Howard Norman by Susan Shreve

BOMB 100 Summer 2007
100 Summer 2007
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Howard Norman holding a photograph by Robert Frank, May 2007. Photo by Emma Norman.

Devotion, Howard Norman’s new novel, is like no other story I have read. But that in fact can be said of all of Norman’s work. A quiet moment is interrupted by a surprising collision—in Devotion, a physical altercation between a man and his father-in-law; in The Museum Guard, the hero’s startling confession that he has stolen a valuable work of art; in The Haunting of L., the protagonist’s dalliance with his employer’s wife—that brings to life a world located elsewhere, somewhere we’ve never been, that comes to seem, in its strangeness, entirely familiar. Norman’s work, his fiction in particular, is disquieting, mysterious, and erotic, with an emotional intimacy that we associate with music or landscape painting. His stories are haunted by an atmosphere of melancholy, a tragic vision captured in Devotion by a flock of mute, wounded swans. Dropping out of high school in his late teens, Norman worked on a fire crew in Manitoba, Canada, with Cree Indians, and was fascinated by their folktales and stories. In the mid-’60s Norman began traveling to Canada and the Arctic to record and translate Native American and Inuit oral lore, and his novels reflect the spirit of these people and even some of their subjects: disconnected lives carried out in the extremity and isolation of an icy northern setting.

I have known Howard Norman all my life, it seems, even though we met only ten years ago. These days we often have conversations like this one, which took place at an Italian restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington DC called Arucola, which Howard frequents when he is not at home or at Politics and Prose Bookstore, or traveling any avenue, foreign or familiar, discovering in small, examined lives and landscapes, the unlikely, the otherworldly, the lasting truths about art and morality and the depths of the human spirit. As in Halifax, the setting of most of his novels, he makes of a place his own particular landscape.

Devotion came out this spring from Houghton Mifflin and will be published in paperback by Mariner Books in February 2008.

Susan Shreve This past October you held a rare onstage “conversation” with the photographer Robert Frank at the New York Public Library. How did you experience that?

Howard Norman He got me through it. I had spent a few days with Robert and his wife, the painter June Leaf, mainly on Bleecker Street in the Village. The studio, the apartment, restaurants, cafés. I’d brought them an Inuit drawing of a spirit-tent, a wandering Arctic ghost’s resting place, and we talked about that. We looked at the photographs Robert had taken in Panjiurmiut, on his visit to the Arctic. I have several of those. Finally, we had the library conversation. Generous is the word for Robert that evening. There were people who had followed his work for decades there, as well as a lot of NYU film and photography students. He’d just published Come Again, a book of haunting photographs of bombed-out ruins in Beirut. Some of the conversation was about that book, but it ranged over 60 years of his photographic work. When I got stymied, he just navigated us through. I mean, think of the life. Just his friendship with Allen Ginsberg could easily have been talked about for hours. It wasn’t that he was hesitant; more he was concise and discreet. The photographs he took in Panjiurmiut, by the way, are striking. They are seldom written about, but they really “get” that remote place. Panjiurmiut is a place I’ve been to. I’ve seen a lot of, well, more “stylized” Arctic photographs, but Robert’s catch the bleakness and the strange beauty in equal measure. And the humor—tropical images in storefront windows, for example, like a tiger on a burlap bag. He was in that village for only a short visit, but he took pictures that contain a lot of time. Distance. Views of an Inuit cemetery from a boat, the wooden crosses slanted by sea winds. I remember speaking with him about these photographs while listening to Blonde on Blonde. Dylan—especially of a certain period—is a great favorite of his.

SS You have set all of your novels in Canada, particularly in Halifax. You have written, “To justify the setting of a novel is to needlessly attempt to justify the imagination. The setting of Nova Scotia, for instance, is simply the displacement of the imagination… . Different writers have different places that sponsor their imagination.” So let’s talk about place, photography, and fiction—and Canada. You have said that Robert Frank’s Nova Scotia photographs are the greatest influence on your own writing. Can you speak to this?

HN One of Robert Frank’s photographs is called FEAR NO FEAR. Well, that may not be the exact title, but those words are in fact scrawled on the photograph. It’s a vertical triptych; the same manual typewriter three times. Of course, a typewriter suggests inwardness, thinking narratively, even an epistolary life. But the typewriter is located at a window overlooking a field and seascape in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. So you have outwardness, too. Duets inevitable in a life of feeling and looking and thinking: despondency and hope, studio and sea—ad infinitum. Taken even in the narrower sense of the trajectory of Robert Frank’s life as a photographer, whose artistic risks—whose fearlessness—has more dignified photography? While it’s true that to say he is an “influence” on my writing flatters only me—as if I had the great good sense to associate myself with such genius—I only meant to say that the paradox of that photograph FEAR NO FEAR is compelling. You have a domestic life—indoors. You have the landscape. And you have the typewriter—or a camera lens, or a window pane, or writing itself, each a kind of intermediary. Simply put, I like to construct an interaction between the interior lives of characters and the landscapes in my novels.

SS I see a direct application in your latest novel, Devotion. A young couple, David and Maggie, fall madly in love in London. There is a betrayal. Back in Nova Scotia, Dave caretakes an estate containing 19 flightless swans. As he and Maggie painfully attempt to start a second marriage within the first marriage, she insists that David (a photographer too much influenced by the Czech photographer Josef Sudek) only photograph her through the kitchen window of the guest house, what she earlier refers to as an “amorous window.” In this novel, “love in absentia” seems somehow more articulate than the actual presence of love.

HN In Devotion I wanted to construct what Chekhov called “a melancholic triangulation.” That is, three people (William, his daughter Maggie, her husband, David) whose individual natures and actions and response to a single incident intensify each other’s sadness—until they just get sick and tired of the situation and life begins to get better. Devotion to some extent is about the progress of love by indirection. Again, those intermediaries. Maggie communicates with David through tape-recorded letters. Her father, who has a temporarily broken larynx, communicates with written messages. The swans are mute but act out everyone’s pent-up frustrations, ransacking a house, for example. David attempts to stay close to Maggie by reading the books of an author she loves, Anatole France. So literature is the intermediary there. A lot of Devotion is about the striving to get back to human touch.

SS Then there is a set-piece toward the end of the novel, which is almost a mini-opera of unrequited love, where a mailman declares his love through skywriting, above a church social, a HAPPY BIRTHDAY message for all the world to see, including his beloved’s husband and children.

HN And this hapless fellow has all of those love letters he’s never sent. Another form of muteness, I suppose.

SS You tell truths that are possible for us to take in, though there’s a certain uneasiness in them. You don’t hold back on what you feel people are capable of saying to each other, or doing to each other. Yet you don’t strike me as a fatalist—more, you seem vigilant toward human relationships.

HN A writer friend of mine observed that, in my novels, when two people finally get together, finally are able to declare a love for each other, finally able to live together, it’s because they have exhausted all negative possibilities. It’s certainly true in The Bird ArtistThe Haunting of L., and most recently, in Devotion. Perhaps this is a template, a narrative strategy that works best for me. I don’t have many theories about writing, though. I like that line from Theodore Roethke, “I like to think a thing halfway through and feel it the rest of the way.” In my own private life, I’ve always thought, when in doubt, don’t do it. Reconsider. Useful advice to the self, perhaps. Yet absolutely none of my fictional characters have ever implemented that philosophy. Many of them are in extremis, on the verge, trapped beneath deck gulping oxygen at the top of a sinking boat, so to speak. They have to act on the moment, because to not act, means, sometimes, literal death, or in the least, the death of the spirit. In this sense—and I’m hardly original in this idea—to some extent I live vicariously through these characters.

SS If anything, “originality” defines you as a writer, to my mind. Richard Eder in The Los Angeles Times called you “a silver-tipped original, a wielder of comic improbabilities that come to be serious inevitabilities.” Part of your originality, it seems to me, is in the way you construct the mood of each of your novels. You often quote the Japanese writer Ryonosuke Akutagawa: “What good is intelligence if you can’t discover a useful melancholy?” My Famous Evening, your travel memoir, is very much about you as a fiction writer, how you eavesdrop on the world, how a strong sense of place affects your characterization of people—you refer to the noir quality of Halifax. Is melancholy something you purposely try for, at least as an intensifying element?

HN Well, let’s just say a place like Halifax is well-met with my nature. Like any other writer, I try to impose a mood, an atmosphere. Endlessly walking around Halifax, sitting in hotel lobbies in Halifax, asking, “What might have happened here?”—all this is research of a sort, I suppose. The imagination may be insatiable for certain places in the world. Just as it may be insatiable for certain psychological fugue-states, as Stravinsky said in an interview.

SS In Devotion you write that, in bed, Maggie and David experienced “a fugue-state of amorous devotion,” implying that what they say to each other in those moments—Maggie speaks “inside a moan”—may sound a deeper truth that in all the ways people are normally guarded. There’s the erotic triangle again: the man, the woman, love itself, almost as a separate entity. It’s all throughout your work, really. Chekhov’s melancholic triangulation. And Howard, so much happens in hotels! Hotels are places of refuge, but also places of desperation, of recognition, of life put on hold, of life careening toward dangerous places, of confessions, of truth told in the dark. There’s a conflation of past and present, real and spectral.

HN A few weeks ago I stayed at 70 Park, a hotel in New York. It didn’t have, in my judgment, a very compelling lobby. Not like Haliburton House Inn in Halifax. Not like Durrants Hotel in London. Not like the Hotel Abassade in Amsterdam.

SS All hotels that have appeared in your novels.

HN Still, in my room at 70 Park a notepad was by the telephone, each page with the statement “Every hotel tells a story.” I loved that. Lately, an insomniac project of mine has been to take special note of hotels in movies. Not just Grand Hotel, which is almost entirely done in interior shots, but a film such as Sheltering Sky, Bertolucci’s adaptation of the Paul Bowles novel. Every time the principal characters approach, live in, or leave a hotel in North Africa, there’s an entirely new sense of possibility, of despair, of confusion, and so on. It’s very impressive. I would like, in fact, to write a treatise on hotel lobbies, but don’t yet have an idea of how to go about it. Perhaps extended captions to photographs of lobbies—that could work. Once, in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, I sat near a couple having tea. He said, “Let’s go up, now, shall we?” A rather antiquated locution. She placed her hand over his and said, “No, I’m not quite ready.” Life progressing by conviction and hope, stalled by hesitation and coyness and perhaps reason, or something along those lines. These are simply “stop-time incidents,” as John Berger put it, “captions of existence.”

SS One of the most uncanny experiences I’ve had as a reader was with your memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me. It’s about a few months in the autumn of 1978, when you were in Churchill, Manitoba—in the Arctic. You were translating Inuit folktales about when the Biblical Noah arrived in his wooden ark to Hudson’s Bay, certainly a strange, humorous, and unpredictable juxtaposition of theology and cultural imagination. You met a woman whom you call the most influential person in your life, a philologist named Helen Tanizaki, who died a year later from stomach cancer. She introduced you to many things that became central to your writing life: Japanese writers, ornithology, a certain philosophical quirkiness. It amazed me that Helen was, well in advance of your ever having written a novel, a kind of Howard Norman character. Or better put, the type of character you eventually placed in various outback and marginalized places in the world of your novels.

HN That word influence again, or influential. The thing is, I had all but forgotten the journals I’d kept from my time in Churchill. When my friend Olivia Tecosky was organizing about 25 years of my notebooks, travel diaries, photographs, manuscripts, correspondences, and translations, she found five spiral notebooks marked “Churchill.” She came in for dinner, set these on the table, and said, “Have you read these lately?” In the end, I took much of In Fond Remembrance of Me verbatim from those notebooks, while adding other things. What had, in a sense, been lost to memory was fully present in those notebooks. Helen was never lost to my memory, but a lot of our conversations were, and in the end they were salvaged by Olivia’s insistences. It is hubris, at best, to say this, but In Fond Remembrance of Me is the book I’m most happy to have written.

SS There are two new projects I’ve seen sections of: a novel, “What Is Left the Daughter,” and a memoir, “Scissors in the Window.” And there’s a travel piece, a future book perhaps, for National Geographic, when, this autumn, you re-trace Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Far Provinces, mostly on foot, up into the mountains and to the Sea of Japan. In the first chapter of “What Is Left the Daughter,” I find a familiar Howard Norman provocation: a disturbed young woman flings an open jar of ink against a valuable 18th-century painting at an auction—again in Durrants Hotel in London. The destruction of art, the relationship of art to the disorder of our lives, even how art seems to cause both joy and mayhem, are so often your literary preoccupations.

HN ”What Is Left the Daughter” is set in Nova Scotia during World War II and in Hay-On-Wye in Wales, pretty much in the present. The Caribou Ferry, carrying both Canadian and American military and civilians during the war, is sunk off the coast of Newfoundland by a German U-boat, The Laughing Cow—an actual incident. News of this tragedy reaches the village of Economy, Nova Scotia, by radio. It so happens that a German exchange student studying philology at Dalhousie University is visiting Economy, courting a local woman there, whose aunt is one of the victims of the ferry sinking. This young man is murdered. But that is only part of the novel—the title, “What Is Left the Daughter”, really is asking throughout the novel, what do you wish to really leave a daughter? Not simply material things, but some truth of your life.

SS So often in your novels the radio delivers terrible news. You fixate on where a person is, and what they are doing, the moment the radio delivers this news. How locatable—to use your phrase—a person is. How bad news locates a person.

HN I was in the Arctic when Nixon bombed Cambodia, at a small weather station. I remember hearing this news over the shortwave, the BBC. I remember taking out an encyclopedia and showing a few Inuit families photographs of what Cambodians looked like. A strange and sad moment, really. The subsequent conversation wasn’t about war, really, it was about death coming out of nowhere—out of the sky, as in the Inuit spirit-world, when death sometimes ambushes from thin air. The radio came in loud and clear. Sometimes intervened by static, sure, but usually clear as bell. News that arrives in such a context seldom goes unremembered.

SS And Scissors in the Window?

HN Slow going. I’m a slow writer. That manuscript revolves, to some extent, around a photograph my daughter Emma took in Elizabeth Bishop’s childhood home in Great Village, Nova Scotia, along the Bay of Fundy. Bishop, of course, wrote wonderfully about Great Village, in poetry and prose. When we last visited, Emma took a photograph of a pair of scissors that locked a slanted window in the cramped second-floor room of the house, the room little Elizabeth had slept in. Emma didn’t know that a scissors in the window had a superstition associated with it. You put a scissors in a window like that in order to keep unwanted ghosts out and wanted ghosts in. So this is a memoir throughout which there is this refrain, a scissors in a window, and a lot of stories I heard related to this superstition. Also woven throughout is a story about a woman I met in Halifax whose mother and father leapt from different ferries between Halifax and Dartmouth on the same morning. What at first seemed on the surface to be comically morbid happenstance turned out, finally, to be a more layered synchronicity, with many collateral anecdotes and so forth. Slowly, slowly, this is turning out to be a nonfiction book with something of a novelistic structure, if you will.

SS At age 19 you worked in a museum apprenticeship program in Canada and thought perhaps that would be your lifelong employment: ethnographic writing, documentary film writing, and so on. Were you also writing stories at this point? Somewhere along the line, as you wrote in an essay, you had a brief meeting with Glenn Gould in Churchill—

HN If I had any early “model” it was Edward Lear. In the West, Lear is primarily known as a self-caricaturist and author of nonsense verse, both things he excelled at. But in Europe he is considered one of the greatest natural history artists that ever lived. His portfolio of parrots, for instance, is held in the very highest regard. When in 1872 James de Carle Sowerby depicted a pair of radiated tortoises, it was Lear he called upon to do the basic draftsmanship. And so on. I discovered Lear’s journals, letters—he had a prodigious epistolary life—and visual diaries that he kept on his travels. I daydreamed about a kind of autobiographical natural history writing, where one would travel to far-flung places and report back with drawings and missives. To whom, though? I wasn’t very practical about any of this. My main problem, of course, was that I could scarcely draw. I was modestly accomplished at crows, but anything else, forget it. Anyway, that was the formative inspiration.

I began to work with translation in the 1970s, doing the best I could with whatever facility I developed with language, especially the Inuit spoken around Churchill and Eskimo Point—some subarctic dialects, but, finally, I came to that working relationship with Mark Nuqac that I write about in In Fond Remembrance of Me, especially his stories about Biblical characters getting lost in the Arctic. My first attempts at fiction transparently utilized folkloric structures and even subjects to which I’d add certain episodes, incidents, and stylistic nuances. I was quite aware of their limitations but suffered embarrassment privately, because I never showed these writings to anyone.

In 1974, I showed William Merwin some of my translations. He had been en route to Hawaii, where he now lives, and had gotten stuck in Ann Arbor, Michigan, because of a near-Pleistocene blizzard. He was very encouraging, to say the least—still is. Remarkably generous toward my early efforts, and I understood from the beginning how fortunate I was in all of that. I recently saw him at the Sun Valley Literary Conference in Idaho—he did a talk about his life as a translator—and once again, I was taken aback at how many years he has worked as a translator. Let alone the prose and poetry, of course.

Anyway, I kept going north. My first novel—fledgling—was The Northern Lights, set in northern Manitoba, with a sojourn to Toronto. But after that, somewhat in correspondence to work and travels in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, I set most of my writing, fiction and nonfiction, in the eastern maritimes. My Canada is a literary Canada—it’s the mneomic Canada, the spectral Canada, the real physical place, but I don’t write so-called historical fiction. I stop researching a story when the facts I discover begin to trespass on what I imagined might have happened, so that, surely, even stories “based” on real events—The Bird Artist or What Is Left the Daughter —are finally dedicated to verisimilitude, not merely the imparting of information. But as I said, I don’t have a lot of theories about writing.

As for Glenn Gould, I saw him twice. Once in the Churchill Hotel. That was in the early 1970s, and somebody might still have a home movie of him actually plunking out “Happy Birthday” on a piano in the lobby of the Churchill Hotel. The second time was in a recording studio in the middle of the night in Toronto. A friend of mine was helping me preserve some Inuit songs and narratives, transferring them from crude tape recorder to more sophisticated tape, and Mr. Gould was in the next studio over. Well—giants walked the earth, huh? And I might mention that his brilliant radio documentary-composition, The Idea of North, in which he creates a kind of contrapuntal reportage, he recorded on the Muskeg Express, the train between Winnipeg and Churchill, a number of people talking about their choices to live in the remote north. Part musicology, part sociology. I guess I also have, in fiction, my own “idea of north.” The broad sweeps of weather coming in from the north Atlantic, a person’s despair and bewilderment at how life turned out, thought through in the interior spaces of a lighthouse. Contrapuntal emotions. Then there’s the more mundane fact that I simply like the city of Halifax very much and feel comfortable there. It’s an easy place to visit, an easy place to drive from out into various birding haunts and outports, such as Port Medway, where the wonderful novelist Brian Moore used to spend summers.

SS Taking the Basho journey seems a natural extension of all the other lifelong preoccupations we’ve been talking about: travel, Japanese literature, ghosts, folklore, meditation while traveling. There was a particular phrase you mentioned—something to do with ghosts.

HN In Basho’s writing somewhere, or someone writing about Basho, there appears the phrase “Travels with ghost and ghost-to-be.” Immediately I thought it was an appropriate working title. It refers to a person holding conversations, in turn vexed, relaxed, cantankerous, joyful, with an invisible companion. For me that will be Basho. So he will be the ghost and I, quite naturally, the ghost-to-be. But I hope not until I write about this journey!

SS What are you reading, most recently?

HN I re-read the magnificent Against The Day by Thomas Pynchon. The new Edith Wharton biography by Hermione Lee. The new Hardy biography by Claire Tomalin. In manuscript, a book called Posthumous Keats, by Stanley Plumly, which will be out in spring of 2008 and is remarkable. A wonderful new collection of Akutagawa from Archipelago Press. The forthcoming Murakami novel. Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost—heartbreaking and powerful. Kundera’s essay “The Curtain.” And more pre-modern Japanese travel diaries and treatises on art than I can list. In that realm, since I knew so little, so much is a revelation.

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Originally published in

BOMB 100, Summer 2007

Featuring interviews with Chuck Close, Kara Walker, Mamma Andersson, Howard Norman, Peter Nadas, Bela Tarr, Benedict Mason, and Kate Valk.

Read the issue
100 Summer 2007