Eventually, I showed one of these copycat hybrids
to my mother, and she was charmed
– I remember her slightly amazed smile as if
she was unable to believe a kid of hers could be so smart…
Stephen King, On Writing
When I was nine, I wrote a letter to a neighbor of mine, who was similar in age and who lived downstairs from me. For some reason, I Imagined that she could read and that she’d keep my letter a secret. But it didn’t turn out that way. She showed it to her mother, who then showed it to my mother. My mother decided to read it aloud from the balcony to the amusement and delight of our neighbors. I became a local celebrity. But at the time I didn’t consider the event very funny. But on the other hand, due to my mother’s excitement and spectacle, the event awakened in my consciousness an awareness that perhaps I was someone special.
Similar experiences, some of which may have originated from the age of two, or, so I’ve been told, have caused me to reflect on the importance of the women’s gaze in my life. If all women were to suddenly disappear, as what happens in the post-apocalyptic, sci-fi comic, Y: The Last Man, I would no longer have a reason to exist. This was true for me when I was fifteen. It’s still true today at sixty-eight. My life was nourished by femininity long before I became an adult male.
I’ve always been fascinated by beautiful women. It all started with my grandmother, having spent my summer holidays with her. She was approaching her sixties and despite her white hair littered with bluish hues, still held a youthful figure. She was always made up, in style, well dressed and proud as a peacock, whenever we went for our daily walks—I being the first male born of the two clans. I had wavy light brown hair at the time with bright blue eyes full of curiosity.
In my adolescence, I noticed that during family reunions, the men always congregated in the living room, whereas, I’d end up in the kitchen surrounded by my aunts and cousins. and isolation cultivated by being pampered with attention by all the women close to me . In my twenties, I’d find myself in cafes sitting at the table with three or four women, enjoying their intelligent conversation. However, I always found myself alone at the end of the evening—their rivalry not allowing for any leeway to maneuver. Furthermore, being overwhelmed by thier attention, I was totally blind to any of thier tactical orchestrations, in the end, remaining content in cultivating both my innocence and my solitude.
A Childhood without a Point or Sure Thing
It wasn’t until I found myself at university that I understood the cultural desert in which I had been raised. The early ‘60s saw the Ahuntsic district where I lived, annexed to the city of Montreal. The area was a developing suburb on the north shore of the island. Growing up, we had no books at home. The exception being my mother’s glossed over European photo novels—the print equivalent of soap operas, laid out in comic book fashion.
The only book my father ever gave me was Ball Four: The Final Pitch (1970) an autobiography by Jim Button, a former American Major League Baseball pitcher. Handing me the book, he gave a conspiratorial wink, mentioning that Bolton reveals how players would peek a look under the skirts of women in the stands. I also remember that Button was obsessed with the possibility of injuring his shoulder. How he’d constantly stretch his arm, checking the condition of his shoulder, drawing puzzled and concerning looks from fans. It many ways, it summed up his psychological outlook on life.
terms of music, I’d spin a few 33 1/3 rpm, 12” vinyl records on
the turntable installed inside an old storage cabinet. I’d listen
mostly to a compilation of Hawaiian guitar that would lull me to
In terms of cultural influences, that was it.
Beam me up, Gutenberg
One may wonder how I came to write. Well, the driving force and influence came through books. Without them, I would have been bored out of my mind. I’d read whatever books I could get a hold of at the local public library which was a half hour’s walk from my place. At the time I gravitated to Bob Morane’s adventure books as well as the detective genre, which included authors such as Gaston Leroux and Arsène Lupin. But it was the James Bond series, considered taboo for my age group at the time, that I was attracted to most. My first copy of Bond was given to me by a friend. It was well worn, had no cover, with the some of the most daring parts starting to come off the book’s binding, but thankfully still intact. And it was while reading Ian Fleming’s Bond that I was first introduced to the idea that a ‘man’ should be a lady-killer—where women are unable to resist the male’s gaze, an effect it seemed that Bond had on the women he encountered.
My mother and grandmother were models of working-class Catholic Puritanism. My mother only made it to the fourth grade having taken ill. At the age of twelve, rather than returning to school, she began frequenting a shop around the corner in Hochelaga, becoming immersed in mythology and superstitions of small people.
Now fifteen and with a few dollars in my pocket I headed to a bookstore on Fleury Avenue to buy my first book. It was a rare time in my adolescent life—finding myself with money with the intent of buying my first book. It never occurred to me (until the time of writing this column) that I could bought a lot of other things that a normal fifteen should need and want.
But I had a dilemma. Which book to buy? For some reason, the owner had arranged the paperbacks in numerical order. I scanned the titles and, in the end, opted for number 1000 which turned out to be Le Grand Meaulnes, a French novel published in the early part of the 20th century. I didn’t understand most of it, getting lost in its storyline, but mostly due to my habit of reading too fast. On the other hand, the hyperspace to which I was transported to by the process of reading became an essential part of my happiness.
It was also around this time that I got into science fiction. I, like millions of others, was drawn to the genre due to the excitement in the late ‘60s, of NASA’s moonwalk. SF helped me forget the empty dream world of my neighbourhood; one that didn’t seem to affect others in the same way. And my existence was by no means a conduit or inspiration in developing fictional constructs of our human condition. I realized this when by chance I mistakenly bought one of Alberto Moravia’s work, L’automa (1961) believing I’d unearthed a new SF story about robots. As I began reading it, I quickly realized that I had misunderstood the title. I assumed it would be on robots and such things. To a certain extent it was, but not in a sci-fi way. Moravia’s work was not SF at all, but explored elements of social alienation, modern sexuality and existentialism. The book triggered a period of great reflection, inspiring me to become a philosopher.
I also realized that I was finally discovering literature. I was twenty years old at the time.
Inside the Ark
Lawrence Durrell’s four-volume set titled Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) guided me into the secret corridors of humility, cultural stereotypes, religious and political ideology, alliances and betrayals, the vagaries of life, the precariousness of friendships, the fantasies of love and that of indifference in the face of death. I felt as though I had been initiated into the world of intelligent adults.
After my discovery of Alberto Moravia’s L’automa, I had delved into other Italian writers and their works such as Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter Night a Traveler (1979), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum(1988) and Alessandro Baricco’s City (1999)
I found If on a Winter Night a Traveler sometimes confusing. I recall a landless Baron who lives in trees and a suit of armor that reasons continuously so as not to disappear. The overarching theme of the work revolves around the purchase of a novel by the protagonist, who turns out to be us, the reader. As each story begins, reaching a critical junction, they abruptly stop, as though the printer has inadvertently spliced together two different stories. Ultimately, the protagonist finds himself in a seminar on the statistical analysis of vocabulary whose goal is to carry out computational psychoanalysis of the writers’ subconscious.
Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) was a difficult read. The fictional work was meant as a critique of the world of secret and esoteric sects. One can’t help but feel while reading his work that Eco is mocking us and those that cling to such ideas, especially the esoteric interpretations of the facts. The author argues that an analysis could be made from the dimensions of a newspaper kiosk regarding cosmic insights as easily as one does from the pyramids of Cheops. But how do these esoteric mystery seekers conceive such hoaxes? The dream is tenacious. The seeker can be likened to that of the hero in a Greek tragedy, where he’s already in possession of the story’s tragic end but observes the story’s unfolding from a privileged position.
Alessandro Baricco’s novels come together to create a metaphor about the world around us, as we find in Silk (1996) and City (1999). City is for me, one of his most accessible and fulfilling works. In City, we find a child who lives in multiple fictional worlds that populate his loneliness. Baricco has said of City, he wanted, “to write a book that moved like someone who gets lost in the city… the stories are the neighborhoods, the characters are streets.”