Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lies Norman Levine Told Me

I had a chance to meet Norman Levine before he died. My grandfather knew a guy who'd grown up with Levine, and when that guy found out that I was interested in Canadian writing he called Norm and asked him to have lunch with me. At first Levine refused, but relented when he found out that I'd be paying for both of us.

We met at Pancer's Delicatessen, which is a famous hole-in-the-wall spot in Toronto. Levine was here for a funeral. He kept saying, "I really should go. I really should."

We order pastrami sandwiches; he wanted extra pickles, extra cole slaw, and a Vernor's. "Keep eating," I told him. "I brought a fifty."

We talked for about three hours. I kept asking questions about famous Canadian writers, and Levine kept dishing the dirt.

"What was Irving Layton really like?" I asked.

"Irv was okay. He loved to swim. He was always swimming. He'd invite you over for dinner, and he'd be pouring you a drink, and he'd be dripping water into the glass--because his hair was wet from the pool, see. I'd tell him, 'buy a fucking towel. What happened, the Concordia grant didn't come through?'"

"Did you like his work? I never got into it."

"I liked it. But only the short stuff. When he went long...god. It was awful for everyone."


"He was a method poet. He could only write about things that he'd actually done. The longer the poem, the more things he had to do. I remember he wrote one about being a guy downtown who drives a subway. He hid out in the conductor's box of the second or third car, and pretended like he was driving the thing. That was fine for shit like that--you know, little things. But one day he comes to me waving this sheet of paper, and saying, 'Read this! Read this!' It's a poem about sucking your own cock. 'Irving,' I said, 'now I know why you left in the third inning.'"

"What happened after Canada Made Me came out? Did you think you'd get that kind of reaction?"

"No. First of all, no one read it. It's funny how the worst books, the ones that people hate the most, always sell the fewest copies. So, what, it sold two thousand? Something like that. And how many people actually hate it? A couple hundred? Boo hoo, I'm so sad. Just as many loved it. A funny story: right after the book was published, Jack McClelland tried to get it off the shelves. He hated it; he didn't understand it. And I mean he tried. Then, one morning, he walks into his office, and someone's taken a shit right in the middle of his floor. He calls me, immediately, and tells me. 'Gee, Jack," I said, "who'd do a thing like that?"

"And what about Margaret Atwood? How's she?"

"Margaret's Margaret. As long as you don't try to feed her, you'll be fine."

It was a great lunch.

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