With the book complete and published, I decided it was time to relax and took up Mary Swann by Carol Shields. I found and bought it in a charity shop bag-full because I knew the author, not the book. I began to read and the experience was uncanny.
Mary Swann concerns of life and work of a poet from rural Canada. The town of Nadeau was both small and insignificant, until, that is, the world discovered a slim volume of a hundred or so poems by one Mary Swann, insignificant herself, until she was murdered - shot, bludgeoned, dismembered - by her husband in 1965.
Born in 1915, the exact date still debatable, she lived out her anonymous, almost hidden life, even from locals, on the farm. Elsewhere in the world this would be called a peasant holding and her life would be characterized as mired in poverty. Mary Swann had no domestic help, no appliances, none of the trappings of modern life. She never drove a car. Isolated, remote, poor, dilapidated are words that applied equally to the setting of the life and the person who lived it. Nothing much is known of her relationship with her husband, who killed himself after murdering his wife. The erasure was complete, except that they had a daughter who is alive, but is unwilling to discuss family matters.
But Mary Swan wrote. She wrote pithy, crunchy verse that inhabits the world this side of the garden gate but seems to dig deep into the infinite internal space of being. Academics, having discovered her work, likened her to Emily Dickinson. Mr. Crozzi who originally accepted her poems for publication and produced a couple of hundred copies of Swann’s Songs, the perhaps appropriately titled slim volume, was the last person to see her alive, apart from her husband. There are estimated to be about 20 extant copies of the collection. But the content has found its admirers and champions. There are even academics whose reputation is built on the critique of Mary Swann’s verse.
There is to be a symposium on the poet and her work and Carol Shields follows the lives, testimonies and experience of a group of interested parties. There are academic researchers, who cooperate by competing. There is Rose, the Nadeau town librarian, timid, self-effacing and suffering. There is Crozzi, perhaps a little crazy, the publisher and a long-standing journalist in the local press, though himself an immigrant. He is an eccentric, opinionated type who dearly misses his deceased wife. He also likes a drink or two. There are Sarah and Morton, academics with their own lives to live who have championed Mary Swann’s work. And there are others. Via the experiences of these characters and others, we piece together something of the life and work of Mary Swann, though, like everyone else involved, we never know her and her work remains enigmatic.
What for me was utterly uncanny, was that this was the exact form I had chosen for Eileen McHugh. Exactly what makes an artist? Why do we try to express ourselves in these arcane, often esoteric forms? What is authorship? What constitutes recognition? Who controls that process? How does life influence art, or vice versa? How do we recall our interactions from the past with someone we never thought we would remember? At eighty per cent through Mary Swann, I felt like I was reading a different version of my own book and I concluded I was very glad I had not read Carol Shields’s book before inventing my own.
But eventually, things diverged. Carol Shields’ Mary Swann concludes with the symposium on the poet’s work, a meeting that brings together the characters we have been following and constructed in the form of a screenplay. A particular thread of the plot begins to dominate. Competition surfaces, insults are perceived, and offense is taken. Difficult to explain events coalesce to identify and conclude what really has been going on in the background throughout the book. By the end of this superbly crafted and constructed novel, we are intimately involved in considerable slices of the contemporary characters’ lives. Mary Swann, however, lingers in a continued, enigmatic anonymity that remains entirely her own, just as, thankfully, does that of my own Eileen McHugh.