Norman Levine, like no other writer, manages to convey, squarely, through this single, sad, common reaching out at strangers, the horrific fear scarred across the nervous system of the post-Munch, post-Bacon, human condition

Image result for Norman Levine, I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, .
Norman Levine, I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well, Biblioasis 2017.


Norman Levine's stories, so spare and compassionate and elegant and funny, so touching, sad, fantastic and unforgettable, rank alongside the best published in this country. Celebrated abroad, his work was largely unknown in Canada, except among the generations of writers he influenced, from André Alexis and Cynthia Flood to Lisa Moore and Michael Winter, who passed his work among themselves and learned much of their craft from studying Levine's own. His work long out of print, his entire output of short stories are collected here together for the first time, to be discovered by a new generation of Canadian readers and writers.


Norman Levine was a permanent outsider, by temperament and by choice — as Polish born immigrant, as resident alien, as writer, as Jew — and he observed life from the margins with an unsentimental eye. Raised in Ottawa after immigrating, Levine served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World war. He then lived an itinerant life for a time before settling down in the community of St. Ives in England, becoming close friends with painters such as Francis Bacon and Patrick Heron. Impressed by the emotional immediacy of their abstract work, he tried to do the same in his writing, with his words aimed to sear his readers' nervous systems. In the process Levine developed the minimalist style, using a lean, fragmentary, suggestive language which served to heighten the emotional charges laden in his work, for which he became so rightly celebrated and emulated by other writers.
Gathered together at last in a single volume, the stories in I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well present the best work of one of the great English prose stylists of the last half of the twentieth century. These stories evince a vivid texture and sensibility and are elegaic in their exploration of alienation, impermanence and the fragility of human hopes, while forcing the reader through his imagistic approach into a new and uneasy relationship with language and, through it, life. (From Biblioasis)




The joke in Norman Levine’s posthumous short story collection, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well has surely one of the most chilling, stalling effects in modern literature. Levine’s world is cold, it is a transatlantic, bureaucratic world of coastal publishers that gossip over contracts and writers and promiscuous BnB hosts that bed off-duty soldiers. Here, everybody is a stranger, and it’s better they remain that way.
The axe that comes break us, the weight that shifts the frozen sea, finally, is the deep loneliness portrayed in the characters attempts at telling each other jokes. And Levine, like no other writer, manages to convey, squarely, through this single, sad, common reaching out at strangers, the horrific fear scarred across the nervous system of the post-Munch, post-Bacon, human condition. That condition, it seems, is loneliness, and it weighs on us, in Levine, most poignantly through the frail passing of an awkward attempt at humour. The first two stories, ‘A Father’ and ‘In Quebec City’, end with characters telling jokes. And what should feel like union, feels like the end of the world:
“You used to tell me jokes, Mendel,” I said. “Where did they come from?”
“From the commercial travellers. They come to see me all the time. All of them have jokes. I had one this morning. What is at the bottom of the sea and shakes?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“A nervous wreck,” he said and smiled. “Here is another. Why do cows wear bells around their necks?”
I said nothing.
“Because their horns don’t work.”
In Levine’s work, the light joke, becomes the pivotal symbol for all that it embodies and decodes for us about how we behave around each other, the failure of connecting, the inevitable loneliness of settling for whatever happens. As these quotidian, short-lived attempts at union collapse, so do our plans, and our predictions. Lives in these stories never turn out as expected, but they do have the accomplish, the finish, of a life that feels real; sometimes to the point of unbearable pain. Whether it be an old friend that the protagonist bumps into that he can’t connect with, or a father whom he wishes not to be similar to in anyway, for his lack of power, these characters resonate with the human flicker of reality; the chaos that lurks behind the ordinary lives of strangers.
The description of industrial connectivity through modern transit clashes against the thick strokes of the coast, and even more so against the tortured pallet of the men and women who populate the stories: all seem to have lost something, whose detail they have forgotten—to the point where the only thing they seem to be aware of is that the thing they have lost was precious. In ‘Champagne Barn’ a mother is dying; she wants to both carry out her imminent death with as much practicality as possible, by helping her children, whilst also failing to comprehend any tragedy inherent in the situation. She seems to exist in two places at once. And the result, the portrait that is conveyed, is one of existential terror.
It is no wonder, then, that he was a good friend of Francis Bacon’s, the man responsible for skewed portraits described by a Prince Charles as “awful.” Levine wanted to capture that same immediacy that he saw in painting, he wanted to flare up the nervous system with flashes of everyday life, awful portraits of its sadness and subtle confusion swimming beneath the surface. He is so successful, that whilst reading these stories, one feels a sense that one is hardly reading at all—that the words written on the page have been scored somewhere between the invisible layer of the painfully visible and the necessarily unspoken. The prose is so clean, it carves like a knife into reality, and performs an autopsy on modern reality and social behaviours, so correct, it almost seems like it might, for a moment, bring the stifled, post war, nuclear world, back to life, back into some kind of awareness of what has been lost and what cannot be found.
During the eponymous story, the reluctant, unnatural social interactions between two characters shoehorned together, becomes odder the more realistic it gets. Al Grocer has lost his pen, and in their shared pursuit of a new one, the two men begin, slowly and subtly, to discover sides to one another that they like less and less. The story plays out like one of those no-days that you had very nearly forgotten:
We came out and walked along the front.
“I think we can get a biro,” I said, “in Literature and Art.”
But I’ve got one.” And he brought out from his fawn jacket pocket one of the plastic pens that were on sale in Woolworth’s. “What’s the matter,” he said good-humouredly. “Haven’t you ever taken something without paying for it?”
These distances, as stories navigate St. Ives, Ottawa and Montreal, push characters further away. What we are left with is an awareness and validation of the outsider, and the condition of separateness. But whilst these portraits create a reality so accurate we not only see the flesh but the nerves below, there is a redemption to be had behind the bleak separateness on display, in every town, in every house, on every train. Because at the heart of this unique collection is a beautiful message: the real—and rare—connection is worth the search.
About the reviewer: Chris Viner is a writer living in Los Angeles. His book Lemniscate (Unsolicited Press, 2017) is a book of poetry that attempts to champion the visionary in a changing city besieged by terror. He studied at Goldsmiths, University of London and St Anne’s college, University of Oxford. He was recently nominated for a Pushcart award. - Chris Viner http://www.compulsivereader.com/2017/12/19/a-review-of-i-dont-want-to-know-anyone-too-well-by-norman-levine/


Norman Levine (1923–2005) was raised by Orthodox Jews in Ottawa and received his education in Montreal. But he was born in Poland and spent much of his life in England, where he married, started a family, and became a writer. Which is to say that Levine was not really all that Canadian in the first place (his adversarial relationship with the country is on view in his 1958 memoir/travelogue, Canada Made Me). Yet by choosing exile – a status he felt suited his vocation – what might be regarded as Levine’s fundamental Canadian-ness became fortified. Levine’s short fiction, collected in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, cannot help but be read as emblematic of our national literature. It is the work of an observant outsider regarding landscapes and buildings, places and culture, others and self.
The collection’s title is ironic in that intimate connections abound in Levine’s stories, yet this title is also indicative of a sensibility shaped by comfort with distance and exclusion. Levine’s protagonists are forever curious about another class, another generation, another place or culture; about alternative choices that might have resulted in different outcomes.
Levine’s early stories tend to be shorter and more performative, employing humour so dry it may not even qualify as humour, and marked with arresting elisions and idiosyncratic phrases: “I was riding away to war in a taxi.” “The feathers, they sleep with you like another person.” “Until he met me he thought everyone in the world was a Catholic.” The later stories are more expansive, patient, and comprised of larger swaths of time while simultaneously closing in on death. In “Soap Opera,” for example, the narrator ruminates that “whenever I go to a new place and walk around to get to know it, I inevitably end up in a cemetery.” Or take the final lines from “The Ability to Forget,” which was also Levine’s final story: “People disappear. And that’s that.” By the time you reach the end of I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well you feel as though you’ve been through something: decades of experience doled out in fictions.
The uninitiated might not understand how literally to take this. One reads several stories, nearly all of them written in the first person, all of them with the same tone, making the same highly distinctive observations. It’s easy to wonder if there is a major flaw in this otherwise masterful prose: the voice in Levine’s stories is always the same, no matter the narrator. Then one realizes that the narrator is always the same, no matter the name, and every narrator resembles Levine himself: male, Jewish, from Ottawa, McGill educated, a veteran, married to an Englishwoman, long indigent before finding success as a writer. Fiction is for Levine a vehicle for something very much like autobiography.
In an essay called “Kaddish,” which functions as a sort of afterword to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, John Metcalf writes, “Norman’s stories … are unusual in that invention is not his real interest: a little judicious rearrangement is often as far as he’s prepared to go.” As with A Manual for Cleaning Women, the recent collection of Lucia Berlin’s stories, part of the pleasure of reading I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well is in traversing the span of a life by reading the stories extracted from it. The stories in this volume are more or less sequenced to mirror events in the author’s life, endowing the book with a transcendent arc, a meta-coherence – the movement of memoir filtered through the collage of multiple self-contained narratives.
This emphasis on fiction as a means of self-examination should not obscure Levine’s profound interest in others, however much he may despair at our inability to communicate. “By a Frozen River” brims with encounters with transients. “Grace & Faigel” shows the narrator striking out with younger women because of misunderstandings regarding changing sexual mores. “Because of the War” considers the enigma of causality, how people enter and exit our lives under the illusion of choice or destiny. Several narrators visit ailing mothers; these stories are unspeakably tender. Levine’s narrators often enjoy the company of people no one else seems to like: the title story has the narrator hosting an annoying Australian radio broadcaster who has predilections for shoplifting and offering unsolicited marital advice.
On that note, the one character in Levine’s life we never get to know too well is his wife, who died of cancer when Levine was 50. This fact is noted in several stories, in which grief is ever-present but never dwelled on. But the wives in Levine’s stories, while commenting on the action, are seldom described in detail and rarely play active roles. This should be considered not neglect, but rather self-preservation – Levine’s way of saving something for himself alone. I can’t help but feel, however foolishly, that I got to know Levine from all that he reveals over the course of I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. But I’m most moved by those vast territories of experience he chose to leave out.
José Teodoro  https://quillandquire.com/review/i-dont-want-to-know-anyone-too-well-collected-stories/


In “Gifts,” one of the stories now gathered in I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, the collected stories of Norman Levine, the protagonist, a writer, meets two men and a woman at the Chateau Laurier Hotel in Ottawa. These strangers introduce themselves and claim to like his writing, chatting for a while. Then Julie, the woman in the group, says:
I have only read a few of your stories in magazines. I like the way you describe the small details of everyday life. But if I may make one criticism—you don’t make use of fantasy. If you could have fantasy in your stories then you would reach a wider audience.
The protagonist takes no offense at the comment, and later, after they have invited him to visit their room, sharing in champagne, the trio reveal they have recently robbed a branch of the Bank of Montreal. Someone robbing a bank, or anything as dramatic, is a weird moment in a Levine story, and given Julie’s prior suggestion in the narrative, extremely funny. It’s as if Levine, aware of the lack of car chases in his fiction, has accommodated his character’s criticism with a dramatic invention. One can’t help but feel he is giving us a wink too. These self-referential pages are revealing if one is trying to unlock the style and substance of what constitutes a story by Norman Levine, or to resolve some of the mystery as to why this meticulous, consummate writer received little attention during his lifetime, a source of frustration to Levine fans and scholars.
His enthusiasts know the biography. Born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Minsk, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa's district of Lower Town—occupied then by mostly French and Irish Catholics—before being sent to England as a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. Returning to Canada, he attended McGill University and published two poetry collections before his first novel, The Angled Road (1952) and a memoir, Canada Made Me in 1958 (“My writing begins with that book,” Levine would write). For some critics, this book is considered the main reason for Levine’s neglect in Canadian letters. Written as a three-month journey across the country, Levine’s recollections and portraits are less than flattering, depicting a gritty, desolate, working-class panorama of mid-century Canada. He writes: “No one is really a stranger in Canada if he was brought up in a small town. They remain so much the same across the country: a vast repetition, not only of the Main Street, the side-streets, the railway track, the river; but the same dullness and boredom."
A product of both honesty and bad timing, this account did not sit well with the nationalist cultural cheerleaders who, in the following decade, were engaged in improving the perception of Canada leading up to its centenary year of Confederation in 1967. In the Foreward to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, John Metcalf includes the obituary he wrote for The Independent on Levine’s death in 2005, in which he argues that Canada “never recognized Levine’s amazing talent and achievement” and “never forgave” him for the publication of Canada Made Me. Levine did not publish another book in his own country for seventeen years. Discouraged by the lack of reception and frustrated by the feeling that “there wasn’t enough going on,” Levine moved to England, settled in Cornwall, and save for a few stints as Writer-in-Residence at universities in Fredericton and Toronto, never lived in Canada again.
But he continued to publish what became his legacy: the short stories. Levine’s reputation rests on these, many of which saw their first appearance in the Sunday Times, New Statesman, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue throughout the 1970s and 80s. Important collections followed, notably I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well (1971), Champagne Barn (1984), Something Happened Here (1991), and his final book The Ability to Forget in 2003.
Throughout these volumes, Levine’s stories share familiar details. With some exceptions, the setting is either St. Ives or Ottawa. There are the same locales: a mother’s home for the elderly, the Chateau Laurier, Rideau Bakery, the Cornish landscape, the country roads and cheap accommodations. Likewise, the core characters, sometimes with a name change, remain the writer-protagonist (always short on money, always scraping together just enough to pay the overdue bills), his patient wife (Emily, Marie, Coral) and an elderly mother. First-person point of view predominates; occasionally the third is used, as in “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice” or “A Small Piece of Blue.” It is also consistent for the main character to be arriving from somewhere else. “On Thursday morning the train arrived at Sault Ste. Marie,” begins “A Small Piece of Blue.” “I got into Riverside as the first grey light of the dawn came,” begins another.
...I came back to Ottawa...
...in the spring we left London...
...I had returned to Ottawa from the West...
In the winter of 1965 I decided to go for a few months to a small town in Northern Ontario.
Levine seemed to appreciate the psychological and dramatic consequences of transit, when the mind must shift between fixed emotional points, exposing tensions between the present and the past.         
These details are all, for the most part, recognizable from Levine’s own life. Some critics and fellow writers have pointed out the thin divide between Levine’s personal history and his “fiction.” In a contribution to the anthology of essays on writing, How Stories Mean, Levine has stated of his stories: “…in writing them I tried to be as close as possible to what I had seen and felt.” Metcalf, in an afterword to I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well, titled “Kaddish,” offers:
One cannot usually read fiction with any assumption that it is autobiographical. Norman’s stories, however, are unusual in that invention is not his real interest; a little judicious rearrangement is often as far as he is prepared to go.
It seems likely from Levine’s own comments that many of the characters and situations are based heavily on real people and events, but shuffled occasionally to suit the structural tensions in the story. Characters drawn from life may never have met there. Another essay from How Stories Mean, on the writing of “A Small Piece of Blue,” bears this out. In the story, the protagonist has taken a job at a mining camp in Northern Ontario. Yet Levine admits another character was based on a music teacher from North Devon. Still another was a customer in a pub in London. He says, “The pressure of writing the story was like a magnet that pulled these pieces from my past.”
Characters’ encounters are, in essence, the center of Levine’s fiction. They are social stories. Nothing else really happens. People run into or visit each other, they meet up, have a drink maybe, even spend a few days in each other’s presence, then move on. Sometimes (“Why Do You Live So Far?,” “A Visit,” “To Blisland”) a visitor arrives; in others the protagonist returns to Canada (“Champagne Barn,” “Soap Opera,” “The Girl Next Door”). Since so little occurs of any dramatic nature, this meeting of people is the crucial stimulus to these narratives and the reason why they are so evocative and addictive. Human connections are the source of both the emotional ballast and instability in Levine’s characters, and make apt the painful contradiction of his title I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Knowing someone well involves emotional investment, with its human rewards, but also the attendant disappointment and pain. Living in peripatetic conditions, Levine may have felt decentered and alienated, in search of a link to the past. The crisis plays out, at room temperature, throughout his stories. In these encounters, there is always a sense of deflation, of inadequacy, of better dreams tempered by experience. Controlled desperation is hinted at. On occasion, it boils to the surface in characters’ exasperated moments. “We can’t go on like this,” Rosalie says in “A View on the Sea.” Or “What am I doing here?” (“LMF”). “What have I done with my life?” says Mrs. Kronick in “Because of the War.”
In “The Girl Next Door,” the writer returns to Ottawa and introduces himself to a nearby tenant of a rented apartment. They talk, spending time together. He notices her restlessness. She tells him she’s had a quarrel with her boyfriend. She explains she’d tried art school but quit. “I was trying the wrong things,” she tells him. She continues hanging around until he explains he has to work. She leaves. Then she calls him the next day. “I’m going to kill myself,” she tells him. He takes a taxi and finds her. They hang out for a few more days until she decides to return to Toronto.
“Thanks for talking to me,” she said. “You don’t know how much all those talks we had meant to me."
And I felt bad. All I could think of was how abrupt I was with her. How little I did give of myself.
Expressions of outright despair are rare. Instead, Levine, like Chekhov, is a great observer of hidden watersheds, of mundane disquiet and loss. There are no screaming matches or slammed doors in these stories, no plot lines or “fantasy”; only an atmosphere of things barely acknowledged. It’s what makes his exquisite portrait, “A Father,” that opens this collected, so powerful. With seeming dispassion, in a few short, memorable sketches, Levine depicts his subject as a slightly pitiful, working-class fruit peddler, whose ineffective card-playing (“He made costly mistakes”) is a subject of embarrassment. In the final scene, the narrator, now an adult, sits in his parents’ living room on his last day of embarkation leave in 1944. He is wearing a new pilot officer’s uniform. His mother is crying (“She was sure I wouldn’t come back”) when his father begins to tell a string of stock jokes. They begin laughing. “And suddenly I felt immensely proud of my father...” the narrator notes before the taxi arrives and the son says goodbye. But this story must be read. Any synopsis fails to capture how bewilderment is replaced by understanding, how the jokes touchingly circumvent the desperate pain of the moment. In only six compressed pages, “A Father” achieves registers of human complexities difficult to meet.
Likewise, in “A Writer’s Story,” the protagonist and his wife rent a house in Cornwall, where he befriends some locals, including a Mrs. Burroughs and a Mr. Oppenheimer. Mrs. Burroughs tells him stories. He visits Mr. Oppenheimer at his office and his home. Oppenheimer reminisces about D.H. Lawrence, whom he knew briefly. Later, the main character and his wife decide they must leave and try living somewhere else they can afford. The day of their departure, he stops to say goodbye to Mrs. Burroughs, who informs him Mr. Oppenheimer has recently fallen in the street (“He is gone to live with his daughter in the country. We won’t see him again. That’s what happens...”) and offers a gift of a red glass vase (“Why not. They will only fight over it when I’m gone.”). In the final lines of the story, he shows the vase to his wife:
“It’s beautiful,” she said.But she was looking out of the window as the taxi drove along the coastal road. On one side—the earth with the small green fields, the yellow gorse, a stone church with old gravestones. And on the other—an immense sky against the thin flatness of the sea.
My wife took my hand. “I’m glad we are leaving,” she said. “Now things will begin.”
But the optimism evoked by the last line is subverted by the scenes of fatalistic, marginal life they have just abandoned. Likewise, the description of landscape is both stark and beautiful, the characters progressing literally along the edge of a closed past and an open vista, the future unclear.
Levine’s restraint and ambiguity is a product of his careful, unadorned prose, a style of orderly diction and disaffected narratives shaped into a literature of astonishing, enduring immediacy. Immediacy, directness, simplicity: these were all important to him in storytelling. Levine wasn’t interested in artifice. The less to block the reader from the direct experience of the story, the better. In the foreward to Levine’s work, Metcalf gives context to Levine’s place (or lack thereof) in Canadian and International literature, as well as some thoughts on Levine’s particular style. Levine had credited friendships with a group of abstract painters, and daily exposure to their work, as seminal in his growth as a writer. “When they finished a painting,” Levine wrote, “they wanted me to see it in their studio. And there it was. At a glance. Through the eyes. Onto the nervous system. I remember thinking: how could I get this immediacy in writing?” In the same foreword, Metcalf quotes Cynthia Flood’s essay on Levine’s work and development, his increasing need to strip away unnecessary clauses, articles and modifiers that “smother energy.” She claims Levine was trying to break the reader of the habit of reading only to reach the end of the story. Instead we need to experience the texture of the prose and take pleasure in its detail. “We are to look,” she writes. 
The Ricohflex camera is an apt cover image to this edition. Looking and recording was the skill Levine valued above all others. He stripped away unnecessary exposition to get to the essential images of the experience, balanced between the superfluous and the necessary. Levine knew the truth of human relationships is elusive, so never fed his readers conclusions, only suspended them in the suggestion of revelation. If the portrayal often seems bleak, it does not sacrifice beauty. In his prose, these extremes are inseparable.
At night I sit by the desk until my eyes become watery, and I get sleepy. I listen. The surf on the beach. Just one steady noise. The cars have stopped. The lights have been turned off. No sounds, except the sea. I go out along the Back Road to the beach. The breaking waves, white scars in the dark. They gash the black in several places. The gashes grow wider. They join. One white line the length of the beach. Then I come back. (“A View on the Sea”)
Though his writing was refined and concise, it accumulated, and the present Biblioasis edition, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well: Collected Stories, closes in on a generous 600 pages in length. Complex and understated, it remains to be seen if Norman Levine’s stories will reach that wider audience, but the publication of this edition makes them now available to savor. They are all worth reading. Only a few early stories seem unsuccessful, ones like “English For Foreigners,” where the flashes of detail fail to culminate. Most are masterpieces, studies in diminished hope and deflated epiphanies, the reader rewarded with complicated truths, each story a version of the question of what constitutes a life. - David O'Meara


http://www.musicandliterature.org/reviews/2018/1/22/norman-levines-i-dont-want-to-know-anyone-too-well
Image result for Norman Levine, Canada Made Me
Norman Levine, Canada Made Me, Biblioasis, 2016.
read it at Google Books


This travelogue-turned-exposé of the “polite nation” at midcentury proved so shocking it took twenty-one years—despite initial acclaim when released in 1958—to see a Canadian edition. A record of his three-month journey across the country, Norman Levine’s vision of Canada’s seedy and unpleasant underworld is now a laconic classic.



"Far better than any book I've ever read about Canada."—Mordecai Richler


"Mr. Levine is a true artist, who grinds his bones - and anything else he can lay his hands on - to make his bread."—Bernard Levin


"Norman Levine sees with a clear eye a good deal of the tragic comedy of human life. And he writes in a marvellously clean, naked prose which is a joy to read."—Edward McCourt


"One of the most moving, most sad, most deeply felt, savage and loving pieces of autobiography I've ever read.—Charles Causley


Randall Martin: Norman Levine’s Canada Made Me pdf (p. 200-203)

Image result for Norman Levine, From a Seaside Town

Norman Levine, From a Seaside Town, Porcupine's Quill, 1993.
read it at Google Books


Joseph Grand, the hero of From a Seaside Town, is a travel writer struggling to eke out an existence in an English seaside town. He introduces us to the small circle of relatives and companions who figure in his life. As he explores the sequence of events that led him to his present state of limbo, it becomes apparent that his crisis is not merely financial but also a crisis of personal identity. A Canadian Jew, Grand has spent a lifetime seeking to submerge his past. Now as a consequence, he discovers that he belongs nowhere. By turns comic and moving, this beautifully observed and beautifully written novel is a striking example of Norman Levine's artistry.
From a Seaside Town has quietly become a classic. It is a book which simply will not go away.


`Mr. Levine is a true artist, who grinds his bones -- and anything else he can lay his hands on -- to make his bread.' - Bernard Levin

`Norman Levine sees with a clear eye a good deal of the tragic comedy of human life. And he writes in a marvellously clean, naked prose which is a joy to read.' - Edward McCourt
Image result for Norman Levine, Champagne Barn,

Norman Levine, Champagne Barn, Penguin Books, 1985.


INCLUDES 23 STORIES WRITTEN BETWEEN 1954 AND 1984. HIGHLY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL, THE STORIES ARE ALL ABOUT A MAN IN VARIOUS STAGES OF LIFE FROM BOYHOOD TO TH E RCAF IN WORLD WAR 2, RAISING A FAMILY OF DAUGHTERS IN ENGLAND, TO BECOMING A SUCCESSFUL WRITER. THE CHRONOLOGICAL ARRANGEMENT OF THE STORIES IS SUCH THAT THEY READ LIKE A NOVEL.


The son of Polish Jews who emigrated to Canada, Levine grew up in Ottawa, joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II and thereafter lived in England for 31 years, where he wrote, married and raised a family. A good number of the 23 stories in this exceptional collection were written between 1958 and 1978 and are clearly autobiographical, centering on a Canadian writer living in England who relives his youth through trips back to Canada and visits from Canadian relatives. The narrator of Levine's stories recalls his past effortlesslyfamily relationships, lost loves, old friendships. And with pleasure the reader participates in these journeys, sharing Levine's experiences of fulfillment, disappointment and nostalgia. One doesn't easily leave Levine's tales behind, for as the narrator of the title story says in the volume's concluding line: "I would carry that sound with me long after I left." - Publishers Weekly


In March 1956, a Canadian writer named Norman Levine disembarked from a ship in Halifax. He was back in his country after nearly eight years in England, and he had decidedly mixed feelings about it. “Everything appeared boarded up,” he recalled. “It was as if some animal, a white enormous snake, had crawled in and filled up with its weight every possible surface, smothering and stunning all the life out of the place.”
Levine returned to Canada to write a book about his homeland. He had pitched the idea of a travelogue to the London branch of New York–based publisher G. P. Putnam’s Sons. With the advance he received, Levine spent three months travelling from Halifax to Victoria and back east to Quebec, writing about places he knew well (Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie, and northern Ontario mining camps) and places he had never been (Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver, and British Columbia’s Cariboo region).
The result, published two years later as Canada Made Me, was 277 pages of squalor, dreariness, and grime. Winnipeg is “all width and loose sand blowing and women with bad complexions”; Victoria is “provincial” and “placid”; Edmonton is “still a small town, dull and boring”; Quebec City reminds him of a “well-kept cemetery,” but he approves of it, in a backhanded way, for its French Catholic idiosyncrasies—in the near future, he thinks, “people will come here to see this as something out of a museum, a museum piece, when the rest of the country has been swallowed up into a sameness.”
The arched barbs that fill Canada Made Me add up to an unsparing portrait of the country in the mid-1950s. Levine was particularly attentive to the artificiality of Canadian nationalism. At one point, quoting approvingly from a letter from an unnamed friend, he notes that the country was just something that “issued postage stamps and dollar bills, and set up customs offices next to American customs offices.” Coupled with his own poverty (he was constantly asking friends to wire him funds), Levine’s aversion to jingoism made him surprisingly sympathetic to the victims of Anglo-Scottish Canada: visible minorities, refugees, immigrants, First Nations people. “Of course, the white man did not like something he could not understand, so he tried to destroy it,” he noted in a characteristically offhand aside while visiting a reserve in British Columbia.
Such candour did not endear him to Canadian tastemakers. Though Canada Made Me was conceived as a joint publishing venture between the UK branch of Putnam and Canada’s McClelland & Stewart, after reading the manuscript, Jack McClelland refused to put his press’s name on the 500 copies that Putnam sent for distribution. Despite the book’s reasonably brisk sales, no further shipment was requested. Levine wouldn’t be published in this country again for over a decade.
The uncomfortable response to Canada Made Me likely cemented Levine’s status as a literary exile, but he had always been an outsider with an affection for those he called “the throwouts, the rejects.” In the book, his eye is drawn to the discontent and weariness of the miners in a northern Ontario bush camp, the noseless woman running a boarding house in Sault Ste. Marie, the old drunk who stumbles into a puddle in Winnipeg and is kicked by a passing stranger. Levine wrote what he saw, and what he saw was a country filled with people who didn’t quite fit the picture of civic health that the cultural apparatchiks were selling.
A similar unsentimentality runs through his short stories, forty-two of which have been collected in the recently released I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Levine’s fiction is at its most uncanny when a moment of sudden intimacy gives us a glimpse into the secret life of another person; it is at its most heartbreaking when it reveals how fleeting such glimpses can be. In “My Wife Has Left Me,” the narrator spends most of the story commiserating with his neighbour, whose wife, Colette, appears to have taken off with another woman. As the story concludes, the narrator learns in a casual conversation that the postman’s wife has also disappeared. The narrator serves only to provide the barest frame through which we observe Colette, her husband, and the wounded postman.
In his foreword to the collection, editor John Metcalf makes the case that the long-ignored Levine deserves to be hailed as one of Canada’s literary greats. Closer to the truth, perhaps, is that in a canon of lonely writers, Levine understood solitude best.
Born in Raków, Poland, in 1923, Levine was raised in Ottawa’s predominantly Jewish Lower Town. Like others of his generation, Levine came of age too early to benefit from the Canadian literary boom of the sixties and seventies. Stifled by Canadian provincialism, he anticipated his contemporaries Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler by heading to Europe in the late forties. But where Gallant and Richler were drawn to the decaying splendour of Europe’s postwar capitals (Gallant settled permanently in Paris, Richler ended up in London), Levine found himself in the rather less glamorous St. Ives in Cornwall, England.
A tourist town during the summer months, St. Ives retained something of its isolated Cornish character during the desolate winters. By the early 1950s, it was home to a thriving community of abstract painters later known as the St. Ives School. Levine became friends with many of them, including Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, and, later, Francis Bacon. He often claimed that he learned the minimalism and immediacy of his signature style by watching them paint.
Levine wrote prolifically throughout the sixties and seventies, in part because it was his only job and he needed to support a wife and three daughters. He honed a tight, observational prose less concerned with plot than with detail, more taken with the ambiguities of human interaction than with ascribing some kind of meaning to them. It’s as though he learned the lesson of Hemingway’s concision but subtracted the drama. Levine’s narrators are seemingly biographically identical to him; his themes and subjects are taken straight from his own life: the stories deal with poverty, identity, the claustrophobia of living in small towns, the excitement and inevitable disappointment of the occasional trip to London. Yet Levine is completely uninterested in himself as a character. Instead, he uses his own experience as a lens through which he can focus attention on others.
In 1978, Levine’s wife died. He left St. Ives shortly after, returning to Canada briefly before marrying again and moving to France. When his second marriage broke down, he returned to England and settled in the northern village of Barnard Castle. The last years of his life brought some recognition, including the Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Matt Cohen Award for lifetime contribution, but were marked by the same poverty in which he had lived much of his early life. He died in 2005 at the age of eighty-one.
Levine’s transatlanticism meant that, for most of his career, his work was accessible only in piecemeal form, in small collections published by minor presses in Canada and the UK; this led to a significant amount of overlap. Early stories appeared in multiple later collections (sometimes under different names), passages from Canada Made Me were repackaged into short stories, and short stories were spliced into his 1970 novel From A Seaside Town (notably “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice”). If Levine lacks for a Canadian readership, it could be in part because there is no definitive, breakout collection of his stories, no equivalent of Alice Munro’s Dance of the Happy Shades or Mavis Gallant’s My Heart is Broken.
That might change with I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well. Few publishers would release a collection of short stories totalling more than 600 pages, and by an author who has been dead for over a decade, without an agenda. Metcalf makes his clear. “Norman Levine’s stories stand at the very centre of achievement in Canadian short story writing,” he writes—news that would certainly shock most Canadian writers, not to mention Canadian readers. It would probably shock Levine himself—being on the edges of things (religions, movements, continents) was central to his art. We are, after all, talking about a man who complained Montreal was too provincial, then settled in Cornwall.
Metcalf positions Levine as a modernist who spent a lifetime developing a style “marked by its fragmentation, unorthodox grammar, and denial of cadence” that garnered accolades abroad (Le Monde, according to Metcalf, compared him to Chekhov) but was never properly appreciated by the parochial bien pensants of his homeland. Tilting at windmills long collapsed from neglect, Metcalf asserts (contra the Canadian cultural nationalists of the sixties and seventies, I guess) that Levine—the resident alien, the apolitical innovator, the writer’s writer—stands revealed as one of Canadian literature’s “most radiant figures.”
Allowing that these hyperbolic blandishments probably arise from the necessities of marketing copy, Metcalf’s obsession with style above all sometimes risks overlooking what is most moving about Levine’s work: all the compelling humans he creates. Consider the titular character in “Hello, Mrs. Newman,” the faded wife of a former colonial administrator, driven to what appears to be suicide by the loneliness of provincial life. Consider the pompous and tragic squadron leader Albert Richardson in “The Ability to Forget,” still pretending to live the soldier’s life fifty years after the war, or the irrepressible Eastern European travel-documentary maker Al Grocer in “I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well,” with his bulging eyes and ludicrous stories and nervous breakdowns.
It is these characters and their odd humanity I am left with, not Levine’s particular way of describing bruised pears, stopped clocks, or dust on furniture. And his way of drawing attention to the mysterious depths of the dullest, most obnoxious stranger is what makes the world look different when I close the book. If great writing has a mark, surely this is it. - André Forget https://thewalrus.ca/will-a-posthumous-story-collection-help-canada-forgive-norman-levine/


Obituary (The Guardian)
Obituary (Independent)

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