on 14 November 2000
Mary Swann was a Canadian housewife with a brutal husband. She led a hard dull and monotonous life isolated from other people. Her only item of luxury was a Parker 51 fountain pen and her only treat was to borrow two books every fortnight from the limited local library. Edna Ferber was one of her favourites. Yet, she wrote poetry. Small beautifully crafted rhyming verses on shabby scraps of paper that she presented to a newspaper editor in a carrier bag.
Prepared to patronise, they were to his astonishment worthy of publishing. it was not to be Mary's destiny to see the printed book - her husband murdered her shortly after the visit to the editor's office, a visit marred by her anxiety about missing the bus home.
I am not giving away all the plot here! The book centres round four main characters who are obsessed with her: Frederic Cruzzi the newspaper editor, the lonely librarian Rose Hindmarch who 'knew her best', the obsessive and bitter Morton Jimroy and Sarah Maloney, a feminist writer. Had Mary Swann lived she would not have recognised herself as the person they prepare to present at the Mary Swann symposium that is the culmination of the book. She may not have even recognised some of her poems after Cruzzi's beloved wife mistakenly discards fish bones in the bag of her work causing the ink to run.
Mary Swann remains a shadowy figure and I must confess I would have liked an extra chapter that revealed more bout her life and death and the minor mysteries that were hinted at. For instance, to whom were the love poems written?
However, perhaps like a good meal it is best to leave the table wanting just a little more.
on 13 July 2008
Mary Swann, a farmer's wife in rural Ontario, is murdered and dismembered by her possessive husband just before her first book of poetry is published. Years later, four different people - a feminist writer, an unscrupulous biographer, the local librarian who knew her and the man who published her poems - relive their connection to Swann as they travel to the first symposeum dedicated to her work.
This novel intelligently asks whether an uneducated person can create moving poetry, and how well we can know a literary figure, especially in this day and age when people are more concerened with building their careers on top of someone's work rather than finding the truth. Shields only misses a beat in the end, with a section written as a screenplay pastiche which underwhelms.
As a follow up, you might want to read Margaret Atwood's "Negotiating with the Dead", which is about the role of the author in the world, and which includes commentary on "Mary Swann" (Carold Shields was a good friend of Atwood's.)
on 9 November 2006
What was that? That was the rug - and it was taken from right under your feet, by the brilliant Carol shields. And it is uncomfortable, and uncompromising, and utterly, utterly compelling. As a Pulitzer winning author,who presumably knows better than you or I, what it feels like to be "written" and "re-written" and to have our intentions reshaped, retold - "no, I did not mean that at all, I did not say that, that was not what I meant..." Well, you get the gist. In a world of celebrity when what is said is bent, or not meant, when semantics becomes the murky world not of black or white, or even grey, but a darker world of black arts, when meaning strays from language, when the life becomes the work, the question remains for Shileds, for all of us : Who are we?
If you have lost anyone you have loved, you will understand this - that when someone has gone, they become open to any interpretation we put on them. They become public property. Why? Because they cannot speak for themselves. And so they become a myriad of contradictions. How different people remember them.
Shields does not merely open the can of worms of literary biography, but states the uncomfortable truth that all of us, in life (but especially in death,) are unknowable. She slowly erodes the "facts" relating to the fictional but poignant Mary Swann, be they retold in diaries, or photographs, or conversations, or poems, or memories. The things that root all of us in the here and now become open to doubt. The things we hope that count slowly disappear in the course of "Mary Swann", and Shields successfully illuminates the greater truth: that in our lifetimes, no one will ever get close to revealing who we are. The human spirit is unknowable.
And it is in that we become aware of our own sense of loneliness, of desolation, and equally that the lonely quest to know another leaves all of us feeling unconnected, and drives Shileds' characters apart.
Whether we are looking to escape, or to be found, or to find ourselves in another, all of us are constantly on a quest which ends with us tracing our own footsteps round in a circle, back to where we started from, knowing nothing, and wondering - who we are? Who any of us are?
Every time I read another Carol Shields book I just want to rhapsodise about her. Mary Swann is a masterpiece. It's a quiet, forceful storm of a book. It's about literary endeavour, biography, womanhood, wifehood, poetry, the ordinariness of creative impulse, the glory of being a human being with a quiet desire to create. Mary Swann as a character is just stunning. I can't praise this book highly enough. Much of Shields' work sings of the ordinary, but to do so in a novel written with such quiet, unassuming formal daring is remarkable. It's tragic and heart warming. It is quite utterly astounding how Shields manages to make you yearn to meet a character who is dead before the novel begins as much as the characters of the novel want to conduct a postmortem on her life and work. Meet and simply sit with. Hold out a hand over the kitchen table. There is so very much to this book. Shields strips away any pretentiousness sometimes held in the discourse about poetry and creation and exposes the human beings at the core. This novel is first rate, and it is criminal that this is no longer in print from Harper. This may well be her greatest achievement.
Carol Shields is one of those writers I feel I've never quite got into enough - I do, however, love this book, her first novel.
Mary Swann is a 'poet naive' from rural Ontario, who is brutally murdered by her husband shortly after she's delivered a book of poems to an editor in the nearest big town. The editor, one Frederic Cruzzi (a Frenchman who's emigrated to Canada) is so impressed with the work that he publishes it immediately, in the small press that he and his Alsacian wife Hilde have set up. Discovered by an academic, the poems 'take off' and soon Mary Swann gathers quite a following. But so little is known about her that soon those studying her and her works begin each to invent a persona - the Mary Swann that comes out of their imaginings is quite different, we suspect, to the real person. Shields's novel is in four sections with an epilogue written as a playscript. The first section deals with Sarah Maloney, a compelling feminist academic who was instrumental in getting Swann's work known in the academic community, and who sees Swann in a feminist light, as a woman obsessed with motherhood and the nature of womanhood. The second section focuses on Morton Jimroy, Mary Swann's official biographer, and his frustrated attempts to find out more about what the woman was really like. The third deals with Rose Hindmarch, the rather melancholy spinster librarian who lived in the nearby small town to Mary Swann's family farm and claims to be the one who 'knew her best' (in fact, this is largely a fantasy of the lonely Rose). And finally, we have Frederic Cruzzi, the editor, who, along with his wife, we discover, may have actually written parts of Swann's work himself - her original manuscripts were badly damaged soon after she delivered them to him. Shields tells us a lot about these four characters as people as well as about their relationship with Swann, and also runs a thread of mystery through the tale - copies of Swann's work, and any material related to her keep mysteriously disappearing. The four principal characters: Sarah Maloney, Morton Jimroy, Rose Hindmarch and Frederic Cruzzi, are all compelling, though Sarah and Frederic were the only ones I really liked - the other two were rather depressing company. Shields also brings their communities vividly to life - the lively university community of Chicago for Sarah, the bourgeois stifling cosiness of California for Jimroy, snowy rural Canada for Rose - complete with appalling food - and a more cultivated European Canada for Frederic. And the elusive Mary Swann, lover of books by Edna Ferber, and her poems - rather well-written by Shields, no mean feat - are also very interesting. Best of all is the clever way that Shields shows how we all bring our own interpretations to the lives of dead talented people about who we know very little - in effect, we have 'four different' Mary Swanns by the end of the book, each partially invented by each character and none of them quite the real Mary Swann.
I enjoyed this book hugely, thinking it witty, wise, and in many ways convincing. To be honest, I found the epilogue final section disappointing. I think Shields made a major mistake writing it as a filmscript and doing the clever-clever 'this is all a story' at the start of it, the discovery of who was stealing the books happened too quickly and was a bit of an anticlimax, and we never really got to know enough about Mary Swann. However, there were still some good character insights in this section, and in many ways this novel is a most excellent and stylish novel of human nature and literature.