Friday, November 03, 2006

Michael Ondaatje: In the Skin of a Lion

When I started my M.A. program this September, I thought that I had a really good idea of what I wanted to focus on for my thesis. I've been really interested in the beginnings of modern Canadian poetry since my second year of university, and when I wrote my thesis proposal for my grad applications, I was sure that what I proposed would be what I wrote about. Not anymore! My Canadian Modernism class is fantastic, my professor is amazing, and there is so much in the field that I didn't even know about! I originally wanted to write about A.J.M Smith, who in some people's opinion is the founder of Canadian modernism- that is until I found out that he was a crabby old-school poet who cheated on his wife. I find it hard to devote a year of my life to someone who I can't respect. I do, however, find who he cheated with quite intriguing- Anne Wilkinson.

Wilkinson is the founder of what my thesis supervisor likes to call "Rosedale Modernism." For all you Torontonians, you'll recognize the neighbourhood that Wilkinson was born and raised in; needless to say, she had quite an unusual and well-to-do childhood. Her mother's side of the family were the Oslers, and if any of you live near Brampton, you'll know the William Osler Health Centre. Very prominent medical & banking family (another relative was the president of TD Bank), very prominent family fortune. Wilkinson, despite her privileged upbringing, had a difficult life, including a rather tumultuous marriage to F. Robert Wilkinson, a pediatric surgeon, and a number of psychosomatic illnesses. It always seems that anguish is necessary for poetry. What makes Wilkinson even more interesting is the fact that although her children had tutors and nannies, and although she had cooks and maids, she always felt like she was struggling between being an artist and being a good wife and mother.

Unlike Smith, I feel a lot of connection with Wilkinson. She was born and raised in Toronto (close enough), her father died of MS (my aunt did as well), and her favourite authors are Jane Austen & Virginia Woolf. And just when I'm going through my own internal struggles about what path to choose in the next couple of years that will be fair both to my own future family and to me (do my Ph.D? go back to teaching?), Wilkinson's journals and poetry explore the same problems. So, my goal right now is to learn as much about her and her writing as I can so that I can sit down with my supervisor next week and figure out what my 100 page monster is going to be about.

This is where Ondaatje comes in. I found out from reading the preface to Wilkinson's complete poetic works, Heresies, that Michael Ondaatje, another one of my favourite authors, uses her in two of his books: The Skin of a Lion and The English Patient. I've read The English Patient a number of times, but never before with Wilkinson in mind, so I'm going to have to read that again this week, but this was my first time reading In the Skin of a Lion. And it was love, love, love.

Ondaatje's writing is so REAL, and yet so dreamlike. His characters are wonderfully complex people, and like real people, he always leaves you wanting to know them better. In In the Skin of a Lion, he frames the building of the Bloor St. Viaduct in Toronto with some fascinating characters- a Macedonian baker, an escaped nun, a young man brought up in the wilds near Napanee, and a confused young actress. But my two favourite characters are Caravaggio guessed it, Anne Wilkinson. Caravaggio is the thief character from The English Patient, and he's just so interesting. I was surprised and happy when he showed up again in this book, and I was really surprised when, canoeing one night in Muskoka, he met Wilkinson doing the same. He comes across her another night writing the poem that is my favourite of hers so far- "Lake Song." Brilliant and extremely sexy poem, written by a woman who both Caravaggio & Ondaatje obviously also find brilliant and sexy (you should see her reading list! It's insane!)

So, in my exploration of Wilkinson so far, I'm having a great time. And read yourself some Ondaatje. I'm not saying that he's easy, but boy is it worth it. (And I'll keep you posted about the Ph.D thing.)


Purple Mangos said...

Have you read any Gwendolyn MacEwen? I love her Dark Pines Under Water.

Melissa said...

No, I haven't read anything by her, although I'm familiar with the name. I'll see if I can put a hold on it at the library. Thanks for the recommendation. I'm always looking for good new things to read.

Marilyn said...

He Mel! I liked Running in the Family by Ondaatje. Cant say Ive read a lot of his stuff, and of all the crap i had to read for my modern canadian prose class (sorry, im still the Medievalist at heart gimme chaucer any day)that was one of the more interesting in the autobiography category.

Melissa said...

I haven't read Ondaatje's autobiography! Thanks for telling me about it. He's such an interesting person; he teaches at York now. I was cursing him the other day though, because the main lecture hall in my building is named after him, and the kids who take psych in it always block the whole foyer! I'll put a hold on the book, though. :)