In “Gifts,” one of the stories now gathered in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, the collected stories of Norman Levine, the protagonist, a writer, meets two men and a woman at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. These strangers introduce themselves and claim to like his writing, chatting for a while. Then Julie, the woman in the group, says:
I have only read a few of your stories in magazines. I like the way you describe the small details of everyday life. But if I may make one criticism—you don’t make use of fantasy. If you could have fantasy in your stories then you would reach a wider audience.
The protagonist takes no offense at the comment, and later, after they have invited him to visit their room, sharing in champagne, the trio reveal they have recently robbed a branch of the Bank of Montreal. Someone robbing a bank, or anything as dramatic, is a weird moment in a Levine story, and given Julie’s prior suggestion in the narrative, extremely funny. It’s as if Levine, aware of the lack of car chases in his fiction, has accommodated his character’s criticism with a dramatic invention. One can’t help but feel he is giving us a wink too. These self-referential pages are revealing if one is trying to unlock the style and substance of what constitutes a story by Norman Levine, or to resolve some of the mystery as to why this meticulous, consummate writer received little attention during his lifetime, a source of frustration to Levine fans and scholars.
His enthusiasts know the biography. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Minsk, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa's district of Lower Town—occupied then by mostly French and Irish Catholics—before being sent to England as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he attended McGill University and published two poetry collections before his first novel, The Angled Road (1952) and a memoir, Canada Made Me in 1958 (“My writing begins with that book,” Levine would write). For some critics, this book is considered the main reason for Levine’s neglect in Canadian letters. Written as a three-month journey across the country, Levine’s recollections and portraits are less than flattering, depicting a gritty, desolate, working-class panorama of mid-century Canada. He writes: “No one is really a stranger in Canada if he was brought up in a small town. They remain so much the same across the country: a vast repetition, not only of the Main Street, the side-streets, the railway track, the river; but the same dullness and boredom."
A product of both honesty and bad timing, this account did not sit well with the nationalist cultural cheerleaders who, in the following decade, were engaged in improving the perception of Canada leading up to its centenary year of Confederation in 1967. In the Foreward to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, John Metcalf includes the obituary he wrote for The Independent on Levine’s death in 2005, in which he argues that Canada “never recognized Levine’s amazing talent and achievement” and “never forgave” him for the publication of Canada Made Me. Levine did not publish another book in his own country for seventeen years. Discouraged by the lack of reception and frustrated by the feeling that “there wasn’t enough going on,” Levine moved to England, settled in Cornwall, and save for a few stints as Writer-in-Residence at universities in Fredericton and Toronto, never lived in Canada again.
But he continued to publish what became his legacy: the short stories. Levine’s reputation rests on these, many of which saw their first appearance in the Sunday Times, New Statesman, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue throughout the 1970s and 80s. Important collections followed, notably I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well (1971), Champagne Barn (1984), Something Happened Here (1991), and his final book The Ability to Forget in 2003.
Throughout these volumes, Levine’s stories share familiar details. With some exceptions, the setting is either St. Ives or Ottawa. There are the same locales: a mother’s home for the elderly, the Chateau Laurier, Rideau Bakery, the Cornish landscape, the country roads and cheap accommodations. Likewise, the core characters, sometimes with a name change, remain the writer-protagonist (always short on money, always scraping together just enough to pay the overdue bills), his patient wife (Emily, Marie, Coral) and an elderly mother. First-person point of view predominates; occasionally the third is used, as in “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice” or “A Small Piece of Blue.” It is also consistent for the main character to be arriving from somewhere else. “On Thursday morning the train arrived at Sault Ste. Marie,” begins “A Small Piece of Blue.” “I got into Riverside as the first grey light of the dawn came,” begins another.
...I came back to Ottawa...
...in the spring we left London...
...I had returned to Ottawa from the West...
In the winter of 1965 I decided to go for a few months to a small town in Northern Ontario.
Levine seemed to appreciate the psychological and dramatic consequences of transit, when the mind must shift between fixed emotional points, exposing tensions between the present and the past.
These details are all, for the most part, recognizable from Levine’s own life. Some critics and fellow writers have pointed out the thin divide between Levine’s personal history and his “fiction.” In a contribution to the anthology of essays on writing, How Stories Mean, Levine has stated of his stories: “…in writing them I tried to be as close as possible to what I had seen and felt.” Metcalf, in an afterword to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, titled “Kaddish,” offers:
One cannot usually read fiction with any assumption that it is autobiographical. Norman’s stories, however, are unusual in that invention is not his real interest; a little judicious rearrangement is often as far as he is prepared to go.
It seems likely from Levine’s own comments that many of the characters and situations are based heavily on real people and events, but shuffled occasionally to suit the structural tensions in the story. Characters drawn from life may never have met there. Another essay from How Stories Mean, on the writing of “A Small Piece of Blue,” bears this out. In the story, the protagonist has taken a job at a mining camp in Northern Ontario. Yet Levine admits another character was based on a music teacher from North Devon. Still another was a customer in a pub in London. He says, “The pressure of writing the story was like a magnet that pulled these pieces from my past.”
Characters’ encounters are, in essence, the center of Levine’s fiction. They are social stories. Nothing else really happens. People run into or visit each other, they meet up, have a drink maybe, even spend a few days in each other’s presence, then move on. Sometimes (“Why Do You Live So Far?,” “A Visit,” “To Blisland”) a visitor arrives; in others the protagonist returns to Canada (“Champagne Barn,” “Soap Opera,” “The Girl Next Door”). Since so little occurs of any dramatic nature, this meeting of people is the crucial stimulus to these narratives and the reason why they are so evocative and addictive. Human connections are the source of both the emotional ballast and instability in Levine’s characters, and make apt the painful contradiction of his title I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Knowing someone well involves emotional investment, with its human rewards, but also the attendant disappointment and pain. Living in peripatetic conditions, Levine may have felt decentered and alienated, in search of a link to the past. The crisis plays out, at room temperature, throughout his stories. In these encounters, there is always a sense of deflation, of inadequacy, of better dreams tempered by experience. Controlled desperation is hinted at. On occasion, it boils to the surface in characters’ exasperated moments. “We can’t go on like this,” Rosalie says in “A View on the Sea.” Or “What am I doing here?” (“LMF”). “What have I done with my life?” says Mrs. Kronick in “Because of the War.”
In “The Girl Next Door,” the writer returns to Ottawa and introduces himself to a nearby tenant of a rented apartment. They talk, spending time together. He notices her restlessness. She tells him she’s had a quarrel with her boyfriend. She explains she’d tried art school but quit. “I was trying the wrong things,” she tells him. She continues hanging around until he explains he has to work. She leaves. Then she calls him the next day. “I’m going to kill myself,” she tells him. He takes a taxi and finds her. They hang out for a few more days until she decides to return to Toronto.
“Thanks for talking to me,” she said. “You don’t know how much all those talks we had meant to me."
And I felt bad. All I could think of was how abrupt I was with her. How little I did give of myself.
Expressions of outright despair are rare. Instead, Levine, like Chekhov, is a great observer of hidden watersheds, of mundane disquiet and loss. There are no screaming matches or slammed doors in these stories, no plot lines or “fantasy”; only an atmosphere of things barely acknowledged. It’s what makes his exquisite portrait, “A Father,” that opens this collected, so powerful. With seeming dispassion, in a few short, memorable sketches, Levine depicts his subject as a slightly pitiful, working-class fruit peddler, whose ineffective card-playing (“He made costly mistakes”) is a subject of embarrassment. In the final scene, the narrator, now an adult, sits in his parents’ living room on his last day of embarkation leave in 1944. He is wearing a new pilot officer’s uniform. His mother is crying (“She was sure I wouldn’t come back”) when his father begins to tell a string of stock jokes. They begin laughing. “And suddenly I felt immensely proud of my father...” the narrator notes before the taxi arrives and the son says goodbye. But this story must be read. Any synopsis fails to capture how bewilderment is replaced by understanding, how the jokes touchingly circumvent the desperate pain of the moment. In only six compressed pages, “A Father” achieves registers of human complexities difficult to meet.
Likewise, in “A Writer’s Story,” the protagonist and his wife rent a house in Cornwall, where he befriends some locals, including a Mrs. Burroughs and a Mr. Oppenheimer. Mrs. Burroughs tells him stories. He visits Mr. Oppenheimer at his office and his home. Oppenheimer reminisces about D.H. Lawrence, whom he knew briefly. Later, the main character and his wife decide they must leave and try living somewhere else they can afford. The day of their departure, he stops to say goodbye to Mrs. Burroughs, who informs him Mr. Oppenheimer has recently fallen in the street (“He is gone to live with his daughter in the country. We won’t see him again. That’s what happens...”) and offers a gift of a red glass vase (“Why not. They will only fight over it when I’m gone.”). In the final lines of the story, he shows the vase to his wife:
“It’s beautiful,” she said.
But she was looking out of the window as the taxi drove along the coastal road. On one side—the earth with the small green fields, the yellow gorse, a stone church with old gravestones. And on the other—an immense sky against the thin flatness of the sea.
My wife took my hand. “I’m glad we are leaving,” she said. “Now things will begin.”
But the optimism evoked by the last line is subverted by the scenes of fatalistic, marginal life they have just abandoned. Likewise, the description of landscape is both stark and beautiful, the characters progressing literally along the edge of a closed past and an open vista, the future unclear.
Levine’s restraint and ambiguity is a product of his careful, unadorned prose, a style of orderly diction and disaffected narratives shaped into a literature of astonishing, enduring immediacy. Immediacy, directness, simplicity: these were all important to him in storytelling. Levine wasn’t interested in artifice. The less to block the reader from the direct experience of the story, the better. In the foreward to Levine’s work, Metcalf gives context to Levine’s place (or lack thereof) in Canadian and International literature, as well as some thoughts on Levine’s particular style. Levine had credited friendships with a group of abstract painters, and daily exposure to their work, as seminal in his growth as a writer. “When they finished a painting,” Levine wrote, “they wanted me to see it in their studio. And there it was. At a glance. Through the eyes. Onto the nervous system. I remember thinking: how could I get this immediacy in writing?” In the same foreword, Metcalf quotes Cynthia Flood’s essay on Levine’s work and development, his increasing need to strip away unnecessary clauses, articles and modifiers that “smother energy.” She claims Levine was trying to break the reader of the habit of reading only to reach the end of the story. Instead we need to experience the texture of the prose and take pleasure in its detail. “We are to look,” she writes.
The Ricohflex camera is an apt cover image to this edition. Looking and recording was the skill Levine valued above all others. He stripped away unnecessary exposition to get to the essential images of the experience, balanced between the superfluous and the necessary. Levine knew the truth of human relationships is elusive, so never fed his readers conclusions, only suspended them in the suggestion of revelation. If the portrayal often seems bleak, it does not sacrifice beauty. In his prose, these extremes are inseparable.
At night I sit by the desk until my eyes become watery, and I get sleepy. I listen. The surf on the beach. Just one steady noise. The cars have stopped. The lights have been turned off. No sounds, except the sea. I go out along the Back Road to the beach. The breaking waves, white scars in the dark. They gash the black in several places. The gashes grow wider. They join. One white line the length of the beach. Then I come back. (“A View on the Sea”)
Though his writing was refined and concise, it accumulated, and the present Biblioasis edition, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well: Collected Stories, closes in on a generous 600 pages in length. Complex and understated, it remains to be seen if Norman Levine’s stories will reach that wider audience, but the publication of this edition makes them now available to savor. They are all worth reading. Only a few early stories seem unsuccessful, ones like “English For Foreigners,” where the flashes of detail fail to culminate. Most are masterpieces, studies in diminished hope and deflated epiphanies, the reader rewarded with complicated truths, each story a version of the question of what constitutes a life.
David O'Meara is a Canadian writer and editor. His most recent book is A Pretty Sight (Coach House Books).
Banner image: “THIS IS NOWHERE” photograph by Colin Medley, colinmedley.com.