Tag Archives: Extraordinary Canadians

Glenn Gould by Mark Kingwell

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The name Glenn Gould conjures images of greatness, madness, and everything in between. Gould was, without a doubt, one of the greatest classical musicians of his time, if not ever. But, he was also the poster boy of eccentricity. His Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career, are works of legend in the world of classical music, and, at the same time, he was a hopeless hypochondriac, mentally ill, and addicted to a cocktail of prescription and over-the-counter medication. If there was ever a textbook case of contradictions, Gould was it. I first became aware of Gould’s existence 13 years ago in a Canadian Literature class at St. Mary’s University, during a unit on Northern lit in which we listened to his esoteric radio “documentary” The Idea of North. I am a relative newcomer to his music though; I’ve only been regularly listening to him for about a year (the Google Play streaming service has a fairly comprehensive Gould catalogue). He is, not surprisingly, one of the subjects in the Extraordinary Canadians series from Penguin. Philosopher and professor Mark Kingwell takes up the challenge of examining this colourful character. In doing so, Kingwell pushes the boundaries of the biography genre, even interpretive biography, to the extreme.

Kingwell abandons the traditional narrative form that biographies, of any type, typically take. This book could be better described as philosophical biography that attempts to get at the core of what made Glenn Gould tick, rather that simply tell his story. Not all biographical details are left out though: Kingwell does examine some important moments and elements of his subject – including the beginning of his professional career, his love of the microphone and abandoning of live performances, his important recordings including the Variations, and his more unusual personal attributes.

Many of the philosophical digressions and their relation to Gould were quite interesting – even though philosophy is not a discipline I was particularly fond of as a student. Kingwell looks at different aspects related to the philosophy of music and art – such as the line between composer and performer, the idea of “genius” in relation to music, and notions of performance whether live or recorded among others. Importantly, and ultimately necessary in a general audience book, the author is able to delve into this concepts using non-academic language free from much of the jargon inherent in any discipline.

I always hope to learn something whenever I read a biography of someone with whom I’m already somewhat familiar. Kingwell delivered. In the author’s examination of Gould, he looked beyond just the music and undertook a detailed study of his expansive written works. I didn’t know that Gould was a somewhat prolific, if not idiosyncratic, essayist. Over the course of his career, he published numerous articles in piano magazines (and also recorded a handful of spoken word records). In reading this book, it is clear that these somewhat rambling and occasionally incomprehensible articles – which include interviewing himself and regularly referring to himself in the third person, offer the clearest glimpse into the mind of this mad genius.

Overall, I was satisfied once I finished this book. If you are looking for a lot of information and straight biographical facts about Glenn Gould, you’re going to have to look elsewhere. But, as I’ve said before, this is an excellent philosophical biography of Gould. Mark Kingwell does a great job of getting to the heart of the enigma that was Glenn Gould. And from a different angle, Glenn Gould offers interesting explorations of the nature of music and art in today’s society that would be of interest to anyone who takes music seriously. Another great entry in the Extraordinary Canadians series.

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Stephen Leacock by Margaret MacMillan

Stephen leacock

After reading a couple non-Canadian titles, I’ve been getting geared up to roll through the choices for Canada Reads 2015 so I can pick a horse. Before that though, I wanted to knock off another title in the Extraordinary Canadians series. Canada Reads is a celebration of Canadian writing and the particularities that make it unique; in that vein, I decided to read Margaret MacMillan’s entry in the series, Stephen Leacock. Why is Leacock worthy of being named an extraordinary Canadian? Simple, he was one of the most important writers in Canadian cultural history and is one of the fathers of the CanLit movement. Additionally, he is the father of Canadian humour (Haliburton being the grandfather) and his sketches paved the way for comic and satirical writers like Robertson Davies, Mordecai Richler, Stuart MacLean, Terry Fallis, and the list goes on. Without Leacock, 20th century Canadian literature would look a lot different.

In terms of the book, I was very much looking forward to reading it. I’ve read a reasonable amount of Leacock and know of his importance to our literature, but I really knew very little of the man himself. Margaret MacMillan, the acclaimed Canadian historian/academic and author of the well-known volume Paris 1919. Stephen Leacock is a mix of the standard and the interpretive forms of biography. In the first few chapters, MacMillan lays out the overarching legacy of Leacock, an overview of his life and career, and of course his writing. The subsequent chapters follows a more chronological telling of his life with enough detail that you can really sense what made Leacock tick. And finally, a short chapter at the end details the legacy of the great humourist.

The strength of this biography is the way MacMillan weaves in quotes from Leacock’s writing and her unflinching honesty about much of his writing and his personality in general. Leacock has legendary books – Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches, Arcadian Adventures, My Remarkable Uncle – but he also wrote a lot of rather dull pieces and much of his humour, especially his later works, haven’t aged well, if they were ever funny to begin with. But, the great works produced an international celebrity on the lines of Stephen King today. The author also does a great job tracking his rise as a public intellectual, his mediocre career as an academic, and his rather unremarkable personal life.

The central thesis of this biography is this – Leacock was arrogant, he was greedy, and he carried many of the sexist and racist views of his time. Ultimately though, who cares? He was a paradigm changing writer who is an essential cornerstone of CanLit who’s still widely in print today.

Margaret MacMillan’s short book gets to the major points quickly, is highly readable, and really explores his writing in an accessible and non academic-ese language. Like Maurice Richard, the book also does a great job or outlining why Leacock is, in fact, an extraordinary Canadian. This is the second book in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series that I have read, and so far I’m very pleased. As I mentioned before, I wouldn’t read a huge multi-volume biography of most of the subjects in the series, including Leacock. But, because of this series and MacMillan’s pared-down book, I now know the essential story of an important Canadian.

Maurice Richard by Charles Foran

Maurice Richard

I read a lot but I realized recently that my bookshelf is surprisingly deficient in the biography genre. Three months ago, the only biography on my shelf was James King’s The Life of Margaret Laurence. Subsequently, I collected a few more, Gray’s biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill, Charles Foran’s seminal treatment of Mordecai Richler, and King’s bio of Jack McClelland. But then I remembered something I noticed a few years ago. Over the years 2008 to 2011, Penguin Canada published a series of short biographies under the editorship of John Ralston Saul. The Extraordinary Canadians series is a collection of 18 biographies that look at people who helped influence Canada into what it is today. The series includes writers and thinkers, prime ministers and political leaders, musicians and artists, and some that defy labeling – like Norman Bethune. Each of these volumes, written by someone with a particular interest or connection to the subject, is short in relation to the average biography; between 160 to 250 pages each, these books are miniscule compared to some of the behemoth multi-volume bios of important Canadians. A reading goal of mine for 2015 is to read the entire Extraordinary Canadians series, now that I’ve bought the whole collection and smuggled them into the house.

My first choice from this collection is Charles Foran’s Maurice Richard. I have to admit, I am not a hockey fan, nor a sports fan in general outside of golf (go ahead, laugh). It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve watched a hockey game. But, I do find sports history quite interesting. Maurice “Rocket” Richard is nothing short of a sports legend in Canada, and the title legend is barely adequate to describe the myth that surrounds The Rocket .The Richard Riot in March 1955 is also an equally mythical event that is commonly seen as a catalytic event leading to the Quiet Revolution. Foran charts Richard’s humble beginnings, his early hockey career, the 50-in-50 season, his maturation and decline, and his post-hockey life.

This book was a fantastic volume of interpretive biography; the writing was fluid and smooth, it wasn’t heartless and cold like a lot of academic biographies, and Foran didn’t get too deep into the minutiae that are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Using the important moments in Richard’s life, Foran effectively shows the parallels between his career and the evolution of Quebecois culture. While I was rather ignorant of Richard’s biography, I don’t think there was much new or groundbreaking in this volume, but it was an excellent overview of The Rocket’s career, style, and his personality. He was uncomfortable with the adoration and I would even say somewhat ignorant of the cultural importance with which he represented. My favorite aspect of the book was the general descriptions of hockey in the 40s and 50s. This was a brutal gladiatorial blood sport; injuries that are relatively unheard of in the sport today were fairly regular in this time – shattered femurs or skull fractures for example (remember, no helmets). The event that led to Richard’s suspension and subsequent riot was a vicious on-ice assault that would lead to jail time today. Foran also lends an interesting personal touch; he includes a great postscript in which he talks about his own memories of the Habs and Richard in his own mixed English-French family.

I really enjoyed Maurice Richard. I would not be interested in a large, detailed biography of Maurice Richard, but thanks to this fantastic series from Penguin Canada, I have quite a bit about an important figure in Canadian sports and cultural history. Any culturally aware Canadian is aware that Richard was a transformational figure in Quebec and personified the linguistic/cultural tensions that arose from English-French cleavages in Quebec – and as Foran describes it, The Rocket helped the evolution from French Canadian to Quebecois.  I am looking forward to getting deeper into the Extraordinary Canadians and now especially excited to read Charles Foran’s GG-winning Mordecai: The Life & Times.

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