Renee Rodin, Subject to Change, Talonbooks, Vancouver, 2010 159 pp. pb $18.95
This elegant little memoir is accurately named and framed: on the cover is the author as the young mother of three small children, taken on a porch in Vancouver’s Kitsilano back in a time when the sunlight was warmer and brighter than it is today. The presentation of the book is bathed in a similarly inviting and unpretentious light, and so is everything inside: like its author, it is what it is, and what could be seen at the moment of perception. Renee Rodin was and is a bright, educated, and not particularly troubled or self-involved woman. She’s been close to the pulse of things politically and culturally left-of-centre in Canada throughout her adult life, a perfectly-placed eyewitness to the left’s elevation to the mainstream in the 1960s and 1970s, and to its decline since. Her account of the era is particular and idiosyncratic, about equal portions oblique and inspired focus.
But there’s actually quite a lot more to this book than meets the casual eye. It isn’t in the sentences, which are mostly serviceable and clear, or in any arbitrary, precious complication of its thought—there is little of either preciousness or artificial complication in these pages. That, in a way, is the source of the book’s virtue. It isn’t the literature of artifice, but the literature of what Primo Levi called the witness.
Of his own work as history’s witness, Levi had this to say in one of the interviews with him collected in the volume, Voice of Memory: “I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tone of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. …Only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is that of preparing the ground for the judge.”
Levi was a witness to the Holocaust—arguably the most effective eyewitness who survived to tell of it, and later, its most wise interpreter. Twenty-three years after his death, his sense of what could and couldn’t be forgiven remains the most civilized and humane guide to human memory that exists. He never raised his voice to shout or berate those who imprisoned and humiliated him, and murdered millions like him. One senses that shouting and drama was inimical to his nature, which was more given to observation of what, amongst human kind, was and remains humane and salvageable. He did just exactly this in nearly all his books, except perhaps his last, The Drowned and the Saved. Rodin, who has been, like nearly all of us, blessed with a much easier reality to face, has something of Levi’s sanguinity as a witness to her own era.
She was raised as a Jewish Montrealer, educated at McGill University and moved to Vancouver in the late 1960s, where she raised her three children, ran a bookstore, and generally speaking, showed up on the good side of most of the issues that her generation faced in the last quarter of the 20th century. Subject to Change is her eyewitness account of that journey, a determinedly sweet-tempered one that makes me see the era—it’s my era, too—and the events she focuses on in a new light.
You’ll get it best if you think of the book as not so much a personal or confessional memoir as an account in the tradition of, say, Susannah Moodie’s 1852 Roughing it in the Bush, which was an attempt to depict what pioneer life was like in Canada during the 1830s and 1840s. And since nobody writes that way any more—as if readers might not understand what was going on in a specific part of the world in a given span of time, and should—one can imagine people a hundred years from now coming across Rodin’s book and finding it much more profoundly informative and valuable than the work of most of her contemporaries, who seem fixed on convincing others merely that the moonlight glistens along their forearms, or across the timbers of the wharf they happened to be sitting on odalisque because the moonlight is about them and what they feel, and not moonlight in and of itself—and then work out cosmologies based on the coincidence of the world to their perception, emotions and (all too often) their prejudices.
Rodin, consistently, has it the other way round. She records the things and events in the world, amongst which her own feelings and beliefs have only a non-privileged place. That makes her a witness in Levi’s terms, and she is a valuably transparent and generous one. Take this little passage, about the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. “Though I know we’re all vulnerable, the West Coast feels more removed from the fray and I wish my whole family were with me, here in my kitchen, when I could feed them. If September 11, 9/11, has mutated into 911, a state of perpetual emergency, it has also provided the opportunity for us to reaffirm what really matters.”
This is typical of how Rodin sees the world. In a hundred places in the book, she translates the mesocosmic into its most domestic integers without losing track of the larger picture, then comes up with a new way of looking at both: in fact, 9/11 did hang a perpetual emergency on us, and Rodin’s antidote might be the only one that is effective. The other thing I like about the book, and about her, is that she doesn’t have much time for cosmology: it’s either around us in the things and actions that are visible, or—again like Levi—she’s not very interested.
For that, and for the considerable pleasure of reading an honest account of an era, this is a very good book, and Rodin is a valuable witness.
950 words, February 1st, 2010