The Mordecai Richler Reading Room

The Richler Writer-in-Residence Fall 2017

Concordia University is pleased to announce that Peter Behrens, Governor General’s Award-winning novelist, screenwriter, and short story writer has been named the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence for 2017-18. Behrens is teaching a class during his residency and will be speaking at a public event at Concordia in spring 2018. Watch this space for Peter Behrens Dispatches from Concordia’s Richler Reading Room.


The Dispatches from Peter Behrens, Richler Writer-in-Residence

Dispatch 1: Canada 1?

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Peter Behrens

Canada 1?
I often stop to photograph this sign. 
Not sure why. More or less the same photograph every time.  
It seems to operate the way a powerful poem can.
Saying so little and so much all at once.
Metaphor or a mileage sign?
Maybe a suggestion.
Terse.
Brutally simplified.
If a country is a set of ideas maybe the ideas change over time. Some don’t.
And only one more mile down this road—Vermont Route 108—a large portion of your life, your family, your own history is waiting to do something to you.
Mordecai might have felt something like this, returning to Montreal after the years in England, only he was coming back with his family to settle. Coming home. Planning to dig himself into this ground. Me, I’m caught between places. My son, American-born, is the fourth generation in our family born in a different country. Germany, England, Canada, the United States.
Fortunate son.
I carry with me a book that needs to be written, a Montreal book, I’ll say, if anyone asks.
Such an easy crossing.
Hundreds of refugees—not fortunate—from Trumpism were fleeing across these borderlands lately, northbound. It is beautiful country down here. Or up there. Beautiful on both sides, so when you cross the line you might feel that you are leaving something precious behind, no matter which side you happen to be leaving.
Come winter how brutal this country will seem if you are from, say, Chad, or Guatemala and the taxi hired at the Greyhound depot at St. Johnsbury drops you a wary half-mile south of the line.
It’s a question of privilege.
My father had anxiety around borders. It wasn’t just the half-gallons of scotch and rye from excise-free New Hampshire stashed underneath his children in the backseat.
It was partly that, but it was grounded in something deeper.
He’d returned to Germany in the summer of 1939, intending to persuade his parents—German Catholic father, Irish mother—to leave. War was coming down. They weren’t Jewish and were in no mortal danger but despised Nazis and he didn’t want to be separated from them in wartime.
Problem was they had only German passports so needed exit visas to leave. Even applying for the visa meant listing, then handing over, everything you owned—savings, real estate, possessions—to the Nazified tax authorities.
This was how Jewish refugees were fleeced.
My grandfather thought even if they were able to get to England, Canada or Eire, he would be interned again when war started. That had been his bitter experience when caught in England during the First World War, and he didn’t believe he could survive another internment.  
So a few hours before the war began my father left his parents on the platform at Frankfurt hauptbahnhof and made, just barely, the last train leaving for the Dutch frontier. He worried the Nazi frontier police would insist his German name made him a citizen of the Reich despite his British passport, then remove him from the train. But they didn’t. And the Dutch border guards let him in and he reached Rotterdam and eventually Montreal, via New York.
On his deathbed in Montreal half a century later he came up out of a coma, sat up wild-eyed, and ordered me to fetch his passport, his suitcase. He had to get to the station, board the train, and cross the Dutch frontier before it closed.
No time to lose.
Bakersfield, Vermont. Enosburg Falls. Tonight I’m crossing the border at Morses Line and will have nothing to declare.
Frelighsburg, Québec. Bedford. Pike River. On a northeast heading, the last Appalachian hills will smooth out into the forensic flatness of the St. Lawrence Valley. Dairy country, steel silos, ranks of corn and tractors the size of buildings. Peculiar intrusion of the ex-volcano hills on the flatscape, one of them Mont-Royal but I won’t see that rise until I’m in ferocious traffic riding over the hump of the bridge.
Fortunate son.
“Why did you come this way?” the agent asks. Are you trying to sneak in through a back door? is the implication. A modern fortress of a border station hunkers on the interstate highway a few miles to the west, on the most direct line to Montreal. This post is a tiny backwater. The fields are thickened with September corn or they are dark and fallow and the warm evening smells of manure.
“I like the drive,” I tell her. “I like the country.”



About Peter Behrens

Peter Behrens’ first novel The Law of Dreams won the Governor-General’s Literary Award and is published in nine languages. The New York Times Book Review called his second novel, The O’Briens, “a major achievement” and Megan O’Grady, writing in Vogue, calls Carry Me, his latest novel, “another meditation on history and destiny . . . that make[s] the past feel stunningly close at hand.” Carry Me has recently won The Vine Award for Canadian Jewish Literature (“Behrens is a master, at home in the broad sweep of history and the intimate detail of a character’s experience. This is a novel that could be, should be, read in a hundred years.” —The Jury ). A native of Montreal, Peter Behrens held a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University and was a Fellow of Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.


Past Writers-in-Residence

Concordia University is pleased to have hosted artists Matthew Forsythe and Ann-Marie MacDonald as Writers-in-Residence..

Matthew Forsythe, award-winning graphic artist, author, and illustrator, was the Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence from January to April 2017.

Ann-Marie MacDonald, acclaimed novelist, playwright, and actor, was the inaugural Mordecai Richler Writer-in-Residence in 2016.

For more information about the Richler Writers-in-Residence, read and watch their dispatches.


Richler’s Legacy and The Walrus

The Walrus Foundation is a registered charitable non-profit (No. 861851624-RR0001) with an educational mandate to create forums for conversations on matters vital to Canadians. The foundation is dedicated to supporting writers, artists, ideas, and thought-provoking conversation. We achieve these goals by publishing The Walrus magazine—which focuses on Canada and its place in the world—ten times a year; producing the national series of Walrus Talks; posting original, high-quality content daily at thewalrus.ca; and training young professionals in media, publishing, and non-profit development.