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For this second week of my tour of Canada through short stories, I was in Nova Scotia reading “The Closing Down of the Summer” by Alistair MacLeod.
The first thing I notice about reading “The Closing Down of Summer” is the pace. I always read short stories quite slowly, trying to pay attention to the words. With this story, I found that even if I had wanted to read it fast, I could not have. It was a bit like reading poetry; the prose had rhythm.
Secondly, I find that it is a story in the tradition of Frank O’Connor. I am not saying that MacLeod deliberately follows O’Connor, but O’Connor’s description of the short story as the expression of submerged populations, as the lonely voice, is an appropriate description for this story.
The story is told in the first-person by a miner. The summer is coming to its end; he and his fellow workers are enjoying the last bit of the sun before going back shaft mining. This is the occasion for the narrator to reminisce on past events, to consider his life and to ponder the mining tradition.
I find the title quite significant: it is the “closing down” and not “the end” of summer. I think it brings our attention to this particular trade that is shaft mining, a trade that has been followed generation after generation. However, the narrator makes us aware of the changes brought by modernity and the fact that none of his children will follow his steps. It is the end of a tradition. For these miners, the end of the summer means going back to work, but also facing death; each summer could be their last summer and the narrator remembers that October day when he buried his brother. Like the fish in the sea taken by those “huge factory fleets from Russia, Spain and Portugal”, their number is diminishing.
“And we have gathered our working clothes, which when worn continents hence will make us loom even larger than we are in actual life. As if we are Greek actors or mastodons of an earlier time. Soon to be replaced or else perhaps to be extinct.”
There is a feeling of loneliness in this story. Those miners are alienated. They live in tradition, cut off from their families, who represent modernity. However, there is still hope that traditions do not become radically erased as they remember those gaelic songs, “so constant and unchanging”, from their youth and the narrator can still remember those verses from the 15th century he read when he was a student.
This third day of the conference was a big day for me, for many reasons. The day started with the panel in which I presented. An early panel at the same time as a World Cup football match meant that not many attended. As a result, my stress level went down as there was a very friendly atmosphere. My presentation on Atwood’s “The Bog Man” and “Horatio’s Version” went well and I found the other presentations interesting, particularly Michelle Ryan-Sautour’s. She delivered a paper on Angela Carter, an author I’ve wanted to read for quite a while. The similarities between Carter and Atwood are striking and this is something I would like to look into. Unfortunately, the session ran overtime and we were not able to receive questions.
I think I was a bit exhausted after that and did not pay much attention to the next session. This was followed by a luncheon and reading. When I walked into the dining room, my attention was caught by a small woman with blue eyes and curly hair. This woman was Margaret Atwood, of course. My heart started racing; I knew I would get to talk to her later on and I was a bit impressed. There is something about meeting the author you admire the most and on whose works you spend most hours of the day working. I was sitting at the table next to hers, chatting with scholars and discussing my earlier presentation. Sharon Wilson was kind enough to call me over to the table and introduce me to Ms Atwood. Well, I was not prepared and my English went all wrong! We exchanged a few words and I went back to my table to listen to Bharati Mukherjee read one of her stories.
There was only one session programmed for the afternoon: “A Talk with Margaret Atwood”. Clark Blaise was leading the talk. They have known each other since their days teaching at university in Montreal and the tone was quite friendly. I must admit that I did not learn much during that talk as I had already read interviews or essays mentioning many of the things Atwood said. However, it was lovely to actually hear her telling her anecdotes. She is a funny and witty person! Much of the talk revolved around novels rather than short stories, but we were able to ask then a few questions…
Following this public talk was my interview with Atwood. She was assailed by the public to sign books, so I waited a few minutes before going to her and bringing her to sit down in a quiet corner. I had been granted ten minutes (although we ended up chatting for twenty). It is a short time when you have so many questions to ask; particularly when the person you are interviewing is so chatty! This was my first time interviewing someone, and I did not really know how to go about it. I wanted to ask all my questions but was very conscious of the time. As Atwood said at the talk earlier, it is easy to talk about novels than short stories or even the shorter fictions; I had thus to often gently bring back the topic onto the short stories. Sometimes, I would have liked to delve further on her answers, but I also knew I had other questions I really wanted to ask; it was difficult to manage. However, it was really pleasant to talk with her once my nervousness passed and I had a good laugh. Before she left to take her taxi, I asked her to sign my copy of Bottle. It is a limited edition (1000 copies) of a few stories, which were later published in the collection The Tent. It is a pretty little book and, now, it has become a repository of the memories of my chat with Margaret Atwood.
Our next stop was the main Toronto Public Library. We had a bit of time to grab some food and chill out before the readings for the evening started. On the programme were readings by Margaret Atwood, Li Ang, Alistair MacLeod and Robert Olen Butler. Here are a few moments of the evening. I was hoping Salon would put the recordings online but they have not yet, so these are my own recordings (except for the reading of “Our Cat Enters Heaven”) and they are not very good (sorry!).
Maurice Lee introducing the event:
Ted Sheckels introducing Margaret Atwood:
Margaret Atwood introducing her reading:
Margaret Atwood reading “Our Cat Enters Heaven” from The Tent:
Margaret Atwood reading from “The Headless Horseman” from Moral Disorder (I love her giggles!):
Li Ang introducing her reading:
Alistair MacLeod introducing his reading:
The readings were then followed by a very entertaining series of questions and answers. I had a good laugh listening to Alistair MacLeod and Margaret Atwood deploying their wit (and sarcasm).
To end the evening, the four authors had to go through a signing session. I wanted Alistair MacLeod to sign the collection I had bought, but could not be bothered queuing and thought I would have another occasion during the conference. I stood there, chatting with my friends and took a couple of pictures of Margaret Atwood being all smiles for her fans. I was thinking that I would like to have a picture with her, but I am quite shy and have always thought it to be a bit cheesy. Yet, I knew I would regret it. I like photos and the memories they bring back, and, for me, this day had indeed been a big day. My friends then made me stand behind her and took a picture; that was even more ridiculous than asking her!
Finally, I went for cheesy and asked her for a picture (thanks John and Ian for making me do it!). One of my lecturers from my university days in France was around and absolutely wanted to take a picture, so I had to stand there quite a while as she was looking for her camera. I thus ended up chatting with Margaret Atwood and this is the shot I prefer, natural and spontaneous!