Graeme Gibson speaks of Gentleman Death

In autumn 1999,  when we journalists went on strike at the Calgary Herald, fighting to install a union, two visiting Toronto-based writers joined us on the picket line: Graeme Gibson and Margaret Atwood. That meant a lot to us and spoke volumes about the two of them.  Six years before that, as the newspaper’s Books Editor, I interviewed Gibson about GENTLEMAN DEATH, his recently published fourth novel. This seems a good time to hear his voice. 

“At heart fundamentalism is not a religious notion,”
says a character in Gentleman Death. “It`s political, right-wing
political of the most perfidious kind.” She then describes the leaders of
“America`s fundamentalist Right as demagogues and crank ayatollahs every

Novelist Graeme Gibson says he wasn`t thinking of the
Reform Party when he wrote those words. But in his view religious
fundamentalism, be it Christian or Islamic, translates as social engineering,
social control.

“We`re not talking religion,” Gibson said in
Calgary, “we`re talking politics. How to stabilize a certain political
view. If I were a Jew or a Muslim, I`d be very worried.”

The Toronto novelist, whose books include Five Legs, Communion
and Perpetual Motion, has been a driving force in cultural politics
since the early 1970s. He helped form both The Writers` Union of Canada and the
Writers` Development Trust and has served as president of the Canadian Centre
of International Pen. In 1992 he received the Order of Canada, and earlier this
month (October 1993), the Harbourfront Festival Prize, worth $11,000.

Politics is subtly present throughout Gibson`s latest novel, as
when his narrator, Robert Fraser, rants about prime ministers who sell Canada
to pay for their own incompetence and lack of vision.

By including this political subtext, Gibson risks dating
the novel and making it less accessible to other cultures (previous works have
been translated into French, German, Polish and Spanish). “I thought about
that,” he said. “But I was trying to make Fraser real. That`s the
kind of man he is. If I`d backed off because the politics wouldn`t sell in
France, I`d betray my man. As a writer, my major responsibility is to my book
and the people in it. Not to the future, and not to other cultures.”

The politics is intelligent. But Gentleman Death is
primarily a literary treat. It`s sophisticated fiction that finds Gibson using
sparkling language to explore profoundly adult themes. And to come to terms
with death.

Structurally, the book reminds me of that contemporary classic Flaubert`s
by Julian Barnes. There, the hero hid from painful experience by
obsessing about a dead writer. Here, Robert Fraser begins novel after novel to
avoid dealing with the deaths of his father and brother.

Gibson wanted to avoid writing about a writer, he said, and
considered making Fraser a lawyer. “But this is a book about Fraser`s passage
from denial to acceptance,” he said. “And only with a writer can you
demonstrate the evasions. The reader can see the nature of Fraser`s evasions
for himself.”

I`ve mentioned language. Here`s Fraser: “Preparing to shave
one morning several weeks after Father`s funeral I discovered Death himself had
entered my body. Not the cruel fellow of scarlet corners, not Death who comes
as a stranger, but that lean inevitable harbinger of mortality, of succession,
the Gentleman whose guise is time.”

That`s chosen almost at random. “I`m fairly language-driven
as a writer,” Gibson said. “On some levels that`s the chief
glory of the novel. I find flat prose an enormous turn-off.”

Because of the way Gibson uses language, Gentleman Death
is a richly entertaining novel. Then there`s the engaging wit. At one point,
Fraser makes fun of his own nationalism as “fashionable nostalgia, the
result of not watching enough American television.”

Or consider the flirtatious exchange that arises when he tells a
lady-friend that a female ghost visited, and she vows to find out who it was:
“Which wanton did you imagine creeping into your bed?”

“Beth, Beth,” I protested. “You know it`s always
you. It`s only you.”

“You`re either a liar, Robbie, or a disappointment.”

“Isn`t it possible to belong to both groups?”

“That would be unpardonable.”

For the rest, Gibson still raves about Margaret Atwood, his
partner of more than two decades: “What astonishes me most is how little
fame has changed her. She`s extraordinarily resolute about being herself. Peggy
has remained the writer I knew from the beginning.”

He`s working on another novel, which he declines to discuss for
the record. But don`t be surprised if it includes a political subtext: “As
a nationalist,” Gibson said, “I have to be optimistic, and as a
humanist I have to have faith. But it`s not always easy.”

(In 2009, Graeme Gibson and I participated in a Robbie Burns Polar Dip organized by Adventure Canada. Kindred spirits, we did so by serving whisky to those who actually took the plunge.) 

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