Reviewed: October 31, 2003
By: Carol Shields
Publisher: Penguin Books
313 pages, $12.95
The rivers of this country
Shrink and crack and kill
And the waters of my body
- Mary Swann
In Swann the late Carol Shields created a multi-faceted
mystery that leaves a lot more questions than it offers answers, while at
the same time it explores the fervid and overheated world of literary criticism.
Mary Swann lived a quiet, desperate life in Nadeau township,
somewhere in rural Ontario. To most she seemed a bedraggled farm wife, stretched
to her limits by a tough life and a hard husband. She loved to read, but
the local librarian could relate only the names of authors who were far from
literary in their creations. Nevertheless, Mary wrote poems. What inspired
her, what her method was, no one knew.
A few of them appeared in the back pages of a local paper during
her lifetime. Then she was dead, brutally hacked up by her husband for reasons
which, once again, no one ever understood.
It as only after this that her book appeared. Hardly more than
a chapbook, really, it comprised 125 poems held together by staples between
grey paper covers and titled Swann’s Songs. There were only ever 250
copies and they languished, forgotten, for over 15 years before the book
fell into the hands of Sarah Maloney, an American academic in search of a
Thereby hangs much of the tale, related during the first 65 pages
of this book by Sarah’s slightly overheated, slightly desperate first person
voice. She’s continuing with her studies, organizing a symposium on the works
of Mary Swann, wondering if she hasn’t infused these simple rhymes with more
substance then they would contain, fretting over the fact that Mary apparently
had no literary precursors whatsoever. Whoever heard of a writer without
influences? Why is Mary’s journal so pedestrian, and what on earth did she
want with that awful rhyming dictionary?
Even more dismayed is Morton Jimjoy, the unlikely literary biographer
with whom we spend the next 60 pages. Morton is infected with a number of
unfortunate traits, and our stay with him is unpleasant. Like him, we come
to loathe the subject of our study. Morton always concludes his research
hardly able to bear the people about whom he writes, deconstructing them
past the point of no return. He is a thief, but not even the possession of
the pen with which Mary Swann wrote her poems is enough inspiration for him.
Rose Hindmarch is, among several other things, the curator of
the Swann Memorial Room, a room which reconstructs a much nicer space than
Mary ever had in the house where she died. But it’s representative, don’t
you see? Rose, the town librarian, knew Mary only slightly, but knew a little
of her writing, and it was she who suggested that Mary take it to Frederic
Cruzzi, the former newspaper editor. Our time with Rose is pleasant, but
tinged with sadness as we see her in decline.
Frederic Cruzzi, on the other hand, is a pleasure, even if he
is aging and missing his dead wife. He has good memories, and it is from
him that we learn just where the poems of Mary Swann did come from - sort
of. Like the others, Frederic had only a distant connection with Mary, met
her only once in fact, on the day before she died.
The final section of this multi-layered book is perhaps the oddest
of all, for it is 90 page play called “The Swann Symposium”, and while it
and all the characters in it are clearly identified as fictional in the Director’s
Note, it is, in fact, an account of the very celebration to which everyone
we have met so far has been preparing to go.
It is at the symposium that an offstage subplot which seemed
to have been a coincidence comes to the fore. Someone has been slipping along
after us through the pages of this book, removing any actual published material
dealing with or containing the works of Mary Swann. By the end of the play
not a shred of physical evidence exists that the subject of this study group
ever produced anything and the principal characters are left trying to reconstruct
from memory some of what they know should continue in the world.
Why did Mary die? How was she ever inspired to write poetry?
By what process does literary work become significant? What literary thief
pillaged the written record and why did he or she do it? None of these questions
are resolved at all. Perhaps this is all one famous writer’s commentary on
the process of becoming famous.
This is a fascinating book, one which I decided to read after
hearing an abridged dramatization of the story on CBC radio one evening.
Clever, insightful and intriguing are all words that come to mind. Even after
you’re pretty sure where it’s going, you want to stick around and find out