About Charlene Kwiatkowski

A lover of cities, I write about urban spaces as visual and literary texts

Gold Creek Coincidence

While I wait for the BC election results, here are some pics from a beautiful hike along Gold Creek in Golden Ears Provincial Park on Sunday.

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Cool story: After we saw the waterfall, the Artist and I ate lunch on a stretch of beach below the main trail and stayed there for a while so he could fly fish and I could read. Out of the bushes, bounding towards us from the main trail was a dog that looked an awful lot like Scarlett, my brother and sister-in-law’s Nova Scotia Duck Toller. She was the very definition of a happy dog with her wagging tail and allowed me to pet her for a second before bounding right back up the path to her owner(s). I was pretty sure it was Scarlett though the Artist highly doubted the probability of it. We went on with our fishing and reading. But later that afternoon, back at the parking lot, we saw my brother and sister-in-law and turns out it was Scarlett! Since we had been completely invisible from the path, she must have sniffed us out with that impressive nose of hers. Needless to say, that canine encounter made my day!

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Running into a New Decade

Last Sunday I got to see my city in a new way. I ran it. Along with about 40 000 other people, I took over downtown streets and bridges, was cheered on by perfect strangers and their cardboard signs, felt the city come together in a rare moment outside of hockey.

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I did my first Vancouver Sun Run and I liked it. It also happened to be on my birthday, which marked the start of a new decade.

There are a number of reasons why I wanted to do the Sun Run, but the biggest one was to show to myself—particularly my younger self—that I could.

I did club track and field in my youth, specializing in sprint hurdles and field events. The longest I ever ran on the track (and it was pulling teeth for me to do this) was an 800m (2 laps). I felt like I was going to die of exhaustion. Watching my teammates run 1500m or 3000m felt unfathomably long and I had no desire to try it.

The Vancouver Sun Run is 10K, which is 25 laps of a track. I trained on my own leading up to it and my goal was to run the whole thing without stopping (mission accomplished, and I even got a time I’m really pleased with!) My glory days of jumping beyond 4 meters in long jump are over, but last Sunday’s run proved to myself there are things my body can do now that I never thought I could do then, didn’t even attempt to.

I like surprising myself.

And I think there’s a wonderful metaphor in this about getting older. Maybe it’s not about higher or faster or stronger, but about lasting longer, building endurance, taking things slow and steady and, though it may sound like a given, finishing.

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Are there things you’re doing now that you never dreamed about doing then?

On Finishing War and Peace

The idea of writing a review on War and Peace is almost as daunting as reading the novel itself.

So I’m not going to. Instead, here are some bullet-point thoughts (probably spoilers in here) now that I’m done and not just a 1/3 of the way through:

  • The title is apt. The book flips between battlefields and domestic scenes as the Russian men go off to fight against Napoleon’s army and the women deal with things at home: mainly men woes and money woes. I preferred the domestic scenes.
  • The book also flips between the epic and the miniature: the grandeur of war, history, human action juxtaposed with the beautiful simplicity of staring at a night sky, a glance that reveals someone in a new way, a conversation that changes how you love people. In my opinion, Tolstoy is best at the latter.
  • It took me a while to figure out the main characters: Pierre Bezukhov, Prince Andrei, and Natasha Rostov, and that’s mostly because their names are listed in the description on the back of the book. I guess this shows 1) there are so many characters and 2) not a clear plot line to determine the main players.
  • I didn’t like Pierre Bezukhov (apparently modeled after Tolstoy) as much as I thought I would, except near the end. It seems like he functions similarly to Levin in Anna Karenina, but I found Levin far more winsome.
  • Speaking of Anna Karenina (the only other Tolstoy novel I’ve read), overall I preferred it to War and Peace (for plot and characters).
  • I’d rather have characters grow on me as I get to know them, rather than the other way around where I initially like them but grow to dislike them. That’s how I felt with Rostov, Princess Marya, and even Natasha somewhat. Prince Andrei was the most intriguing character, and perhaps the most honest: “I said that a fallen woman should be forgiven, but I did not say that I could forgive. I cannot.”
  • There was a section in the middle that I absolutely loved and might be my favourite chapter of any book. Maybe I loved it so much because that’s the last time we really see the Rostov children as “children” before innocence gives way to experience.
  • The last 1/4 was the hardest to get through. The burning of Moscow went on forever, and Tolstoy gave far more attention to describing this historical event than wrapping up the plot on the domestic front with the characters’ fates that I was far more interested in. And when he did wrap them up, he did so hastily. The character I ended up caring about most (Sonya) essentially disappeared from the narrative in a very unresolved way.
  • The ending (if you can even call it that) was a philosophical treatise of Tolstoy’s thoughts on how history unfolds, and whether human’s actions are predestined or done freely. He should have published this separately; it felt like it didn’t belong.
  • Am I glad I read it? Yes. Would I read it again? Hell no.
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Yes, I’m showing off the thickness of this monster. 1225 pages.

What I enjoyed most in reading War and Peace was Tolstoy’s language (translated by the excellent duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). His power of observation is unrivalled. Here are some passages that stand out (it’s really hard to choose just a few!):

When Princess Marya came back from her father, the little princess was sitting over her work, and she looked at Princess Marya with that special expression of an inward and happily serene gaze that only pregnant women have. It was clear that she did not see Princess Marya, but was looking deep inside herself–into something happy and mysterious that was being accomplished in her.

Prince Andrei smiled, looking at his sister, as we smile listening to people whom we think we can see through.

Rostov kept thinking, not believing his eyes. “Can they be Frenchmen?” He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes. “Who are they? Why are they running? Can it be they’re running to me? Can it be? And why? To kill me? Me, whom everybody loves so?” He remembered his mother’s love for him, his family’s, his friends’, and the enemy’s intention to kill him seemed impossible

Boris told them about his Schongraben action in just the way that those who take part in battles usually tell about them, that is, in the way they would like it to have been, the way they have heard others tell it, the way it could be told more beautifully, but not at all the way it had been.

At that time there was a special atmosphere of amorousness in the Rostovs’ house, as happens in a house where there are very nice and very young girls.

When Pierre left and all the members of the family came together, they began to discuss him, as always happens after the departure of a new person, and, as rarely happens, they all said only good things about him.

For him, Moscow was comfortable, warm, habitual, and dirty, like an old dressing gown.

It was too frightening to be under the burden of all the insoluble questions of life, and he gave himself to the first amusements that came along, only so as to forget them.

She valued the society of the people to whom, disheveled, in a dressing gown, she could come striding out of the nursery with a joyful face and show a diaper with a yellow instead of a green stain, and hear comforting words that the baby was now much better.

Pierre’s insanity consisted in the fact that he did not wait, as before, for personal reasons, which he called people’s merits, in order to love them, but love overflowed his heart, and, loving people without reason, he discovered the unquestionable reasons for which it was worth loving them.

Have you read this book? If yes, I want to hear from you and what you thought about it!

The Irretrievable Moment

One of my favourite parts about my job is getting to interview artists. I recently spoke with Jim Adams in advance of his upcoming exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery. He characterized his art as the following:

I’m always looking for the irretrievable moment where you’re committed to the action but the action hasn’t actually happened yet.

This is evident in his paintings. A Japanese bride is on her way to get married less than a minute after the first atomic bomb is dropped. A contrail is faintly visible in the sky overhead. Other paintings envision a peaceful evening sunset before a meteor streaks across the sky. Locals enjoy their drinks in a White Rock Starbucks as the blue and red lights of a patrol car are reflected in the window, and you know something’s about to change. You can see images here.

After Adams mentioned this phrase to me that’s also the title of his art show, I’ve been noticing numerous irretrievable moments crop up in my reading.

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As you will probably not remember at this time last year, I was reading Crime and Punishment for GRNM (Giant Russian Novel Month). This year, a friend and I are tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace. We are not going to be finished in a month.

I am about a third of the way through. Even though the plot is faint and meandering and the characters are numerous and changing, many of the characters (particularly Pierre) seem to embody what Jim Adams was talking about. It’s as if they are able to get out of their bodies and look at their lives from a distance, knowing they will go on to make this decision, and that decision will snowball into this other thing, and they don’t like it but they seem powerless to stop it. And so they don’t. In the meantime, I’m reading and shouting at them, “But it’s not too late! If you don’t love her, don’t marry her!” Or, “Get out of there now, you don’t have to lose all this money that you don’t have!”

Take Pierre on noticing Hélène for the first time and wondering if he should take her as his wife:

He recalled her former words and looks, and the words and looks of those who had seen them together. He recalled the words and looks of Anna Pavlovna when she spoke to him about his house, recalled hundreds of similar hints from Prince Vassily and others, and terror came over him at the thought that he might already have bound himself in some way to go through with something which was obviously not good and which he ought not to do. But while he expressed this realization to himself, on the other side of his soul her image floated up in all its feminine beauty.

Pierre knew that everyone was only waiting for him finally to say one word, to cross a certain line, and he knew that sooner or later he would cross it; but some incomprehensible terror seized him at the mere thought of that frightful step.

Or when he duels with Dolokhov after suspecting him of having a dalliance with his wife, though neither party wants to go through with it:

It was becoming frightening. It was obvious that the affair [referring to the duel], having begun so lightly, could no longer be prevented by anything, that it was going on by itself, independently of men’s will, and would be accomplished.

There is definitely a fatalistic streak in Pierre’s thinking. I also notice it in Rostov and Prince Andrei but, interestingly, not so much in the female characters. While I understand this feeling of “how way leads on to way” to borrow from Robert Frost, I think we tend to stick that irretrievable label onto our own lives more quickly than onto others’ lives. We are so entangled in our own that we sometimes can’t see there actually are other paths, other “roads not taken.” Sometimes I get the sense with these Russian characters that there’s even a Romanticism to fatalism, as if accepting the inevitable is heroic and must be so. But it’s so obvious as a reader that it’s not necessarily so.

I’m coming to a part in the novel now where the main characters are waking up from the false slumber of the inevitable, realizing that things can and should be otherwise, and perhaps it’s not too late . . .

Who is the Nightingale?

We meet an old woman reflecting on her past in Chapter 1 of The Nightingale. It is either Vianne or Isabelle, the sisters and main characters in this book by Kristin Hannah.

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We are slowly given more clues about this character. She survived the war. She is dying of cancer. Her husband is already dead. She has a son. It is 1995 and she lives in Oregon. In her attic, she has une carte d’identité, an identity card, bearing the name of Juliette Gervaise.

The second chapter plunges us into France in August 1939 where we meet Vianne Mauriac, her eight-year-old daughter Sophie, and her husband Antoine before he is quickly conscripted for the war.

This book of literary fiction, after all, tells the women’s stories during WWII—their sacrifices, impossible decisions, acts of resistance, courage, and love.

Vianne loves her husband and daughter. She is a little naive about war but who knew how many years it would last? She is hopeful for her daughter’s sake.

I assume the old woman at the beginning is Vianne because she is the first character we meet.

In Chapter 4 we are introduced to her younger sister, Isabelle Rossignol, impulsive and rebellious. She gets expelled from a finishing school (her fourth time), and goes to live with her father in Paris, who doesn’t want her. After the girls’ mother died, Julien Rossignol left his daughters in the charge of a nurse.

The two sisters couldn’t be more different. And they don’t get along. Isabelle felt ignored by Vianne growing up, and Vianne found Isabelle annoying and impetuous. Vianne got married young and Isabelle was sent off to school.

When the war comes, the sisters take very different journeys. True to her youthful and brazen personality, Isabelle joins the Resistance, risking her life time and time again to distribute mail, shelter downed Allied airman, and lead them over the Pyrenees into Spain where they could reach the British consulate and be sent home. She is the mastermind behind this operation and her code name becomes The Nightingale, or Le Rossignol in French (also her last name).

Vianne, on the other hand, stays put with her daughter in their beautiful home near an airfield in the fictional Loire Valley town of Carriveau. When the Germans occupy France, Vianne can’t pretend the war isn’t happening. A German officer billets in her home while she and Sophie continue to live there.

The author skillfully weaves between the sisters’ stories during a five-year time span, showing us how their paths diverge and how they intersect. I loved it when they intersected because as panoramic and historically researched as this novel is, it is also a very intimate story of family and friendship and the unthinkable scenarios that bring people together.

The sisters’ stories are interrupted only a few times to flash to the present, where we have the old woman speaking again. Her son is taking her to scope out a nursing home and she says, “I know these modern seat belts are a good thing, but they make me feel claustrophobic. I belong to a generation that didn’t expect to be protected from every danger.”

And now I am not sure who this old narrator is. Her comment sounds more like Isabelle and her flair for danger. I am convinced it is Isabelle when she thinks to herself, How can I possibly go without remembering all of it—the terrible things I have done, the secret I kept, the man I killed . . . and the one I should have?

Vianne could never have it in her to kill someone. Isabelle is disgusted with her sister for failing to do more in the war, like standing up to the soldier who lives in her home. And Vianne assumes her beautiful sister is away seeing a secret lover in Paris.

The sisters misunderstand each other, of course. And they also grow more alike. The longer the war drags on, the tougher decisions Vianne must make to survive. Isabelle hears about something brave Vianne has done and says that doesn’t sound like her sister.

I really cared for Vianne and Isabelle, hoping they would both survive though I had a feeling that wasn’t going to happen. Isabelle’s work as The Nightingale constantly puts her in harm’s way, but because I knew the old woman at the beginning was now Isabelle, I could breathe a little easier knowing she survived. As you reach the mid to last third of the book, each chapter ends with one punch in the gut after another. But I also couldn’t put it down.

It’s not until nearly the end that we find out who the old woman is for certain. It’s Vianne.

This was perhaps the biggest shock of all. At first I thought the author hadn’t done a great job of keeping Vianne’s voice consistent as an old woman, but after reflecting on this more, it’s quite brilliant actually. Vianne does sound more and more like Isabelle the longer the war drags out. My confusion over their voices indicates how alike the sisters actually are, or at least become because of the war.

This reading also makes more sense because when we discover Isabelle is The Nightingale and whom the book is named after, I feel like Vianne is shortchanged because she did very different but equally brave things. The author doesn’t give more emphasis to either sister, so Vianne is just as much The Nightingale as Isabelle.

This revelation added another rich layer onto this beautiful albeit difficult story whose sisters I will not soon forget.

On Hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s Passing

We called him The Dinosaur. Tall, old, he walked like he had roamed the earth for centuries. It was a slow walk yet you noticed him coming from afar. With each step, he seemed surprised the terrain under his feet still held him. There was a slight suspension of activity when he entered the Senate Chamber, the way a warm wind catches your face.

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Sénateur Marcel Prud’homme greets fans in the House of Commons on Thurs, Nov 26, 2009 (his last work day). Prud’homme passed away at the age of 82 on January 25, 2017. Photo by Canadian Press.

Sénateur Prud’homme was the kind of man who shook your hand vigorously and generously. There aren’t many Senators’ speeches I remember from my days as a Senate Page, but a section from his comes back to me after ten years. It wasn’t a controversial debate or a throw-your-papers-on-your-desk finale to a vitriolic attack. I remember it because it sounded less like politics and more like poetry, something I hadn’t heard much up until then or would hear again in my two years in Parliament, and something that politics needs to hear more of. Sénateur Prud’homme had just returned from Russia where he had received the Order of Friendship that honours citizens in the Russian Federation and foreign citizens who have made a significant contribution to strengthen peace and mutual understanding between peoples and states.

Sénateur Prud’homme proudly wore his medal in the Senate Chamber where his colleagues recognized his achievement in strengthening Canada-Russia relations. In his thank you speech, he said:

If I dedicate this medal to anyone, it would be to the young people of Canada. I would tell them: Do not be afraid to stand up and fight for something you believe in. If you are lonely or if, at times, no one listens, then reach out. As I said in La Presse yesterday, my policy is reaching out. If there is no one to take my hand at first, then I reach out again the day after. I know that at the end of the day people will establish contact.

And then, so you can get a sense of his humour, he concluded with:

I am speaking with great passion. I must calm down. I will be going back to my so-called seniors’ residence to confront another great experience next Tuesday.

I wanted to remember his exact words so I actually requested a copy of the Senate recordings of the day called the Hansard. (This was not something I did often).

Upon hearing of Marcel Prud’homme’s death recently, I’ve thought of him more than I expected to. He’s someone I wouldn’t have known had I not worked in Parliament. I was surprised to read he never married and didn’t have any children or grandchildren. He would have been an epic grandfather in all senses of the word. He looked like the kind of man who would have a family, more so than a lot of the men on Parliament Hill who did have families but treated work like theirs instead.

Sénateur Prud’homme was an unhurried man who liked to joke. I remember an Anglophone colleague recounting a time when he entered the Chamber in his slow and gargantuan way where she was standing at the door. He had said, “Ah, je suis vieux et décadent.” She replied, “Vieux? Non. Mais décadent? Oui!” She thought she was paying him a compliment based on her knowledge of President’s Choice Decadent chocolate chip cookies. He had given her a funny look and we all laughed and laughed when this story circulated around the Page office.

It’s unfortunate he didn’t leave behind any memoirs. I’m sure he could fill enough books that stacked as tall as he was.

This tribute is my way of saying thank you Sénateur Prud’homme for reaching your hand out. A nineteen-year-old girl shook it one day and the effect hasn’t worn off.