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a literary soiree

Now I know what Cinderella would have done, if possible, as soon as she got home from dancing with her prince – she would have opened her MacBook and told all in her blog. (“It was great, yeah. But where is my @#$# Manolo???”)

Last night was a marvel; this morning, in my dressing gown, I wonder if it was real – yours truly in the bar at the Four Seasons, part of a stellar group that included Michael Ondaatje. But it must have been, because though I still have both my shoes, here beside me is a notebook with some scribbles.

Last night’s event was sponsored by the Toronto Public Library, part of their speaker series at the Toronto Reference Library: a celebration of 20 years of “Writers and Company,” with Eleanor Wachtel, the best interviewer of writers in the world, being interviewed herself by Michael Ondaatje. It sold out fast, so Eleanor kindly procured me a ticket. Several mournful people were hovering around the door as I went through, hoping for returned tickets. “After so many years of leestening to the program,” a woman with a strong Russian accent told me, “I vant to see her.”
Inside, a crowd of book-lovers of the most fervent sort – i.e. the best people on earth. I had a glass of wine with friend and U of T colleague Alyssa York, whose new novel “Fauna” has been on several recent Top Ten lists, and her husband Clive, watching the literati of Toronto stream by. I found a seat in the second row, behind the Eleanor claque, which included uber-editor Ellen Seligman and uber-publisher Louise Dennys.
What a treat was in store for us all – two hours of laughter and fine conversation. In the introduction, Eleanor spoke of how welcoming Ondaatje had been to her after her tentative arrival in this city from Vancouver, and he said how lucky we are to have such a resource on national public radio, this woman who is “curious, intelligent and alarmingly well-read.” And then he proceeded to interview her. Eleanor has a wonderful sense of humour and perfect comic timing, so there were many laughs; some of the greatest ones came when she couldn’t help herself and turned the tables back, asking Michael questions about his own life. But he resisted.
She told us that in childhood, though her older siblings were an academic inspiration, there were few books in the house; that, hard as it is to believe, she loved to read books like “Sue Barton, Student Nurse” and later, “The Magnificent Obsession.” “Reading,” she said, “is company.” (Michael asked her if she ever wanted to read trash. “Life’s too short to read bad writing,” she said. “I have too many great books to read, including the books by dead authors that you only read in the summer.”) She told us that for many years, she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life; she started in print arts journalism. “I never wanted to be a writer,” she said. “I subscribe to the obsession theory of creativity; you have to be so driven, work so hard to do it well. I was never driven enough.”
And they were off, telling stories, these two phenomenally accomplished Canadians who are comrades, and discussing writers. Eleanor talked at length about J. M. Coetzee, the South-African Nobel Prize winner and one of the most difficult of her interviewees, who insisted on writing down all her questions before he’d answer them and later who agreed to be interviewed as long as she did not ask about his work, his life, or South Africa.
They discussed a mutual favourite, W.G. Sebald, who spoke, in a clip that was aired for us, about “the weight of memory” that “might sink you.” Physical pain can be controlled, he said, “but mental pain is without end. I have no great desire to be let off the hook. We have to stay upright through all that.” Of all his melancholy, mysterious and beautiful books, Michael O’s favourite, FYI, is “The Rings of Saturn.” And Eleanor’s favourite poem is Ondaatje’s own “The Cinnamon Peeler.” Michael quoted bits of many of her interviews; he too spends an hour in his kitchen on Sunday, listening to the world’s writers on CBC radio.
Eleanor spoke with affection about writers as diverse as Oliver Sacks and Jim Harrison, and told us how, though she’d dreaded interviewing Philip Roth who could be sharp and dismissive, he was warm and open with her. But as the 500 faithful fans in the audience know, that is no surprise, because he was being interviewed by a master. At the end of this feast of talk and laughter, the elderly woman next to me, who was dressed from head to toe in leopard print, said, “There’s something in her beautiful voice that makes people want to tell her the truth.”
The interview will be edited down to an hour – how, I can’t imagine – and aired soon on the program. Don’t miss it. Sundays from 3 to 4, CBC 1. Let me say that again: Sundays from 3 to 4, CBC 1. Don’t miss it.
After Eleanor and Michael had signed books, the gang decided to go for a drink. Which is how yours truly, Cinderella, ended up at the Four Seasons with Eleanor Wachtel, two CBC producers Mary Stinson and Susan Feldman, Eleanor’s friend the Montreal academic and writer Sherry Simon, my old friend the actress Nancy Beatty, who’s a good friend of the Ondaatje’s, and Michael and his wife Linda Spalding, co-founder and editor of “Brick” magazine.
As you can imagine, the conversation among these ho-hum people was profoundly boring. Nothing to talk about, no new ideas, no sense of humour. I didn’t sit entranced as they talked about the raft of books they’d just read and about famous writers who are close friends of theirs. I didn’t argue with Michael Ondaatje about the Antonia Fraser/Harold Pinter book, which I’m so enjoying and which is despised, it seems, by most writers.
“But it’s romantic, they’re so in love and he writes poems for her,” I said.
“Terrible poems!” said Michael Ondaatje.
“No they’re not,” I said.
“Terrible,” said he.
Or maybe … could it be? … I did.



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About Beth

I began keeping a journal at the age of nine. Nearly fifty years later, I started this online journal, sharing reflections, reviews, updates, and the occasional secret.

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