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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 one."
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 Parrot 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.) 

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.