1592 Five novellas
The Scent of Light
by Kristjana Gunnars
Toronto: Coach House Books, 2022
$25.95 / 9781552454381
Reviewed by Carol Matthews
In his introduction to The Scent of Light, Kazim Ali describes the five novellas that make up Kristjana Gunnars’ s collection as “transgeneric books comprised of a dynamic blend of fiction, autobiography, literary theory and philosophy.” They are all that and more. The collection is not a quick read and certainly not an easy one. Sometimes it feels as though one is not reading but entering into the space and sense and scent of the writer’s life.
Each of the novellas has a biographical feel, a chronology, beginning with Gunnars’ childhood memories of Iceland and continuing through the years into the reflections of a mature woman. Since leaving Iceland, Gunnars has lived in Oregon, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Germany and Norway, and has travelled extensively over the past five decades. In this collection she makes reference to all of these places and writes about just what it means to live, love and leave the various spaces she has inhabited. She now lives in British Columbia.
The first novella, The Prowler, jumps around in time and place between Iceland and Oregon. It begins with a quotation of James Joyce stating that, while it may not be a good book, this is the only book I am able to write. The narrator goes on to explore the intrusion of stories and concludes that “If there is a God, it is God’s story,” but it is not her story. It is a story of difficulties, deprivations and contradictions, with the text frequently repeating and questioning itself. The narrator has decided to become a prowler in order to compile these fragments, but in the end the elusive text escapes both the writer and the reader.
In the second novella, Zero Hour, the narrator has “come to the place in life where there is nothing below.” It seems as though a bomb has fallen but it is not a bomb:
Only a loss, as if a world has gone away, and a revelation that sometimes a world goes away and never returns.
Her father, who has been deteriorating for four years, is now in hospital in Portland. It is the countdown and “five weeks to death. To ground zero.” But how do we count down to something if we don’t know when it will happen?
She writes that there is no zero on the clock. In order to get to zero, one must step out of time.
By stepping back and forth through time. Zero Hour offers a memoir of deep love and intense grief, one that “cannot be told as a story.” Instead it is told through fragments of loss and recollection.
The middle novella, The Substance of Forgetting, unlike the others, consists of numbered sections, the first of which begins, “You are beautiful, Madam,” spoken by Jules, the narrator’s lover, who is a Quebec separatist, and they are in the United States. Despite the numbering of the sections, this novella is as fragmented as the others. People come and go and settings change with memory. The presence of people is questioned by the writing of them. Is Jules real or a dream? “The more you know someone the less he appears like himself. The self you thought he was,” says the narrator.
However, more than ever, the natural world which is always present in these novellas is especially palpable here. The narrator has a cottage in the country and “In the country, whatever happens, happens in nature.” The air is perfumed with the seasons and the scent of flowers and fruit. The bees are drunk from the fermenting fruit and the little orchard rings with laughter. The narrator frequently expresses amazement with and gratitude for the beauty of the world around her:
I was looking up into the blue sky. I was wondering how it could be. I am not even on vacation, I said to myself. This is my everyday life.
In the fourth novella, The Rose Garden, the narrator has come to Germany to write about Mavis Gallant but her project for the afternoons is to read Proust in the tiny rose garden outside her home, which she has come to think of as her private courtyard. Here she can “meander from rose to rose, like a bumblebee or a hornet, whenever I wished to stop reading.”
She says she is “able to read Proust and remain in his thinking the way I can remain within the perfume of the rose garden,” but she will not read Proust in an orderly way. She will “dip into those three volumes at random like you would dip a poisoned pan,” and she asks herself whether she is a hostile reader or a perverse reader. It’s not surprising that, once again, the novella is pieced together in fragments that explore Proust’s words, literary theory and the narrator’s relationship with her lover, all the time reflecting on what others have said about Proust. She claims to be possessive of the text because “I know no one can improve on Proust. Not even Marcel Proust can improve on Proust.”
“Remembrance of Things Past is only an opportunity … a gathering place,” says the narrator, and she quotes Heidegger’s reference to the site as “a place in which everything comes together, is concentrated.” The rose garden in which she reads Proust is such a setting, and the narrator sees it as a site which “takes all things into itself and keeps them.”
This novella offers the reader a place, a garden, to which we can return in order to reflect on Proust. At the same time, we accompany the narrator through her reading and her references to the works of Northrop Frye, Stanley Fish, Antonin Artaud, Helene Cixous, Julia Kristeva and others. (A two-page list of Works Cited is included at the end of the section.)
The final novella, Night Train to Nykobing, is also dense with literary criticism and references to other writers such as Antonin Artaud, and Gustave Flaubert, Anais Nin, but primarily it is about love, loss, anger, and a struggle for independence. Referring frequently to Clarice Lispecter’s classic novel The Stream of Life, the narrator quotes Lispector’s statement to her lover:
My astonishing truth is that I was always alone, separate from you and I didn’t know it. Now I know; I’m alone. I and my freedom.
The narrator says she draws strength from Lispector’s “roots dormant in their own strength.” Like Lispector, she wants to be “in her own story” and not that of someone else. One senses that Night Train to Nykobing may also have been the vehicle for Gunnars to claim and inhabit her own story.
An established artist who has exhibited her work across Canada, Gunnars has taught at writing at various universities before joining the University of Alberta as Professor of English and Creative Writing. She has published several books of poetry as well works of memoir and literary theory. In an artist’s statement, Gunnars has said, “I want my paintings to fall naturally and serenely into their environments and communicate with the environment organically.” Her writing has a similar focus, responding to the environment in a manner that includes and responds to the reader.
These five novellas are all delicate in style and nimble in thought, which makes the complexity of their scope more accessible. At the same time, they are essentially elusive and not easily comprehensible. All initially engaging and even gripping, each of them requires more than one reading.
Carol Matthews has worked as a social worker, as Executive Director of Nanaimo Family Life, and as instructor and Dean of Human Services and Community Education at Malaspina University-College, now Vancouver Island University (VIU). She has published a collection of short stories (Incidental Music, from Oolichan Books) and four works of non-fiction. Her short stories and reviews have appeared in literary journals such as Room, The New Quarterly, Grain, Prism, Malahat Review, and Event. Editor’s note: Carol Matthews has recently reviewed books by David Essig, Diane Schoemperlen, Susan Juby, Charles Demers, Susan Sanford Blades, and John Vigna for The British Columbia Review. Carol Matthews’ book Minerva’s Owl is reviewed here by Valerie Green.
The British Columbia Review
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster