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Swann (1987)

por Carol Shields

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651627,258 (3.63)24
Arthur Ellis Best Crime Novel Award Winner: A "funny, poignant, surprising" (Margaret Atwood) literary detective story centering around a murdered poet.   Who is Mary Swann? In this novel of a writer's revenge, an uneducated farmer's wife delivers a paper bag filled with scraps of her poems to the publisher of a small press. Hours later, she's dead, murdered by her husband. Fifteen years on, her book of one hundred twenty-five poems--Mary Swann's sole claim to fame--is discovered by an American academic. And a literary odyssey begins. Four narrators--Sarah Maloney, a feminist writer; Frederic Cruzzi, an edit∨ Morton Jimroy, a biographer; and Rose Hindmarch, Mary's only friend--all have a stake in the deceased poet's work. Their chorus of voicesopens a fascinating window on what constitutes genius. As the four descend into a quagmire of ego, jealousy, and backstabbing, Mary Swann comes back to life--in the minds and hearts of those who love and hate her most. Full of mischief, Swann is a novel about life, death, and the ideas that live on after us.… (mais)
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I know that I read Carol Shields’ Pulitzer-winning novel, THE STONE DIARIES, more than twenty years ago, and I know that I loved it, but the truth is I can’t remember much about it anymore. Nevertheless I thought I’d try this earlier novel from 1987, SWANN. I’m pleased that I did, because I enjoyed it very much. SWANN is many things, it’s a kind of mystery, it’s a collection of interesting characters from both Canada and the United States. (Shields was born and raised in Oak Park, IL – Hemingway’s boyhood home – but after her marriage to a Canadian, she moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen.) But more than anything, SWANN is a spoof of academia and its departmental politics and constant scrabbling for the upper hand in literary criticism, research and expertise. As one character puts it, “Critics are to art as ornithologists are to birds.” Yeah, I suppose. But I appreciated the portrayal of English departments and their special scholars and biographers of poets and other writers. The same character who made the critics/ornithologists remark, the crusty old newspaperman, Frederic Cruzzi, also made another morbidly hilarious comment about an “Advice to Golden Agers” columnist, saying, “We’re all going down the chute anyway, and that idiot’s little rays of sunshine are insulting.” Well, it made ME laugh, and I’m one of those ‘golden agers.’

And then there’s Morton Jimroy, the closeted and creepy little biographer of Ezra Pound, who wants to do the definitive life of Mary Swann, going on about the rarified life of certain poets –

“… who stand head and shoulders above the simpering ‘little mag’ people, the offset people, - true poets carry a greater share of the racial memory than do we lesser beings … It’s their genetic disposition, a mutation, of course, which urges them forward and allows them to be filters of a larger knowledge.”

I mean, HUH? And this is about the poor unfortunate title character, the ‘poet’ Mary Swann, a desperately poor, battered and abused Ontario farm wife, whose grisly end is documented in gruesome detail. She left behind a single slim volume of short poems, SWANN’S SONGS, published posthumously by Cruzzi. The book caught the attention years later of a Chicago-based feminist writer, Sarah Maloney, whose strident feminism has begun to fade as she nears thirty. And there is also the old maid small town librarian, Rose Hindmarch, who knew Mary Swann, if only casually. This rounds out the cast, and it is indeed a ‘cast,’ as the final section of SWANN is presented as a movie script of the Swann Symposium meeting at a hotel in Toronto, where it is learned that all of the extant copies of SWANN’S SONGS are mysteriously disappearing, as are all of the other Swann artefacts – and there aren’t many. It’s a humdinger of a little mystery-suspense, and an interesting commentary on the whole field of literary critics and criticism. Brought back memories of the one time I attended an MLA conference in Milwaukee as a young college English instructor, and how boring and pretentious most of the presentations and panels were. So much so that a few colleagues and I skipped out and took our wives to the movies instead. Saw the then-new and controversial films, THE BABY MAKER and JOE, both of them much more interesting than anything the MLA had to offer.

But enough. SWANN is a damn fine book, with great characters and a compelling plot line. Very highly recommended, especially to English teachers, librarians and academics.

- Tim Bazzett, author of the memoir, BOOKLOVER ( )
  TimBazzett | Apr 10, 2018 |
Loved Carol Shield's other books, especially "The Stone Diaries" and "Unless," but this one felt uncharacteristically scattered and unfinished. Some great lines and character development but overall disjointed. ( )
  dcmr | Jul 4, 2017 |
"How we love to systemize and classify what is rich and random in life. How our fingers itch to separate the tangled threads of theme and anti-theme, moral vision and moral blindness, God and godlessness, joy and despair, as though all creativity sat like a head of cabbage on a wooden chopping block, ready to be hacked apart, first the leaves, then the hot, white heart."

Divided into five parts, Swann offers readers a chorus of voices. Each of four characters has an opportunity to take centre stage (Sarah Maloney, Morton Jimroy, Rose Hindmarch and Federic Cruzzi), followed by a segment titled "The Swann Symposium" which is written as a play, complete with dramatic instructions, stage directions and director's notes. Despite a variety of ages and life experiences, working lives and professional ambitions, each of these characters is fully drawn. Readers know them intimately in only a few pages, develop attachments and suspicions, and inhabit a peculiar position of engagement twined with observation as the final segment unfolds. Although the first three-quarters of the novel are preoccupied with character development, the latter presents a mystery, which has been at a slow-boil throughout, although this only becomes clear as the narratives unite. Carol Shields is master of hooking readers from one direction while they are attending elsewhere, so that simple observations about a librarian's quiet life translate into readers' unexpected emotional investment as her small world swells uncomfortably large and change abounds. Throughout, musings on creativity and work, relationships and scholarship ensure the work will appeal particularly to those who have a large private collection of notebooks and a favourite pen. ( )
  buriedinprint | Feb 24, 2015 |
This book has been on my radar for a while now and when I spotted in a charity bin I grabbed it up and started it almost immediately. It has been characterized as a mystery and it is, of sorts, but mostly it’s a novel of appearance and reality. Oh that sounds hopelessly obscure. In both story and structure, it delves into each of those things. The story deals with a nearly unknown poet named Mary Swann and the coterie of academics squabbling over the scraps of her life and poems in a never-ending battle of one-upmanship. Each section of the novel is about someone close to Swann; either during her life or posthumously. Each feel proprietary towards the poet and holds back information or relics of her life and work. All of them have contributed to the myth of the woman who is mostly invention and supposition, having left nothing personal in the wake of her tragic death. If you like subtle, character-driven novels with a tincture of mystery and deception and a whole lot of allegory and authorial sleight-of-hand, this is your book.

Spoilers -

I’ll take each main character one at a time, first Sarah Maloney. She’s completely self-absorbed, but sparkles and charms her way through life and has achieved early academic success. Through happy accident, she discovers Swann’s work and brings it to larger attention through her feminist lectures and writings. She withholds a small notebook kept by Swann some 15 years before her death and publication of her poems. Everyone writes to her begging to look at the notebook or asking when she will publish its contents. Basically it’s a bunch of disconnected jottings and will shed no light on the poet other than to reinforce the fact that she’s ordinary, dull and barely educated. What she doesn’t hold onto is a copy of a poet’s rhyming dictionary, thinking it too beneath Mary Swann’s mystique to preserve and has long thrown it away.

One of the people begging to see the notebook is Morton Jimroy, self-appointed biographer for Swann. He couldn’t have picked a woman more bare of literary legacy and he’s desperate for any and all information about her no matter how boring or unimportant. He interviews Swann’s daughter Frances until he alienates her and on their last visit, steals the Parker 51 fountain pen that Swann used to write all her poems. It isn’t his only theft; he also swiped the single clear photograph of the poet from the impromptu museum dedicated to her and championed by the only person said to have been her friend; Rose Hindmarch. When Jimroy’s own briefcase goes missing at the Swann Symposium, is he a victim or just creating the illusion to hide his crimes?

Rose Hindmarch is the librarian in the town Swann hailed from and with each of Swann’s bi-weekly visits, she is said to have cultivated a friendship. This is pure fantasy borne of the desperate need to be important. To say that Rose lacks self-esteem is putting it mildly. Of all the sections, this is the only one to be written to ‘you’. By addressing it to you, it renders all of Rose less important in herself and subject to people’s interpretation of her. That judgement is demeaning and casts Rose in even worse light than the other characters hold her; Sarah with pity, Jimroy with distaste and Cruzzi with indulgence as one would have for a stupid child. Every time she brought up her precious suede coat I cringed.

Which brings us to Frederic Cruzzi, Swann’s posthumous publisher. His narrative waxes romantic about his two loves; his wife Hilde and words. Although he is the one to print and distribute the slim volume, not much else in his story is terribly vital until the end, where it is revealed exactly how the loose sheets of writing, presented by Swann in a paper bag, come to be used as fish wrap. As a result, the Cruzzis's invention of Swann may be the most total. They fill in, interpret and just plain make up whole lines and stanzas that have been erased by fish guts and effluvium. Because they have about 100 intact poems, both Hilde and Frederic feel they know enough about her writing to be able to invent, with conviction, her oeuvre. Salvaged poems cut from the whole cloth of guilt and regret. Which makes it all the more hilarious to witness the academic nitpicking that is the Swann Symposium.

The Symposium itself makes up the last section of the book and boy am I glad I didn’t page through that section, it would have totally blown the surprise. It’s all a fake. A fiction within a fiction and the Symposium itself is laid out as a movie script, the entire production being a film with actors, not a documentary. Just when I thought I knew where things were going (I had the thief narrowed down to two suspects), I was tickled to find that things could get more interesting.

The dialog in all the session scenes is a hilarious send-up of the academic tradition of taking the least thing very, very seriously. Of parsing information from barest hints in an attempt to outdo the next scholar. Taking it one step farther are the participants; not all of them get names, just our four main characters. The rest go by, among others, Ginger Ponytail, Wimpy Grin, Woman With Turban and Man with Crinkled Forehead. In addition to the usual wrangling and grandstanding, there are more thefts and Cruzzi lays out his theory that someone is deliberately stealing all the Swann material for his or her own malicious reasons. Enough suspicion is raised that Sarah, Jimroy and Rose nearly catch the Intruder in the act of stealing the remaining Swann photo. He gets away though Sarah is convinced she knows who it is, and since it was one of my suspects, I agree it was Brownie.

Why is never revealed and we’re left to wonder if it was just money. That he’s saving up and hoarding all the Swann artifacts just as he did his Plastic Man comic books, in the attempt to have the most material and to eventually sell it to the highest bidder. The closing scenes feature our intrepid Swannians attempting to reconstruct, a la Fahrenheit 451, Swann’s poems now that all existing copies of her book have vanished. Let the wrangling begin. ( )
1 vote Bookmarque | Jan 9, 2015 |
What happens when an unknown, uneducated farm woman (Mary Swann) writes amazing poetry? Scholars start the endless pursuit of uncovering her life, her inspirations, and her influences, because, you know, a woman with a simple life like her couldn’t have possibly written like that! Swann is basically a novel about the ridiculousness of some academics. The most entertaining part of the book is the characters’ attempts to discover the so-called real Mary Swann. But, their attempts do not really reveal any truth to who Mary Swann was; they just make stuff up. For instance, Swann’s poetry may not even be accurate because the original manuscripts were ruined by fish guts, and the publishers simply filled in the missing words with what they thought had been there! Also, Jimroy believes that Swann’s poetry reveals that she had to have been influenced by Emily Dickinson, but in actuality, it is almost certain she was most influenced by nursery rhymes. So, we never actually learn anything about Mary Swann since everything about her is basically made up because the academics need self-assurance about their own abilities and education. Hey, if a woman like Mary Swann can write great poems, why can’t people with impressive educations?

Another interesting aspect of the novel is Shields’ use of different forms of writing. This novel contains first person narrative, third person narrative, poetry, and film script, and each of these works effectively to move the story along. These different styles work because each one lets you get to know the characters intimately, and it is this closeness with the characters that really pushes the plot. Out of the various styles, I would have to say that I was a little disappointed with the film script at the end. A third person narrative would have done just as good a job. I found it a little bit tedious to read through the camera, music, and set notes, but that may just be my opinion (for some reason, I have never been a fan of reading scripts). Despite this, I value Shields’ effort to change styles to keep it interesting, and the reader guessing.

Speaking of guessing, Swann definitely did have me guessing about who was stealing all the various Swann items. Although Swann probably wouldn’t be classified as a mystery, it still has the mystery element that readers can appreciate. The ending left me with a few questions about who might have been an accomplice to the robber, and the robber’s motives (for example, is he or she stealing to get back at a certain someone?). All-in-all though, I am satisfied with the fact that the robber was revealed, as I was worried that it would remain a mystery and bother me forever!

Overall, Swann will definitely have you questioning the accuracy of history. Is history really just written by pretentious scholars who are desperately trying to fill in the blanks in order to prove their worth? You will start thinking about the relevance of history, but, as disheartening as that may seem, the ever-changing form, the closeness the reader feels to the characters, the mini mystery, and the satirical outlook on academics all come together to create a great book that will not disappoint. Lastly, the character of Mary Swann may make you feel a little more proud of your potentially not-so-impressive education! ( )
3 vote scd87 | Jul 15, 2009 |
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Joet näillä seuduin
ehtyy, kuivuu, turmaan vie
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Mary Swann
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For Sara Ellisyn Shields
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As recently as two years ago, when I was twenty-six, I dressed in ratty jeans and a sweatshirt with lettering across the chest.
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This is happiness, these scrawled notes, these delicate tangled footnotes, which, with a little more work, a few more weeks, will evolve into numbered poems of logic and order and illumination. These disjointed paragraphs he is writing are pushing toward that epic wholeness that is a human life, gold socketed into gold.
Mary Swann happened to have a pen, a Parker 51 as a matter of fact, as well as an eye for the surface of things.... Nothing in her life had prepared her for the clarity of vision visited on her in mid life or for what things she was about to make with the aid of a Parker 51 and a rhyming dictionary.... It is believed that even her early poems were written with a fountain pen ...
The ink is deep blue and flows from a medium-tipped pen, what to Jimroy looks like a nylon nib.
Mary Swann wrote her poems with a Parker 51 pen, a gift from her husband "in happier days". And she used a kind of ink very popular in those days [mid 20c], called "washable blue". When a drop of water touched a word written in washable blue, the result was a pale swimmy smudge, subtly shaded, like a miniature pond floating on a white field. Two or three such smudges and a written page became opaque and indecipherable, like a Japanese water-colour.
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Arthur Ellis Best Crime Novel Award Winner: A "funny, poignant, surprising" (Margaret Atwood) literary detective story centering around a murdered poet.   Who is Mary Swann? In this novel of a writer's revenge, an uneducated farmer's wife delivers a paper bag filled with scraps of her poems to the publisher of a small press. Hours later, she's dead, murdered by her husband. Fifteen years on, her book of one hundred twenty-five poems--Mary Swann's sole claim to fame--is discovered by an American academic. And a literary odyssey begins. Four narrators--Sarah Maloney, a feminist writer; Frederic Cruzzi, an edit∨ Morton Jimroy, a biographer; and Rose Hindmarch, Mary's only friend--all have a stake in the deceased poet's work. Their chorus of voicesopens a fascinating window on what constitutes genius. As the four descend into a quagmire of ego, jealousy, and backstabbing, Mary Swann comes back to life--in the minds and hearts of those who love and hate her most. Full of mischief, Swann is a novel about life, death, and the ideas that live on after us.

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