Ottawa’s Byward Market is one of the city’s most delightful and interesting sites. Just a trifle east of Parliament and an easy walk to the soaring National Art Gallery, it provides the local or visiting shopper or stroller a rare union of trendy urban with rustic rural, of the tony chic boutique with the timeless, shelves-teeming, army surplus, flag fluttering, workers’ wear, touristy trinket retail store.
Like the market, which is one of its key features, Ottawa’s Lower Town origins are as old as the city itself. Its history and growth mirror the history and growth of the capital, populated from its inception by predominantly Irish and French Catholic immigrants.
Around the start of the 20th century however, increasing numbers of Jews fleeing pogroms and other forms of persecution in Russia and eastern Europe joined the mostly French-Canadians then living in Lower Town. They added a new ethnic weave to the area’s deeply textured tapestry of diverse languages, folkways and religious observance. These new immigrants – fruit and vegetable vendors, peddlers, merchants and shopkeepers of all stripes and wares – worked exhausting, endless hours to build a new way of life without fear of government or neighbour, without fear for their children’s future.
It was in this colourful hardscrabble neighbourhood and story-rich culture that Norman Levine was raised and formed. He was actually born in Poland in 1923 and came to Canada as a young child. With singular focus and compulsive drive, he dedicated himself to becoming a writer. Looking back, one can state unequivocally that Levine succeeded. He published poetry, novels, non-fiction and short stories. But his works were acknowledged and celebrated more in England, where he settled, and in Europe, where they were translated into a number of languages, than in Canada.
Levine died in 2005, more or less a recluse in Barnard Castle, a small town near York, England.
He is relatively unknown in Canada. Thus, the publication of this collection of Levine’s short stories by Biblioasis, a literary press based in Windsor, Ont., is a welcome, praiseworthy effort to bring Levine back home so to speak, to introduce or re-introduce him and his short stories – considered by scholars to be the best of his writing – to Canadians.
Levine wrote about the full range of activity, predicament, personality and subtle irony that the “ordinary” lives of “ordinary” people yield everyday. The stories are tightly written, without extraneous literary clutter and emotionally unembellished. Critics and scholars often refer to his style as “terse”.
Levine wrote what he saw. He did not adorn or decorate his subjects with imagined qualities or dimensions. He was honest in his observations and loyal to the truth of what he saw, felt and experienced. In one of the more poignant stories in this collection, Class of 1949, Levine made this very plain to the reader: “People are very generous. They let you into their lives. So you don’t want to hurt them by what you write. In any case I write about people I like or have liked. And only about people I know.” (Our emphasis)
Precise depiction without flourish, without descriptive expansion in the name of lofty literature was the anchor of Levine’s effort. He sought never to drift from the objective reality of what he observed. He strove to convey the very essence of the person, scene or situation through minimal, but effective language. “Like many other postwar writers,” Aron Heller wrote in an obituary of Levine, “he was heavily influenced by the sparse, meticulous sentences of Hemingway and Chekhov, endlessly labouring over every sentence.”
Like so many of his generation, Levine’s experiences included witnessing the horrific brutality of the Second World War. And the lens through which his writer’s eye peered was likely scratched if not quite sharded by the unimaginable suffering of that conflict. He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force with a Lancaster squadron based in Yorkshire. There can be no doubt that he put his life on the line each time his plane took to the skies across the English Channel.
After the war, Levine launched his career as a writer. He earned an MA in English literature at McGill University in 1949. He then made his home in England with occasional visits back to Canada over the years. He married and raised a family there. After the death of his first wife, he moved to Canada for a short time. But it was in England he lived out his days.
Much of Levine’s writing is regarded as autobiographical. Indeed, the very first story in this collection of more than 40 stories – My Father – is about his family and his early life in Lower Town, Ottawa before going off to war. The description of the neighbourhood, of the various characters who comprised his family’s circle of acquaintances, of the pre-overseas departure and, of course, the portrayal of his father are alive with bold detail despite – or rather in Levine’s case – because of his gifted economy in the use of language.
Since Levine often wrote about his own past, he necessarily often wrote about his co-religionists. He did so honestly without exaggerating or stereotyping flaws or weaknesses, without reducing the subjects to mere caricatures and stereotypes as some of his contemporaries did.
The stories in this collection require concentration and careful reading. In a sense they can be appreciated as discrete components of the larger compilation of what ultimately amounts to a portrait of the writer himself. The reader cannot – must not – plough through the stories as if on a forced march if she is to get to know Norman Levine and his work, which after all is the important aim of the book, despite its name I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well.