"[He Was] Lacking None of the Graces Except a Core of Essential Decency" Read an Excerpt from This Time, That Place by Clark Blaise
Clark Blaise has been described as "the greatest living Canadian writer most Canadians have never heard of." Now 82, with more than 20 books of fiction and nonfiction to his name and a staggering c.v. that includes highlights like founding the postgraduate Creative Writing Program at Concordia University and serving as the Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa (widely considered the most prestigious writing program in the world), Blaise is still putting out the kind of work that has made him a literary darling abroad, even as he continues to fly, comparatively, under the radar at home.
This Time, That Place (Biblioasis) collects 24 pieces of short fiction from Blaise's storied career, and includes one never before published piece. Blaise ferries readers from Florida to Montreal, Pittsburgh to Europe, weaving stories of identity and deception, selfhood and wisdom. A true pleasure for anyone who loves the medium of the short story, This Time, That Place is the rare delight of a master at work. We're excited to share an excerpt here from the story "Translation", courtesy of Biblioasis, and to kick off our month-long spotlight on excerpts.
Throughout November, you can visit Open Book to get a glimpse into some of the most exciting new Canadian books – find your own new favourite, spark ideas for holiday gifts, or just take a moment to yourself to spend a moment with a great read, starting today with This Time, That Place.
Excerpt from This Time, That Place by Clark Blaise:
At forty-three, Porter, né Carrier, feared he was sick again. The warning came at night with a vision and an odour just as it always had. Debbie suspected nothing. She was mincing tuna for a week’s supply of sandwiches. He loved the sound of a long silver spoon knocking the sides of an empty mayonnaise jar.
He said, ‘For the first time in my life, I really know that I’m going to die. It’s a profound awareness.’
She didn’t look up. ‘Am I disagreeing?’ She’d been spending most weekends with him for the past two years. She would soon be thirty.
‘It’s the way you’re looking in that bowl.’
‘Philip, how do you want me to look into a bowl of tuna fish? Let me translate what you’re saying. You’re saying that you read in a paper today that someone who meant the world to you when you were fourteen years old just died.’ She looked up, smiling wickedly for confirmation. ‘You’re the proverbial ear in the forest, don’t you know? The one that actually hears every tree that falls? It’s okay, Porter, it’s okay to die.’
‘You’ll find more mayonnaise in the pantry.’
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‘If every man’s death diminished me the way it does you—God, I’d disappear!’ She licked mayonnaise off her knuckles. ‘But you don’t actually diminish, do you? You’re no anorexic. I’m sure you grieve in your way, but it keeps you going.’
Much as Porter loved her most days, he knew the relationship was ending. Not because of her reaction, which was appropriate. It was ending because of the vision.
Dying had been a spectacle, something older people did for his pity or instruction. Death had been mowing down the radio greats of his childhood and the holdover politicians of the New Deal, then the actors his parents had thrilled to and the boys of his happiest summers when he’d been a child and they’d been in their prime. And now there was no gap left. He’d sung their songs, thrilled to their debuts, made love to them in his dreams. He’d been standing at the end of a long queue, bored by how slowly it moved, but now the soft shuffle of the quotidian had taken him to the ticket stand and the open doors of a darkened theatre.
‘People I’ve loved are dying,’ he said.
‘Porter, dear, you have many lovable traits. But please don’t tell me you know what it is to love.’ She smeared two Ry-Krisps with tuna salad. ‘Not that it matters.’
He’d heard it often enough. Until Amy, his first wife, left, Porter had thought himself a deprived, embittered man capable of great tenderness. She taught him he was a sophisticated lover from a privileged background, lacking none of the graces except a core of essential decency.
His childhood dream had been of a glacier, or at least of something cold, mountainous and inexorable bearing down on him. He could hear and even see through its gelatinous distortions the grinding of boulders and forests, and he could smell the scorched, catastrophic swath of natural pavement in its path.
He would wake, often screaming. It moved a foot a year, and he couldn’t outrun it. He always woke when the ice touched him with its scalding cold. When flesh met glacier they were fused, like a tongue to an ice tray.
His mother would be holding him and by then extracting the wooden spoon she kept at his bedside. He would bury his aching head in her breast, and she would hold him, swaying.
‘The glacier again?’ and he would nod. ‘See, there’s nothing out there.’ He wouldn’t open his eyes. After those attacks colours were too bright to bear, and the odours of the world all bordered on rottenness. It was as though life were offering a putrefied version of itself for his eyes and nose only.
Those were the attacks at night in sleep. In the day his nose would fill with a sweet, burnt odour, and colours would turn red like ageing film and kids would say, ‘Hey, Porter, I’m talking to you!’ Sometimes he’d find himself on the floor or on the ground, his muscles numb from supreme exhaustion.
But all of that ended thirty years before.
Why now should life suddenly turn perilous? He went to his doctor for the first time in three years. Since his last visit he’d cut down his drinking to a few beers a week, had gum surgery and three crowns put in and lost thirty pounds. He jogged twenty miles a week and in the winter lifted weights and swayed to calisthenics. The doctor declared him 100 per cent fit, a model of 1980s self-reclamation. America was seeing a generation of potential centagenarians.
‘By the way,’ he asked, ‘what are you guys pushing for epilepsy?’
‘Doing another story, Porter?’ Porter had not been totally honest with his doctor. He’d never been honest with anyone. When he was forced into magazine writing between novels, he found the doctor an enthusiastic collaborator. He’d helped him with ‘Mid-Life to Mod-Life’, ‘Toward a More Perfect Carcinogen’, and his steroids piece, ‘Higher, Faster, Stronger...Dumber?’
‘I’d heard that epileptic medicine can slow you right down to idiocy. If they’d treated Dostoevsky—no Crime and Punishment.’
‘No way,’ said the doctor. ‘Any new medicine comes on stronger at the beginning than it needs to be—look at the first birth-control pills, the Salk vaccine, the tranquillizers. The first generation anti-convulsants might have turned him into a zombie for a few weeks, but we’d have had him driving a car inside a month.’
‘That’s very reassuring. And now?’
‘Designer doses, Porter. Tegratol, Dilantin, some phenobarb at night. We’d have nailed it. What are you writing?’
‘I was thinking of giving a character a very heavy curse.’
‘Diabetes is good,’ the doctor mused. ‘Mainstream, too, with lots of paraphernalia. Or what about Huntington’s chorea? That can really ruin your day.’ Porter’s doctor conferred imaginary disorders with greater enthusiasm than ever went into their healing.
‘Let me get back to you,’ he said.
One day Debbie was making tuna salad and inviting him to parties, and a few weeks later she was busy in Manhattan with her children. A month after that she announced she wanted to go to Europe for spring break, alone.
He wasn’t even disappointed. In marriage most men are tempted early and often by other women. Porter loved women, but his great temptation was solitude. Amy had called him a libertine monk. Debbie left him in February. Snow was deep; he doubled his calisthenics and bench-presses and set August as the date for the delivery of his novel. After five earlier books of stories and two novels with child and adolescent characters, this was to be his wet-winged emergence into the adult world of marriage and poisonous self-knowledge. He was not unhappy, in his bitter, private way, that no one would be interfering with his ridiculous little schedules.
He lived in a cottage in Duchess County. Amy had kept their old house in Binghamton, their kids were on scholarship, and with a pasta diet, a garden and few vices, he could just about live on his writing. The nearest town was Poughkeepsie, where Debbie taught. He went into New York when he had good reasons.
According to many who knew him, Porter wasn’t altogether sane. He’d been a professor, then had changed jobs, surrendered tenure, taken pay cuts and finally come to the conclusion—logical under the circumstances—that the remaining obligations were too strenuous, underpaid and insecure to keep at all. He taught for a while as an adjunct in metropolitan campuses with ‘at’ in their titles. The self-destruction had cost him a marriage.
During the February thaw, the dripping icicles and the hiss of wet tires on the exposed blacktop outside the cottage lured him into three days of bonus running. He valued the accretion of small details and the web of images that clung to him as he ran. He loved the things of this world, passionately. He loved activities like running that stimulated a disinterested scrutiny. Running was like writing a short story, a familiar habit begun in pain but ending breathless and exultant. Weight-lifting, so dramatically exerting, so ambitious, was like writing novels.
As he ran that first day looking at the early buds on the trees and hedgetips, he realized he couldn’t name a single tree in English. He’d probably never known them in French—there hadn’t been many trees in his life as a Carrier. They all existed in some abstraction of treeness. He was a writer, after all, and to name was to know. All he knew for certain was childhood in Pittsburgh and adolescence in Montreal, plus some articles aided by a doctor’s vocabulary.
He smelled it again, a putrescence in the world, as though a winter’s worth of carcasses had been shovelled to the roadside.
He took three days off for a trip to the city, uncharacteristically, to check out the movies and bookstores. When he got back to his typewriter, the novel was cold.
Excerpt from This Time, That Place by Clark Blaise, published by Biblioasis. Copyright © Clark Blaise, 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Clark Blaise (1940-), Canadian and American, is the author of 20 books of fiction and nonfiction. A longtime advocate for the literary arts in North America, Blaise has taught writing and literature at Emory, Skidmore, Columbia, NYU, Sir George Williams, UC-Berkeley, SUNY-Stony Brook, and the David Thompson University Centre. In 1968, he founded the postgraduate Creative Writing Program at Concordia University; he after went on to serve as the Director of the International Writing Program at Iowa (1990-1998), and as President of the Society for the Study of the Short Story (2002-present). Internationally recognized for his contributions to the field, Blaise has received an Arts and Letters Award for Literature from the American Academy (2003), and in 2010 was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.