The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

What Canadian author Helen Weinzweig taught me about writing and marriage

Listener Darlene Madott reflects on her conversations with Helen Weinzweig, author of the 1980 novel Basic Black with Pearls. The book was featured in Episode 2 of The Blacklist, our series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory.
Darlene Madott reflects on her friend and mentor, Canadian author Helen Weinzweig, author of the 1980 novel Basic Black with Pearls. (Submitted by Darlene Madott; House of Anansi)

In Episode 2 of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory, host Michael Enright spoke to Sarah Weinman about the 1980 novel Basic Black with Pearls.

Its author, Helen Weinzweig, grappled with questions of gender, power, marriage, ambition, and illicit love in both her fiction and her personal life.

When Darlene Madott heard that conversation, she was reminded of all the conversations she had with Helen Weinzweig about those very subjects. Here is her essay about their friendship. 

What a pleasure it was to hear Helen's voice again, interwoven with Sarah Weinman's reflections on Helen Weinzweig's Basic Black With Pearls, to hear how important and formative Helen's books have been for this talented young writer.

I had the honour and privilege of knowing Helen, of meeting her husband, the composer John Weinzweig, and attending gatherings of creative literati at their home on Manor Road in Toronto. Over the years, I had many intimate conversations with Helen. We talked about everything from the effects of red wine on menopausal women, to the selfishness of offspring and husbands.

She told me about having gone to a divorce lawyer in her 40s. The lawyer she consulted (later a judge) counselled her to stay in her marriage and to write — to seek comfort in imaginary or real men who would give her the emotional nurturing and love she craved, and that John either could not or would not provide. From my conversations with John, I understood him to be quietly surprised by her. But I had the impression he never expressed his pride in her, perhaps thinking his validation would dampen her ardor.

She became a writing mentor to me, a very comforting mentor. She always said that a writer has only so many books and stories in her, but that these "will be written," though I'm not so sure about that now.

She was a very intense woman, passionate, and one of the most intelligent women I ever met.

Most writers I know are always on the prowl for what might be used, even among family and friends. Helen was different. When I told her that my first abuser had sat on the keys of my piano, Helen asked my permission to use this image for the ending of a short story that had been eluding her. I readily gave permission, but wondered about the strange ethics of this writer, who respectfully requested it.

We debated the either/or choices that seemed for women alone to make.- Darlene Madott

Helen remained in touch, when I left my job as associate literary editor at Toronto Life magazine to enter law school. She told me that maybe I could be a lawyer and a writer, but that being a lawyer, a writer, a wife and a mother, would be "mission impossible." We debated the either/or choices that seemed for women alone to make, not their men. I remember Helen phoning me one Sunday morning, irate that one of her children had the audacity to think mother would be available to babysit her grandchildren on that particular day, as if she had nothing better to do, as if her writing didn't matter.

By this time in her life, Helen had built a separate studio in her home, and had a special ergonomic chair that she didn't sit in but kneeled in — a first of its kind. I think of Helen frequently because of the physical restlessness that made courtroom work best suited for me. My legal life had me writing in the cracks, and it remains very hard for me to sit still — while Helen accomplished this quite literally kneeling at the altar of her art.

I think Helen would be proud of me, that I steered the course, that I am still writing.

Helen once told me about the  attempted delivery of her manuscript to the House of Anansi. The wind had caught it, she said, and blown all the pages hopelessly out of order. She collected what she could from the street, but realized she would have to start all over again, and what emerged was a work of great economy and refinement — Basic Black With Pearls.

I told this story to James Polk, her first editor, who has just written a marvellous introduction to Helen Weinzweig's republished Passing Ceremony. He thought what had really happened was the delivery of a manuscript, "a stack of quality bond paper, perfectly typed, with a note advising [him] to throw the pages into the air and arrange them as they fell.

"Isn't it possible that Helen Weinzweig invented both stories, invented herself?"

Some time later, when I tried to give Helen back the words of comfort she gave me, and reassure her that Basic Black With Pearls would always be with us, a great literary work in the Canadian canon, Helen expressed that she felt she had "run out of time" to establish a world-class reputation. I wish Helen could have been happy with the reputation she so clearly had achieved and with the great work she had produced. It is sad to think that human nature is such that, whatever comes to human beings, including writers, always seems to fall short, to come too soon or too late, the wrong corner, the wrong night.

Featured VideoHelen Weinzweig spoke to Shelagh Rogers in 1990.

Helen's real voice, just as the real Helen Weinzweig, is to be found — waiting and mysterious — within the pages of her short stories and books, to be discovered and loved anew.

Thank you, Sunday Edition and Sarah Weinman for opening her pages, again, and letting her speak.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay.