Rogers Writers' Trust 2014 shortlist: André Alexis

André Alexis on his influences, and an excerpt from his shortlisted book, 'Pastoral'

This year, on Nov. 4, the Rogers Writers’ Trust will be the first of Canada’s Big Three fiction prizes to announce its winner. Maclean’s asked each of the five nominees vying for the $25,000 award to comment on a past author “whose influence you feel in your own work, and how.” Their answers, and excerpts from their shortlisted books:

André Alexis, 57, was nominated for his novel Pastoral, about a young priest in rural Ontario.

There are at least four authors whose influence on me is ineradicable and for whom I’m grateful: Beckett, Tolstoy, Proust, and Raymond Queneau. I’ll speak of Queneau, here, because he’s likely the least known. Queneau’s work is funny, thoughtful and formally inventive. He adapted Descartes’s Meditations as a novel called Le Chiendent. He rewrote the same short anecdote in 99 ways, as a demonstration of play with style. The resulting book was called Exercises de style. He wrote 10 sonnets that could be varied to form a total of 100 million billion poems. (It would take a human roughly 200,000 years to read all the variants.) More than any other author, Queneau taught me how to read, by teaching me to think about form, to be sensitive to structure. On top of that, his work is joyfully inventive while being, at times, philosophical. I feel like I‘ve been trying for 20 years to learn the lessons of Queneau’s work.

From Pastoral:

On his second day in Barrow, Father Pennant rose at five. Lowther had been awake for some time and had prepared a breakfast of apple cinnamon pancakes with back bacon. He had grated the apple himself and had timed it so that the bacon was hot when Father Pennant sat down, but there was little sign that the kitchen had been used. Everything had been cleaned up by the time Father Pennant ate and, shortly after he finished, it would have been difficult to show he had eaten at all. His dishes had been washed, dried and put away.

The early service was well-attended that morning. There were at least twenty-five people at the low mass, most of whom came to get a look at the new priest.

After the mass, few stayed to talk. Those who did, did not stay long. The day and the world called. But Father Pennant had the impression
 he’d been deemed acceptable. No one had been unfriendly or dubious or overtly critical.

He had made a good beginning, surely. But just to be certain, Father Pennant spoke to Lowther, who’d attended.

• How was it?
• It was good, answered Lowther. Your voice doesn’t shake as
 much as Father Fowler’s.
• That’s not a ringing endorsement, Lowther.
• No, Father, but this was low mass. It’ll be different when you sing.

There were a number of visitors to the rectory that day. It was sunny and warm. You could feel summer approach. Which, perhaps, explains why two women brought mounds of Jell-O in which the preserved remains of the previous summer’s strawberries and raspberries were suspended. Another parishioner brought cherry pie and an angel food cake so airy it clung to Father Pennant’s front teeth as soon as he bit it. There were plans for an official welcome. It was to take place the following Sunday. But those who came to the rectory on Father Pennant’s second day were the ones who could not resist seeing him sooner. Here was the man to whom they would confess the darkest things. It was important to feel him out. Mrs. Young, for instance, after she had watched him eat a piece of her macaroni pie, quietly asked what he thought of adultery.

– It’s a sin, answered Father Pennant.
– Yes, but I wonder where it is on the scale of things. Is it worse
 than murder?
– No, said Father Pennant, but all our sins are interconnected. One is the road to another.
– I never thought of it that way, said Mrs. Young. I’ll be sure to tell that husband of mine what you said.
Then, looking at him meaningfully, she asked
– Did you like the macaroni pie? It’s my mother’s recipe.
The morning was busy and then, following the afternoon mass, there were even more people to meet, more food to sample: a pear cake, a honey and plum cobbler, an apple crumble. In a matter of hours, Father Pennant had a strong sense of his parish. It was as normal as could be. And here again, he felt fortunate. It would be a pleasure getting to know those who’d been too shy or too busy to approach him early on.
The day’s only sour note came from an old woman named Tomasine Humble. Her hands constricted by arthritis, her thin body like a knotty stick under a thick yellow dress, her white hair held stiffly in place by hairspray, she was not in a good mood, or perhaps she was in the best mood her ailments permitted. When someone asked if Father Pennant had enjoyed a piece of cake, he’d answered
– Yes, very much.
But Tomasine had muttered
– Not on your life.
and smiled when he looked at her inquisitively.

When someone else mentioned the good weather they’d been having, Father Pennant answered that he was looking forward to exploring the countryside in spring, to watching the gardens bloom.
 Tomasine Humble then said

– Not much point in that. You should be taking care of souls, not gardens.
– I can do both, surely, Mrs. Humble.
– We don’t know what you can do at all, she’d answered.
– Well, I hope I won’t disappoint you.
– You’ll disappoint me. There hasn’t been a priest yet who hasn’t disappointed me.
– Perhaps I’ll disappoint you less?
– I live in hope, young man.

Excerpted from Pastoral, copyright © 2014 by André Alexis. Published by Coach House Books. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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