Sunday, December 30, 2012

Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

Tamas Dobozy was born in Nanaimo, British Columbia, in 1969, and he received a Ph.D. in English from the University of British Columbia. He has published more than 50 short stories, one of which earned him the O. Henry Prize in 2004. He was recipient of the inaugural Fulbright Research Chair in Creative Writing at New York University in 2009. He currently teaches in the Department of English and Film Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario.
Siege 13, a collection of 13 short stories inspired by the ways the siege of Budapest by the Russians in December 1944 impacted the lives of the Hungarian people, won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize in 2012. Part personal essay, part exploration of collective memory and identity maintenance, and part alternate world construction, these stories are above all else case studies of "the passing of trauma from one generation to the next" (p. 183).
There is no question that Dobozy is a master storyteller, and his characterizations are magnificent. My issue with this book is that it rapidly becomes too much of a good thing. Reading one or two of these stories would suffice, both in terms of satisfying and educating the reader and with respect to demonstrating the author's mastery. No need to obsess and saturate. I got bored; not by the writing, but by the inevitable sameness of these stories.
I enjoy reading short stories, and in reading this book I came to two realizations. First, I like my short stories to be short. Once they reach 3000 words, they are forced to move beyond singular events or circumstances and thereby cry out either to be divided into separate stories or to be expanded into a novel. Dobozy had enough material here to create a marvelous extended character study in the vein of some of the greatest late nineteenth and early twentieth century epic fiction. Second, I like short story collections to be comprised of works by multiple authors or, if from a single author, to be poly-thematic. Variety is the key, at least for me.
I would have had a much more positive response to these siege stories if I had encountered one as a standalone entry in a literary magazine, or as part of a collection of Canadian short fiction. However, to give the author his due, I have been sufficiently impressed by his writing that I will seek out other examples of his work.

Friday, December 14, 2012

CanLit Adventure

Recently, I won three books in a contest run by Access Copyright, a not-for-profit agency with the mandate to ensure that Canadian authors, artists, and publishers receive fair compensation when their works are copied. The three books were all major award winners: Tamas Dobozy's Siege 13 (Thomas Allen, 2012), winner of the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize, Will Ferguson's 419 (Viking, 2012), winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and Linda Spalding's The Purchase (McLelland and Stewart, 2012) winner of the Governor General's Prize for Fiction.

Now, let me be brutally honest about my relationship with Canadian literature. When I entered the contest, I had no idea of who these authors were, what they had written previously, or what works they had beaten out to win these prizes. Having attended high school in the 1960s, my introduction to CanLit was more in the nature of the force fed diet of standard works that typified pedagogy and national identity maintenance at the time. So, I dutifully slogged my way through early Margaret Atwood (The Edible Woman), Margaret Laurence (The Stone Angels), Robertson Davies (A Mixture of Frailties), and Mordecai Richler (The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). After that, when I read literature, as opposed to popular fiction, it was more often than not either British, or translations of German and Russian works. My tastes over the past few years have shifted more towards the Middle East.
So, by way of engaging in a sort of reclamation of national literary identity, I am embarking on an adventure in CanLit. I am determined to read all three of these prize winning books in their entirety (something I found it difficult to do in the sixties) and publish reviews on this blog.
On a final note, as a Canadian writer of non-fiction (although I am working on my first novel), I was happy to get my check from Access Copyright. At the very least, it signals that someone out there is aware of what I have written.