canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Douglas Glover

Douglas Glover was born and raised on a tobacco farm in southwestern Ontario and now lives just outside Saratoga Springs, New York. He is the author of three novels, four short story collections, including 16 Categories of Desire, and a book of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son

His book of stories, A Guide to Animal Behaviour, was a finalist for the Governor General's Award. His stories have appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best Canadian Short Stories, and The New Oxford Book of Canadian Stories

His criticism has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Montreal Gazette, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World and Los Angeles Times. He has a background in philosophy and journalism, and attended the University of Iowa's Iowa Writers Workshop. 

Michael Bryson interviewed Douglas Glover by e-mail in Summer 2001.


Reviews of Douglas Glover's books on The Danforth Review:

An excerpt from Douglas Glover's The Enamoured Knight

TDR: Your novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (Knopf, 1993) has just been released in trade paperback by Goose Lane Editions (2001). Are you self-consciously placing your work with (and/or moving your work to) smaller presses? Or does this move say something about your original publisher's support of this work? In your book of essays, Notes Home from a Prodigal Son (Oberon, 1999), you mention that your agent once warned you about the fate of your career. I wonder what the move of Captain N. from Knopf to Goose Lane says about how your work fits into the literary marketplace. Perhaps you could comment on your experience working with both large and small presses.

GLOVER: The Life and Times of Captain N. I sold myself, without an agent, to Alfred A. Knopf in New York. McClelland and Stewart later bought the Canadian rights from Knopf. And the way I sold the book went like this: Gordon Lish took a story of mine for THE QUARTERLY. I included that story in A Guide to Animal Behaviour (published by Goose Lane). At some point, I sent Lish a copy of the book to see if he could help bring that out in the U.S. He responded with his usual astonishing speed, asking me if I had a novel instead. I sent him the first fifty pages of The Life and Times of Captain N., and he bought it.

While my book was coming out, Lish's wife was dying of Lou Gehrig's disease and his son had assaulted him and he was on the outs with Knopf and its parent Random House. Soon after his wife died, Knopf fired Lish. I had no editor there; the book languished. I fell into my own period of desuetude going through a divorce and re-establishing myself afterwards. When I poked my head up again a few years later, I couldn't get a publisher or an agent interested in me. I'd become a middleaged, midlist pariah living on the wrong side of the border.

At this point old friends rallied round my bloody, tattered standard. John Metcalf at Porcupine's Quill, Karen Mulhallen at Descant, Philip Marchand, Liz Philips at Grain, and Kim Jernigan at The New Quarterly were most encouraging in a dark time. Dilshad Engineer offered to do my book of essays at Oberon Press. And Susanne Alexander took my book of stories and has now reprinted The Life and Times of Captain N. at Goose Lane Editions. I am grateful to them all. As a writer, I seem to be doing fine--books are coming out--though I notice I still don't have a career or an agent, and there is a marked scarcity of money in the environs.

TDR: I have been reading backwards through your catalogue, and it seems to me that your narratives often articulate the boundaries of different conflicts political, aesthetic, sexual, sociological, etc. simultaneously. You seem to be both seeking the appropriate terms to define a certainty and also never arriving at one. For example, in Notes from a Prodigal Son, you say about East German writer Christa Wolf: "She is saying that to be oneself, to feel oneself, to discover oneself, amongst all the conflicting messages, prescriptions and prohibitions of contemporary culture, is difficult, if not impossible, anywhere" (62). Similar sentiments repeat in The Life and Times of Captain N., which takes place in the context of the backwoods warfare of the American Revolution ("We Rebels & Tories & Whites & Indians are having a violent debate whose Subject is the Human Heart" (162). Your approach appears to be both sensible and relatively unique on the Canadian literary scene, which often frames its purpose in sociological terms (i.e., Canadian culture is necessary for national identity). Are you self-conscious about working against popular conceptions about what it means to be a Canadian writer? Is Canadian literature all it's pumped up to be?

GLOVER: The setting up of opposites as a mode of conjecture is, of course, the form of the aphorism. Kant uses a version of this in the sections of the Critique of Pure Reason called the Antinomies and the Paralogisms, where he juxtaposes apparently true but contrary propositions about the nature of reality and argues for both. Nietszche wrote aphorisms. Adorno's gorgeous Minima Moralia is all aphorisms. The aphorism is an ancient ironic form, highly artificial, but with a bite. You can only write aphorisms in the attack mode, with a tone of arrogance. Here's one I wrote to a student who was complaining about having to learn aphorisms: There are two kinds of readers--the adventurers who glory in the breathtaking audacity and risk of a well-turned aphorism and the wienies who, lacking courage themselves, find it an affront in others. The Life and Times of Captain N. contains passages of extended aphorism called "Oskar's Book about Indians" in which oral cultures and literate cultures are opposed on a variety of verbal torsion points: e.g. history, memory, names, ritual, story-telling, books. Nietszche called his aphorisms "Versuch"-- "trials" or "experiments"--much the way Montaigne called his essays "essais". I think a person who writes from this rhetorical position is always on the outside of received opinion and traditional knowledge because nothing is taken for granted and all thought is conjectural rather than descriptive.

Whether Canadian literature is all it's pumped to be is not a question that interests me. On the other hand, there are some books written by Canadians I love.

TDR: In The Art of the Novel and elsewhere, Milan Kundera has argued that novels ought to do what only novels can do. He has argued that movies have made the 19th century-style realistic novel redundant, and claimed that most contemporary novels are a sub-genre of journalism. None of this, I think, pertains to your work, since you seem (like Kundera) to be interested in the history of ideas and their place, overt or subterranean, in forming individual identities and life-stories. For example, in Notes from a Prodigal Son, you return a number of times to the different ways readers approach literary works and how those approaches are often the cause of mis-readings. In particular, you're fond of Vladimir Nabokov's distinction between reading for aboutness and reading for artistic appreciation. Kundera might say that aboutness is what the movies are good at, and what serious novelists should somehow transcend. Could you explain Nabokov's aboutness/artistic appreciation distinction in the context of your own work particularly in terms of how you approach your writing both in the process of production and when you are attempting to explain it to readers/editors/critics?

GLOVER: I used Nabokov's distinction in an early essay though I find it a bit over-simplified and misleading. And even in that essay I built on the distinction to say that good novels deploy a wide variety of technical structures some of which promote verisimilitude (i.e. they seem to be about something) and some of which are more purely formal (structures of repetition, image patterning, subplotting, etc.) which tend not to be realistic at all. Every novel contains elements of both in a rough tension with each other. Experimental novels foreground structural elements or some playful or inverted version of them; so-called conventional or realistic novels foreground elements that promote verisimilitude. My argument is mostly against anyone who takes one or the other as being definitive--how sick I am of all those turgid, log- rolling arguments about whether novels should have ethical messages or whether they should be purely aesthetic confections. Most writers strike a balance that somehow suits their particular temperament. Why some feel called upon to climb on soap boxes and campaign for the primacy of their particular brand of novel-writing is beyond me.

My own work is tilted toward the foregrounding of repetitive structures. It's a kind of Ciceronian or embellished style, though occasionally I write something in the plain style, too, and I am always delighted. But I am also pretty sure I am writing about something when I write. The Life and Times of Captain N. is clearly about a set of ideas and a group of people during the American Revolution and some of these people really existed and even did some of the things I imagine them doing. But when you get caught up in arguments, especially critical arguments, you find yourself having to explain things to benighted individuals who want to oversimplify and make categorical statements, and you're forced to try to disabuse these people, not by responding in kind, but by being complex and ironic.

TDR: At the height of the Y2K anxiety a couple of years ago, American academic and media critic Neil Postman released a book called Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. In that book, he claimed that most of the ideas we should carry forward with us into the new millennium originated in the 18th century and that we should return our focus there before blindly rushing into the future. You had already done that years earlier in The Life and Times of Captain N., which contains quotations like: "I do not believe in God (old Europe, the King, loyalty, and authority) or reason (Locke's blank slate, history, atoms, laws, freedom, and democracy). To think that men can govern themselves is as idiotic as thinking they will forever bend the knee to someone better" (158). What was it about the 18th century that attracted you? Is Postman right to say that the conflicts of the 18th century still frame our debates today? You seem to concur with some of Postman's assumptions in Notes from a Prodigal Son, when you write, "literary feminism is the last gasp of the 18th century liberation philosophies" (37). Briefly, please explain.

GLOVER: If you look closely at the quotation you cite (which is in a character's head in a novel), it says Hendrick doesn't believe in either set of ideas, a state of mind which, to my way of thinking, is a sign of wisdom or madness though no external observer would be able to tell which. The succeeding sentences refer to the mystery of the human heart which, the text implies, is not accurately described by either set of ideas.

My sense of the history of ideas is that ideas thread through cultures and individual minds in hugely complex and playful ways. Human beings being what they are, we try to catch onto a set of ideas here and there, hold onto a branch as we float by (to mix my metaphors). The 18th century itself didn't attract me because I thought the 18th century ideas were appealing. It attracted me because there was a moment in history when narrative and aphorism seemed to combine in a way that I could write about in a novel. Also these ideas are still operative in the culture into which I was born so in seeing how they originated I was reliving something of my own mental makeup ab ovo. Perhaps that is what Postman means, but I wouldn't say these ideas frame our present debates any more than Plato or Aristotle or Duns Scotus or Augustine frame them. The idea of a frame is reductive. It implies the existence of something beyond the picture that explains the picture. I like those writers, historians of ideas, who track the threading of an idea through history or structuralists like Foucault who find traces of old social structures in the new.

TDR: In Notes from a Prodigal Son, you write: "My apprenticeship ended with the realization that the goal of literature is not simply truth, which is bourgeois and reductive, but a vision of complexity, an endless forging of connections which opens outward into mystery" (166). Perhaps you could briefly chart the progression of your apprenticeship, including the role "Mikhail Bahktin and his ideas about discourse and the dialogic imagination" (Prodigal Son, 37) play as an ongoing literary influence in your work.

GLOVER: My life has been an apprenticeship for whatever comes next, though I do periodically think I have reached some more definitive threshold of existence only to find later that it was just another painful learning experience (a lot of these). But in the process I find certain writers and thinkers to be companionable. Bakhtin, when I read him, seemed to be saying things that made sense of what I had been trying to puzzle out about writing and my life. As he says, language is war. Most of my life I've been fighting a war against the discourse of rural Tory provincialism, the Ontario miasma of my youth, and the various discourses that seemed allied with it: all sorts of conventionalisms, including all those perky new ones that keep popping up in the little villages of academic criticism and literary journalism. So much of what I say can be viewed as a moment in a battle: I am saying this is me and I am against that. It was a relief to read Bahktin who seemed to imply that I wasn't so dumb to feel embattled, that my sense of struggle, my dissatisfaction, even boredom, with certain ways of doing things, was natural. Bakhtin didn't show me something new, but he said everything again in a succinct and elegant way.

He also tied the notion of language as a battle of discourses directly to the form of the novel. This seemed like a very useful way of thinking about form. I don't mean that I think it's the only way of thinking about novel form. But it's very useful sometimes to look at form from a different angle. Instead of talking about characters, one can sometimes usefully talk about the habitual language games a character uses. Two characters using different language games will clash over everything including just how to describe their realities. They will fight over words. And then words like "love" and "translation" might begin to have interesting parallel definitions.

TDR: Who are some contemporary writers and/or books you're hot on? Why?

GLOVER: I don't read much newly published work. I have two children, two dogs, two rats, a cat, several money-making jobs, and I read what is necessary to keep me excited. I am reading David Copperfield to my boys. We just got to the lovely, sad part where David marries Dora and then realizes she is just a "child-wife" and not the "counsellor" and companion he had dreamed of marrying. Oh, my heart. I love Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers and the novels of Hubert Aquin and Elizabeth Smart's By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept and Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man and much of Alice Munro and Leon Rooke's stories and John Metcalf's Adult Entertainment and his new Ford stories and Karen Mulhallen's (a fellow southwestern Ontario refugee) poetry, her brave and brittle romanticism. There are a lot of new Canadian writers I come across reading for Best Canadian Stories, some individual stories I admire immensely. I admire Milan Kundera, Christa Wolf, Peter Handke, Max Frisch, and Witold Gombrowicz. Which means, I guess, that I like literature that deploys a complex of ideas and inquiries about the nature of modern life and has already taken into account a good deal of current and historical philosophical debate. I also like Jeanette Winterson and Angela Carter--my love of the baroque and bloody whimsy, I guess. Then there are a number of so-called Third World or colonial or peripheral writers I admire--Narayan, Rushdie, Carey, Ruolfo, Tutuola, Cortazar--because I feel they are coming from a socio-political and imaginative universe parallel to my own. Any list here is incomplete, dodgy at best: I have a bookcase full of what I think of as important books, maybe a hundred. They keep changing.


BRYSON: I thought it was interesting that you said "Most of my life I've been fighting a war against the discourse of rural Tory provincialism," but when I asked you about being self-conscious about working against popular conceptions of being a Canadian writer, you didn't tackle it from this angle. Maybe it's too simple to say the two are connected. Do you see those things as connected at all?

GLOVER: Actually, it never occurred to me to connect the two ideas because the "rural Tory provincialism" I grew up with didn't even acknowledge the existence of writers and art, or so it seems to me. In other words, it operated somewhere beneath or beyond "popular conceptions of being a Canadian writer." In the world of my youth, a writer was someone like my great-grandfather who wrote patriotic limericks for the Mail and Empire or doggerel in a French accent in the style of William Henry Drummond while he managed the family store in St. Williams. That's why Hubert Aquin rings so true with me. I forget which book of his it's in, but he has a line about this country not being able to produce any real writers at all, just notaries and sickies like himself. Canada today is lucky in that it even possesses "popular conceptions of being a Canadian writer." I don't know if the philistinism I grew up with somehow threads its way through some of these popular conceptions. That might be an interesting idea to explore. But a lot of these debates amount to journalistic or academic log-rolling and aren't very useful in the long run. The struggle I was talking about in my case is much more personal and has to do with the place and time I was born into.

BRYSON: I see I haven't asked you anything about your most recent short story collection 16 Categories of Desire (Goose Lane, 2000). The way I read it, that book seemed to be an exploration of the different connotations of the word "desire" - but most significantly an exploration of the cultural inheritance of Romanticism. In a review in The Danforth Review, I called Mary Shelley a precursor. If 16 Categories is an exploration of desire in all its connotations, what did the process reveal to you?

GLOVER: When I was touring the Soviet Union in 1988 as a guest of the Soviet Writers Union, I met an older writer named Daniel Granin, who said, through my interpreter Alexei (who otherwise made his living delivering tapes for an underground video store in Moscow), "All my life has been an effort to liberate myself from love." This struck me as an odd idea at the time, though gradually it began to obsess me. Some version of this sentence recurs in three of the stories in 16 Categories of Desire. I wrote these stories as narrative experiments on the nature of love and desire. I don't think I am done with the subject yet, but in writing that book I began to see desire as dark stream of want pouring out of the abyss of the unconscious (the empty pit at the centre of the self). I don't claim this idea as original -- I know it comes to me partly from reading Schopenhauer years ago.

Putting Schopenhauer and Granin together in my own head, I imagined desire as an endlessly unsatisfied craving eating its way through life; each of us is only a particular moment of the World Desire. Most of the conventional ways we talk about ourselves and love are cheery little fairy tales or dark, romantic hero stories meant to make us feel better as we pursue this course of metaphysical gluttony. By the logic of grammatical substitution, you get all sorts of interesting equivalents and paradoxes out of this: The Unconscious is unknowable and is thus equivalent to Death, so Desire originates in Death, and Love, which is an expression of Desire, originates in Death. To fall in Love is, in one sense, to devour the loved one. I could go on, but I think you can begin to see how some of the ideas in the stories develop. (Also, as you can see, my formulations run to the gothic. Your intuition about Mary Shelley was astute. But Robert Louis Stevenson is also iconic for me: the gentle, cultured doctor trying to ride herd on the shambling beast of desire he has created out of himself.)

The book also explores some of the ways particular expressions or styles of desire are created. For example, in "Lunar Sensitivities" I was thinking about the triangulation of desire, the way we acquire certain desires by watching what other people desire. In a way, the self is created by imitating the desires of others (who are imitating others). This is the way modern advertising works; it treats us all as if we were servants of Death, and what we like to romanticize by calling it personality is really just a copy of someone else's copy of....

Is there any escape from this? I don't think Schopenhauer really thought so. Nor did Freud. But in my own small way, I am a mystic. One begins by understanding the situation (Wittgenstein's fly in the fly bottle) and one begins to imagine modes of departure. Then oddly and paradoxically the word love comes back into play because love, in some constructs, is about leaving desire behind and simply attending (paying attention to, gazing at, looking at) to the loved object. Language, which itself sometimes seems to be part of the trap of life, contains words which exist on the edge of language looking out: love, gift, prayer, goodness, beauty, courage. In this vast nostalgia for what is beyond desire, there is some glimmer of redemption.

The idea of redemption keeps coming back. In The South Will Rise at Noon, Tully Stamper is comically redeemed in a mythic re-enactment of the death and rebirth of ancient gods. Phoenix imagery runs through the book. I know I was thinking then of the idea of grace, the idea that a god, for whatever mysterious reason, could reach down and touch a man so eminently unworthy as Tully. In The Life and Times of Captain N., Hendrick says that becoming an Indian would be like entering a swarming madness, but it might redeem you. He doesn't mean "going Indian" in any stupid back-to-the-land, romance-of-the-noble-savage way; he means having the courage to go right out of your self (personality, culture) and into the other. This is a kind of perfect love; the one ethical injunction espoused in the novel is "Love difference." And in the story "My Romance" in 16 Categories of Desire, there is a moment when the protagonist and his wife, destroyed by grief over the death of their son, fuse and redeem themselves in an act of love.

BRYSON: What are you working on now?

GLOVER: I'm writing a novel based loosely on the suicide of my great-grandfather who killed himself in 1914 in St. Williams, Ontario, ostensibly because he had been accused of sleeping with someone else's wife. He kept a store in St. Williams, called himself the village bard, wrote mediocre poetry, had two teenage daughters and a dog named Gyp, and I can't for the life of me figure out why he killed himself. In the Ontario Archives, I found the letter books belonging to the lawyer who was suing my great-grandfather for Criminal Conversation (what they called it in those days). There doesn't seem to have been any credible evidence of misconduct. So I am making up what happened. Like my earlier work, it contains threads from at least a half-dozen ongoing investigations: desire, love, redemption, Canadian history, myth and folklore, the nature of language. The working title is The Speaking of the Dead, but my working titles rarely make it to the cover of the actual book.







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