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View of Venice

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

The aircraft carries us through the darkness. Thirty thousand feet below is the planet Earth, the north Atlantic a vast invisible presence.

My first trip from North America to Europe was in 1960, on a steamship. Now everyone makes the journey by plane, most often at night. Where we live on Prince Edward Island, we hear the aircraft pass by high overhead, see their lights among the stars when the sky is clear.

A long causeway carries our bus from the airport to a terminus in one corner of an island city. In the parking area are other buses, cars, construction rigs, but once we drag our suitcases over a small pedestrian bridge that straddles a narrow canal we enter another world.


Many writers have made the point that Venice has been the exotic goal of travel for so many and for so long, that there is nothing original left to say about it. Still, wandering through the maze of narrow streets, sometimes no more than a yard wide, crossing little bridges over arteries of green water, coming on a small stone-paved square where dogs and children play, the temptation is irresistible—to capture this, to record the sunlight or rainlight with words or camera or paint—though everywhere you look you must be aware that dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands have observed this very location.

School tours arrive daily at the railway station from other towns and cities, and gangs of children cross the Scalzi bridge near the station and vanish into the maze. Three schoolboys crowd together in a nook by a bridge to make a photograph of this day of their lives.

The guidebooks will tell you stories of Casanova, who was born here, of Lord Byron, who loved Venice, of Napoleon Bonaparte who hated it.

Here the unique is the usual, and the usual seems suddenly unique.

Reynaldo, the effervescent older man who supervises breakfast at our hotel, makes the best cappuccino in Venice and wears, inexplicably, two pairs of glasses at the same time. Like all the hotel staff he is fluent in at least five languages.

Late one afternoon, we are sitting outside a restaurant by the Canal di Canareggio, when I notice a bearded young man in a ten-foot motorboat with his two or three year old daughter as a passenger, putt-putt-putting along home from nursery school.

On a previous trip I discovered that at the north end of the city, it is sometimes possible to see the snowy tips of the Dolomite mountains, but this week the mountains are all but invisible in haze. At the edge of the lagoon a boy and girl sit side by side, their legs hanging over the concrete abutment toward the green water.

Every evening a line of young African men is strung out along the edge of a wide thoroughfare, each one presenting, on the paving stones in front of him, a selection of purses, Prada and Gucci knockoffs for sale to the gullible.

One morning, as we ride down the Grand Canal on the crowded vaporetto, I notice a long black gondola on the water beside us, a young man standing on the gondolier’s perch at the back of the boat, gripping the long wooden oar that impels and steers the elegant craft. In front of him, in the body of the boat, stands a sturdy man of middle age, his arms spread, delivering instructions. Gondoliers, I realize, have to be taught, and this is a recruit taking a lesson in his new job.

On the day of departure, we stand on the dock waiting for the boat to the airport. Disembarking into the city of memories come three old men, two women with canes. And I remember, as we return to the sky and to another life, a handsome white-haired woman in the wide Campo di San Polo blowing bubbles to amuse a little boy in red rubber boots.

Kurelek’s Passion

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

What started this was an article in the most recent edition of Canadian Art, an essay by the critic Peter Goddard on the paintings of William Kurelek, whose work is on display in a new touring show.

Kurelek, the eldest child of Ukrainian immigrants, was born in 1927 in Alberta. His family moved to Manitoba after they lost their farm during the Depression. Kurelek had a difficult childhood, bullied at school, his consuming interest in art meeting only disapproval from his parents. In 1952, while living in England after a tour of Europe during which he had discovered the visionary work of Bosch and Brueghel, he had a breakdown and was treated for clinical depression and schizophrenia. Some of his earliest paintings were done while he was in hospital. In 1957, partly under the influence of an occupational therapist he met during his therapy, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Back in Canada, he made a living as a picture framer for the Isaacs Gallery, and his work was exhibited there alongside the best-known artists of the time. His paintings were often difficult, quirky, or visionary and obsessive, though before his early death (from cancer in 1977) he became famous for brilliant children’s books like A Prairie Boy’s Winter.

On my shelves is a book called The Passion of Christ According to St Matthew, a collection of 160 paintings, three year’s work, in which Kurelek illustrates the story of the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The book came to me from my father, who had discovered a gallery in Niagara Falls which had been built to display the series. Once when visiting my parents in Niagara-on-the-Lake, I went there with him. He had become friendly with the owners, and I was able to spend some time surveying the work.

Kurelek’s Passion—parts of it currently on view on the internet—though it is studious in its historical detail, makes use of startling modern conventions, a consistent flattening of the figures into images that evoke folk art or even cartoons, with an expressive use of perspective, not unlike the techniques of comic books. Or imagine the inventive composition of contemporary photography. For all the obvious sincerity and religious commitment of the work, it would not be amiss to refer to the book as a graphic novel, and it isn’t just the subject that lends it weight, but also the intense expressiveness of the pictorial technique.

It reminds me of how the Gospels, for all their deliberate shaping of their dramatic and compelling story to pious and doctrinal ends, are remarkable for their credible detail. Take the story of Peter’s denial. A pious lesson perhaps, but the actual narrative is also a realistic tale of how weakly embarrassed human beings can be. What would you do if one of your friends was arrested and accused of some terrible crime? And when Peter’s involvment is suggested by a brash young woman, a household servant, a pretty girl perhaps, how much harder for him to avoid a pusillanimous denial.

Writing this during what Christians call Holy Week, the days between Palm Sunday and Easter when the events that are at the core of Christianity receive their annual retelling, I find that the Kurelek narrative inevitably summons up another work of art with almost the same title, J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion, one of the musical masterpieces of the western tradition. The Bach Passion, written for performance on Good Friday, ends with music of sad reflection after the body of Jesus is placed in the tomb. Kurelek’s version follows the gospel account onward to its later events, the discovery by the disciples of the resurrection, the empty tomb guarded by an angel (who in this version evokes the angels of another quirky artist, William Blake). Kurelek’s Passion narrative may not in the end be a masterpiece at Bach’s level, but the mixture of talent, eccentricity and sincerity has its own kind of exaltation.

The Whole Truth

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

When I was young and brash I liked to say that in Canadian biographies there was a kind of prim censorship by which the subject’s sex life was avoided or elided, and the result was that the meaning of the whole life (the spiritual life may have been the phrase I used), was missed out as well. In the last few months biographies have appeared about three people that I know or knew, two dead, one still much alive. Two of the books are biographies, the other an autobiographical memoir, two of the subjects are gay, one straight, and all three books do their best to tell the whole truth.

Where There’s Smoke is a memoir by William B Davis, a Canadian actor and director, who found himself, after a career in and around theatre, unexpectedly famous when he was cast as The Cigarette Smoking Man in The X-Files. Bill Davis has been a friend of mine since the late 1950s when we met at university, and while we have sometimes been out of touch, it has been a long and amicable relationship. I have known, in the way friends do, the outlines of Bill’s very lively sex life, met his first wife and his second wife and some of his other lovers. He presents himself as a man who likes women but is not famous for long-term commitments. His theatre career was also marked by a lot of changes, some deliberate, some imposed by circumstance. His favourite recreation is skiing, both downhill and the water-skiing—obviously he’s a man who likes to keep moving—and his way of thinking about the world, rational, detached, sceptical, is of a piece with a life of thoughtful hedonism.

Then there’s Edward Lacey, the subject of a biography called Lost Passport. I met him too at the University of Toronto. He was a brilliant student of languages, a talented poet and a notable eccentric. His life, as recounted by Fraser Sutherland, much of it paraphrased from Lacey’s poems and brilliant letters to friends, was wildly impulsive and disorderly. He spent much of it outside Canada, roving from one country to another, drunk, embattled, the mind fizzing and crackling like a room on fire. He hated winter and he hated Canada. The only child of a small town lawyer, he inherited money and quickly ran through it. His poems were mostly self-published, but then he had another career as a translator of fiction for a gay press in San Francisco. Run over by a car while lying drunk on a road in Bangkok, he was repatriated to Canada. After time in various hospitals he moved to a room in a subsidized boarding house, where he died of a heart attack. He believed in nothing except perhaps poetry and naked honesty.

I met John Hirsch, whose life in recounted in Fiery Soul, a new biography by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, when he was running the television drama department of the CBC. He hired me, and I worked for him for two years. Jewish, Hungarian by birth, he had survived the Holocaust, though the rest of his immediate family perished. Adopted by a Winnipeg family to whom he remained loyally committed all his life, he began his career with a puppet theatre and went on to found the Manitoba Theatre Center. By the time of his death from AIDS in 1989, he was widely known in Canada and the USA as a brilliant and difficult theatre director. He believed in theatre the way some people believe in God. He was something of a genius, something of a monster. He changed my life.

Biography is a difficult art. Maybe it’s got to do with current standards, but all of these books avoid censorship and awkward elisions, and in each the reader is offered a glimpse of an accomplished, fallible, laughing, suffering human being. New presences in the haunted corridors of our history.

Possible Book Deal

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Jane Austen is ubiquitous these days, book clubs named for her, a new mystery novel by P.D. James presenting itself as a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, TV adaptations, movies derived in one way and another from her books or her life. I’ve heard of at least two Jane Austen Book Clubs just on the Island. Certainly her novels bear any amount of rereading. To go back to them is like going back to the clarity and beauty of Mozart or Haydn. Pride and Prejudice remains light, bright and sparkling, Mansfield Park continues enigmatic and unsettling, while Emma endures as a perfect piece of work, both scintillating and dangerous.

Last Christmas, one of the presents under our tree, was a set of DVDs of a British television production derived from the fictional adventures of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower. Hornblower is a young man who is finding his way to success in the British Navy around Jane Austen’s time, the era of the Napoleonic wars. There are other popular novels that cover the same territory, including Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin series.

So there we were over the following weeks watching Hornblower sailing into action against the French, all cannons firing, and I got thinking about the power of the British Navy in the period. The true traditions of the British Navy, Winston Churchill once said, were “rum, buggery, and the lash.” The Hornblower series is effective in its portrayal of rum and the lash at least.

But I started out with Jane Austen, so what’s the connection? Answer: the life of her brother, two brothers, in fact. Her brother Frank, a year older than she was, and her brother Charles, four years younger, both entered the navy in their youth and ended their lives as admirals.

Two of her novels, Mansfield Park and Persuasion, involve naval characters, and their professional background, arrivals and departures, rising in the world, the importance of political influence in the making of their careers, are given the precise delineation of something well known to the author. Jane Austen was fond of her brothers, in particular her brother Frank, and he often appears in her letters. It was Jane who wrote to tell him of the death of their father.

The family were always on the lookout for news of him. A quotation from Jane Austen’s letter to her sister November 8, 1800: “Mr Holder’s paper tells us that sometime in last August, Capt: Austen & the Petterell were very active in securing a Turkish ship (driven into a Port in Cyprus by bad weather) from the French. He was forced to burn her however. You will see the account in the Sun I dare say.”

I find myself imagining that as a scene from one of the Hornblower films, cannons booming, the British crew going over the side to board and take control of the other ship, men with swords fighting and bleeding. The captain of the British ship, would in the usual way of things, have made a significant profit by taking the Turkish ship as a prize, but not in this case; he was somehow forced to burn it instead. In another of the Jane Austen letters she mentions a naval officer, Sir Edward Pellew who had a role in her brother’s life. C. S. Forester would later import him from history to play a significant role in the Hornblower fictions.

So here’s an idea for someone to develop, yours for free. Imagine an historical novel about the life and career of Frank Austen. Write about the adventurous life at sea, the visits to his unmarried sisters, Cassandra and Jane, who were often to be found in the company of his wife Mary. Record how Mary Austen gave birth to seven children in ten years and died. How Frank Austen later remarried, and having outlived two wives, survived to the age of 92.

Wouldn’t it make a splendid book?

David Helwig’s most recent book is a novella, Killing McGee.

Trimming the Fat

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

On a winter morning, my sharp steel knife is cutting through stewing beef, trimming off bits of fat and gristle, preparing the meat to go into the iron Dutch Oven, which is heating on the stove, ready to brown the chunks of meat before they are mixed with vegetables and spices and set to stew for the day, eight hours or so at a very low temperature. A stew boiled is a stew spoiled they say.

As I stand there, a cooking apron tied on over my dressing gown, I remember that before I got out of bed into the dim morning, I was dreaming of Roy Constable. Nearly sixty years back, I worked in large grocery store where Roy was manager of the butcher shop. The other butcher was George Swan, an ill-tempered Scot with a steel plate in his head.

I have written before about Roy and George, an essay called “Presences” in my book Living Here. The essay is, I suppose, about a youngster learning to read the odd byways of adult life, though it never says that explicitly, but the two men were a generation or more older than I was, and as regular help in the butcher shop in the summers and sometimes on weekends, I was implicated in the small conflicts and collisions that took place.

Trimming stewing beef or the tag ends of meat that were ground up for hamburger was the kind of job I did, and I remember how George, the older of the two men, once proprietor of his own butcher shop, would instruct me not to cut off too much fat and not to pick out only the lean bits when selecting hamburger to grind for a customer. Roy, he suggested, did that to win people over. He wanted them to like him. George never much cared whether anybody liked him, and his shrewd, pawky Scots nature dictated a significant amount of fat must drop into the grinder and add a few pennies to the store’s profit. What we were there for.

So as I trimmed my stewing beef, excising the fat—paid for and now to be thrown out—I thought of Roy and George and the way of the world. After George left the store a new butcher brought a new approach, ground hamburger perked up with substantial amounts of the bright red meat of an old bull. Deceptive, but it looked good.

That was business as I learned about it, that and observing my father’s hard work and the related financial struggles. Now I live in a world where free enterprise has become a religion. The business schools make it all sound upscale and professional, methods of financing based on complicated mathematical tricks, but I can’t help but recall the butcher shop of my teen-aged years.

I’m certain small businesses still face a struggle. Many go broke. No doubt some attain success by deals in which they are perceptive, imaginative and brave. But most people are still selling their time and their labour for what they can get. I like to remember my father’s story from the years when he was on the road with a gang of men selling door to door. It was the Dirty Thirties, and this was the only work they could find. One of the salesmen, determined to bring in a few dollars, began his day by taking out his false teeth, so that he arrived at the door of each house with a sadly collapsed mouth. It got him sympathy sales. It was a hungry time, and I hope the little trick made him a few dollars. Maybe as times got better he was able to find work he could do with his teeth in.

When I think about business I don’t immediately remember big names, Frank Stronach, or Steve Jobs, or RIM. I’m more likely to call to mind George Swan and the fat in the hamburger.

Father’s Hands

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

It stands in a corner of the front room, seven feet tall, simple and elegant, a walnut corner cupboard with glass panels in the top doors, a drawer, and two lower doors with wood panels. With its old fashioned shellac finish it has a rich dark glow, and in the dim interior of the upper section stand a few things I wish to protect and remember.

The drawer narrows toward the back to fit the shape of the cupboard, and on the outside of it is written the name of the cupboard’s maker, the date of its manufacture, and a bit of incidental information. The name is William G. Helwig. It was made by my father in June of 1951.

Woodwork was the family trade. At 17 my grandfather went to work at the Knechtel Furniture factory, which had been founded by his uncle. By the time my father was in school, my grandfather was superintendent of one of the Knechtel factories in Hanover, Ontario. At 16, my father walked out of school and went to the factory looking for a job.

“Give him a job,” his father said, “he’ll soon be ready to go back.”

But he didn’t go back. At 22 he was selling and installing store fixtures in Montreal. That was 1929, and within a few months the company was going out of business and my father was living on coffee and doughnuts. He got back to Toronto and spent the Depression selling insurance, Electrolux vacuum cleaners, finally subscriptions to the Toronto Star.

At the end of the Hitler war, he had a regular job at DeHavilland aircraft, and after the war he went back to the family trade and began a business manufacturing small pieces of office furniture. Then a summer holiday changed everything. We were spending a week at a small summer resort run by my mother’s brother, and my parents met someone who knew someone who wanted to sell a business in Niagara-on-the-Lake where they repaired and refinished and sold antique furniture.

In 1948 we moved to the quiet town of Niagara and my father began the work that he continued until he was over seventy. He never made a fortune, but between rent from parts of the house, my mother’s part-time work as a book-keeper, and his long hours, they survived. At first he continued manufacturing oak waste baskets for Grand and Toy, even had one or two people working for him, but finally he found it easiest to work alone, repairing and refinishing fine old furniture.

What he didn’t do, mostly, was make furniture. The price of a handmade piece was more than most people wanted to pay. But in 1951 a woman who lived in Niagara Falls came to him with the idea that he might design and build her a corner cupboard, a unique piece, just the size and shape she needed. He agreed. Thirty years or so later, my father got an unexpected phone call. The woman who had commissioned the piece was leaving her home for a small apartment, and she had the idea that he might like to buy it back. So he did. After the death of my parents the corner cupboard came to me.

For this unique piece my father had on hand some ancient walnut, cut in the Niagara district in 1780, air-dried for 150 years. It is of a remarkable colour and texture, very different from commercial kiln-dried walnut.

Around the glass panels of the doors, this hard, ancient wood is decorated with a narrow bead. I know how it was done, with a simple, home-made tool my father invented. I’ve used the same trick myself.

Yes, we all come and go, and our things sometimes outlive us. In the long ways of the future perhaps some great-grandson will study the cupboard and picture my father’s hands at work creating it.

David Helwig’s newest book is a novella, Killing McGee.

MacInnis’ Millions

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I was living in Montreal when the 1992 selection of Best Canadian Stories, which I edited each year with my daughter Maggie, arrived in the mail from Oberon Press. The cover art chosen by the publishers was a bright and whimsical drawing by Stephen B. MacInnis, an odd and charming image with a hint of cartoon and folk art about it.

Four or five years later I moved to PEI and discovered that Stephen MacInnis lived and worked in Charlottetown; we would run into him now and then at local events. I saw more of his vivid and slightly magical images in galleries. We bought a pencil drawing from a one-day sale, at an outrageously low price, and it hangs on our wall, in the pine frame I made for it.

I think it was in Beanz one day a year or so ago now that a couple of bright framed abstracts caught my attention. They led me to get up from my chair and walk closer to study them from close up. Stephen MacInnis again, and the pictures struck me as even more satisfying than the images of vividly odd and unlikely figures I had been seeing.

As part of a current show, The Confederation  Centre Art Gallery has on display until March a thousand such abstracts by Stephen McInnis, and they continue to excite me. All of the pieces in the gallery show are created on sheets of paper twelve inches square. The artist explains on one hand-lettered sheet how he began working on paper of that size on January 23, 2009, because it was available and he liked the challenge of going back again and again to the same format. It was also a format in which he could work comfortably while part of his life was taken up with two small children. (His daughter seems to have had a hand in at least one of them.) He had a box just the right size to contain the completed works, and he decided fill it; then he went on with the series, and decided to put them on sale for $100 each. Belatedly, MacInnis discovered that Julian Schnabel, the American artist and film-maker, had done something similar, but in his case it was a thousand drawings at a thousand dollars each.

All this suggests an intriguing combination of practicality, whimsy, and perhaps increasingly, obsession. The one foot square works have continued to pile up, and work number 500, which is the hand-printed summary of the project, tells us that he has in mind to produce 10,000 such works, his own million dollars worth of art.

In the current show of the first 1000, one wall of the gallery displays 126 sheets (by my count) unframed and highly varied in technique. MacInnis describes how he began with drawings but gradually moved on to mixed media, combining drawing, painting and collage.

A few feet from that busy wall stands a plastic display case that contains a heap of several hundred more painted sheets of paper. On a low platform loose drawings are piled in samples of the square boxes where MacInnis began to store them. A few pieces are on display framed, the plain black frame and white mat accenting the liveliness, skill and power of each one. The series shows some leaning toward bright primary colours, a lot of brilliant reds and blues. While entirely abstract, the foot square objects are expressions of a fine and subtle sense of design. There is something both fascinating and outrageous about the whole idea, but if this is conceptual art, it is a concept offering a springboard for the achievements of a skilled hand and eye.

Studying the individual pieces reminded me of the day I saw some of them (or something very like them) on the wall at Beanz, and voting with my feet went to see them close up. One way of saying yes.

Something to Re-read

The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

I recently decided to reread, after fifty years, Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. It is a long novel—814 close-printed pages in my copy, the story first published as a serial, a complicated, sensational and suspenseful tale appearing in monthly parts, a bit like a certain kind of television series.

More than one of Dickens’s novels has been adapted for TV. The most gripping and enchanting, the one that catches the energy and theatricality of the young Dickens, the high spirits that made him famous, is the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Nicholas Nickleby, a video record of their brilliant eight hour long stage adaptation, performed live in two long parts, with a break for dinner between.

By 1846, though his most recent novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, had shown a falling off in sales, Dickens was growing rich from Nickleby and the other early books. When the monthly parts of Dombey and Son began to appear in the fall of 1846, the first number sold something over thirty-thousand copies, and the success increased as the book went on, even though it is a darker book than the previous ones.

The publication in parts over a year and a half had some strange effects. When the Scottish critic Lord Jeffery sent a letter to express apprehension over where part of the story might be going, Dickens reassured him and explained a brand new plot idea invented in response to his letter. While the book was clearly begun with an overall plan, the narrative was also a series of monthly improvisations. In its early stages Dickens was struggling to complete the material required by the printer while at the same time writing his annual Christmas book.

Like almost all of Dickens’ books, Dombey and Son is a mixture of intense drama (sometimes melodrama) with scenes of sentiment (sometimes sentimentality) and with comedy, both kindly and satirical. The story reflects the odd byways of the city of London. Ships come and go in the docks. City housing is torn down to make way for the new railways. An old woman who calls herself Good Mrs Brown steals young Florence Dombey’s expensive clothes to sell them, and leaves the girl in rags.

Dickens’ grotesques, good and bad, always display a startling a range of verbal inventiveness, some with the magical energy of folk tale or nursery rhyme, but apart from Captain Cuttle, those in Dombey and Son are not among his best creations.

At the core of the book is Mr Dombey, rich, powerful, respectable and respected. Obsessed with his own power and position, he ignores and mistreats his daughter, pays little attention to his first wife and expects to enslave the second. Dombey’s business manager, James Carker, says of him that he is “the slave of his own greatness…yoked to his own triumphal car like a beast of burden.” His only feeling is for his son, who will be part of Dombey and Son, will justify its name, but the weird, gentle boy, a curiously wise, observant creature, is weak and unhealthy, and he dies in childhood.

The complex triangular relationship of the proud Dombey, his loving and long-suffering daughter, Florence, and the darkly proud lost soul who becomes his second wife, becomes the core of the plot. Edith Dombey, the second wife, has unwisely chosen the bleak prostitution of a mercenary marriage, although she is too intelligent and perceptive not to understand exactly what she has done and to suffer for it as her affection for her step-daughter becomes a weapon against her. Eventually she runs off, assisted by the villainous Carker.

Escape, abandonment, death: the dramatic scenes have a chilling concentration. Though showing off the usual Dickensian omnium gatherum of narrative fireworks and finally ending with forgiveness and consolation, Dombey and Son, I thought as I once more turned the pages, also achieves some of the inwardness and intensity, of a certain kind of tragedy.

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