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 shelf belongs to David Gilmour, whose most recent novel, Extraordinary, appears on the Giller longlist. Gilmour won the Governor General’s literary award in 2008 for his novel A Perfect Night to Go to China, and formerly hosted the television show Gilmour on the Arts. We met in his office in Victoria College at the University of Toronto, where the view looks out onto the trees on campus. They were on the verge of brilliance, just threatening to turn ‘round autumn’s bend.
UPDATE: You can read the full transcript of this interview here.
I can’t really give you the tour. I’ve just moved, so my library at home is unfortunately in storage. A thousand, maybe twelve hundred books are in storage. The books here, this tends to be what I teach. These are, of course, the treasured Proust, one of my great joys is not only having read Proust but having read him twice, and having listened to the audio CD twice. There’s two versions, one’s 50 hours and one’s 150 hours. They’re both dazzling. I like volume 4, Sodom and Gomorrah, it’s the most entertaining, it’s the funniest. It’s very, very funny about human vanity, particularly gay vanity.
These are some translations of my books, and here is the Tolstoy section. Tolstoy, then Chekhov. I would say the three big hits here are Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Proust, probably. Because as you can see, there’s Tolstoy all over the place.
Chekhov of course, because Chekhov was the coolest guy in literature. I really think so. There’s a few volumes of his there, what a great looking guy. He is the coolest guy in literature; everyone who ever met Chekhov somehow felt that they should jack their behaviour up to a higher degree. He died very young, and aged very quickly. He was ill, he had tuberculosis and he died at 44. He always looked older, well beyond his age.
He had a personality that was such that everyone wanted to behave a little bit better than they behaved normally around Chekhov, because they wanted him to think well of them. He was so graceful, and so gracious, so generous in his dealings with people. He believed in kindness, and he hated bullies. No matter how famous he became—which was very famous—he never played the rock star. He had a huge bellicose laugh, so loud that they sometimes would throw him out of restaurants. It was just that loud.
I got this job six or seven years ago, usually the University of Toronto doesn’t allow people to become professors without a doctorate. You have to have a doctorate to teach here, but they asked if I would teach a course, and I said I would. I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students. It’s the same thing. And my book The Film Club is about teaching my son about life and the world through film.
I teach modern short fiction to third and first-year students. So I teach mostly Russian and American authors. Not much on the Canadian front. But I can only teach stuff I love. I can’t teach stuff that I don’t, and I haven’t encountered any Canadian writers yet that I love enough to teach.
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.
I teach Tropic of Cancer to the first-year class. They’re shocked out of their pants. No one teaches it except for me. Sometimes their parents actually question me about it, they say, Listen, this is really outrageous. I say, well, it’s a piece of literature that’s been around for 60 years. It’s got something going for it.
There’s an even dirtier one that I teach, by Philip Roth, called The Dying Animal. I save it ’til the very end of the year because by that point they’ve got fairly strong stomachs, and they’re far more sophisticated than they are in the beginning. So they can understand the differences between pornography and great literature. There are men eating menstrual pads, and by the time my students get to that they’re ready. Roth has the best understanding of middle-aged sexuality I’ve ever come across. Now where’s my copy? I took it home to read it again, and I think I might have packed it up and stuck it away in storage. That’s going to be a problem, because all my favourite parts are underlined.
I teach only the best. What happens with great literature is that the shadows on the pages move around. So you read it when you’re 46, and you read it when you’re—I’m 63 now, and it’s moved. Great literature organically moves, and it never stays still. You don’t get tired of it, you just notice different things about it. What is intolerable is second- and third-rate literature, because it gives up all its secrets the first time. And the second time you read it, it’s all there; there’s nothing new. It’s like an Andy Warhol painting—you look at an Andy Warhol painting once, you can look at it a hundred times and there’s nothing new in it. But I’ve read War and Peace four times, and I’m still breathtaken with how much good I hadn’t noticed the other three times.
You can read the full transcript of this interview here.
Shelf Esteem runs every Tuesday.