Friday, May 2, 2008

Canadian Literary Orgies: Anecdote #2

In 1938 Gwethalyn Graham won the Governor General's Award for Fiction for her novel Swiss Sonata. The book, published by Jonathan Cape, is set in a Swiss boarding school, and follows the lives of a group of girls as they mature through the pre-war years.

Graham, who wrote the novel when she was twenty-five years old, never thought it had a chance of winning the GG: "There's too much hidden sex in it to make it a prize-winning book in Canada," she told Herbert McLean, a writer for The Canadian Forum. "But, for that same reason, it'll sell in Boston."

Graham found out she'd won the GG on a Wednesday, and immediately opened a bottle of champagne. Lorraine Clemens, who was one of Graham's closest friends, suggested that they go out and celebrate. Graham had divorced John McNaught more than five years prior to the news of her win, and since that time she'd established a reputation for both her high- and low-profile "affairs."

"It wasn't that Gweth was particularly loose," an unnamed friend told a Graham biographer. "It's just that she was never one for exercise."

Graham was also a crusader for social justice; she railed against anti-Semitism, segregation, and the overt political racism of Mackenzie King's federal government. King, Canada's three-time Prime Minister, was famous for standing up in parliament and shouting, "I don't even like bagels! They're obscene. Look where I have to put my thumb."

So it happened that Clemens and Graham were walking through a noted Jewish section of the city, high on Veuve Clicquot and Graham's win, when they encountered a group of young men--all in their mid-twenties--singing Hebrew songs and dancing little jigs in the street.

"What's going on here?" Graham asked, her interest piqued.

"It's Purim!" one of the men said, shaking a can full of dried beans. Purim, as most Jews know, is a festival celebrating the deliverance of the (Persian) Jews from one of many genocidal schemes. It's typically accompanied--at least among the orthodox--by a carnival-type atmosphere of eating, dancing, dressing up, and merry-making.

Graham turned to Clemens: "It's Purim! Do you hear that? It's Purim!" She turned back to the man with the bean can: "Where can we go to celebrate? Do you have a place?"

The man was confused, but he shrugged his shoulders. "Sure, I have a place."

"No, Graham said, shrugging. "I mean YOU. All of you."

"Oh. OK! Yes, we have a place."

"With lots of towels and hot water."

"Of course."

They danced through the streets, ending up at an apartment above an empty grocery store. One of the men left, but was back in minutes carrying five bottles of red wine. "Oh, that's sweet! I like it!" Graham exclaimed, taking a drink from a bottle.

"Yes," the man said. "1937 was a good year."

"Is Manischewitz in the south or north of France?" asked Graham.

"I think it's somewhere in the middle."

The sex lasted through the night, with Graham and Clemens each fulfilling their roles admirably. Seven Jewish men stripped, brushed their teeth, and waited in line to call their mothers, telling them they'd be home late. "Do you think we should use this room," one man said, "the carpet's so thin." "Oh yeah," another said, "I've got an uncle who'll fix you up with a nice rug. Five bucks." "Five! This is eight by eight. Four-fifty, I know a place." "Four-fifty and you're getting what kind of a product?" "A good one, I'll tell you that." "Oh, you don't know what you're talking about. No way I'd put a four-dollar rug in here. You think I want it cheap-looking? That I would have a four-dollar run in my house!"

"Hey!" said another guy, stepping in. "What the hell do you care? This isn't even your place."

"Do you really want to do this?" Clemens asked Graham, a little unsure of the well-formed line. "Of course I do," Graham said. "These men have been kept down long enough. The least you can do is get on your back."

"But their beards are so itchy," Clemens protested.

"So you go down on them."

"Christ," Clemens said, "I'm going to taste like garlic all week...Hey, look at this! They're missing something! I'd like to see that pawn shop!"

"That's not funny," Graham hissed

"It was a Purim I'll never forget," one of the male celebrants said, years later, to a famous Montreal writer who was just starting out and giving a reading at a local synagogue. "Even now...all these years later...You don't even want to know what I think when I see a Hamentashen."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Where'd you hear this? Is there a book? I always wondered why she loved smoked salmon.

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