The words “public intellectual” don’t conjure too many faces in Canada these days.
A couple of candidates – Michael Ignatieff and John Ralston Saul – have made efforts to wed a political role with weighty ideas. But one feels the strain, on the part of Ignatieff, to represent both a party line and his own creative projects; while Ralston Saul can clearly write more directly about themes close to his heart now that he is no longer doing the rounds as the governor general’s other half.
Historically, certain writing lives in this country have had a broad impact, beyond the words on the page. Margaret Atwood continues in this role, as a representative figure for issues related to the earth’s ecological future, and, more surprisingly, the meaning of debt in a time of economic crisis. Mordecai Richler, up to his death, functioned as a kind of lightning rod in his home province, where his writings and pronouncements on Quebec nationalism were taken by some as a political affront.
In his new collection of essays, What the Furies Bring (Porcupine’s Quill), Kenneth Sherman places himself in the role of a writer whose ideas might lead by example. The essays, all written after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, ask questions regarding historical catastrophe, the worth of the creative life, and in what way writing – especially poetry – can offer a proper response to “the most extreme circumstances.”
Sept. 11 is his starting point, but Sherman’s most probing and affecting essays reach back to the European disasters of the Holocaust and the Soviet Gulag. It is in discussing the link between these and the creative life that Sherman is most provocative – even at times devastating – as he outlines the manner in which creative minds respond to what most of us would acknowledge to be the worst circumstances in human history.
In Varlam Shalamov: Poet of the Frozen Inferno, Sherman introduces a writer little read in the West, whose writings, after a 17-year incarceration in the Siberian Gulag of Kolyma, are offered as an alternative and corrective to the celebrated work of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Sherman effectively conveys what Shalamov viewed as his effort “to write something that would not be literature,” a “new prose” or “documentary fiction” that would treat the Gulag on its own terms, without resorting to conventional fictional strategies.
In his investigation of a better-known writer, Vasily Grossman, Sherman recognizes the value of a more traditional writerly empathy. At the end of almost 1,000 days reporting from the Soviet front, Grossman was the first experienced writer to report and publish a response to the Allied liberation of Treblinka. In The Hell of Treblinka, which appeared in a Russian literary journal in the fall of 1944, he described his discovery, regardless of German efforts to bury their crime, of “strands of blond hair ‘glowing like brass’ and ‘heavy black plaits’ from a sack of women’s hair that had not been taken away.”
Sherman’s efforts to uncover guidance in the creative responses to Sept. 11 are less provocative, because the work under discussion is not as strong as that which he can draw on from the European context. Although he is willing to find wisdom in John Updike’s novel Terrorist and Martin Amis’ ongoing efforts to understand the mind of a figure such as Muhammad Atta (the hijacker in control of the first plane to strike the World Trade Center on Sept. 11), even sympathetic readings of these works do not convince the reader that they should enter the canon of what might be called a literature of extremity. Sherman wonders if the flood of responses in literature and film to Sept. 11 came too soon, a kind of “immediate testimony” that too often over-reaches, sentimentalizes and editorializes when a more controlled tone is needed.
In the essay Who Knows You Here? Sherman reveals his own skill at bringing careful thought to an account of difficult memories. Though it centres on a recollection of his grandfather, a mainstay in his tailor shop, first on Spadina Avenue and then College Street, the essay’s turning point is the painful story of a great-grandfather who came to Canada from Poland in 1936 and found the place unlivable. Standing on the corner of College and Euclid Avenue, he “stared at the traffic, and uttered one word – the Yiddish for ‘zombie.’” His decision to return to Poland was followed by his murder at the hands of a German Einsatzgruppe.
In his preface to What the Furies Bring, Sherman stakes out the collection’s view of a writer’s responsibility. As reality “bombards the modern writer,” he says, “it is reasonable to feel overwhelmed. Yet the true writer – not the propagandist or the giddy experimenter – is engaged with a difficult dialogue with the real.”
Norman Ravvin’s books include Hidden Canada: An Intimate Travelogue and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish. He is chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.