Swans’ Way


by Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin, 190 pp., $24.00

Howard Norman’s novels are nearly all about hemmed-in, stifled people in the vast, silent spaces of the far north, whose quiet lives are thrown about by acts—or moments—of sudden violence. His characters are mostly shy eccentrics, engaged in occupations not so different from the private, controlling business of the novelist: in previous novels, they have included a bird artist and a lighthouse keeper, a teenage restorer of an old movie-house, two museum guards. And because they are all hobbyists, their boxed lives have a feeling of being out of time as well as space, even when, as in his latest book, the action is located in the mid-1980s. One pressed-down drama follows another in a snowbound, spellbound rhythm. If the books were set to music, they would be taken on by Glenn Gould.

Devotion, Norman’s sixth novel, is a story of passion, in many interlocking forms, but true to Norman’s deliberately mild, pocket-watch style, its title places its emphasis on the undramatic, domestic, quiet acts that for him seem to make up our real lives. It tells a love story in which husband and wife never share a house; most of the time they watch one another through rainy windows, communicate through an intermediary, or pass on intimate messages by tape recorder. Their few moments of hand-to-hand and mouth-to- mouth contact are exciting precisely because they exist in such a prairie of noncommunication.

When the action begins, the main character in the book, David Kozol, is to be found sitting at an estate in remote Nova Scotia, tending to his father-in-law, William Field. William, we soon learn, had confronted David in London after seeing him with a woman other than his wife (and Field’s daughter) Maggie and, in the ensuing scuffle, had stepped off a sidewalk and been hit by a taxi. It is now David’s paradoxical task to nurse back to health the man who had challenged him to a fight—and who regularly writes him notes promising to clock him again. David is not allowed to see Maggie, to whom he is still married, and almost every time she comes to visit her ailing father, David makes himself absent (a task to which he is well suited). The accident left Field with four cracked ribs, a fractured arm, and a shattered pelvic bone, but the worst injury was to his larynx: for a while after the accident, we are told, his voice seemed unlikely to return.

In this odd position of inadvertent closeness and near-arctic isolation, David tends the wounded swans that were formerly in William’s care, reads Penguin Island and other novels by Anatole France (Maggie’s favorite author), and listens, on a 1950s Grundig-Majestic turntable, to Bach cello suites; he is, we are told, “an illiterate at reading his own heart.” In his spare hours David is writing a monograph on Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer whose melancholy scenes of Prague and still lifes of eggs and glasses of water have paralyzed David’s own photography: “it became evident that his work was at best second-rate Sudek, all inherited sensibility”—he was a “shadow photographer.” David’s parents died a few years before, and his only human connection on the isolated estate (owned by two Polish refugees from the Holocaust who now live mostly on an island in Scotland) is with the man who has sworn to be his enemy.

Howard Norman fashions miniatures—books a little bit like Joseph Cornell boxes—and they often consist, as here, of a set of miniature vignettes pieced together in an unexpected, carefully oblique way that only slowly discloses their patterning. His conversations are haunting and broken—often about brokenness—and information comes to us in bits and pieces, through a series of non sequiturs (all of which give the narrative a curious tautness and even intensity). And it is typical of his precision that even in the opening scene all the details have some relevance to his theme (and the whole book serves as a microcosm of his oeuvre).

David, we see almost instantly, has effectively taken his father-in-law’s place as tender of the wounded (both William and the damaged birds). He sits alone in the near dusk and is clearly, like Field père and fille, a riddle waiting to be cracked. William, we later learn, is also a gentle man who has been subject to moments of violent and destructive passion, a shut-in flourishing a rifle in the dark. Penguin Island, with its odd transposing of birds and humans, and the other books by Anatole France tell us, in essence, how to read the book in our hands (the epigraph to Devotion comes from Anatole France, and tells us that “devotion is a thing that demands motives”). The swans will recur in almost every scene just in case we haven’t realized that this is a book about injured beings who are flapping around angrily and even biting others because they have lost the capacity to fly.

Much of the appeal of Norman’s stories lies in their musty, elliptical manner, which can occasionally suggest a wordless dream. Here is a scene in which David meets Stefania and Isador, the owners of the estate. David

let the swans loose. They headed directly for the pond, distributing themselves in four preening armadas. Their statuesque beauty. Each of their heads forming an elegant cursive S. The invisible rudders of their feet. “Since they can’t fly,” Isador said, “this is their great moment of freedom, I always think.”

They all three watched the swans a while. “I’m remembering, just now,” Stefania said. “When I was a girl, swans—from where, who knows? Norway or Sweden possibly. As a girl they would fly over my village.”

And with that the second chapter ends.

The reader does not even have to take in the swan on the cover to see what this novel is about. “Seeming calm is their best trick,” a vet says of the mute birds. When David and Margaret meet, suddenly, in a London hotel, David reminisces about being bitten by a swan as a boy, while taking photographs of his father’s infidelity (wound follows wound). He remembers that on their honeymoon he and Maggie saw an old woman driving a “vintage black sedan,” with a wounded swan—an image for her, they learned, of her beloved, departed husband—in the back. Swans, “hidden for years maybe in the low brush,” get caught in tangles of barbed wire, Maggie says, one page after David’s memory.

As the novel proceeds, cross-cutting deftly between the slow thawing of David and his biggest wounded charge, William, and flashbacks to the year before, when David and Maggie met and fell in love, it proceeds through image and (so to speak) wild goose chase as much as through event. William tells a story of a skywriting pilot who broadcast his unrequited love across the heavens. Maggie recalls being told about an “amorous window”—in which two lovers’ passion can invest even a pane of glass with an erotic charge—by a Japanese man called Shizuko Tushimo (though she and Norman seem not to know that “Shizuko” is in fact only a woman’s name). Nothing goes straight in these exchanges because, we are led to believe, Norman’s characters don’t really know how to proceed in the world. All are lost in their own heads, trying to find a way back to their hearts, and most are barely even there. David, for example, is asked to be a “ghost,” and a guest, in his new life on William’s estate in Nova Scotia.

Yet despite this air of almost unremitting strangeness and haphazardness, almost none of the details in the book are accidental. William’s hair turns white almost overnight in the wake of his accident; later, we read of a lover of his whose hair turns suddenly white in just the same way. William gets into a car in his bedroom slippers, Maggie drives—it is stressed—without shoes, David goes out once with only one loafer on. These are the only details that are highlighted, often, and yet, beyond their oddity and recurrence, we aren’t really told what to make of them (except to admire the author’s craft—and realize how much coincidence is shaping a larger story beyond the characters’ comprehension).

The narrative pushes forward, for the most part, in short, exact sentences that have an air of being translated from an ancient tongue. And the characters, likewise, seem caught inside the past. Maggie gets married in a “Victorian-era white dress with a lace collar and hem.” David buys his Anatole France books from the Antiquarian Muse used bookshop. The Polish Stefania wears a skirt of “pre-war vintage.” Nearly everyone—the action is mostly set in the small Nova Scotian settlements of Upper Economy, Middle Economy, Lower Economy, and Great Village—lives a long way from the present moment. Maggie (whose job it is to organize the movements of a university chamber music group) has snatches of Victor Hugo, Stendhal, and Proust by heart; David’s sometime girlfriend in Czechoslovakia (a translator) quotes Chekhov to him. Maggie’s mother Janice was in the book-binding business, stitching together broken Bibles.

These antiquarian details and unusual occupations all add to the book’s distinctive flavor, and yet sometimes it seems as if, as in certain Barbara Pym novels, everyone here is lonely or thwarted or conspicuously quirky, like specimens on a collector’s drawing-board. Each of them does odd, surprising things—there are surprises in every chapter—and yet all of them are maneuvered by an omniscient narrator who seems to have worked out everything in advance, so that the figures seem imprisoned within his secret design (shadows and “shadow puppets” are another trope that recurs throughout the brief narrative). One begins to think that Norman has the fortunate artist’s gift of having created his own world and tone and voice, each of his novels seeming another chapter in an ongoing book, still lifes made to suggest that life is not so still. But this also comes to seem a trap, as if each is locked inside a very tight and well-made box, and their maker may be, too.

In The Bird Artist, Norman’s second novel, published in 1994, the unworldly hush and fusty details of the far north felt new and unsettling, its strangeness earned. The names of the characters were almost as odd as their occupations—Fabian Vas and Botho August—even as the places that they haunted (Witless Bay, Shoe Cove) suggested allegory. And their innocence and vulnerability gave a real sting to, say, the prospect of a witnessed infidelity. But in Norman’s new novel, the quirkiness has a slightly more self-conscious air, as in those independent movies set in remote settlements (maybe even in Nova Scotia), where most of the characters seem eccentric and no less lovable for that. And it’s hard to know what we are supposed to make of the frequent affinities with the earlier novel—Fabian’s father, for example, was a “harvester of wild birds.”

In place of psychology, moreover, there are curious moments and scenes, in which the characters are seen as if held inside a locket. At one pivotal moment, after meeting Maggie, David sends a reasonable, decent letter to the Czech woman he’s been seeing, breaking off with her, only for her to confront him with the news that nothing is reasonable in love and decency itself can seem an affront, a negation of passion. David pays the price, then, both of his well-intended, tone-deaf attempt to be honest with her, and of his refusal to break with her more decisively. Yet it’s not entirely clear why this glamorous creature in “black jeans, buckled ankle-length boots, black cowboy shirt with white piping” is drawn in the first place to such a recessive, almost invisible soul (whose very photographs she finds “predictable“). As William says—not coincidentally—wing-damaged swans “keep forgetting they can’t fly. The urge to fly is a million years older than their wound, so they forget.”

Norman is the rare American who has become, in many ways, a Canadian writer. He spent sixteen years in Canada’s arctic and subarctic regions, writing ethnographic and documentary film scripts and translating Inuit and Indian folklore and history, and this is the fifth of his six novels to be set north of the border. The vast openness of Canadian spaces, the country’s slight displacement from the world, the taciturnity of its rural areas (savored also, for example, by Annie Proulx in The Shipping News, in 1993) all seem to make the setting a natural for his art, as perhaps does Canada’s curious status as the forgotten, mild-mannered giant of North America. In the frozen north he finds people and worlds that could not be less with it.

Yet deeper than those surface features, he is a Canadian writer insofar as his theme, explicitly, is healing, putting missing pieces together to build a tempered whole. In Dennis Bock’s The Ash Garden (2001), Pugwash, Nova Scotia, and Toronto are the places where Eastern European refugees, among others, try to rectify the damage and repair the fissures created by the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. In Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces (1996), Toronto is where refugees from Nazi Europe come to try to reconstitute their lives in a new tongue and a young, hopeful setting. Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient (1992) famously centers around a bandaged invalid being nursed back to memory by a young Canadian woman during World War II in Italy. With an earnestness and unity not so apparent in either Europe or the US, Canadian writers, like many Canadian human rights activists, have made it their business to make the world better again.

But when you read Alice Munro, say, on the small towns of rural Ontario, a limited terrain she often seems happy to open out inside her fiction, you feel a much larger sense of space because her protagonists (generally women) are usually trying to break out of their straitened circumstances, eager to be out in the modern world, determined to stake out new destinies outside the reach of nineteenth-century provincialisms, and the action of her stories often follows characters who suddenly remake their lives and take flight from a world that doesn’t agree with them. When, on occasion, they settle for boring, everyday husbands, it is with a shrewd and undeceived sense of the alternatives they know finally to be more damaging.

Norman’s stories, by comparison, can feel much more claustrophobic and muffled; his people do not seem to sense, and certainly often lack the courage to claim, the larger opportunities around them. His themes and settings may be Canadian, but in this respect he seems to belong much more to the East Asian school of suppression and circumscription explored by such writers as Kazuo Ishiguro and Chang-rae Lee. Indeed, it’s striking that the epigraph to his first book, The Northern Lights (1997), comes from Natsume Soseki, and in the opening words of an introduction to a new edition of that book, the author he cites, a recurrent favorite, is the Japanese master of melancholy, Ryonosuke Akutagawa. I was reminded, reading Norman’s new book, of the professor of Japanese (cited in Liza Dalby’s recent book East Wind Melts the Ice*), who, watching a flamenco dancer and a geisha dancing side by side, notes that the Spanish form is all “fire over ice,” the Japanese “ice over fire.”

Devotion, like all Norman’s novels, holds one’s attention constantly, covers a lot of ground in its small compass, and stays in the mind with its spare imagery. But it also raises the question of whether its own artfulness is not the source of its airlessness. The sentences, though their sequencing is strange, are rigorously carpentered, and there is scarcely a stray detail in the book, but sometimes one begins to long for a stray detail, or something that lies outside the control of its overdetermining maker. Often the reader, like the characters he’s reading about, feels he scarcely has room to breathe.

This is doubly odd because the book is to some extent about chance and the way it plays havoc with our neatly organized plans and responses. The main theme of the novel is David’s realization that he is too introspective, too passive, not clear or original enough in his acts. It ends, indeed, with a letter from Maggie upbraiding David for his recessiveness (again), another pointed reference to swans, and a qualified sense of forgiveness and of new beginnings extended toward its hapless protagonist. And yet (seemingly contradictorily), this means, in effect, that David is being rewarded for his patience and his selfless tending to his injured father-in-law, his devotion. The novel speaks in favor of the love, qualified and measured, that comes after and not before disillusionment. Norman builds his boxes beautifully, but there’s a sense that they are all variations on the same small theme. His next project, according to a recent statement, is a journey for National Geographic magazine to follow in the footsteps of the Japanese haiku master Matuso Basho, author of a book sometimes translated as Narrow Road to the Deep North.

  1. *

    University of California Press, 2007.