The Next Chapter·Book Report

Randy Boyagoda on Norman Levine — the writer Canada forgot

Columnist and scholar Randy Boyagoda revisits the career of short story writer Norman Levine in light of his 2017 anthology, I Don’t Want to Know Anyone Too Well.
Randy Boyagoda thinks the short stories of Norman Levine are worth revisiting. (Ethan Horst Mitchell/Biblioasis)

Norman Levine is considered to be one of Canada's most accomplished short story writers, but he is not widely known or read here. He died in 2005, and in 2017, a collection of his stories called I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well was published.

The Next Chapter columnist Randy Boyagoda spoke to Shelagh Rogers about the legacy of Norman Levine.

A double identity 

"Levine was, in a lot of ways, a double minority. He was an immigrant Polish Jew living in a French-Canadian part of Ottawa in the 1920s. Levine went to McGill University and started writing fiction. He eventually wrote an ill-received travelogue called Canada Made Me of his experiences of the country and how nasty it was. Mordecai Richler loved it. In it, Levine is very critical of what he sees as a thin nationalism to Canadian character. He famously looks at the experience of becoming Canadian as an immigrant in terms that were exactly counter to the trends emerging in the early 1960s — he thought he had lost something by virtue of coming to Canada. He couldn't find the kind of inspiration, material and community that would allow him to become the writer he wanted to become. So he went to England and ended up writing a whole series of remarkable and remarkably unread stories."

Rooted writing

"In Nick Mount's Arrival: The Story of CanLit, which takes us to that moment in the late 1960s when CanLit emerged, it's interesting that Levine figures in the book, but not in a major way. It's because his writing life was based in England. But if you read Levine's work, you see how richly he explores a pre-war and mid-century Ottawa life. You realize how much that world stayed with him. I would say the most wonderful material figures in evocations of an Ottawa that suggests he really was connected to this place. There is something elliptical and fragmentary about his work that often concerns a writer visiting an aging parent in a middle-class Ottawa setting. There is a wistfulness to the writing that makes it recognizable."    

Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited and condensed.