To­mor­row NEVER knows

Re­li­able or not, Ber­gen’s nar­ra­tor tells a beau­ti­ful story

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Rein­hold Kramer

IIn For the first time in Ber­gen’s ca­reer, that life is in the first per­son. Arthur tells of yearn­ing for his mother’s at­ten­tion, of his loves (es­pe­cially his adopted “cousin” Iso­bel), of his epilepsy, and of his strug­gles with his older brother Ben, who phys­i­cally overpowers him but who is no match for Arthur’s canny psy­cho­log­i­cal coun­ter­punches. Par­tic­u­larly omi­nous is the rainy night that Arthur takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for an ac­ci­dent com­mit­ted by Ben, and then steals the for­give­ness that should have been given to Ben. The Ja­cob-Esau strug­gle is treated un­sen­ti­men­tally and mov­ingly. The first-per­son story of a writer’s youth doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean Ber­gen is re­veal­ing him­self, since the events of Arthur’s life don’t ap­pear to par­al­lel the au­thor’s. Still, Leav­ing To­mor­row is a cu­ri­ous, slip­pery thing. Through­out his ca­reer, Ber­gen has of­ten em­ployed a kind of hands-off irony, and has been re­luc­tant to tele­graph what the reader ought to think about the char­ac­ters. The world is what it is, he im­plies, and we move around in it in semi­b­lind­ness. But in past nov­els there were of­ten cues — in The Mat­ter with Mor­ris, for ex­am­ple, Mor­ris be­haves badly when he hires pros­ti­tutes or dan­gles the po­ten­tial of a re­la­tion­ship in front of Ur­sula, and bet­ter when he for­gives his son’s ac­ci­den­tal killer. In Leav­ing To­mor­row it’s more dif­fi­cult to de­ci­pher what Ber­gen thinks of Arthur, par­tic­u­larly of his var­i­ous (some­times over­lap­ping) S David Ber­gen’s lat­est novel

That is, are we meant to be­lieve that Ber­gen’s lat­est cre­ation, the as­pir­ing writer Arthur Ja­cob Wohlge­muht, re­ally will forge great new works in the smithy of his soul? Or is he more likely to lounge in his bathrobe, forg­ing the works of un­known writ­ers, like Ed does in Guy Van­der­haeghe’s won­der­ful

Ber­gen — who has made the short lists of the Giller Prize (win­ning once), the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s Award, and the world’s rich­est lit­er­ary award, the 100,000euro IM­PAC Dublin (for

— gives us another richly ob­served life. love af­fairs. That dif­fi­culty be­gins im­me­di­ately. While Arthur isn’t as au­da­cious as Tris­tram Shandy, who gives a blow-by-blow ac­count of his own con­cep­tion in Lau­rence Sterne’s vol­ume, Arthur “re­mem­bers” his mother pluck­ing him from her womb. He re­mem­bers his first ex­pe­ri­ence of love and loss, mourn­ing a nurse who breast-fed him when he was hos­pi­tal­ized at eight months old. If he were mak­ing stuff up, Arthur says, he’d have had Ben killed in Viet­nam. And Ber­gen: is he wink­ing? Hard to tell. The hints could po­ten­tially add up to an un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor.n Al­ter­na­tively,ly be­cause Arthur avoidsa grand tragic ges­tures and re­veals the more un­seemly sides of his character, his ac­count rings true. In the story of the nurse, Ber­gen couldc be al­low­ing Arthur — who wants so much to be an in­di­vid­u­alin — to mourn the sad­ness of sep­a­rat­ing from hish mother, the fall in­toin time that is the hu­man lot, and which ap­pears so beau­ti­fully in the novel’s last para­graph. Arthur would like to stay with his mother, but leav­ing the town of To­mor­row is another mat­ter en­tirely. A smart, well-read boy in not-so-well-read small-town Al­berta, he yearns to shake the small­ness off his feet. He thinks that he’s sur­rounded by im­be­ciles, and that he be­longs in Paris, where ev­ery­one will be quot­ing Flaubert and chat­ting up Beck­ett. Henry James’s Americans were eas­ily mugged by Euro­pean so­phis­ti­cates, while Rober­ston Davies’ and Morde­cai Rich­ler’s he­roes con­firmed that a bril­liant Cana­dian can eas­ily wow Ox­ford or London (though Rich­ler per­son­ally found things harder). Arthur, on the other hand, de­spite get­ting rid of his cow­boy boots and snap-but­ton shirts, finds Paris mostly in­dif­fer­ent to bril­liant young Men­non­ites. Still, he makes a life there, as tu­tor for a young boy and as an ad­mirer, from a dis­tance, of the boy’s mother. This love, which will clearly never be re­quited by the mar­ried Carmine, gives a yearn­ing beauty to the novel. It also dis­proves Arthur’s belief that he has left to­mor­row in favour of the present. In­stead, to­mor­row be­comes more mys­te­ri­ous — not just Paris, but some un­known place, shrouded in mist. Is Arthur a writer or a bluffer? Hard to tell. He sends Sartre a let­ter ask­ing about lit­er­a­ture, and when Sartre doesn’t re­ply, Arthur in­vents his own re­ply: “In­vite char­ac­ters of sur­pris­ing and moral character, or at least those who grap­ple with what is right, or those who make de­ci­sions that shock.” This is what Ber­gen has al­ways done, with fi­nesse. It’s what Arthur does in Leav­ing To­mor­row. Writer, I’d say. Bran­don Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Rein­hold Kramer has pub­lished four books on Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture

and his­tory.


Ber­gen’s pro­tag­o­nist flees small-town

Al­berta, be­liev­ing he be­longs in Paris.

Leav­ing To­mor­row David Ber­gen HarperCollins, 273 pages, $28

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