The Next Chapter

Jason Proctor on the story behind the lost Canadian feminist classic Basic Black with Pearls

CBC reporter Jason Proctor talks about Helen Weinzweig, who started writing and publishing books in her 50s.
Jason Proctor recommends reading Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig. (Christian Amundson/CBC, House of Anansi)
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This interview originally aired on May 11, 2019.

Jason Proctor is a CBC reporter in Vancouver and has a personal interest in writers who published books later in life. He brings to The Next Chapter a Canadian novel that is a great example of this: Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig, which has been hailed as a lost feminist classic.

Weinzweig started publishing books in her 50s, also writing the novel Passing Ceremony and the short fiction collection A View from the Roof, which was a finalist for the 1989 Governor General's Literary Awards for fiction. Weinzweig died in Toronto in 2010.

A not-so-basic plot

"It has been described as sort of an interior feminist espionage novel. The plot is this woman named Shirley Kaszenbowski, who calls herself Lola Montez. She has been having this international affair with a man [Coenraad] who works for a shadowy organization called The Agency. They communicate via code and have had this affair for years in various cities around the world. Coenraad sends her a code at the beginning of the novel that he wants to meet in Toronto. She heads to Toronto and she's trying to find Coenraad, looking for clues as she goes along. But because she's originally from Toronto and had an unhappy childhood there — rejected by her father, lived in extreme poverty with her mother — she's also wandering around Toronto exploring her past.

"It becomes increasingly clear perhaps that Coenraad doesn't exist; that this might be entirely a thing in Shirley's or Lola's head. What ends up being fascinating is this idea of this woman with this rich interior life who, to some degree, is in what you might consider a uniform of the time that conceals her — that being the basic black dress with pearls.

"The main character talks to a number of women in her travels who have these deep, rich inner lives and inner thoughts. They are people who are feeling completely constrained by the mask they put on in public. She talks about her relationship with Coenraad in relation to this as well. You find out through the course of this that her actual marriage is with a strict, severe and odd man. She's sort of constrained by all of that."

Getting her due

"I made a point of reading some of the reviews of the book and one of the reviews I just loved. I think it came out at the time, but it said, 'I hated this book while I was reading it, but I couldn't stop thinking about it after.' I had that experience a bit too.

"Helen Weinzweig wasn't published until she was well into her 50s. She started writing because, essentially, she had a midlife breakdown. She had been the wife of a famous composer. Her son, Daniel, said she actually contributed massively creatively to John Weinzweig's work, but of course he was the composer and celebrated man while she faded into the background as the wife and the mother. She gets published and I asked Daniel what that was like for her. He said, 'She loved it.'" 

A son's reception

"I found it absolutely fascinating Daniel's reaction to reading her first book, Passing Ceremony, which was equally interesting and revealing in its thoughts about her inner life.

"Here's Daniel talking about this: 'I was into my 20s when I read my mother's first piece of writing, Passing Ceremony. I put the book down and said, "I really didn't know my mother." I couldn't believe what she had written, that this came from the woman who made me peanut butter cookies. It was raw, there were language issues in the book, she was very descriptive about relationships. That's not a side of one's parent you get to see when you're being brought up in a household, so that was a revelation to me.'"

Jason Proctor's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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