Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelves belong to Gail Scott, the Governor General’s Award-nominated translator and author of 12 books. Her most recent novel, The Obituary, traverses polyglot Montreal and takes apart a dark history only to begin remaking it with language. It’s powerful stuff. I walked up the stairs to her beautiful apartment in Montreal’s historic Plateau neighbourhood, not knowing what to expect. It was raining hard and the sky was dark, but Scott made me a coffee, and in describing of the work she loves to read, seemed to fill her whole office with light.
My most contemporary shelf is my desk, with books I’m working through for my current project. I would say it’s 99% avant-garde poetry, if that word even works. For me, avant-garde means people emerging at moments in time doing interesting stuff. I don’t think it’s something that happens and then stops. That’s not my idea of history. Some people call it avant, some people call it cutting edge. I hate most of those terms. Basically, it’s stuff that just doesn’t sell in the mainstream that is also interesting politically and formally. The politics are very important.
Apart from the mysteries, most of which I had to get rid of, and other than the books on my desk, this shelf has the books I most cherish. The one I’ve read more than all the others is Benjamin’s Arcades Project. I spent literally a year following this book—it’s fabulous. It’s all marked up, but inside there are so many great pictures. It’s about the Paris arcades—it’s the book that My Paris is based on.
Do you know this writer? Renee Gladman? She’s an African-American writer, from Georgia originally, and she teaches at Brown now. Her first book, The Activist, is really fantastic. I don’t think I have it here. I try to teach it every year to my students. Do you know Antwerp, by Roberto Bolaño? This is my first novel, and he says, “the only novel that doesn’t embarrass me is Antwerp.” It’s far and away his best. I read it over and over. It’s so intense, totally peripatetic. That’s another one I use for teaching.
I have tons of Collette, tons of Stein, tons of Woolf, and Duras—quite a bit of Duras. I read Virginia Woolf’s diaries over and over again. One of them is in my bedroom. They’re very good.
Here’s another one of my favourite books. Zoo, Or Letters Not About Love, by Viktor Shklovsky. Now there’s a book you’d like! He was in the same group with Mayakovsky, and very connected to the visual artists of post-revolution Russia. He was exiled to Berlin for a certain moment, because the people in power didn’t approve of him. While he was there, he was very much in love with Elsa Triolet, who at the time was of course married to Louis Aragon. So he kept writing her love letters, and she kept saying “Don’t write letters about love!” Some of her letters are in here, too. It’s a little bit like Antwerp—there’s not much of a narrative arc, it focuses on wit and aphorisms.
This shelf in the corner is Quebecois writing. I’m still trying to answer your question about which books I reread. I return to so many of them. It used to be that I read practically everything in French. In 2008 I won the Quebec Writer’s studio in SoHo, and I spent six months there, and started making more connections with US writers. I found that there were just more people to talk about experimental prose there, compared to here.
Maggie Nelson is a writer I just discovered. She has a huge mind—I was just astounded. I love Bluets, but you know what’s really funny about it? This is a Quebec note. She talks about all the possible meanings of “bluet” in this book—little corn flowers—and goes through a whole glossary. But she doesn’t mention the North American meaning of “bluet,” which is “blueberries.” Anybody in Quebec who hears “bluet” thinks of “blueberries.” Anybody. Isn’t that funny? Well, it just shows you, that’s the downside of the fact that communications go North and South sometimes when they could be going East and West. She dares to be philosophical, whatever that means, in a very down-to-earth way. She talks about Wittgenstein and all kinds of really important thinkers of recent decades. At the same time, she’s taking apart a love affair. I think that’s just… I mean, women write about love, you know? And she finds a way to really put it in a context that’s both really funny and beautiful. It’s like poetry—it reminds me of a Montaigne essay. She really focuses on how an essay is always a work in progress. I think it’s a brilliant book.
The other phenomena that I find very interesting right now are what I would call cross borders—Canadian writers who are Canadian in every way, but who move back and forth across borders and work often with US writers. I mean, all the conceptualists do. Christian Bök does, I do, a lot of writers. I just think it’s because Canada, in terms of specialized work, is still a pretty small company. There are one or two people here, one or two people there who are into that kind of work. Sometimes I feel that most of the people I talk to live in Vancouver. There’s Montreal, and then there’s Vancouver. I don’t know why, but in Toronto it seems like there’s a lot of pressure, because it’s like the centre. Even though I think there’s a lot of really great stuff going on there; Coach House is great, and there’s other stuff that’s great that’s a lot bigger, too. One of the things I would love to do is have six months to spend in Toronto, like I did in New York. I go fairly often to visit, but it’s not the same as really getting into it.
Shelf Esteem runs every Tuesday.