Working through the new, hefty collected stories of Norman Levine one bumps into one little masterpiece after the next. The stories in I Don’t Want To Know Anyone Too Well span Levine’s career, from early work depicting a young man’s hijinks in the Canadian Air Force, through mid-career portraits of the artists’ colony at Cornwall, St. Ives, through the late stories of itinerant lives spent moving between Europe and Canada.
Levine was, like his compatriots Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, a story-maker. He did not use his story collections as stepping stones toward a novelist’s oeuvre. For the most part, his stories are short short stories, lean, sharply focused portraits of one or two central characters and the landscape they move across.
The landscape that recurs again and again in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well is St. Ives, in southern England, not far from Land’s End on the channel waters. There Levine lived with his family much of his working life, marrying a woman with deep connections to the place.
It’s a funny and faded seaside place; dead in the winter time; a magnet for a jaded moneyed crowd, modernist painters and beachcombers in summer. In Levine’s fictional tableaux it comes across as both exotically appealing and oppressive.
An unusually long, almost novelistic story called “A View by the Sea” gives us the place in cinematic detail: “The water in the bay was a thick, deep blue. The sun brilliant. It showed up the fields on top of the cliffs of the far shore; … the long line at the bottom of dazzling sand; and the white lighthouse in the bay, a milk bottle with a camera stuck in its throat. Two French crabbers, anchored beside each other in the deep water, faced the wind. But there wasn’t much of a breeze. Tourists walked by the open door. In shorts, slacks, sandals, bare feet. Holding hands.”
Against this landscape Levine’s narrator is often a writer on the lookout for his next project, sometimes in such desperate straits that children must be kept out of earshot as the question is asked: where will the money come from for the unpaid bills?
What it is exactly that keeps the wolf from the door is one of the mysteries lurking in Levine’s stories. It’s the source of suspense that drives any number of his Cornwall stories: the writer needs to write but the kids need to eat. Levine’s dry, understated way of recounting such lives gives them a quiet humour.
With so many of Levine’s stories in one collection, the reader can watch as his key themes take shape over the years up to his death in 2005. In a story from the mid-’80s called “Django, Karfunkelstein & Roses” there is a retrospective view of the narrator’s life at mid-career: “Within a few years this life changed. And for my wife it ended. The children left home. I would get up early – the gulls woke me – wondering what to do.(I wasn’t writing anything.) Living by oneself like this, I thought, how long the day is. How slow it goes by.”
And what of Canada? If Canada made him, what role did it play in his lengthy career? Like Mavis Gallant, Levine wrote of Canada – usually Ottawa, he is Ottawa’s bard, but sometimes Toronto or the Quebec countryside – from away. His characters return for a writer’s book tour. They are driven about and interviewed in radio and TV studios, where in characteristic Levine manner, they suffer no fools gladly. It’s a mug’s game, his narrators imply, in one portrait of writerly business after another, but what else can a writer do?
Levine writes with special power of his immigrant parents’ lives in Ottawa’s Lower Town. These portraits are every bit as rich as Mordecai Richler’s depictions of 1940s and ‘50s Montreal, and because they don’t follow Richler’s tendency toward caricature, they land differently as portraits of a vanished urban working-class Jewish life in big Canadian cities.
In a lovely story called “In Lower Town” Levine’s narrator – one feels, in wholly autobiographical mode – recalls his father, who “knew a few words of English and a few words of French. When I was 12 – and we moved from Guigues to Murray Street, where just about everyone was either a fruit- or a rag-peddler – I decided to help my father with the peddling. When school finished at the end of June, I left the house early in the morning and walked to the market and helped him load the wagon with the fruit and vegetables that he bought from the farmers and the wholesale stores. Then we went out – the white horse pulling the high red wagon over Rideau, along Nicholas Street . . .”
One wants to quote these passages at length to convey their special power, their sharpness of detail that causes the past to flare up before our eyes.
In a related suite of stories Levine portrays contemporary Ottawa through the eyes of an adult son come from far to visit his aging mother. “Why Do You Live So Far?” is the title that best conveys the spirit of these stories, which offer painful portraits of aging, of a mother-and-son bond of longstanding and complex depth.
“I phoned my mother in Ottawa,” begins one of these. The return visit that follows is one of great nostalgia and familiar disappointment: “In my mother’s apartment I couldn’t go to sleep. I finished reading the Citizen. There were no books. Only those I gave her that she kept hidden, in her bedroom, in drawers. They were in mint condition signed to my father and to her. Then only to her. She is the only one in the family who reads my things.”
That’s the way things stand in the bittersweet stories of Norman Levine.