A few days ago I finished reading Oscar of Between by Betsy Warland. I’ve been wanting to write something about it constantly since. This is definitely not a review, just a few thoughts and much literary enthusiasm. (For a review I would highly recommend Julie R. Enszer’s considerable insights over at Lambda Literary.) Back in June, I heard Warland read from Oscar of Between at Across No. 3. in Toronto and was instantly hooked. What is this book? Why didn’t I know about her work before? I thought about this question more than I probably should have and a somewhat related question: why don’t more people read the books I love? I thought of both of these questions more than I should have while reading Oscar of Between because Warland raises them herself on more than one occasion. For example, a few brief passages from Part 7:
The literary seen. For decades Oscar within but not: a knot cinched tight. Her own growing complicity. Recently removing some evidence of this this when preparing her second round of literary archives; speaking less and less to her writing friends about being ostracized, understanding their need to stay on the right side of the right people, understanding the greater the force of denial the greater the force of losing personal power.
During the 1980s then ‘90s, Oscar fell in love with two literary men’s partners. Although the falling in love was mutual, Oscar was blamed. Since then, Oscar’s observed, literary men are not ostracized for becoming lovers with literary men’s partners.
There. Lies. The just. Of just-us.
In a 2013 Margento essay for the first time Oscar wrote:
“In hindsight, I realized that I emerged as a feminist lesbian author and this was an aberration. Other feminist lesbian writers’ lives hadn’t unfolded this way. In their early publishing years they had had close friendships with, a number had romantic relationships with, and nearly all had been students of literary men. I had not. Consequently, my inclusion in the poetry community was significantly limited.”
This reminds me of Chris Kraus, the exhilarating feeling I had back when I read I Love Dick and Aliens & Anorexia for the first time. A dangerous willingness to call out slights and abuses one is apparently supposed to take in stride in this or that world of art. The sentences also often reminded me of David Markson: a certain poetic crispness and lucidity. At other moments the Maggie Nelson of Bluets came to mind. But Betsy Warland is nothing like Kraus, Markson or Nelson. When reading something new one might be forgiven for searching out comparisons.
Oscar of Between is a work unto itself. Fragmented yet cohesive, it continuously surprised me. I rarely had any idea where it might go next and yet each step along the way thrived with its own strong desires and inner logic. It is memoir driven by experimentation and driven by honest yet unexpected thought. It makes itself as it goes along and questions its own methods in ways that always add forward momentum. Another brief passage:
Oscar of Between initially subtitled “A Story of Failures.”
Several writer-friends recoiled, “No one will want to read it with a title like that.”
The longer she lives, the more interested Oscar becomes in failure – what we consider it to be. How so often it’s the unnamed force that shapes the story.
All of this also somehow made me think of another book I recently read and loved: From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire by Anne Golden. (Actually, what really made me think of it was Sara Spike’s beautiful review in the Montreal Review of Books.) I first read From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire when I was asked to blurb it. Here’s my blurb in full:
I couldn’t stop reading From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire, found ever word convincing, almost as if it had happened to me and my friends. So many aspects of Montreal that I genuinely haven’t encountered before, visions of the Seventies and Eighties, all written up in compelling, magnetic, verbatim detail. A book for everyone who has every considered doing the impossible and perhaps, at least partially, succeeded. A book to give us strength in such heartfelt endeavors. Early video art has finally found its literary masterpiece.
I read From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire at the beginning of the year, so it’s not nearly as fresh in my mind, but what I remember most is the same feeling I had reading Betsy Warland: I can’t believe how unexpected this book is, how energized and surprised I feel reading it. This is literary pleasure. Books that value thinking, that embody thinking as writing, and embody thinking as writing to deeply think about the world in which we live.
Betsy Warland and Anne Golden are both Canadian writers. Both of these books came out this year. And I suppose I’m also a Canadian writer. I’ve often thought how strange it is that it’s easier to identify myself by nationality than it is to identify myself in relation to any specific aesthetic, artistic or literary affinities I might have or desire. I’ve definitely spent most of my reading life engaged with authors from elsewhere and perhaps somewhat neglected Canadian literature in the process. I’ve also, a bit stupidly, longed for some international literary movement that I could join but, like most of the artists I admire, wherever I look it seems I don’t quite fit. At any rate, by the time I started writing the age of artistic movements was apparently over and done.
Often when I’m in Europe I’m asked to recommend some Canadian books that I like and I’m embarrassed that off the top of my head I can’t quite think of any. And reading Oscar of Between I really felt that the problem is me, not Canadian literature, that I’m simply not searching hard enough. (I also made this list of favourite Canadian books that I can hopefully use to answer the request if it should ever arise in the future.) Sometimes I feel that Canadian literature is too small to support a truly lively counter-literature, a body of works that really show there are completely other ways of writing books. (If we’re talking about poetry the question is a bit more complex. I suppose I’m mainly thinking about novels.) I’m perhaps also thinking of the Semiotext(e) novels that I read throughout the eighties and nineties (and continue to read), an endless series of books that showed me again and again how another literature is possible. How what I’d previously thought a book could be was actually only the very beginning. Oscar of Between and From The Archives of Vidéo Populaire both clearly suggest, at least for me, what a Canadian counter-literature might look like. I will definitely be reading each of them again.