Norman Levine

Author of 'Canada Made Me'

In the late Forties, after having served as a pilot and bomb-aimer with the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying Lancasters out of Leeming, North Yorkshire, the writer Norman Levine decided to leave Canada's cultural desert and return to an England he had come to admire.

Norman Albert Levine, writer: born Rakow, Poland 22 October 1923; married 1951 Margaret Payne (died 1978; three daughters), 1983 Anne Sarginson (marriage dissolved); died Darlington 14 June 2005.

In the late Forties, after having served as a pilot and bomb-aimer with the Royal Canadian Air Force, flying Lancasters out of Leeming, North Yorkshire, the writer Norman Levine decided to leave Canada's cultural desert and return to an England he had come to admire.

What had attracted him, he wrote, was "seeing paintings, hearing concerts, reading new books and New Writing. And, especially, seeing how the English lived and behaved in wartime." In those early days he was introduced in a Thames-side pub to the poet George Barker, who said to him: "Sorry, chum, nothing personal. But coming from Canada, you haven't got a chance."

Levine spent many years of his life in St Ives, Cornwall, proving Barker profoundly wrong. Like all modernists, he spent his life forging and honing a signature style. His was fragmentary and imagistic, prose stripped to the bone, conventional expectations of rhythm denied, forcing the reader into a new, intimate and uneasy relationship with the word on the page. His most important story collections were Champagne Barn (1984), Something Happened Here (1991), By a Frozen River (2000) and The Ability to Forget (2003).

Canada never recognised Levine's amazing talent and achievement. The country's cultural nationalists have never forgiven Levine for his 1958 autobiographical travel book Canada Made Me. The book closed with the words,

I wondered why I felt so bitter about Canada. It was foolish to believe that you can take the throw-outs, the rejects, the human kickabouts from Europe and tell them: Here is your second chance. Here you can start a new life. But no one ever mentioned the price you had to pay, and how much of yourself you have to betray.

Written at the beginning of a boosterish period, this rather sour look at Canada's underbelly closed for Levine the possibility of Canadian publication. It was to be 17 years before another Levine title appeared in Canada.

Levine was always by temperament and choice an outsider. As a Jew, as a resident alien, as an immigrant, he was always on the margins, observing with an unsentimental eye. His stories usually have an elegiac quality and typically explore loss, impermanence, and the fragility of human hopes. He wrote in the story "Soap Opera": ". . . whenever I go to a new place and walk around to get to know it, I inevitably end up in a cemetery".

The son of an impoverished fruit-pedlar who plied his trade with a horse and cart, Levine at 18 volunteered for officer training and was sent on a course to take what he used to call "gentleman lessons". These he duly learned, but he belonged to no class or cause. If he believed in anything, it might have been Chekhov.

If Levine was ignored in Canada, his reputation in England and Europe was high. The Times Literary Supplement described his work as "masterly". The Times talked of his "timeless elegance . . ." and Encounter wrote: "Norman Levine is one of the most outstanding short-story writers working in English today." His German translator was the Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll and in recent years Levine's work has been translated in Holland, Switzerland and France.

Younger writers in Canada are slowly discovering his work and some have been influenced by his stylistic experiments. Michael Winter, a young writer directly influenced by Levine, said of him:

His style is not one that appeals to a lot of people, but a lot of writers marvel at his talent . . . His economy of so little saying so much - when you try to write like that, you realise how hard it is to capture things accurately and truthfully with very few words. He was a writer's writer.

Norman Levine was married twice, and the companion of his later years was Moira Dale.

John Metcalf

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