Sunday, November 1, 2009

International Festival of Authors

The annual International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront is such a splendid source of pleasure and inspiration, whether you are a reader of books or a writer.

I attended four of the “Round Tables” of the festival, groups of writers talking about the writing process and their own books. I particularly enjoyed sitting in on the conversation between three authors who wrote books in Penguin’s Extraordinary Canadians series, edited by John Ralston Saul: Mark Kingwell (biography of Glenn Gould), Daniel Poliquin (biography of René Levesque) and Jane Urquhart (biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery). The conversation was moderated by Charlotte Gray who wrote a biography of Nellie McClung for the series.

It was fascinating to see how different each of the people were who were the subjects of the books. What they all had in common, however, is a struggle with a religious heritage, which had an impact in their emotional life and in their relationships with people close to them. This Penguin series is making a contribution to the discourse on Canada as a nation made up of people who are full of contradictions and care about contributing to the world through self-fulfillment.

The most memorable part of the ten-day festival for me was the opening night, a PEN Canada Benefit, a conversation between Diana Athill and Alice Munro, moderated by CBC host Bill Richardson, who I think has the funniest sense of humour on this earth. Athill (age 92) and Munro (age 78) had never met until last week, as they admired each other from afar.

Athill began working with André Deutsch when he founded his publishing house in the 1950s until the company ceased operation in the 1980s. She was the editor for such writers as Philip Roth, Jean Rhys and Mordecai Richler. She has written several novels, but during the last years she wrote her memoirs. Her “Somewhere Towards the End” is a brilliant book that does not shy away from what it is like to be old. She is sharp-witted and has the ability to marvel at what life brings to an individual, and yet sense how enormous is the whole of humanity on this planet.

Alice Munro, the eminent short story writer, once said that there is no such thing as an ordinary person, that everyone is fascinating. Even the most boring person is interesting if you are able to really see her or him.

Hearing these two women talk to each other, I felt I was in the presence of great wisdom, even though they both claimed that in their old age they do not feel wiser, but calmer.

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