Thursday, January 12, 2006

Swiss Sonata

by Gwethalyn Graham (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2005)

The Canada Council for the Arts and Ontario Arts Program provided support for the re-publication of this work. It was first published in 1938, and won the Governor General's Award in that year, for its 25-year-old author. The revival of the book is due in large measure to Elspeth Cameron, who wrote its Introduction. Cameron is a well-known biographer of some male Canadian writers, and chronicles her growing interest in female writers in a memoir called No Previous Experience.

While I'm very grateful to Cameron for bringing this book back to readers, and for giving us some biographical and historical background, I have some disagreements with her assessment of the book, which I find unjustly critical. Cameron describes some of the discussions between the international residents of the Swiss girls' school as "forced," and "vehicles for [Graham's] strongly held views." She also finds the portrayal of the main character, Vicky Morrison, to be the book's "greatest flaw" -- the character "too good to be true." Maybe I should thank Cameron, actually, for lowering my expectations of the book up front, because perhaps in reaction I found it unusually good.

Swiss Sonata takes place during three days of January 1935, on the eve of the plebiscite in the Saar coal-mining region that returned this valuable resource to Germany ( and would give Germany fuel to make steel for the war). The politics of the moment contribute to stressful dynamics among the students -- students ranging in age from fifteen to 25 and coming from 14 countries. (I was very grateful for a list of dramatis personae that appeared in the front of the book, listing the names of the students and the staff and their countries -- it's rare to find a book with so many characters all having a share of the action.)

The staff of the school are a bit out of their depth both in controlling and helping their young charges, as is pretty typical of educational institutions. They also (and one teacher in particular) develop some animosity towards the 21-year-old Canadian Vicky Morrison, whose way of interacting with the others carries an authority of its own that shows them up. It has come to their attention that she is exercising what I like to call "leadership from below," as opposed to deferring to authority for leadership.

As the book begins, Vicky is a mystery figure to the reader, and the most visible characters are a sympathetic young sports teacher named Mary Ellerton, from London, and a friend of Vicky's named Theodora Cohen, a Jewish girl from St. Louis, Missouri, USA. Ted is outspoken and raffish, and gives a lot of life to the tale.

One of the advantages of this book having been written in 1938 instead of today is that none of the characters is required to come out as a lesbian. Nor are there any heterosexual sex scenes. Instead, this is that rare thing, a very homosocial book. There are sympathetic friendships and also obsessive fixations on others, but the simplistic and dyadic (and one might even say the "exchange-oriented"*) motivation of sexual attraction is eschewed in favour of other focuses. There is a lot of dynamic around being accepted or rejected, and being accepting or rejecting, and also around conflicting loyalties. Life decisions on the table for the characters include choices between being married and having an education and a career in some cases, and in others between introversion and caring.

The portrayal of caring, including gratuitous (i.e., gift*) caring, was much more common in earlier eras' fiction it seems to me than it is in today's. Modern hedonism has probably shaped us much more than we realise. Swiss Sonata reminds me of Louisa May Alcott's book Little Men, which I enjoyed in my childhood -- also about a school and the work of molding youth into strong, caring and and self-realized adults. I'm also put in mind of the Canadian girls' classic Anne of Green Gables, in which a young girl also teaches life lessons to her elders. But Graham's book is an adult work, and about characters in the age range of from mid-teens to mid-fifties; the compromises, the paradoxes, and the failings of caring are much more in evidence.

To return to the character of Vicky Morrison and the question of whether she is believable or not: On one level, she turns out to be a bit of a Miranda, having been given a classical education in an isolated setting. I found that bit of her history somewhat unbelievable (my opinion is that home-schooling is more likely to make one narrow). However, the observation that she and a few of the other characters are intellectuals who apply their knowledge to understanding people, while other characters do not, I found realistic. Perhaps the fact that her leadership-from-below is noticed by the authorities and excites their jealousy is far-fetched -- it seems to me that this kind of leadership is very rarely observed by the authorities (but then, I've never gone to a girls' school). Her "saintly" nature may be carried a bit too far, but I liked the way she herself characterizes it -- that her persona takes on a meaning for others that hasn't too much relationship to how she feels inside. I think she is fairly portrayed as trying to feel her way with others and not always understanding or being able to help them. She herself says of her failed attempts that it's as if you were asking a medical student just graduated to perform brain surgery. In the end some of the authorities come to admire her people sense.

The line I liked best was one character's description that Vicky "has the gift of self-dismissal." This is a very real gift that some of us only learn to practice later in life. (There is in fact a school of study called "non-defensive communication" [ see] that tries to help people acquire this way of interacting.) Apropos of the period in which Vicky was living, with national and political partisanship coming strongly to the fore, I'm also thinking of the ideas of Sisela Bok, contrasting the partisan and non-partisan ways of thinking. The partisan can think of only his own views and can't set them aside for the purpose of feeling, imagining or understanding the other's situation. Bok sees times of war bringing people more strongly into partisan relationship.

Today (Jan. 12, 2006), I was listening to CBC radio and heard an interview with a Canadian who has just written a book about values in the United States and Canada. He said he found more than half of those polled in the US were hedonists who didn't believe in empathizing with others. The proportion of people with those values in Canada is much lower.

Vicky Morrison is a character who has a very marked ability to set her own priorities aside and just listen to others, and then to think about the happiness and growth of the people she has heard. As Elspeth Cameron explains it, the characters in Swiss Sonata represent their own respective countries. I infer from this something about the persistence of Canadian values between 1938 and today, and I hope that they can survive the onslaught of American media and guns coming across the border and continue to set an example for the world.

*For more about gift-giving and exchange, see Genevieve Vaughan's book For-Giving: A Feminist Criticism of Exchange ( information and text online at )

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