Pico Iyer Journeys

Howard Norman

Howard Norman’s novels are nearly all about hemmed-in, stifled people in the vast, silent spaces of the far north, whose quiet lives are thrown about by acts–or moments–of sudden violence. His characters are mostly shy eccentrics, engaged in occupations not so different from the private, controlling business of the novelist: in previous novels, they have included a bird artist and a lighthouse keeper, a teenage restorer of an old movie-house, two museum guards. And because they are all hobbyists, their boxed lives have a feeling of being out of time as well as space, even when, as in his latest book, the action is located in the mid-1980s. One pressed-down drama follows another in a snowbound, spellbound rhythm. If the books were set to music, they would be taken on by Glenn Gould.

Devotion, Norman’s sixth novel, is a story of passion, in many interlocking forms, but true to Norman’s deliberately mild, pocket-watch style, its title places its emphasis on the undramatic, domestic, quiet acts that for him seem to make up our real lives. It tells a love story in which husband and wife never share a house; most of the time they watch one another through rainy windows, communicate through an intermediary or pass on intimate messages by tape-recorder. Their few moments of hand-to-hand and mouth-to-mouth contact are exciting precisely because they exist in such a prairie of non-communication.

When the action begins, the main character in the book, David Kozol, is found sitting on an estate in remote Nova Scotia, tending to his father-in-law William Field. Field, we learn very soon, has confronted David in London, after seeing Kozol with a woman other than his wife (and Fields’s daughter) Maggie and, in the ensuing scuffle, has stepped off a sidewalk and been hit by a taxi. It is now David’s paradoxical task to nurse back to health the man who has challenged him to a fight–and who regularly writes him notes promising to clock him again. David is not allowed to meet Maggie, to whom he is still officially married, and almost every time she comes to visit her ailing father, David makes himself absent (a task for which he is well-suited). For a while after his accident, we are told, Field’s voice seemed likely to disappear forever.

In this odd position of inadvertent closeness and near-arctic isolation, David tends the wounded swans that were formerly Field’s subjects, reads Penguin Island and other novels by Anatole France (Maggie’s favorite author) and listens, on a 1950 Grundig-Majestic turntable, to Bach cello suites (as Norman has said he does), an illiterate, we are told, “at reading his own heart.” In his spare hours David is working on a monograph on a melancholy Czech photographer who takes pictures of eggs and glasses of water. David is an orphan, and so his only human connection on the isolated estate (owned by two Hungarian refugees from the Holocaust who now live mostly on an island in Scotland) is with the man who has sworn to be his enemy.

Howard Norman fashions miniatures–books a little bit like Joseph Cornell boxes–and they often consist, as here, of a set of miniature vignettes pieced together in an unexpected, carefully oblique way that only slowly discloses their patterning. His conversations are haunting and broken–often about brokenness–and information comes to us in bits and pieces, through a series of non-sequiturs (all of which gives the narrative a curious tautness and even intensity). And it is typical of his precision that even in the opening scene all the details have some relevance to his theme (and the whole book serves as a microcosm of his oeuvre).

David, we see almost instantly, has effectively taken his father-in-law’s place as tender of the wounded (both Maggie and the damaged birds). He sits alone in the near-dusk and is clearly, like Field pere and fille, a riddle waiting to be cracked. William, we later learn, is also a gentle man who has been subject to moments of violent and destructive passion, a shut-in flourishing a rifle in the dark. Penguin Island and the other France books, like many of the details in the novel, tell us, in essence, how to read the book in our hands (the epigraph to Devotion comes from France, and tells us that “Devotion is a thing that demands motives”). The swans will recur in almost every scene just in case we haven’t realized that this is a book about injured beings who are flapping around angrily and even biting others because they have lost the capacity to fly.

Much of the appeal of Norman’s stories lies in their musty, elliptical manner, which can occasionally suggest a wordless dream. Here is a scene in which David meets Stefania and Isador, the owners of the estate.

“He let the swans loose. They headed directly for the pond, distributing themselves in four preening armadas. Their statuesque beauty. Each of their heads forming an elegant cursive S . The invisible rudders of their feet. “Since they can’t fly,” Isador said, “this is their great moment of freedom, I always think.”

They all three watched the swans a while. “I’m remembering, just now,” Stefania said. “When I was a girl, swans–from where, who knows ? Norway or Sweden possibly. As a girl they would fly over my village.”

And with that the second chapter ends.

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