It’s always scary to read a book written by a close friend. I mean, there is the possibility that I might cringe, that I might not like it, and then what would I say? For other, not so close friends who write, I have observed that the simplest solution seems to be not to to read the possible disaster (as many writers have treated my work). That’s one reason for not reading such a book, that, or that a feeling of obligation wipes out the possible pleasure of reading it. It’s sort of like being forced to taste food: “Eat this, you’ll like it.” What if you don’t?
Theatre people have the same problem. What if they don’t like the play or the actor’s performance? The best line I ever heard was suggested to me by a very successful actor who had to see and comment on his fellow actors’ work, even when he didn’t like it. He would go backstage and say with great enthusiasm, “I wish you could have been in the audience tonight!” You have to be a good actor to bring that off.
All this by way of preamble to my reaction to "Swan Flying, a novel” by my friend Marianne Brandis, with, not to forget, beautiful wood engravings by her brother, Gerard Brender à Brandis. It’s not only an achievement, a labour of love, but it’s also a good read, even if you don’t know the author (or maybe because?). I’ll deal with the tangible product first.
Marianne produced the book herself, and I am in awe of that. Right now I’m in the throes of (valley of?) decision about what to do with my memoir, Endings, a book about ageing that publishers are telling me will not appeal to young readers. (I don’ t want young readers; no one under 50 should read it.) In earlier works Marianne has developed a skill and now an art. beginning with the creation of a collection of what she calls “chapbooks”, plus other work undertaken with her brother as co-artist. But this book, a full-length novel (338 pages), incorporates more in a production where she has the control I have never imagined possible. She has used different fonts to tell her story, different types (narrative, computer, typewriter) and different cursive scripts indicating different writers/characters. The effect achieves what she fails to achieve (my one cavil) with her character’s speech patterns. As a playwright I am very careful to differentiate my characters by their language and their ways of expressing themselves. I have been told that a reader of a script of mine can tell the characters apart by the way they speak, a technique perhaps not so necessary since actors will do that job for one, but they are helped by it. I have caught similar expressions of hers (e.g.“a bit”) attributed to disparate people, and few that distinguish them. A small cavil.
But the content! I don’t want to give away too much, so I will simply quote “a bit” from the back cover:
“Life can change in an instant, as Marta de Witt - recently retired history professor - realised when a phone call summons her from Toronto to the bedside of her dying aunt Hilda in Stratford. …The book is set in Stratford, Ontario, and that theatre town is more than just the backdrop to this multifaceted novel.”
The setting, of course, is familiar to me. I lived in Stratford for a time, when my husband was the manager of the Festival, and I have been a guest in Marianne’s home on Water Street, where Marta de Witt lives. But familiarity stops where creativity begins. Not to spoil anything by saying too much, I just want to say that I was drawn in and moved by the story, the characters and their relationships.
And that’s all I want to say about that.