Farley Mowat and Me

As has been widely reported in Canada (here, for example) and even in the US (NY Times obituary here), the author and conservationist Farley Mowat has died at the age of 92.

I admit I hadn’t realized he was still alive. But the news made me sad. I’ve had many literary heroes in my lifetime, many of them much more important to the person I am today than Mowat. But he was the first, the first writer I loved more as a presence (and, in his case, a conscience) thank as a mere name attached to whatever book I happened to be reading.

I believe it was my mother’s friend Thea, a kind of surrogate mother to me in my early childhood, who first gave me one of his books, Never Cry Wolf (1963) the story of Mowat’s time in the “barren lands” of Northern Manitoba in 1948-9, where he was charged by a governmental agency to investigate the unexplained disappearance of the caribou population.

As a child I loved wolves, all animals really, but wolves especially. I’m not sure if that love predated my reading the book, and that’s why she gave it to me, or if it was reading this book that made me love them. At any rate, I read it many times, and what sticks with me most is what sticks with most people about it: Mowat eating mice to see what they were like, since they made up the bulk of the wolves diets. This fact puzzled Mowat—how could such large creatures live off of such tiny ones?—but more than mere curiosity was at stake. If wolves lived almost entirely off mice, they weren’t the ones responsible for the decline of the caribou. Mowat’s conclusion that wolves were not to be feared and exterminated was a minority opinion at the time, though it is accepted wisdom among scientists today.

Wolves were good animals for me to love. They were underdogs, a position that has always appealed to me. They were beautiful and smart. And they were remote from my daily life; even growing up in Western Canada, where wildlife was a part of life, I never saw a wolf in the wild. Wolves were something to think or dream about, not something to have to reckon with.

That suited me because my interest in animals—which lasted a long time; for many years I wanted nothing more than to be a zookeeper when I grew up—had one particularly strange aspect. I did not actually like animals very much. My father forbade animals in our house, and it wasn’t until my sister and I were teenagers that she circumvented (by which I mean simply ignored) his interdiction by bringing a cat home one day. (It seems fitting that it was father who gave me, a little later in my childhood, a book that would prove even more important to me than Mowat’s, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which was as much about people as about animals.) You might think that the absence of any real animals in my life would make me all the more eager for contact with them. But I don’t think so. Instead, that absence allowed me to love animals in the abstract. I was never one of those children who mucked about in woods or fields or swamps with specimen jars. I did not ride horses and volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary (not that children volunteered in those days; we didn’t have to do nearly as much as children do today, thank God).

Truth be told, animals kind of freaked me out. (In retrospect this seems quite a reasonable response to the otherness of animals—a sentiment Mowat would certainly not have shared, since his lonely childhood was spent largely in their company, and he thought of them as friends.) I liked my animals in the zoo, or seen from the car in the mountains where my family spent most of our weekends. The detachment of the zoo-going experience—me watching them through the glass or bars, or, increasingly, as this was the 70s and ideas about zoos were changing, over a moat—suited me just fine.

There was something hopeless and false about my passion for animals, which was, it seems to me now, really a blind for a more genuine passion, one that still drives me today, to know about things, to achieve mastery through knowledge. If I am honest, I think it was mostly a way for me to accumulate books about animals. Accumulating books on whatever subject matter rules my current fancy has been my greatest life-long passion.

At any rate, I liked Never Cry Wolf a lot. I can still picture my edition, the cheap white Seal paperback with the photo of the wolf on the cover. Many years later, when I taught my first self-designed course in graduate school—a course on foundlings and feral children—I called the course “Never Cry Wolf” in private homage to Mowat, even though his book or its ideas had almost nothing to do with the course.

I was a very serious and dutiful little boy, as you can imagine, and so I read most of Mowat’s other books about what we would today call environmental topics, including the controversial People of the Deer (1952), a study of the Ihalmiut people of the border between Manitoba and what is now Nunavut, and their starvation and suffering as the caribou population dwindled. I remember getting its sort-of sequel, The Desperate People, as a birthday present when I was probably about eight or nine. My best friend David Wilson, brash, a bit of a wag, looked at the picture on the cover of Inuit people in a stark northern landscape and said, “Of course they were desperate, they didn’t have any bathrooms!” Part of me thought that was hilarious and part of me thought it was disrespectful. These were serious books about serious matters. I didn’t know that the books had been controversial, had been derided at by some at the time of publication (Mowat was called “Hardly Know-It” by Northern Hands). Nor could I have known they would be savagely debunked in the 1990s by an investigative journalist who argued that Mowat didn’t know what he was talking about, hadn’t seen most of the things he described, had seriously overstated his experiences.

Mowat defended himself by distinguishing stentoriously between facts and truth. That seems to me both tendentious and appropriate, but what mattered to me at the time, and even perhaps now, was the sense I first got, as a young liberal in training, of a cause that one could feel sentimentally and self-righteously exercised over. (In this regard, these seem to me very Canadian books.)

No matter how badly I felt about the Inuit and the caribou and the natural world in general—I once wrote a letter to the Premier of Alberta protesting a planned hydro-electric plant that threatened the nesting grounds of whooping cranes, a letter that got a patronizing reply devastatingly, to my insecure self, addressed to Miss Stuber—I read these books of Mowat’s more from duty than from love. And in my defense, if one is needed, they were hard books for an eight year old. But Mowat wrote lots of other books, for children or at least about children, and those were the ones I loved and read over and over. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be, The Boat that Wouldn’t Float (strange, the intransigent refusals of these titles), A Family of Owls, The Black Joke: I enjoyed them all.

But there were two books that I returned to again and again until they became a part of me. These were Lost in the Barrens (1956) and, most importantly, because I actually owned it, its sequel, the deliciously named The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966). These were adventure stories, again set in that Northern Manitoba tundra landscape so formative in Mowat’s life. They featured three boys, an orphaned white (Jamie McNair, who lives with his uncle Angus, a trapper—ah those Scots names!), a Cree Indian (Awasin) and an Eskimo (Peetyuk). (We called them Eskimo back then.) I learned a lot from those books: how easy it is to tire yourself out walking through the snow (always go single file, so the second person can follow in the first one’s tracks, and be sure to trade places regularly); how dangerous it is to walk through snow all day on a sunny day (you’ll get snow blindness, the description of which I remember to this day, like fine sand ground into the eyes, although you can try to avoid by making glasses from strips of birch bark with slits cut into them). Without making a big deal of it, these books, I now observe, were strikingly inter- or multi-cultural. Mostly they were exciting as all hell and I never tired of them

Thinking about these books today, so many years later, I see that they helped me, a child of immigrant parents, solidify my identity as a first-generation Canadian. In a sense, Canadian identity was born in the 1970s by various initiatives of the Trudeau government; part of that developing identity lay in acknowledging and generating a profound, if problematic because sentimental, interest in the North. (Previously it has been either ignored as meaningless or valued only as an empty space from which to extract resources—a view lamentably still prevalent, with deadly consequences for the people and creatures that live there.)

I didn’t think about any of this at the time. Nor did I read only books by Farley Mowat. I read pretty voraciously, and loved all kinds of books. I had many deep readerly loves, like Gerald Durrell, L. M. Montgomery, Arthur Ransom, and, a bit later, P. G. Wodehouse. But Mowat was the first, and so meant a lot to me, even though he would probably have despaired of me.

 

For a long time I would get up very early on Saturday mornings and read in bed while the house was quiet. (Now that I have a small child, I think what a wonderful gift I gave to my parents. I can hardly wait until my daughter can entertain herself that way.) I remember shaking off my sleepiness, plunging into my book, having long unadulterated stretches of time entirely to myself with no other purpose than to create myself. However fraught or wrongheaded or sketchy Mowat’s ideas and practices—but if he’s remembered at all, it will be as a prescient figure, as one who saw early on that human beings cannot be understood apart from the environment that surrounds them and of which they are a part, and not the most important—I will always remember fondly both him and the gifts he unknowingly gave that slight, reserved boy alone in his bedroom.

I wonder who will be my daughter’s Mowat, that first role model she’ll stumble across who will have nothing to do with me.

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Rue Ordener, Rue Labat–Sarah Kofman (1994, 1996 English Translation by Ann Smock)

I think the French have a word for the genre of Sarah Kofman’s next-to-last book: the récit, an account. Perhaps that implies more of a narrative through-line than this book offers. It could be called a memoir, though it is too fragmentary to be one. It is autobiographical without being an autobiography. Maybe sketch is the best term? There’s always that useful term the French like to use: the text.

Rue Ordener, Rue Labat asks us to think about what to call it because it is always pushing against the very idea of form, as if it were a pure manifestation of the unconscious, of its author’s deepest recesses.

I first read this intriguing little work when it came out in English translation in the late 1990s. I returned to it yesterday as part of my efforts to create the syllabus (or at least the reading list) for a new course I’m teaching in the fall, Literature after Auschwitz. Lately I’ve dipped into lots of books, looking for ones that will fit the story I want the course to tell and that will be effective pedagogically. All the while I know that I won’t really know what I want from the course until I’ve taught it at least once.

My first thought was that Rue Orderer, Rue Labat probably won’t serve my purposes. But I’ve found myself returning to it over and over again in the twenty-four hours since finishing it. So maybe there is something in it I need to listen to.

In eighty pages and twenty-three chapters Kofman tells us about some of the things that happened to her as a child in and around Paris during the war and its aftermath.

Her father was arrested in the infamous roundups of July 16th, 1942, when the French police brought 13,000 Jews to a velodrome on the outskirts of Paris before deporting them, via the transit camp at Drancy, to Auschwitz.

The book begins with that day, the last time Kofman ever saw her father. More precisely, it begins with a description of his fountain pen, which Kofman kept with her throughout her life. The pen, she suggests, was the impetus for all her subsequent work, not least these pages.

I’ve been dipping into Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist lately and I thought about “the squat pen” in “Digging.” That pen, though, is so much more ambivalent, so much more a weapon (however ambivalently wielded) than Kofman’s father’s. Her book is full of ambiguity, but none of that attaches to her father, an Orthodox, unassimilated rabbi who had arrived in France in 1929 and who Kofman clearly adored. He appears in the book only through his traces—that pen, a photo, a single postcard written from Drancy asking for cigarettes and sending love to the baby, presumably the one Kofman’s mother pretended to be pregnant with in a futile attempt to save her husband from deportation, though perhaps Kofman herself—and his daughter’s memories. She remembers his inveterate smoking: because he kept Shabbat he couldn’t smoke until sundown on the Sabbath and so, towards the end of the day, he would soothe his cravings by humming melodies with the family. Kofman later recognizes one in Mahler symphony.

The father is gentle, wise, capable. The mother is another story. Most of the book is about her, and her substitute. From that day n July when so many were disappeared, life got harder for the remaining Jews of Paris. Kofman describes wearing the star, suffering abuse at school, living in increasing fear. Her mother tries to save her six children. (Interestingly, Kofman tells us almost nothing about her siblings.) Each is given another, Gentile name. Together they are sent to the countryside. But Kofman makes trouble. She loves her new school—her love for her teachers before and after the war is a repeated theme in the book—but hates everything else. She won’t eat pork, she cries for her mother. Her eldest sister writes home to say that Kofman can’t stay, she’ll give them all away. Her mother tries to hide her in other places, both outside and inside Paris. Kofman always cries, and her mother always has to take her back. One day in February mother and daughter receive word that they must leave their apartment immediately; the police will be coming that night. Desperate, Kofman’s mother visits “the lady on Rue Labat,” a former neighbour with whom she had become friendly, largely over the woman’s affection for Kofman and her siblings.

Rue Labat is two metro stops from Rue Ordener. Kofman vomits repeatedly on the way there. In fact, she vomits over and over again in these memories. The restrictions on eating in Leviticus, the laws of kashrut, symbolize Kofman’s refusal to incorporate otherness, to accommodate to situations beyond that of the family. This bodily instability is a sign of Kofman’s resistance, a refusal to compromise her identity. It is also dangerous, the result of an intransigence and recklessness to herself and to others, even or especially those who want to help her, who are in fact risking their lives for her. And of course it is also, perhaps primarily a sign of her conflict with her mother, which intensifies over time.

As a child Kofman had been so attached to her mother that she could hardly bear to part from her for even a short time. Now, hidden in the apartment in Rue Labat, devouring the books she finds there, eventually eating the foods the lady is convinced she needs for her health, Kofman repudiates her mother and becomes attached to this other maternal figure, who she calls “Mémé.” Mémé saves Kofman from deportation, but that doesn’t mean she particularly likes Jews. She disparages Kofman’s Jewish nose, for example. Under her care, Kofman forgets her Yiddish (the language she spoke with her mother).

The liberation comes. Unlike many wartime memoirs, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat doesn’t end here. One of the things I like about the book is that the war is really the least of it, here. Which isn’t to say that the events depicted here are simply universal psychological dramas. Here is a Holocaust memoir in which the Holocaust as we usually consider it barely figures. Without the heavy-handed language of “second generation” or “postmemory” created at around the same time by critics like Marianne Hirsch, Kofman tells a story of the psychological ambivalences of assimilation in which the war is necessary but not sufficient.

Kofman’s mother takes her back to live with her. Kofman doesn’t want to, she wants to be with Mémé. She runs away to her repeatedly. Hard to imagine Kofman’s mother’s frustration and despair; Kofman doesn’t try to. Instead she lists the mother’s responses: beating the child, negotiating desperately with her: she can have one hour a day with Mémé. Nothing works, the child always wants the surrogate. Eventually the mother takes the other woman to court. But the court sides with Mémé. The mother hires two strong men who lay in wait for the child and steal her back. But some time later, the mother must go to the country for an extended time to collect her other children. Remarkably, she entrusts Kofman to Mémé. The back and forth between the women continues for some time. In a brief moment of theoretical reflection, Kofman refers to Melanie Klein to explain the situation, using Klein’s distinction between the good and bad breast to speak of her experience of these two mothers. (The breasts are just a metonymy: the “good” one is bounteous, plentiful, always ready whenever the child needs anything; the “bad” one is unavailing, desiccated, not there when the child wants it. The child—an infant—has no sense yet that the mother is an independent person. Some people never learn this, to their peril.) But in the Kleinian narrative of development, the child must learn that the good breast and the bad breast, the good mother and the bad mother, are the same; in other words, the child must learn how to handle ambivalence. (The one you love can—and will—be the one you hate.) It’s unclear whether Kofman does, though she eventually exits the orbit of both women, once again through books and education, the things that had most sustained her during the war.

We sense, more than see, because the end of the book is particularly fragmentary, that Kofman comes to dislike both women. The enigmatic, almost perfunctory last lines are:

I was unable to attend her funeral. But I know that at her grave the priest recalled how she had saved a little girl during the war.

How ironically should we understand this? Does it matter that Kofman killed herself the year after writing them?

 

In her otherwise admirable introduction, Ann Smock says something you would never expect from a translator. Contrasting this autobiographical writing with Kofman’s other, philosophical works she says: “That splendid mask of feminine brilliance is not apparent at all in Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, which, I would say, does without literary qualities,” adding that “It is simple, but it does not have a simple style or any style.” Surely Smock of all people—trained in the French intellectual tradition of Barthes & Blanchot—doesn’t imagine that there could be such a thing as writing without style. The style is unadorned, definitely, and the book is not obviously patterned. But its qualities are certainly literary. The sense that there is so much more at work here than its author can understand is one of its chief attractions.

The more I think about Rue Ordener, Rue Labat the more I think it would pair interestingly with Sebald’s Austerlitz. Maybe I will teach it after all.