Can one still write about idyllic towns in idyllic southern Ontario peopled with archetypal characters who grapple with Faith, Love, Destiny and Daring? More to the point, can one do it without irony? And can the reader read it without grimacing? Yes, if one is André Alexis. And yes, if one’s book is Pastoral.
The story has familiar 19th century buttressing: an outsider (in this case, a new young priest) arrives in a small, bucolic town (fictional Barrow, ON) confident that the residents will benefit from his presence and convinced that the town has little to teach him. Bored and not half as busy as expected, Father Pennant takes long, rambling walks to sort out his thoughts and, if he’s honest with himself, avoid awkward encounters.
This being southern Ontario, however, awkward encounters are unavoidable and all encounters are awkward. But in Alexis’s hands, the discomforting collisions of characters as they meet, gossip, love, dream, come together or avoid each other become starting points for Christopher Pennant’s discovery of strange corners of the universe. Lowther, the secret cellist convinced he is about to die. Elizabeth Denny, torn between settling for sloppy seconds with Robbie Myers or believing that life might have more to offer. Pennant himself, wrestling with God, or is it Nature, or is God nature or nature God? Compelling questions in Alexis’s hands.
Pastoral is a companion book, that old idea that we carry a book around with us and return to it every now and again to renew friendships, ask silly questions and gossip about the neighbours. I loved it and, sorry, am never sharing my copy. Make a Canadian author happy – buy a copy of your own.
I had a chance to ask André Alexis a few questions and was surprised by his answers.
You grapple with not only the presence but the place of God, even going so far as to say that a life too enamoured of nature is one that will eventually feel the absence of the miraculous, of God. Our struggle in the West today, however, is all about “getting back to nature” and, by extension, protecting it. What are we missing in this struggle? How can a secular nation or movement also embrace the miraculous? Do we really need to?
Without being condescending, I’d have to say that while I accept that the reader might get the impression that Pastoral answers some of the questions it asks, it’s important to point out that the novel resolutely (even perversely) refuses to answer the questions it asks. Not just because the author has no answers himself but because one of the ideas guiding the writing of the novel was that to be alive is to be in doubt or transition. At the end of the novel, all the major characters, save, of course, Lowther, are in flux. They are – save Lowther – fully alive. All have issues to resolve and that, I hope, is a mark of respect for the seriousness of their questions.
So, the question of the miraculous is part of Father Pennant’s struggle, not mine. There are two ways to take the apparition of the sheep. Either the sheep is God or the sheep – which is the creature who brings up the question of the mysterious – is Father Pennant’s vision of God. I tend to think the sheep is Pennant’s vision. In which case, the question is: what is Father Pennant trying to tell himself, in that moment? I don’t have a proper answer to that, I’m afraid. But I feel the question’s important to the character.
Robbie Myers is a kind of country bumpkin often found in small town stories, yet you treat him with much affection and occasional reverence. What does somebody like him embody in your mind? What happens to people like Robbie Myers when transposed to an anonymous urban environment?
Hmmm. I’m going to disappoint you here, too. Robbie comes from the pastoral tradition. He’s a love-struck shepherd. I know we’re supposed to feel sympathy for the love-struck shepherd but, while reading Don Quixote, I felt real kinship with the shepherdesses, the lasses who are the objects of these shepherds’ desire. I thought: what must it be like to have a shepherd threatening to die if you don’t love him? Robbie is, in part, the result of that speculation. More, though: he’s like one of the boys I grew up with in Petrolia. It wasn’t difficult to feel affection for him because, in the end, I feel affection for the boys I grew up with. An aside: I don’t think he’s all that different from love-struck city dwellers. Love-struck is as love-struck does, wherever, I think.
As for any reverence I feel for him: yes, I guess so. I might not call it reverence, though. It’s just that I really wasn’t sure about the depth of his emotions and, so, while writing him, I wondered and speculated. I treated his inner life more seriously than some might. Here’s a story about Robbie: my mother told me that she did not for a moment believe Robbie was in love with Elizabeth. “How”, she asked me, “could a man treat a woman the way Robbie treats Elizabeth and still be said to love her?” It’s a good question but the answer is likely to depend on whether you believe a man can be in love with two women at once, equally in love with both. (The same, of course, applies when the genders are reversed. Can a woman love two men equally, without deluding herself?) If you believe it ispossible to love two women (or men) equally then Robbie’s situation is, in fact, hellish – as he says it is.
The other question, of course, is does Elizabeth really love Robbie? Or is she, in the end, less interested in “love” than in the idea of home? To me, this is just as difficult a question to answer.
In an introductory description of Father Pennant, he is “dark-skinned.” But that is the last reference to colour or anything that might set him apart ethnically from the town around him. Do race or colour have a place in your story, or is it all about the absence of race or colour? How do you want a person of colour to read your story? Or do you hate these questions entirely?
He is, as far as I was concerned while writing the novel, a black man. I thought of the priest in Bill Forsyth’s Local Hero. Though the man is evidently of African origins, his race is simply not an issue for his parishioners in the Scottish village. I chose not to make father Pennant’s race an issue for two reasons:
- I was, as I said, influenced by Local Hero (a great "small town" work, by the way).
- I very much resent having to address issues of race.
It’s the expected thing, if you’re a writer of colour, that you’ll talk about race. It’s as if you’re bound to talk about race, as if there were some contract somewhere. But it seems to me that the issues dealt with in Pastoral – God, Nature, Love, Doubt, Home – are all as important as the idea of race. Why should I not be allowed to speak of them without mentioning race?
Why mention his colour at all, then? Because he comes from somewhere. Because he is a stand in, to a certain extent, for the author who is black. Because I wanted to make the point that I could write about someone of colour without addressing the issue of race.
It is fascinating how much you love your characters and are very forgiving of their smallnesses. I feel that this is also connected to race and outsiderness and getting to that place where you have to be bigger than the people around you. Am I wrong?
I don’t like to say that an interpretation of my work is wrong. It’s not just a matter of politeness. If a work is doing what it should, it will generate ideas and impressions that are well beyond what the writer has imagined. Some interpretations are bizarre (to me) and some are poignant or relevant (to me) but I’m interested in any number of them.
That said, I think race and outsiderness has less to do with getting to “forgiveness” than the sympathy that comes when you’re writing about where you come from and, to some extent, I am a writer who comes from Petrolia, Ontario. Barrow is a version of Petrolia. So, it was easy to accept – rather than forgive – the limitations that come when Sarnia is your version of a big city. (Which it was, when I was growing up!)
I confess I haven’t read your previous books (an oversight I plan on correcting), but this book feels very contre-courant to much of contemporary literature. Yet it is one of the most sweeping and grand things I’ve read in a long time. Were you consciously attempting a slowed-down pastoral style of writing, almost Tom Hardyish, complete with Hardy style themes of life and death in small lives? If you were to be a Thomas Hardy character, who would it be?
Which Hardy character am I? That’s an interesting question. I think I would be Michael Henchard, the mayor of Casterbridge. I’m not like him, really, but his stupidity, his drunkenness, and his ridiculous pride are flaws I understand and for which I feel sympathy. I identify with him partly because Hardy does a good job with Henchard. The character seems genuinely to acknowledge and repent for his asinine behaviour but, significantly, he remains blind to his failings as well. Henchard is a complicated character, one I’ve come to admire as I’ve gotten older. The other reason I identify is: The Mayor of Casterbridgeis the first Hardy novel I read and although I prefer Return of the Native, I have a great fondness for it, still. (I can’t stand Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Far From the Madding Crowd or, God help me, Jude the Obscure. I’d cut my own head off, rather than read Jude the Obscure again. It’s so depressing, I’d probably want to end it all after another reading anyway.)
Of Thomas Hardy’s novels, the one that most influenced Pastoral is probably Return of the Native, but the influence is more unconscious than anything else.
What is the worst sentence you have ever written in a novel and that you wish you could rewrite?
Worst sentence I’ve ever written? It’s in A: I scale the glacier of your frozen eyes.
The thing is, it was meant to be bad and I’m kind of proud of how bad it is. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I can’t think of a sentence I’ve written that I’d want to re-write. I’m sure there are some, but I’m very, very careful in the editing process. Also, I try not to re-read my published work, precisely so I don’t have to see the inadequate or awkward sentences that have gotten through.
On the other hand, I accept that there is no such thing as a perfect novel. So, that’s a comfort.
Writing is mental, mental, mental. What do you do that is physical, physical, physical?
I love to walk, by myself. Long walks are the best. They fix the world.
Pastoral, by André Alexis (Coach House Books)
First posted in Rover.
IMAGE: Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, by Bruegel (here)
TITLE REFERENCE: Musée des Beaux Arts, by WH Auden (here)