Saturday, August 7, 2010

Unjustly dusty: the works of Gwethalyn Graham

I am on a (too-short!) one week vacation this week, and I've brought home 5 books for the 9 days I am off... Do you think that will be enough? With side trips to Montreal and Toronto, I think it will be!

The first book on the pile is Barbara Meadowcroft's 2008 biography, Gwethalyn Graham: A Liberated Woman in a Conventional Age. It's at the top of the list because it's an ILL from TPL, and it's due this week. I find the designation of this series as "Women who rock" deeply trivialising, but luckily I am spared looking at this text as it is covered on my copy by the TPL barcode.

I first learned of Gwethalyn Graham in August 2005, when a friend and former professor of mine wrote a review of Graham's Swiss Sonata, brought back into print 67 years after its first publication. Although Claire Rothman admitted that Swiss Sonata "makes the mistake of putting politics before storytelling," she recommended it "for historical reasons," as a book remarkable at the time: written by a woman, with all-female characters; written not about romance, but rather world politics. Set in a model U.N. (or rather, League of Nations)-style Swiss finishing school in 1935, the novel uses the backdrop of European tensions to explore relationships and betrayals among a group of international students, and was blacklisted by the Nazis (a fact of which Graham was quite proud).

Who was this woman? The review also mentioned that both her novels, Swiss Sonata (1938) and Earth and High Heaven, (1944) had won the Governor General's Award. An almost unknown double GG winner (and a Montrealer, to boot) whose works had been out of print for over 60 years? I had to find out more about her.

Personal interest soon dovetailed with professional investigations, as I began extensive work in the fall of 2005 for an event at work celebrating Westmount's authors on the occasion of Montréal, capitale mondiale du livre. Along the way, Gwethalyn Graham's name popped up again: she had lived at 4129 Dorchester W. after fleeing her first disastrous marriage; she later bought a house on Argyle Ave., and was living at the time of her death at 4652 Sherbrooke W., just across Lansdowne from the park. I unearthed many articles from the Westmount Examiner about local authors that autumn, toiling away for often 12 hours a day, with Ann and Joan as company, executing elaborate maneouvers to get the giant Examiner archives face-down onto the photocopier. I came across many articles by and about Graham; she was often on my mind. I walked by her place on Sherbrooke frequently, wondering about her cozy, grey apartment; I read her novels while waiting for my then-fiancé while shopping in the Bay.

Her early interest in being a writer appealed to me, as I wanted to be a writer, too, up until late into university. Her self-consciousness also reminded me of myself: the fact that she took "great pains over her appearance" but that this "was not vanity; it was a necessary prop to her self-esteem" sounded familiar to me. Her choice of an unsuitable lover distressed me, but her courage as a young single mother living alone in Montreal moved me. I saw her ghost often in that last year I spent in Montreal; that time in my life was as tumultuous as her time in Montreal was comforting. I had always been drawn to tragic stories of thwarted gifts; Gwethalyn's story of great success and eloquent passion coupled with deep loneliness and alienation came at a time in my life when I perhaps felt her losses - idealism not the least among them - more keenly.

At an event in the library that fall (it could have been the Montréal, capitale mondiale du livre event or something else; memory fails me) I ran into Barbara Meadowcroft, who took me aside to tell me she was writing Graham's biography. I could not have been more pleased. It was five years later when I sat down, in another city, in another life, to read the biography, and I found myself deeply engrossed again in the life of someone I believe to have been a kind of kindred spirit of mine. I read Meadowcroft's book in one sitting, pausing when upset to get a drink or check e-mail, needing to put some distance between myself and the words on the page.

I will try to be concise about the facts of Graham's life: the daughter of a lawyer and a Classicist, she had a privileged upbringing in Toronto's Rosedale. An early marriage to John McNaught (known perhaps to CBC geeks as James Bannerman) ended in divorce not long after the birth of their son and McNaught's affair, and it was at this point that Gwethalyn fled to Montreal for the first time. Reading Meadowcroft and coming across the photograph at left, my heart aches to see her so young. She received critical recognition for her first novel, Swiss Sonata, but broke through to real fame after the publication of Earth and High Heaven in 1944. She was active in the Canadian Authors's Association (drafting an amendment to the Income Tax Act for artists and writers that would lay groundwork for forward averaging), and counted High McLennan and Constance Beresford-Howe as close friends. She wrote prolifically about anti-Semitism, immigration, and social injustice at a time when few women were political activists, and few North Americans were paying attention to the Holocaust; raised in a family that sheltered Jewish refugees, she urged Canada to pay attention before it was too late to atrocities abroad. Earth and High Heaven, a novel about an interfaith romance between a Protestant Westmount girl and a small-town Ontario Jew, came precisely at the moment when North American began to awaken to the realities of European anti-Semitism, and would have been made into a Metro Goldwyn film with Gregory Peck had A Gentleman's Agreement not gotten in the way. Graham's second marriage, which brought her to Virginia during desegregation, ended in betrayal and divorce a second time, causing her to return to Montreal. Never idle, but often short of cash, Graham turned to writing for TV (she presciently observed that "TV is or ought to be" considered art in 1959) and non-fiction, publishing her correspondence with Solage Chaput-Rolland, which examined the prejudices of English and French Canadians, under the title Dear enemies. Graham was consumed with self-doubt in later years, unable to finish another novel, and drank heavily after her second divorce. Observing her erratic behaviour and uneven gait, and concerned that she was an alcoholic, her son convinced her to admit herself to a treatment centre for alcoholism; within hours, she was transferred to the Neuro, where doctors discovered a tumur "the size of a fist." She died within weeks, at 52.

Reading her biography, I was struck again by the characteristics that had initially drawn me to Graham: her steadfast loyalty to her two husbands and her large circle of friends, her commitment to internationalism and insistence that Earth and High Heaven was not a love story but was "a plea for the individual, that he or she may be regarded and respected as such, and not judged arbitrarily according to a category," her "clear, straightforward prose," as Meadowcroft calls it, and her supportive family, including her father (who mailed her cheques during the early days writing Swiss Sonata alone with a baby in Montreal) and her sister, Isabel LeBourdais (whose book, The Trial of Stephen Truscott, she did not live to see published).

There are certainly things not to admire about Graham: she is not terribly charitable to a lesbian character in Swiss Sonata, although it is unclear if the views expressed in the book are her own, and her frequent abandonment of her son, Tony, to travel or write, was undoubtedly a difficult choice that had a deep impact on him. Overall, however, she showed remarkable talent and bravery for a woman with a complicated life in a troubled time in history.

I do think her novels have their dated - as well as their truly honest and vivid - moments. Meadowcroft calls them "as fresh and readable today as they day they were published;" Rothman counters that Swiss Sonata was "worth reading, if not for its literary artistry, then for its interest as a snapshot of womanhood and the Western World on the brink of transformation." I am somewhere in the middle: both novels have moments of lyric beauty, as well as cuttingly accurate dialogue, and both are also plagued with occasional moments of narrative clunkiness, for want of a better term.

I still unabashedly recommend Graham every chance I get; she was one of the first books I shelf-talked, and she has appeared in several of my readers' advisory lists. Although she came several years before Munro and Atwood began publishing, and she was not really one to make friends with other Canlit women, she paved the way for them, churning out solid, even, intelligent writing for many years, assembling frequent salons in her living room (mixing all types of Montreal characters, writers and lawyers, Jews and Gentiles) and throwing herself head-first into the révolution tranquille with the publication of Dear enemies. Canada should be more proud of her, or rather, they should be proud of her in the first place, since it seems they never really have been.

Cormorant's own Marc Cote has been a personal champion of Graham's work, mentioning her in a 2009 article in the Globe & Mail, in which he talks about the inclusion of mostly American texts in Canadian schools, and the slavish devotion of Canadian media to American writers and novels. Describing how book-buying tastes, and "knowledge" of Canadian content and literary awards, are cultivated in readers' early school years, he uses Graham's career, and her dismissal by a Canadian journalist as a second-rate novelist who has never won the Pulitzer, to illustrate our lack of awareness of our own writers, and our own awards. Samuel Goldwyn called Earth and High Heaven "the most beautiful love story he had ever read," (Meadowcroft cites this book as a reference). Why, even with allowances made for the dated nature of some of her writing, has Graham fallen so far by the wayside, out of print for so long, and so briefly fêted upon her return into print? She was a passionate, complex woman who lived in an awkward time, and she survived to re-invent herself numerous times, as a writer, a wife and a mother.

One of my two copies of Earth and High Heaven, this one the 2nd American printing from 1944, discarded from the Westmount Public Library's collection.

1 comment:

  1. She sounds fascinating - I'm off to get a copy of Swiss Sonata.