(Albert) Norman Levine Biography
Norman Levine comments:
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Ottawa, Ontario, 1923. Education: York Street School and High School of Commerce, Ottawa; Carleton College, Ottawa, 1945; McGill University, Montreal, 1946-49, B.A. 1948, M.A. 1949; King's College, London, 1949-50. Military Service: Served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, 1942-45: Flying Officer. Career: Employed by the Department of National Defence, Ottawa, 1940-42; lived mainly in England, 1949-80; head of the English Department, Barnstaple Boys Grammar School, Devon, 1953-54; resident writer, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1965-66. Awards: Canada Council fellowship, 1959, and Arts award, 1969, 1971, 1974.
The Angled Road. London, Laurie, 1952.
From a Seaside Town. London, Macmillan, 1970.
One Way Ticket. London, Secker and Warburg, 1961.
I Don't Want to Know Anyone Too Well: 15 Stories. London, Macmillan, 1971.
Selected Stories. Ottawa, Oberon Press, 1975.
In Lower Town, photographs by Johanne McDuff. Ottawa, Commoners', 1977.
Thin Ice. Ottawa, Deneau, and London, Wildwood House, 1980.
Why Do You Live So Far Away? A Novella and Six Stories. Ottawa, Deneau, 1984.
Champagne Barn. Toronto and London, Penguin, 1984; New York, Penguin, 1985.
Something Happened Here. Toronto and London, Viking, 1991.
Myssium. Toronto, Ryerson Press, 1948.
The Tight-Rope Walker. London, Totem Press, 1950.
I Walk by the Harbour. Fredericton, New Brunswick, Fiddlehead, 1976.
Canada Made Me. London, Putnam, 1958.
The Beat & the Still. Toronto, North Edition, 1990.
Editor, Canadian Winter's Tales. Toronto and London, Macmillan, 1968.
University of Texas, Austin; York University, Toronto.
"The Girl in the Drugstore" by Levin, in Canadian Literature 41 (Vancouver), 1969; interview in Canadian Literature 45 (Vancouver), 1970; Philip Oakes, in Sunday Times (London), 19 July 1970; Alan Heuser, in Montreal Star, 26 September 1970; Times Literary Supplement (London), 3 December 1971; Maurice Capitanchik, in Books and Bookmen (London), September 1972; Frederick Sweet, in Profiles in Canadian Literature 4 edited by Jeffrey M. Heath, Toronto, Dundurn, 1982; George Galt, in Saturday Night (Toronto), June 1984; "A Small Piece of Norman Levine" (interview) by Michael Winter, in TickleAce 26 (St. John's, Newfoundland) , Winter 1993.
For anyone who wants to know where to begin, I suggest that the start would be Canada Made Me, From a Seaside Town, then Champagne Barn.
I wrote in the Atlantic Advocate: "When you go to a writer's work—it is into his personal world that you enter. What he is doing is paying, in his own way, an elaborate tribute to people and places he has known."
* * *
Norman Levine has always been remarkable for the reserve of his writing; but it took him some years to learn what best to withhold and what to reveal. In his early autobiographical stories and novel, The Angled Road, he was "trying to cut out [his] past, to cover … up" his origins as the Canadian-bred son of a Jewish street-peddler. As if to compensate for this leaching of color from his material, he was also experimenting with patches of vulgar prose-poetry. While teaching himself to write simply and directly, he came to terms with his personal history. Now, in Thin Ice, although his range is narrow, he shapes his stories with the unmistakable authority of a writer who has found his subject and style.
Speaking for the most part in the first person, Levine relates in neutral prose incidents from his Canadian upbringing and his years in England. Certain worlds are revealed which he leaves and is drawn back to: Jewish society, life at McGill University summer cottages by the Richelieu, the tourist villages of Cornwall, poverty in a small town. He has achieved the outsider's vantage point from which he turns a telephoto lens on ordinary people and events. The danger of his method is that when it miscarries, as sometimes it does, the reader is left with a commonplace, colorless anecdote that adds up to nothing. His later stories and novel do not differ greatly from his travel narrative, Canada Made Me, except in being increasingly crafted, concise, and superficially detached. Although he has escaped the heavy cold of Montreal and the intimate squalor of lower Ottawa, he takes with him wherever he goes his Canadian melancholy and taste for failure.
In drawing on his personal past, Levine often returns to the same scenes, characters, and even fragments of conversation, as if he were unable to invent afresh or to leave behind any of his life. An Englishman awaiting the flowering of a large cactus, a woman without a nose, a prowling man whom a couple nicknames "the house detective," are only a few of many recurrent elements in the work of this man who mines his own writings, word for word, as well as his past. The friction of repeated use has polished his memories until all that is inessential has worn away, leaving a smooth pebble of experience.
Levine consistently avoids evocative vocabulary, choosing instead to make a plain statement of fact in language so empty of implication that it becomes mysterious. It is as if he is trying to create prose as objective as the reality he perceives. Yet, in his best work, when everything possible has been jettisoned, a core of emotion remains. He writes in short, often broken, sentences that correspond to the fragmentary moments of human contact in his tales. Sometimes an ugly expression such as "less worse" (Canada Made Me) has been selected as the only way of expressing what he means, but at other times a sentence muddles into ambiguity that adds nothing, or an angularity almost illiterate. Except for brief periods, Levine lived in England from 1949 until 1980, so it is not surprising that he somewhat lost his grasp of Canadian idiom and fact. His use of such expressions as "the School of Seven," "motorways," "left luggage," and "do some walks" is evidence of the distance he traveled from his native speech. Even his distinguished German translator, Heinrich Böll, the Nobel prize-winner, must have felt it a hopeless task to convey in all its aspects Levine's continual shuttling between England and Canada.
Although Levine says little about his feelings, one cannot miss the passion that concentrates his prose and sends him back to places and people he cannot forget. His journeys are the counterpart of the sexual hunger that runs through From a Seaside Town. His appetite for experience and his enjoyment of the grotesque have so far saved him from the sterility that threatens autobiographical writers in middle age. In his low-keyed world even tiny incidents stand out like figures against a landscape of snow. They may mean nothing or anything, but to him they have an importance which the reader feels, but never entirely understands.
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