Symphony No. 3 (Book*hug Press) began as a 'fake' book, but what it became was a decadent elegy for a prodigious composer's lost love. Chris joins us in this ALU Reads the Provinces interview to share more about how the book developed out of a conspiracy theory and the underlying sense of 'New Brunswickness' that unconsciously creeps into his writing, notably emerging as a subtle Chiac blending of french and english.
All Lit Up: Tell us about Symphony No. 3 and how it came to be.
Chris Eaton: Symphony began as an entirely different book. In fact, it began as a “fake book”, an imaginary novel by an author I invented as a reference in another project. I meant it to be the worst sort of historical fiction, clunky and awkward and trying to establish a conspiracy theory that the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns was, in fact, Jack the Ripper. A friend had sent me
a video with the theory that Jack the Ripper was Vincent Van Gogh, and I found it hilarious enough to try the same with another kind of artist and chose Saint-Saëns almost at random (you know, other than him being alive at the time), but he also appealed to me because he was one of a handful of composers writing symphonies after Beethoven, when most people considered the symphony dead.
His third symphony was also subtitled The Organ Symphony, though it contained little organ.
Then two things happened:
1) The evidence began to pile up! Not only was Saint-Saëns present in Whitechapel at the time, but the murders also stopped as soon as he left; rather than return to Paris, he travelled the world in secret for years, unwilling to let anyone know where he was; and his next opera was about Benvenuto Cellini, another famous artist who emerged in a time when everything in his medium had supposedly been done (F’ing Michelangelo!), was responsible for several murders, and then hid for several years until the Pope pardoned him because he was such a fan!
2) The “fake book” (along with all the other fake books in that project) became too long (100 pages for an aside?) and I decided to just write it. As the book grew, it became less about Jack the Ripper (eventually not at all) and more about art and beauty and time and memory and privilege and…violence? Like, clearly the real violence in the world is not the occasional serial killer but is all around us always. But how to capture that? Just as a real symphony…music…can communicate such a breadth of emotions and understanding without any narrative, I wanted the words/sounds to be the hero, the punctuation/breaths, the dynamics and textures, hopefully conveying as much feeling (or more, or at least – hopefully – differently) as the sense one derives from the word definitions and their combined meanings. Could that tension exist without the physical violence around which it began? I’m not sure if an excerpt can really capture that, but I hope this one provides as good an example as possible
ALU: It's been argued that physical geography shapes our identity, that there's a connection between our place in the world and who we are. As a writer, in what ways does your natural environment inform your writing?
CE: I honestly don’t feel particularly New Brunswick very often (Can I use New Brunswick as an adjective? New Brunswickish?), though I’m sure it must be in there somewhere. I remember once talking to a journalist about my music (I used to play with a group called Rock Plaza Central) and he said it was interesting that, though I didn’t write songs about boats, and the time signatures were often strange, they all sort of reminded him of sea shanties, anyway, and I can imagine it’s the same with my fiction.
The strangest and best part about where I grew up (more specifically, in Moncton) is the overlap of French and English, a special kind of bilingualism where the two aren’t translated so much as exist together in the same space. Sometimes this emerges as Chiac, a “dialect” of French with many English nouns (
gross oversimplification), but other times it’s just a group of people speaking two languages interchangeably, listening to one language while speaking another, sometimes with those roles reversing, often mid-sentence, without it being weird at all. Parties with artists in Moncton are like this. I also sat on the programming board of the Frye Festival for a few years (the only bilingual literary festival in Canada?), and our meetings were always like this. Maybe that makes all NB authors obsessed with languages.
So sometimes I put French puns in my fiction. Or Chiac. Or Swedish (where I lived for a year before university). Or Spanish (the worst of my languages, I barely understand it unless it’s written, but did live immersed in it for four months and clearly I think I’m hilarious when I use it).
ALU: Who are some of your favourite New Brunswick-based writers?
CE: I can still hear France Daigle in my head from a reading I saw her give six or seven years ago. If anyone captures that “Moncton bilingualism” that I mentioned above in their writing, it’s her. It’s magical and beautiful and entirely unique.
Amanda Jernigan wasn’t born here but lives here in Sackville (where I live now). For me, so much about language is music, and I find it difficult to read a lot of fiction because it feels like the exact same melody with different words. When I read Amanda’s last book (Years, Months, and Days), I was surprised to hear melodies and beats that I’d been toying with in my own book, and it was fascinating to hear them sung back to me from someone else’s book like that, especially when she does it with so few words and I use so many.
Allan Cooper was the writer-in-residence for a year of my undergrad when I was really discovering what it was I loved about language. Rather than try to fix me, which I got from a lot of corners, he deeply encouraged my explorations and I’m deeply thankful for that.
And I also don’t know if she really counts as a New Brunswick writer because I’m pretty sure she wasn’t born here and doesn’t live here now, but we were both living here when we met in the early 90s, so I’m also going to say Leanne Simpson. I’m not sure there’s been a Canadian masterpiece of fiction yet, but my money is on Leanne to finally pull it off.
I enjoy books about grief, said the heiress; imagine Frankenstein, she said, not as the tale of a monster, she said, or of fear, she said, but as the story of Elizabeth, dealing with the death of her mother. No one cares about the monster, she said. No one ever writes a story about a monster. Imagine Elizabethnever having a mother, though, never knowing a mother, always loving a mother. What is it like to live without a mother? Or worse, to know that you killed her? What is it like to feel responsible for a person not being there? Especially for a person who has never been there? At least for you. To know that you forced yourself from her and tore and clawed and clawed and tore and gasped and writhed and cried and gasped and never even noticed she was there until you did, and then she wasn’t. You noticed she was there (or wasn’t) and felt empty and longing for something you never had, missed something you never had, never understood, could never understand, missed a gap, a lack where once was wonderful, because you didn’t have the time to notice what she was or why she was there or even that she was. Until it was too late. Imagine looking at the other mothers, the heiress said. Imagine hearing the word mother and each time hearing the word mother being reminded of the no mother, the lack of tender caresses and fortitude and benignity. Imagine becoming a woman, she said, then falling in love, and wanting to be that thing she never had. With Victor, of all people! Whose mother she also killed!And when she discovered that she couldn’t? When the doctor said: I’m sorry? And when she knew exactly what the doctor meant, though he didn’t say her name or I’m sorry for what, just: I’m sorry,like somehow he had struck her inadvertently and somehow these words were going to make it feel better, to replace not being able to provide life, to replace the no mother, losing a mother that was never there and then also a child, a no child? Somehow this man who always carried a bag thought he could fix it all with: I’m sorry. How many apologies does he have in that bag? she must have thought to herself. And: What else does he have in there? Condolences? Platitudes? Can words ever fix anything? Sometimes you learn to accept. Life is one long lesson in acceptance. But could you accept that?
She’d already lost them at this point, however, all of them staring out the window at the bay, and the ship, and the bay (and the ship) seemed unmoving, idle, unreal, as a painted ship upon a painted ocean. The wind was, on a typical day, exemplary; not uncomfortable for sunning, of course, but perfect for sailing, or kite flying, or reducing the temperature. It was crucial to the success of a seaside resort, as anyone knew, that the gusts never outnumber the guests. But here it was—the ship, or the wind, or even the bay—forcing its presence with inaction rather than action. And the factory owner whose name was Tudesq said, profoundly: Despair has its own calms. And the Wife of Chaline said, desperately: Has anyone ever died here? And they looked at each other as if surely it were only a matter of odds and that the longer any of them stayed, here on the beach, staring at the ship, the better their chances that they would be the next. They held their children close and their wallets closer and the concierge sent someone in a rowboat to the ship to retrieve a man and his trunks and a servant who was an Arab. And the man fingered the exotic flowers in the lobby and muttered, barely audibly, that they were too dry. And the man wiped a long finger cross the long counter, and rubbed the dust to nothing. And the man kept tapping the bell deliberately though the concierge was right in front of him, deliberately. La-la… La-la-la-laaaaaa… The concierge tried to rush him through the process of signing in because the crowd was gathering. And the man, whose accent was clearly not Dutch, said: I am Dutch. And the man, whose hands were clearly not those of a diamond merchant, said: I am a diamond merchant. And he asked for a private cabin, as far from any of the other guests as possible, with three bedrooms though it was only him and his servant (the Arab) and the trunks. And he asked for a private cabin not facing the bay, as was popular, and more expensive, but open to the mountains. And everyone was already talking. And he signed his name: Charles Sannois. And everyone was already talking.
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Chris Eaton is the author of three previous novels, including
Chris Eaton, a Biography (Book*hug, 2013), selected as one of the Books of the Year by Quill and Quire and the Toronto Star. He spent many years making music in the band Rock Plaza Central. He currently lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, with his partner and two children.
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