I arrived in Montreal in 2001 as one more procurer of an escapist’s hideaway. I was taking a risk in coming here, looking to forget about the ordinary and unpleasant realities of life for a while. At 24 I was disillusioned with my university education thus far. I had spent the last five years living with my parents, commuting the hour or so every day from one Toronto suburb to another. When I wasn’t attending classes at York University I was working four days a week to pay down my ever-increasing tuition. In that time I changed majors three times, swinging across the spectrum from the sureties of a business degree to the aloof unemployability of a major in creative writing.
Had I just wasted half a decade? I wasn’t sure. I’d been convalescing through personal changes, sorting through what others wanted from me to arrive at what I wanted from myself. So I came to Montreal to sidestep the stale comforts that had built up around me in Toronto. I left Toronto to escape some looming questions about the nagging degree of familial expectations, and a love interest that was no longer that loving or interesting. I came to Montreal to find out if, in stepping back from the person I was, I could gain some perspective on the person I thought I could become.
I moved into what Montrealers term the one-and-a-half: a single room downtown no bigger than my present kitchen. I slept on a futon two steps away from my desk; if I took two more steps I would reach the kitchenette. To make a small room smaller I stuffed this tiny apartment with all my books, for I was and still am a voracious reader. The room, cheap by Toronto standards but expensive for Montreal, was a five-minute walk uphill from Concordia’s downtown campus, where I would spend the next two years pursuing a Master’s degree. I felt that I had walked into a good situation. In exchange for seven hours a week of my time, the English department would ensure that my tuition and basic necessities were looked after. Two evenings a week I attended classes. On one of the afternoons I taught a tutorial. Otherwise I had no obligations other than to read, mark papers, and write the book I had in mind. I gave myself two years – the length of the program I was using to buy myself all that free time – to get that book done.
I had preconceived notions about living in Montreal. I had envisioned the utopian pursuit of my own contemplations. I thought I might be able to harness something of the city’s accumulated history of sleight-of-hand romantics. I was here to walk through snowy streets, smoke cigarettes, avoid people. I would spend long hours lying down, simply to think, hours without movement, like Proust on his deathbed. This was how I intended to take advantage of the solitude I was inventing for myself.
That was the plan. Not that it worked out that way.
My solitude turned to muted loneliness. Who was I supposed to avoid when I didn’t know anyone? Daily walks through the city’s snowy streets were soon followed by walks through streets blistering with heat. Many of the long hours I spent lying down and thinking were at night, when I was unable to sleep. I felt less like a dying Proust and more like Dr. Caligari’s somnambulist.
This was the small death of romanticised ideals that served as the backdrop for my first novel. Nevertheless, this was the risk I wrote through.
First novels are devious enterprises. They are often written in isolation, without expectation, as a testament to an individual’s capacity for solitude and catharsis. They tend to be full of structural flaws, and hold too much of their maker’s private life and preoccupations. They’re prone to being either too cerebral or too confessional. No one encourages you to write them; the pitfalls and consequences of failure are too great. No one truly considers you a writer at all. Not even you.
Nevertheless there will always be someone out there writing a first novel, and a certain segment of readers and publishers who will be ready to take a risk on them, because there is nothing quite like the unmitigated first communication from a private life without public precedence. There is a natural attraction to reading the unchecked contemplation of a person who has yet to develop a true sense of what it means to have their thoughts read by strangers.
I drew the conclusion that, while writing, I had little to gain from my surroundings. And yet, two years later, when I finally finished, I realised that I had before me not only a novel, but also an eerie portrait of my life in Montreal peering up at me beneath the printed words. Novels have a way of ingratiating themselves into their author’s life. Spend enough time alone with one, and the preocupations with subject matter begin to emerge through the fabric of their maker’s daily reality.
One of the more disarming parallels to step out of my novel came alive as I was deeply involved in writing a character named Sameer Gerdak, a Lebanese architect who arrives in Canada as a refugee and is forced to spend years driving a taxi. Sameer’s constant isolation leads him to obsess over a woman named Heidi, whose conversations he hears nightly on an airwave scanner.
Sameer’s real-life counterpart arrived in the form of a student in the composition class I was teaching, a Persian woman in her late forties, here alone like Sameer, who began reading a relationship into everything I said and did in class. Slowly I began to notice her attraction in the number of office hours she attended, in the many emails she wrote, in the way her eyes followed me in class, and in the overwrought rejection she let show whenever I excused myself from the many conversations she insisted on having. At semester’s end she created a scene during an exam session.
I began to wonder if my reactions to her provocations were too vague, if I was allowing her to read too freely into how I moved and spoke. It’s an absurd gesture to recoil in your body language from the unwanted interpretations of another person, like trying to play chess backwards.Nevertheless, this is the nature of reading, the game of interpreting an interpretation.
This was how I finished writing my first novel: locked away in my apartment, pondering the nature of interpretation, reading, writing, contemplating attraction and risk, trying hard to forget Montreal was out there. Mysterious phone calls arrived from silent callers. Anonymous envelopes appeared in my mailbox; in one a worn stuffed animal and a chewed pencil, in another a disturbingly lascivious letter proposing that we meet at a specific time at an address described but not given, in a third a proclamation of devout love. I rarely stepped outside my apartment anymore. Instead I sat in my box and wrote and wrote until the novel was done. And then I left that box for another neighbourhood.
First attractions – to cities, to books, to people – spring up from instinct or random inclinations. But continuing attractions are very much a matter of our own interpretations. What I first saw in Montreal wasn’t really here. Yet I stayed, found reason to stay, because I couldn’t shake the impulse that this was the right place for me to be. I was driven by that thought, obsessed, and here I am still hanging on. mRb