from commercial cereal products. Now I watch for the great fish each time I pass.

In the middle of the summer a day comes when the red currants are ready for picking. I first got to know the fruit when I was ten years old. Behind my father’s workshop were raspberries and red and black currants planted by the previous owners. My mother made red currant jelly, still my favourite preserve.

Something like fifty years later I moved to a house in Eldon and found a row of red currants growing at the back of the garden. Planted at the edge of the property, an untended wilderness behind them, they are overgrown, cluttered with bindweed, nightshade, goldenrod. I have struggled to thin them in the past, and should do it again, but it would involve crawling among the bushes on my hands and knees once the mosquitoes are gone, a job easily postponed.

But in spite of weeds and the lack of pruning, they bear well most years, and we bend and kneel and hunch and fill pots and pans with the red berries. The berries, which hang in clusters, come away in handfuls. Each is a shiny sphere of scarlet reflecting light, splashed with the brilliance of the hot July sun overhead.

Later, sitting in the kitchen picking off stems, I notice that if I look carefully each berry reflects the window behind me, captures all the features of the room like a spherical mirror dyed red.

Then comes the slow rendering of juice through muslin. I recall from childhood my mother’s jelly bag on the kitchen table. I anticipate the sweet tang of the crimson jelly.

Second by brilliant second the world makes itself manifest.

Precious Jewels

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

A jewel box: I have the idea that the phrase has been used for both the buildings I am remembering, one in Paris and one in Venice, each of them built as a shrine to contain a miraculous object.

Neither is unknown or even especially obscure. Any guidebook to Paris will tell you about la Sainte-Chapelle. The lovely gothic chapel was built in 1248 for Louis IX, who was later canonized for his piety and good works. He had purchased at great price relics including Christ’s crown of thorns, and the chapel was created to house them. The building is surrounded by parts of the Palais de Justice, and the first time I saw it—during one of the periods when Paris was under siege by Algerian extremists—entry was through a police station and metal detectors.

The lower level of the La Sainte-Chapelle is dim and bare and was used by commoners, but the upper chapel, which was reserved for the royal family and members of their court, is a long, narrow, room with a high arched ceiling, the walls constructed of narrow stone columns, between them slender windows of stained glass illustrating biblical history. The effect is of walls of light, a lace of colour rising all around you. As the day passes by the sunlight strikes the stained glass at different angles and with varying intensity, and different colours dominate. I have sat there at an afternoon concert and watched the greens and yellows fade and the blues intensify, with accents of red among them. The first time I heard a live performance of Schubert’s wonderful C major string quintet was in La Sainte Chapelle. Years ago, when I was visiting Paris alone, a chamber music group performing played an unidentified encore, and I was charmed to find a pretty young women making her way over to ask me if I knew what it was. A German girl I thought, though we were speaking French. As to the music, I could only guess.

It was in 2002 that I first discovered Venice’s renaissance equivalent of the Parisian gothic masterpiece. It is a small church called Santa Maria dei Miracoli, built in the late fifteenth century to house a painting of the Virgin standing in a field of flowers, the Christ Child in her arms. Originally the painting hung at a street corner nearby. It became celebrated in the summer of 1480 after bringing about the miraculous healing of a woman who had been stabbed by a relative. A chapel to house the wonder-working image was consecrated in 1489 and assigned to the Clares, an order of nuns. A walkway over the adjacent street allowed them to enter the choir balcony unseen. The building’s frame is rectangular with a barrel vault roof and a dome over the chancel. The forms and lines are in the ancient style based on squares and rectangles, circles and semicircles, the proportions in the manner of Greek and Roman classicism, an architecture which was beginning to be widely imitated in Italy at the time. The elegance of the form is emphasized by the polychrome stone sheathing of the entire building, both inside and out, stone of grey, white, pink, sheets of variegated marble. Like la Sainte-Chapelle, Santa Maria dei Mircaoli endured damage over time and secular centuries. Much of the original sheathing was destroyed in the era of church pillaging, but the nineteenth century renovations are said to be appropriate. The church is not large and seems no longer to be used as a place of worship. A narrow street passes one side of it, a narrow canal the other, and the overall effect of a supremely elegant miniature.

Two classics, one the embodiment of mediaeval aspiration, the other neoclassical solidity and refinement: I could tell you about another small church, now abandoned, on the light-struck shores of the St Lawrence, but that’s for another day.

Comic and Touching

Sense and Sensibility

Review by David Helwig

A world premiere, that’s what we’re watching in North Rustico on this July evening as the lights go up on an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility by Duncan McIntosh, the artistic director of the Montgomery Theatre. A couple of hours later the audience is enthusiastically applauding the intelligent adaptation and the fine playing of the ensemble cast.

There is a lot of uncertainty about the date of composition of Jane Austen’s early novels, evidence that both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice existed in some form years before they were published. What is certain is that Sense and Sensibility was the first of her novels to appear in print and that its success led to the publication of the later books. But it has the earmarks of an early novel, more signs of effort, more doors left open.

Duncan McIntosh in his adaptation takes the wise approach of not trying to be smarter than Jane Austen. She was a master of dialogue and the shaping of a scene, of the exploration of both the comic and serious implications of an action. Her story of two sisters, Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, who are just reaching maturity and struggling to find an approach to the world and a proper place in it, is told pretty much as it exists in the book. Of course the action must move more quickly in a two hour play than it does in a three volume novel, and scenes from the book are cut shorter and move along at high speed.

Having reread the novel before attending the play, I found the somewhat complicated plot that unfurled on stage perfectly comprehensible, but I wondered if the same was true of those who didn’t know the book. Well, the audience did seem to laugh in all the right places.

The script’s one obvious weakness is in the opening scene. Much exposition is to be done, and the invented scene of incomprehensible farce didn’t pay its way. The muddle got cleared up in the next scene, and from that moment on, the story raced along. Later in the play, there are a couple of intensely dramatic moments which make brilliant use of some highly theatrical techniques, lines sometimes delivered by a whole group of performers, and the effectiveness of this made me wonder if such a technique might have offered a more elegant solution for the opening exposition.

The theatre must somehow replace the mind with the body.

A novel takes place in the imagination, a play on a real stage with real people. In one interesting result of such real presences, the Montgomery version of Sense and Sensibility gave an odd but effective twist to the love affair between Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, the actors a little older than the characters in the book so that the awkward love scenes became more wholly comic.

As to individual performances, the acting was so consistent and accomplished that I hesitate to pick out any single actor for praise. The simple set changes on the thrust stage were often handled by cast members, a couple of actors played two parts, and the overall effect was of a finely tuned performing ensemble, each one doing what was required at every moment.

Yes, on the whole a satisfying and entertaining evening at the theatre, both comic and touching.

And you can’t get to see it anywhere else. Not yet.

Saddled with Debt

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

As I type this, the keyboard in front of me is the standard arrangement invented in the late nineteenth century. Typewriters have given way to personal computers but the QWERTY keyboard has endured, not because it is inevitable or even necessarily the best, but because it’s everybody’s habit. It’s a classic example of inertia. It’s easier to accept things than to change them.

I was prompted to think about these subjects by the student demonstrations in Montreal. I don’t have any unique insight into those events, but the dispute over increasing university fees reminded me how uneasy I feel about the fact that we send more than half of our university graduates into the world saddled by debt.

It seems wrong. The years after university graduation are the years in which men and women make the choices that define their lives, and to start with a load of debt surely puts a brake on the imagination and hustle of young people who are entering the most vigorous stage of their existence. Yes, the young are endlessly hopeful and many of them will achieve things in spite of the mortgage they carry with them. The luckiest will do it with ease, but it still seems wrong to me.

According to a paper published by Statistics Canada—an institution which we should all make use of before Steven Harper takes it away from us altogether, preferring as he does ill-informed and easily manipulated voters—most borrowers do pay off their students loans, and most do benefit from the education they borrowed for. They fare better in the labour market. But, the paper says, borrowers are “less likely to have savings and investments, or own their own homes.” So while those lucky enough to have sufficient family support are getting jobs and beginning to save, those with substantial loans are getting jobs and paying off the loans, thus maintaining the gap between richer and poorer.

Let’s suppose I am right, and the student loan system is not the best available; what is to be done? The student loan program began in 1964, and since that time there have been significant changes in universities and their relationship to society. By now the system is entrenched. Degrees are thought necessary for many jobs which were once served by on-the-job training. A high school friend of mine became comptroller of a large Toronto hotel before I had finished my undergraduate courses. These days we seem to be getting to the point you need an MBA to become a bootlegger.

Can we change the keyboard? Starting where? A change in one part of educational financing would make necessary changes in other parts. Which string must we pull to untangle the knot?

Well, between 1989 and 2009 government funding for universities fell from 72% of their income to 55%. In the same period tuition went up. So we might start a crusade to increase the funding to universities. But it’s not an idea which is likely to find much support these days. The fashion is for punishing anyone who can be targeted in the name of economic rectitude. And I remember how in the 1960s I published a speculative and idealistic essay on universities. People who read the essay took it as saying close to the opposite of what I intended, assimilated it to ideas current for other reasons. Crusades go astray.

I type QWERTY on the keyboard and stare at the arrangement, think about the Quebec students on the streets.

Educational level, say the statisticians, is the strongest correlate of employment and income levels. It’s no secret that children raised in families with financial security have an easier time of it. The student loan system is meant to even things out.

Well maybe it does, a little. But I remain sceptical. Half of the students who get college degrees start adult life with a significant debt. Are you telling me that’s OK?

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