''So Fucking Beautiful''

The surprise of the recent Harbourfront International Festival of Authors in Toronto, besides the "discovery" of such writers as Ireland’s Dermot Healy, Norway’s Per Petterson and the Croatian-born Josip Novakovich, was the reading by Alistair MacLeod, a professor of English at the University of Windsor, Ontario, and first-time novelist at 64. Well-known in Canada for two previous collections of short stories, MacLeod seems to be the authorial version of those great and largely unknown English character actors whose talents far exceed their ability — or perhaps desire — to be Hugh Grant. Ruddy-faced, balding, with a slight portliness, reserved and reticent, he could play any of the typical roles for a working- to middle-class Scots Presbyterian: schoolmaster, police sergeant, butcher, say. But up onstage, following, no less, the sprightly Thomas Kenneally, MacLeod mesmerized.

No Great Mischief was more than 10 years in the making, written between classes and the hockey practices of his six children (!) and largely during summers in a cabin on his more or less native Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The book follows the MacDonald family, not in the garrulous manner of the historical epic but through carefully selected and honed images and individual tales, from 1779, when Calum MacDonald and family set sail from Scotland for "the land of trees," to the 1980s, from which the narrator, Alexander MacDonald, an Ontario orthodontist known in the family as ’ille bhig ruaidh (or the little red-haired boy), looks back. It is a story of struggle and death, music and life, and of the clan, and it is told in a tongue equal parts Scotland, Cape Breton and Ontario. And on that night at Harbourfront, the audience sat transfixed as MacLeod intoned in his deep voice and somewhat feminine lilt, undramatically reading the story at the heart of his book, in which the narrator’s lightkeeper father, and mother and brother, cross the ice to the lighthouse one evening:

Everyone could see their three dark forms and the smaller one of the dog outlined upon the whiteness over which they traveled. By the time they were halfway across, it was dusk and out there on the ice they lit their lanterns, and that too was seen from the shore. And then they continued on their way. Then the lanterns seemed to waver and almost to dance wildly, and one described an arc in what was now the darkness and then was still. Grandpa watched for almost a minute to be sure of what he was seeing and then he shouted to my grandmother, "There is something wrong out on the ice. There is only one light and it is not moving."

My grandmother came quickly to the window. "Perhaps they stopped," she said. "Perhaps they’re resting. Perhaps they had to adjust their packs. Perhaps they had to relieve themselves."

"But there is only one light," said Grandpa, "and it is not moving at all."

"Perhaps that’s it," said Grandma hopefully. "The other light blew out and they’re trying to get it started."

My sister and I were playing on the kitchen floor with Grandma’s cutlery. We were playing "store," taking turns buying the spoons and knives and forks from each other with a supply of pennies from a jar Grandma kept in her lower cupboard for emergencies.

"The light is still not moving," said Grandpa and he began hurriedly to pull on his winter clothes and boots, even as the phone began ringing. "The light is not moving. The light is not moving," the voices said. "They’re in trouble out on the ice."

And then the voices spoke in the hurriedness of exchange: "Take a rope." "Take some ice poles." "Take a blanket that we can use as a stretcher." "Take brandy." "We will meet you at the corner. Don’t start across without us."

"I have just bought all his spoons and knives," said my sister proudly from the kitchen floor, "and I still have all these pennies left."

"Good for you," said Grandma. "A penny saved is a penny earned."

. . . They went out on the ice in single file, the string of their moving lights seeming almost like a kind of Christmas decoration; each light moving to the rhythm of the man who walked and carried it in his hand. They followed the tracks and walked towards the light which remained permanent in the ice. As they neared it, they realized it was sitting on the ice, sitting upright by itself and not held by any hand. The tracks continued until they came to the open water, and then there was no more.

. . . My parents were not found that day, or the next, or in the days or months that followed.

In the morning my sister and I were having our porridge, mapping little rivers on its surface for the milk to follow and sprinkling it too liberally with brown sugar, and still for the most part unaware of what had happened. My grandmother hugged my sister fiercely to her and my grandfather ruffled my hair. "Poor ’ille bhig ruaidh," he said. "Things will never, ever again be the same for you."

If ever there was a lesson in why one should hear an author read from his own work, this was it. "So fucking beautiful . . .," said Michael Ondaatje to a friend afterward.

Greg Gatenby was a 24-year-old editor at McClelland & Stewart, MacLeod’s publisher, when, in 1974, he began to tape Canadian authors. Canadians, he says, didn’t know Canadian authors. Gatenby, who as a student at York University in Toronto ran a coffeehouse, is a doer with strong feelings about what is good in the world and what isn’t. (When relating the history of modern ã Toronto, which in the ’70s said no to urban freeways, he casually refers to those behind such projects as "the forces of evil, of darkness.") He organized a weekly reading series and, in 1980, the first annual Harbourfront festival, which featured 18 authors over six nights. This year, its 20th, the festival featured some 45 authors, including Grace Paley, Ivan Klima, Wayne Johnston, Jonathan Raban, Anne Michaels, Paul Muldoon and Mark Strand, with an additional 140 or so in the weekly series held throughout the year. And that’s down from a high of some 300 authors in 1997, a result, says Gatenby, of lower government funding (40 percent), which in turn is a result of God being replaced by the bottom line.

"Arts funding is now patterned after America," he notes ruefully, adding, "minus the tax incentives." Patterned, yes, but for all Gatenby’s lamenting, the Canadian bottom isn’t quite as heavyset as the American. What really makes the Harbourfront festival special is that, while each author is required to read no more than 30 minutes of his work in an evening program, and submit to an hourlong onstage interview on an afternoon, they are guaranteed seven nights in a hotel. Meaning that they get six good days of seeing the city and, more important, meeting and hanging with the other authors. Some take advantage of this, some don’t, but it’s hard to imagine such hospitality at a festival in the U.S., where, of course, the bottom line really is God.

If that thought weren’t depressing enough, I came home to the PEN Center USA West awards dinner and a saddening realization: In Los Angeles, Hollywood is the bottom line. For me at least, this good and honorable event was skewed by a printed program heavy with full-page advertisements from movie companies and individuals, Variety-style, including a lengthy ego trip posing as self-deprecation from Roy Disney, one presumably to teleplay winner Nicholas Meyer — "Congratulations Nicky, With love, Barbsie" — and another to lifetime-achievement honoree Ray Bradbury signed "Steven." Okay, yes, it’s nice of Spielberg to support Bradbury and PEN, and he has with mixed results brought a number of literary works to the screen, including a rather prominent one by the aforementioned Aussie Thomas Kenneally. It’s just that, well, consider this: If you put Oskar Schindler, Kenneally and Spielberg in a room in L.A. — or just about anywhere, for that matter — who’s going to get all the attention? There are reasons the East Coast PEN doesn’t give awards for movie and TV writing, and those reasons are not strictly geographic.

One of the more intriguing aspects of Harbourfront is the pairing of authors and interviewers, which are sometimes sublime, as with the befuddled Mark Strand and the bedeviling Anne Michaels, likewise filmmaker David Cronenberg in turn interviewing Michaels. This mixing produced some memorable moments, as when Toronto journalist Ian Brown wondered, while talking with Santa Clara– based novelist Ron Hansen about his book Hitler’s Niece, why so many are so fascinated by Hitler. The most popular men’s magazine one could create, suggested Brown, would be called Tits & Hitler.

The U.S.-based absurdist Josip Novakovich, who said he left Croatia "not because of bad politics but because of bad music," got off the best one-liner, on the fact that his parents were Baptists in Croatia: "That’s the definition of bad luck."

And in the festival’s most endearing moment, Bruce Chatwin biographer Nicholas Shakespeare fielded a query from a young student. "I have two questions," she said. "The first is: Are you really in a direct line from William Shakespeare?" Noting that in England if you say your name is Shakespeare, people wonder how you spell it, the author nonetheless sheepishly admitted that, yes, he could in fact wear the William Shakespeare armor. He then inquired as to the second question. The girl asked enthusiastically, "How has he influenced your work?"