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Clara Callan: The Book of the Hour

Richard B. Wright’s Clara Callan swept Canada’s two major literary awards last year, the Governor General’s Award and the Giller Prize. This feat elicited my curiosity and made me wonder: what constitutes Canada’s best? The answer is, sadly, competence rather than greatness.

Clara Callan is a schoolteacher in her thirties living in the rural Ontario town of Whitfield. Her father has just passed away and her sister, Nora, has moved to New York to embark on a career in radio soaps. Clara keeps a journal and, because she eschews the telephone, communicates with her sister and a handful of other characters almost exclusively through letters. The book is a collection of these journal entries and letters – a kind of fictional "box" of musty papers found in some attic – chronicling her life from 1934 to 1938.

The Governor General’s Award jury described the book as "understated yet compelling," while the Giller jury commented that Wright "is a master at revealing the small dramas that unfold in what might appear to others as an unremarkable life." On the other hand, in a November 14, 2001 article in The New York Times, Barbara Crossette lamented the provincial themes of all the Giller nominees, and dismissed Clara Callan as "a slow-moving, low-key novel."

This contradictory assessment of identical characteristics reminds me of a split-screen sequence in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, in which Alvy and Annie are each responding to their respective psychiatrist’s query about how often they have sex. Alvy states, "Hardly ever. Maybe three times a week," while Annie explains, "Constantly! I’d say three times a week."

So which is it? A book that wins Canada’s top literary prizes can’t be bad, can it? Clara Callan certainly is a good book. Technically, it’s virtually flawless. The language rarely missteps, and the characters and plot are consistently logical and plausible. It’s not a great book, however, perhaps because the author seems more interested in maintaining poise and control than taking the risks necessary to produce powerful art.

Despite the fact that Crossette decries the snubbing of Dennis Bock’s "big and wide" novel The Ash Garden (a book set against the backdrop of Hiroshima), "provincialism" is not the downfall of Clara Callan. Many great books have dealt with "small dramas." Consider To the Lighthouse, or, as a relevant contemporary in that it won the 2001 National Book Award in the U.S., Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Both books deal with the small dramas of families, but each does it with superlative writing that stretches the boundaries of language. Not so with Clara Callan.

To its credit, Clara Callan is a lucid and occasionally compelling book. Clara is a misfit in Whitfield, an unmarried virgin, living alone in her family’s house, but the events of these four years – her victories and defeats – transform her life entirely. This spotlight on the crossroads of Clara’s life, reflected through her own ruminations and the words of those who know her, offer the "small dramas" that the Giller jury celebrates. Yet, as skilfully as Wright handles story and character, his use of clear, perfect prose is actually a detriment to the book’s aesthetic

First, precise, controlled language belies the novel’s form. We are reading not the words of an omniscient narrator but the journal entries and epistles of characters – yet these characters write perfect prose, with few stylistic beacons to delineate each voice. As an exercise one can open the book at a random page and attempt to discern the active character through style alone. It’s not always easy. There are few stylistic differences, for example, between the voice that claims, "I’m still undecided about the holiday," and the other that asserts, "I don’t think I can make it down to New York for Christmas."

Wright does allow occasional lapses in the language, most frequently the elimination of a sentence’s subject – for example, "Difficulty sleeping, so have got up to sit by the window" – and these instances, along with various such period clichés as "he’s dreamy" and "what a drip," offer some relief from the competent narrative. But the unrelenting slickness of the writing offers few handholds for the reader. It left me cold. I didn’t care much what happened to Clara or the other characters, because they were so bloodlessly competent in their use of language that they failed to come alive.

Second, the writing is too prosaic, especially considering the fact that Clara considers herself a poet. In measured doses, a simple, unencumbered style can be refreshing:
The skies opened in a fierce brief downpour. People were running for shelter, holding sodden newspapers over their heads or standing in doorways. I stood by the window and watched the rain beating off the pavement and across the roofs of cars. The street was clogged with taxis and delivery trucks. It was like a tap of warm water suddenly opened. Then it stopped as quickly as it began and the road and sidewalks hissed and steamed. Yellow sunlight splashed across the glistening pavement.

Clara Callan is full of this kind of language: smooth, consistent, and effective in a utilitarian way. But what’s really missing, what I hungered for, was some audacious and ambitious escape from the regulated style – as you’d expect from an amateur poet. The best composers – Mozart, Chopin, Mingus – break the rules. Their music is peppered with accidentals, key changes, time signature shifts, outrageously high or low notes, dissonances. Clara Callan keeps an even tempo in one key. It’s almost unbearably consistent.

Admittedly, the double-prize-win raised my expectations, as I’m sure it did for thousands of readers. I might have enjoyed the book without the hype, but I kept thinking: this is the best Canada has to offer? Rosemary Sullivan notes that with juried prizes, "the book that wins is not always the best book but the one that gains a consensus": Clara Callan is likely not the best book. John Ruskin said: "All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time." In English-Canadian literary history, 2001 lasted more or less sixty minutes.

Words: 1012 30 September 2002

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Brian Panhuyzen

Brian Panhuyzen's collection of short stories, The Death of the Moon, was published by Cormorant Books. He has just finished a novel entitled Night is a Shadow Cast by the World.

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