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Adrienne Clarkson. Photo: Michael Chambers
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Adrienne Clarkson on Hilary Mantel, Nobel Prize-winning Poetry and Her Love of Hemingway
The former Governor General, an author herself, names War and Peace and Anna Karenina as her all-time favourite books / BY Athena McKenzie / March 1st, 2021
The Right Honourable Adrienne Clarkson was Canada’s 26th Governor General, serving from 1999 to 2005. The former CBC journalist has also written several books, including Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship, which accompanied 2014’s CBC Massey Lectures, a 2012 book of immigration stories called Room For All of Us, her 2006 memoir Heart Matters, and a biography of Dr. Norman Bethune.
What’s the best book you’ve read this year?
“The best book I’ve read this year is A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. People know her best for her Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII. However, A Place of Greater Safety is a greater masterpiece. She wrote it in her 20s when she was living in Botswana recovering from endometriosis. She put it on the shelf after it had been rejected several times and it was only when she was 36 years old and had written several modern novels that she submitted it to a publisher who was asking for published novelists to send in novels that had been rejected. At the time, it was acclaimed as a masterpiece and has been somewhat forgotten with the excitement of her Wolf Hall trilogy.
It is an incredible evocation of the time of the French Revolution and has as its three heroes Robespierre, Danton and Desmoulins. It is 900 pages long and every page is a cliffhanger! She brings you a vision of the French Revolution years, including the Reign of Terror, which is so real and dramatic that you expect to look up and see yourself in 18th century Paris! She is particularly good at describing the female characters that surround the protagonists. It is just the greatest read and I intend to start it again in about a month.
What book can’t you wait to dive into?
The book I am looking forward to spending a lot of time with is Louise Glück’s collected Poems 1962-2012. She is this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature winner for her poetry and although I have read some poetry of hers in the past, I wanted to get her collected works and really examine the passion with which she looks at her own life and all women’s lives. So many things are possible in poetry that are not possible in fiction, in novels or in non-fiction. I’m really looking forward to it!
What’s your favourite book of all time?
My favourite book of all time is very difficult to choose. I suppose it has to be War and Peace or Anna Karenina. But I also love The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway is the greatest writer in the English language of modern times. He simply revolutionized the way English could be used and he wrote The Sun Also Rises when he was 24 years old. I admire him enormously for the way in which he constructs sentences and the way characters live for the reader forever.
What book completely changed your perspective?
A book that completely changed my perspective is very difficult to choose. One of the latest ones would be Stalingrad by Vasily Grossman. The depiction of the fall of Stalingrad from both the Russian and German sides, written by this major dissident to the Soviet regime, is an astonishing tour de force and one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century.
If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would it be?
I don’t know that I would choose to have dinner with any particular author whose work I love. I think Hemingway would not have been very interesting as a conversationalist, nor would Tolstoy. The people who are amusing and fun to talk to are not the people who sit down at desks and wait till little beads of blood form in their head and then write masterpieces. Writers are writers. I want to read what they write. I don’t particularly care to share even the most exquisitely executed meal with them!”