A Grave In the Air

The Danforth review (fall 2008)

Author/critic/professor/grouch Stephen Henighan has famously made his bones by way of the lusty swaths of scorched earth and pillage he's cut through the various and most sundry precincts of the Canadian literary landscape. As most conveniently showcased in 2002's When Words Deny the World: The Reshaping of Canadian Writing and this year's A Report on the Afterlife of Culture — both previously reviewed in these, ah, "pages" — when Henighan is of a mood to take aim at his confreres/competitors, he keeps his quiver full and his environment target rich.

At times, his critical approach takes the direct, conventional route, confining itself (for the most part, anyway) to the words he finds on the page, as with: "In the arts, and particularly in literature, crisis has bred conformity, suffusing our novels with a desire to transcend history into a commercially congenial strand of non-engaged high art: to ascend the best-seller list while retaining the 'literary fiction' label." (WWDTW) 

Other times, he'll broaden his focus, blithely painting, for example, our creative class as pliant, co-conspiring lapdogs in the American process of homogeneization/disneyfication of world literature and culture.

When feeling puckish and (one suspects) particularly under-appreciated, it's good old fashioned pantheon-busting that's the order of the day (Coupland? Shields? Atwood? Don't even ask). 

But when really pissy, it seems it's our very national genome that draws his scorn, as when he disparages the "Zeitgeist of an essentially passive middle class that yearns to get its country back, though it is unwilling — unlike nation-building middle classes elsewhere in the world — to make any sustained effort or sacrifices to achieve this goal." (WWDTW)

Whichever way you parse Henighan's professional dyspepsia — and surely there's ample fodder for a generation's worth of navel-gazing, self-referential CanLit meta-theses — it's baked so deeply into the cake as to bleed into and inform even his fictional personae.

And so the stories collected in A Grave in the Air find Henighan, dependably, in what must now be approaching something like the twentieth unbroken year of a really, really rotten mood.

Which is all to say that both Henighan (having been so powerfully nasty about CanLit) and your correspondent (Henighan having been at least as nasty about CanCrit) are asking for trouble here.

In fairness (says he, waving a white-ish flag), his proscriptions are not without prescription; for our manifold ills and failings, he advises in particular a return to specific and local detail and consciousness. In his formulation, "...attention to local detail and literary innovation are inseparable from one another; [if writers would observe] Canadian reality in meticulous detail, circumstances would oblige at least some to generate inventive, avant-garde narrative..." (AROTAOC)

Or, as distilled by Nigel Beale in a recent Globe and Mail piece: "buy local". 

Sounds nice and all — local values, what's not to like? — and yet a little curious. A re-hash of hoary shibboleth "write what you know", however academically supercharged the presentation, seems a tad rickety as a foundation on which to erect a critical approach. And, even apart from the queer astringency of expecting writers to voluntarily restrict their palette — both entertainment and edification being difficult to jimmy up as it is — how goofy is it to expect anyone beyond the immediate "locals" to be able to appreciate, or even identify, the echt-ness of the localism anyway?

Still, Henighan can obviously propound whatever critical theory he pleases, with our compliments. But it's worth bringing up because of the curious degree to which he seems to ignore his own dictum in this collection. In lieu of the fraught Prairie coming-of-age or the plucky poverty-stricken Fundy lobstermen that we might expect/dread, these eight stories instead bounce around between Romania, Poland, Germany, the U.K., Bosnia and Central America, barely touching down in our home and native land long enough for a change of underwear.

Sure, it's unfair (I suppose) to castigate him for not hewing to his own line. But in the context of his own oeuvre, and the Torquemada-like fervour with which he denounces the apostate, the question arises: is he really neglecting his own bible, or is he instead so hubristic as to believe that he's being faithful to it? Is he such a soi-disant citizen of the world that he sees himself as "local" everywhere? Is the whole planet his backyard?

His extensive citations and acknowledgements suggest that this may in fact be the case; he is (he seems to want them to attest) no tourist. Certainly, this rigour goes some ways towards explaining his arid, medicinal tone, AGITA's predominant flavouring, and flaw. These stories can feel less like fiction than research papers, recitations of the pressing issues of the day repurposed as dutiful and academic travelogues.

In truth, it seems Henighan touches on localism principally through its absence; his characters are invariably peripatetic, searching, escapist. Running from war, its aftermath, or its echoes, they're defined by little beyond their deracination. Oh, and — here's a shocker — their unhappiness.

The title story, the last and by far the longest, contains all his favoured tropes: rootlessness, multilingual youth, romantic disappointment, career stasis, the perils of cultural amnesia and — patently the story's raison d'etre — a Cook's tour of twentieth century history, masquerading as narrative. In particular, Henighan provides splenetic run-throughs of the Balkan predations of both WWII and 1990s vintage, styling (not unreasonably) the latter as largely an unavoidable by-product of mass consensual ignorance of the former. This is Henighan's best stuff — it has the power to grip commensurate with the heft of its material — but it still reads like a lecture from a hectoring, self-righteous grad student.

The characters in AGITAA tend to be young, and Henighan puts them through their occasional paces in the boudoir. (In Henighanian terms, what could be more immediate, elemental — local?). But here's how the roster reads: a teenager sleeps with her boss's son, who's engaged; a newly divorced man has an unhappy one-night stand with a pregnant married woman; a guy breaks up with his fiancee because of the mercenary frigidity of her pillow talk; a woman sleeps with a writer to get the rights to a manuscript. There's more, but the message is clear: in a world riven by war, chaos and dislocation, we mustn't forget that sex can be a massive bummer as well.

And — another shocker — Henighan finds ample time to slag the homeland. The Canadians in these stories have invariably flown the coop, and the only two significant characters he actually situates here are immigrants, dripping with superiority when faced with "the aggressively complacent expression that Torontonians adopted when asserting their importance in the face of Canadian insignificance"; Toronto streets that "looked as desolate as unmarked trails, [when] even the merest English footpath had more history"; the horror of the LCBO's "wines chosen by bureaucrats"; or the comically parochial insularity of Westmount's Anglo elite. Standing in for Henighan, the remove of their gaze sees only flaws. If this is "buying local", he can have it.

His dyspeptic, schoolmarmish prose doesn't just throw up schematic, robotic characters, but as often clunky, didactic phrase-making. "She stared at him in the eyes. Her dark-brown incisiveness pinned him from beneath eyebrows of felt-like softness" goes one unintentionally embarrassing encounter. Worse, can anyone deny that "...I came home from work and told Karolina about my suspicion that the feasibility study I was working on was being skewed by politicos from the Prime Minister's office to prod the civil servants towards the conclusion that the ideal site for a certain expensive boondoggle was in the middle of the Minister's riding..." may be the most shockingly dull sentence ever written. "The Killing Past", a reminisce of a pre-WWII soccer match between England and Germany, proffers such Boy's Own groaners as "Young men fight the war...but it is old men like us who make the war. We must show the old men in our countries that young men must do sport, not war", and "the only true victory for either of our nations is the victory of sport over politics!". Oy.

A well-meant suggestion: Henighan's writing is smart and informed, but almost always joyless and programmatic. To quote the late Warren Oates, in dopey-American-soldiers-abroad farce Stripes — a source chosen not incidentally for the cyclonic vehemence with which Henighan would sneer at it — he might want to just, you know, "lighten up".       — Paul Duder


Savvy verse & Wit, october 5, 2008

I received A Grave in the Air by Stephen Henighan from Mini Book Expo for Bloggers, and it took a long time to get to my mailbox from Thistledown Press in Canada. When it finally arrived I was happy to begin reading. I've often loved reading novels and short stories that show how war can impact families, relationships, and societies. Although the short stories often do not provide the reader with in-depth war strategy and in-the-moment events, whether it is World War II or the Bosnian-Serbian conflict of the 1990s, the impact of war is palatable in the lives of the characters Henighan created.

The book of short stories starts off with "The Killing Past", which examines the impact of an aunt's story about a family's ancestor on her nephew Bartholomew. The obsession it becomes for Bart is phenomenal.

In "Miss Why", Agnieszka is an inquisitive youth growing up in Poland at a time when the nation is moving away from socialism toward more Western ideals. While she struggles to find her place in society, she meets a man with a similar outlook on the Western ideals taking over their society. It was interesting to see how they copied with the transformation of their society, though there really was no resolution in this short story, which left me a bit disappointed.

"Duty Calls" follows Tibor, who is recently divorced, and his relationship with a woman he has not seen in many years and his disillusionment with himself since his divorce. This story is not very uplifting, but it does deal with how a man, who sees himself as an outsider, will act to gain acceptance.

In "Beyond Bliss", which was my favourite of the short stories, Vivian compromises her integrity to get what she wants. To help her friend, Ray, build his publishing house in Canada, she gains the trust of Erich, a controversial author. Vivian, another character who feels like an outsider in Canada because she is British, uses her ambition to find her place in the world.

I also really enjoyed "A Sense of Time", "Freedom Square", and "Nothing Wishes to Be Different" because they show the reader a series of relationships that change between former students at university because of a single event, a relationship between a mother and daughter because of the daughter's summer job, and the relationships between a father and mother and their children when the father makes one fateful and personal decision about his own life.

While this is not one of my favourite short story collections, it does have a great deal going for it. It examines how war in the present and past can have an impact on someone, even if they are not directly involved in a conflict. Some of the characters are quirky and a bit out there, but others are carefully nuanced.   — Serena Agusto-Cox


Stephen Henighan’s A Grave in the Air consists of eight stories, including the title work which, taking up approximately one-third of the book, is more novella than short story. Most of them involve European political conflicts, generally in the post-1989 “world order,” and they explore the problematic effects of national identity on the characters, who include a young Polish woman, a Bosnian Muslim girl posing as a Slovenian, and a Hungarian-Canadian observing from an outsider’s perspective the way that Anglo-Montrealers are adjusting to their changing position in Quebec. Two stories focus on the sometimes difficult, sometimes comic relationships between Canadians and English people. While Henighan’s characters are often made uncomfortable by the past they carry around with them, attempting to forget the past creates even more problems. 

The personal relationships of the characters in these stories are generally transient and insecure, torn apart or prevented by the historical events that are omnipresent. Recurrently they long for the kind of life that people in less troubled times or situations simply take for granted as “normal,” when a sporting event is not overshadowed by politics, and sexual attraction is not countered by ethnic or linguistic divides. I was initially troubled by the sketchiness of some of Henighan’s characterization, but as I read more of the stories, this seemed part of his point. Life is always elsewhere in these stories, and the extent to which self-transformation is possible is limited by circumstance. 

The outstanding title piece focuses on a Canadian foreign correspondent named Darryl who has taken a leave from reporting, and who is haunted by the atrocities he witnessed in Bosnia. In Germany, he encounters a Bosnian girl who initially doesn’t want to hear his story about the fate of her uncle, whom Darryl got to know while reporting on the civil war. “A grave in the air” is a quotation from Paul Celan’s “Todesfuge,” and the story begins with an epigraph from this poem in both German and English. The relationship of language to identity is an important theme not only in this story but in the book as a whole; Henighan observes the politics of language in both Montreal and the former Yugoslavia, while in “A Grave in the Air,” Darryl reflects on the different implications of “I lived in East Germany” and “Das war die DDR-Zeit.” Darryl has to decide whether to testify about the Bosnian genocide in a British trial, and his decision is influenced not only by his encounter with the Bosnian girl but by his awareness that Weimar, where the story is set, is “just down the road” from Buchenwald, which sinister name, Henighan reminds us, means “beech wood.” As a witness to atrocity, Darryl seems to speak for Henighan when he tells his editor that if we can no longer remember our history then “we’re all heading in the same direction as Yugoslavia.” A Grave in the Air is the product of a serious, unflinching moral imagination. These stories are often uncomfortable reading, but they are important reading, the work of a writer who looks hard at the complexities and rebarbative elements of the multicultural, globalized world we live in.    — J. Russell Perkin


Globe and Mail, January 19, 2008
Stephen Henighan’s provocative collection of essays. When Worlds Deny the World (2002), took on the Canadian literary establishment, hitting certain celebrated writers, the Giller Prize and big bad Toronto. Those of us who live beyond TorLit might agree that much of what he wrote then and has written since needed to be said. But the roar of Zeus-like critical thunder ringing in one’s ears doesn’t make it easy to get into his fictional world. The list of dos and don’ts Henighan set down is precise and confident, and so closely allied with his own artistic development that a reader feels compelled to ask whether he takes his own advice. And if so, does it work?

A Grave in the Air is a collection of eight stories set amid political events in Eastern and Central Europe, spanning the half-century between Nazi Germany and the Bosnian conflict of the 1990s. The narrative voices are wide-ranging, from a Polish chambermaid’s ruminations about the cultural cost of exile, to a Hungarian immigrant’s alienation from the anglo elite of Montreal. These are meaty stories, packed with significant public events. Not a whiff of high-blown poetry or the oblique psychology he so thoroughly detests in the “self-consciously artistic artifacts” of literary fiction. Rigorously obeying his stated aesthetic, this writing is indeed a victory of history over metaphor.

Multilingual, well-travelled and well-informed about the events that inspire his fiction, Henighan cannot resist observing social context, sometimes to the detriment of simple, evocative prose. In A Sense of Time, a wonderful story, possibly the best in the book, a middle-aged editor is reliving a lonely stint he once spent as a grad student in London, when he meets a woman who once pressed herself on him in the library stalls. They didn’t have sex then and they never do, but the realization of what might have been creates a melancholy erotic edge.

As they walk together, “Darkness had fallen and the neon logos of the chain stores that had driven away the family businesses Emmett remembered were gleaming in the chill mist that was not quite rain.” Did he really need to mention the plight of shopkeepers? He can’t seem to take his eyes off the big picture even when the moment calls for a close-up.
This penchant for public context seems more natural in the book’s title story. The central character is a disaffected journalist who covered the Bosnian war in the 1990s, and hasn’t been able to disengage emotionally or forge much of a personal life. Hoping to heal his soul, he is drawn back to the unfinished story of a Muslim family he knew during the conflict.
Stories set closer to home carry the grumpiness that overtakes Henighan whenever he thinks of Toronto. Beyond Bliss seems to personify history through the perky imperialist Vivian, an English girl who follows her rich boyfriend to Toronto in the 1960s. Desperate to get a leg up in the emerging publishing scene, she uses sex and cunning to force her way into a position of power.

The “lugubrious voice of Leonard Cohen maundered from the cafe’s transistor radio” while her future partner declared they would he famous some day: “Ray’s smile folded in on itself in the aggressively complacent expression lhat Torontonians adopted when asserting their importance in the face of Canadian insignificance.” It isn’t clear whether the observation is Vivian’s or the author’s, though they seem to share their contempt for the city.

Henighan has praised the linked story collection as a Canadian invention. Politics, displacement and fractured Europeanness provide an obvious connection here, yet the strongest, most affecting thread is that several characters are inhabited by the ghost of a lonely, clever guy who lives out a recurring story; nights of ecstasy with a powerful, dynamic woman followed by abandonment. The hot and cold of carnal love is a leitmotif. Henighan’s wide-angle view, so crisply rendered, could benefit from attention to such shadows.    — Marianne Ackerman


Times Literary Supplement, December 7, 2007
The eight stories in Stephen Henighan’s new collection, A Grave in the Air, ask what it is to be an outsider. Characters are repeatedly set apart, alien to the culture, social class, or era in which they move. Immigrants, refugees, foreign correspondents and others struggle to maintain their identities when the structures which once defined them have altered or disappeared.

“The Killing Past” turns on a man’s difficult relationship with what has gone before. Bart’s family emigrated to Canada from Britain, and the resulting discontinuity still unnerves him. He becomes increasingly devoted to investigating the family legend of his great-grandfather, A. B. Chevret, who attempted to make fair play an antidote to war. Chevret, who was haunted by the terrible human cost of the First World War, traveled with a team of amateur footballers throughout the Axis countries, preaching sportsmanship. More than half a century later, Bart follows his trail, hoping to discover a new sense of self. At home Bart’s girlfriend considered him a faux-immigrant who cannot understand what it means to be displaced; in Germany, he is a brash, new-worlder, exhuming what many believe best forgotten. That the tribalism Chevret challenged couldn’t be overcome in 1939, we know; that the same forces will doom Bart’s quest is the unhappy suspicion at the heart of the story.
Alienation can also be domestic, and some find themselves strangers within their own families. In “Freedom Square”, Doina, a young woman with ambitions to become a photographer, explains why she wants to leave Romania to work in Germany, but “her mother’s dark eyes were already foreign”. A shared vision has become impossible, and Doina’s homecoming, like many here, will be unfulfilling.

The title story brings all these themes skillfully together, when Latifa, a young Bosnian Muslim living in Germany, learns her family history from Darryl, a Canadian ex-journalist who would rather forget the former Yugoslavia. Darryl works for a cultural programme, but has been sent a fax asking him to attend a war-crimes tribunal. Faced with a return to his difficult past, he contemplates escaping into art, “something that lasts”. Culture and history are inseparable, however, and his hastily constructed ivory tower crumbles when Latifa arrives with a rock band he is chaperoning in Weimar. Recognizing her surname as that of a Bosnian friend, Darryl approaches her, but Latifa tells him she “will never be Bosnian again”: she is Slovenian now. Shocked and frustrated by her denials, Darryl must face his own past. He recalls Sarajevo, where he stayed on long after his editors lost interest, and Srebrenica. Perhaps no one has come that far; Bosnia is, after all, “down the road from Buchenwald”, a symbol of inhumanity that lies just outside the city. Latifa’s family have hidden their background from her. Although her detachment is honest, it seems nevertheless to have left her feeling empty. Darryl’s detachment is self-imposed, but the effects are similar. The happiness of both depends on their shared journey into memory, however difficult, and on accepting the terrible past.

This is the most poignant of Henighan’s themes: the importance of human action in the face of a terrible political and historical impotence (despite what the reader already knows to be the truth). He is not shy of the twentieth century’s big subjects, and he puts them to effective use. “The Killing Past”, which opens the book, and the title story, which closes it, are especially successful at bringing out the strange tension of tales whose outcomes are already known to us through history. The effect depends on uncompromisingly direct prose, coupled with direct access to the characters’ thoughts and feelings, so that we ourselves are never foreign to these tales of foreignness. This can have its drawbacks, when the author simply reports a character’s emotional state and moves on. A coolness sometimes threatens to settle across the pages — but Henighan’s underlying humanity, his interest in the average person in often less than average circumstance, almost always warms things up again.     — Tadzio Marin Koelb


Geist (Winter 2007)
Stephen Henighan’s new book, A Grave in the Air (Thistledown), is a collection of short stories set in Canada, England, Germany, Poland, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which deal with themes of migration, immigration, foreignness, love, lust, adultery, violence, torture and more. Of the eight stories, two stand out. “Nothing Wishes to be Different” is an account of a Romanian man who fights in the Second World War, then returns to Romania, gets married and has children, then takes up the fight against the Communists and is caught, jailed and tortured; Henighan’s strong narrative prose moves this story forward with rhythm and purpose, and he leaves out much of the detail that weighs down on some of the other stories. “A Grave in the Air,” a novella with alternating narrative arcs, is indicative of the mixed quality of the remainder of the book. One arc follows a reporter, Darryl, who covers the Bosnian war as he takes a summer off in Germany; Henighan offers an affecting portrait of a man who is emotionally exhausted by his job; but the dialogue is flat, and details hinder the storytelling. The other arc follows Darryl a few years earlier, during the war in Bosnia. There a Bosnian man tells Darryl about this father, a Muslim holy man who wandered throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina until Chetniks killed him during World War II. The story is intriguing because one character tells it to another: the narrator tells us in plain language what happened, without the literary techniques that are commonly deployed for effect but often cloud a story.
— Michal Kozlowski

Quill & Quire, November 2007
The eight stories that comprise author and combative literary critic Stephen Henighan’s new collection of short fiction, most of them set in Central Europe, deftly capture the isolation and disconnectedness of the outsider through expatriate status, class divisions, and ideology.

Henighan’s writing is technically faultless, but often strays into a dry, journalistic style that makes it harder for readers to connect emotionally with the stories’ characters. While some authors naturally follow the ‘less is more’ aesthetic, for others it becomes merely an exercise in reduction and constriction. In these stories, Henighan is more firstly in the latter category, and one gets the sense that a lot of compelling prose got stripped away in the interests of efficiency and fashionable minimalism. Like a close room with little fresh air, the lack of vibrancy in the prose can become a touch yawn-inducing.

If these stories do not exactly thrill with bursts of lyricism, they do resonate with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and perceptiveness. The longish title story follows an expat Canadian journalist’s attempts to deal with his disillusionment and emotional confusion after covering the Bosnian conflict. The story’s historical weight carries it and ensures its relevance. Without such weighty issues, the rest of the stories, though still enjoyably engaging, are best suited to those who like their ice cream vanilla, their darts rubber-tipped, and their milk warm. — Gavin Babstock


guelph mercury, september 22, 2007
Henighan's Storied Return: Guelph's 'literary bad boy' returns to fiction with 'A Grave in the Air' collection

After controversial examination of the Canadian literary scene in a series of essays, with some pointed barbs at iconic canadian authors, the publishing industry and coveted Scotiabank Giller Prize, Stephen Henighan has turned his sights on central and eastern Europe with his latest book, "A Grave in the Air." 

The Short stories in the collection, which the University of Guelph teacher and researcher will launch at the Bookshelf Tuesday evening, are fiction, but they are based on his family history and some personal experiences in countries such as Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia.

And while they are not linked by characters or time, there is a common theme running through them, one Henighan has put forward in previous books: we must know our histor and learn from it, but we can't let it colour our view of the world.

"I used eastern Europe because that's a place where history is important. There's a long history of ethnic conflict, and yet the people are living in the present. That's part of what I'm looking at," said Henighan in an interview at his Guelph home.

"I've always felt that being a writer means you have to comment on your milieu, to give an opinion on how things are developing."

With globalization and international travel, the world is getting smaller, Henighan said, and how people view themselves, in terms of national identity, is also changing.

"What's happening more and more is people don't have just one identity," he said. They are Italian-Canadians or African-Americans or other dual nationality distinctions.

"In a funny way, people are defining their national identities more precisely than they used to. So nationalism is not disappearing. But we need to have different approaches."

The first story in "A Grave in the Air" is based on Henighan's great-grandfather, B.A. Glanvill, who attmpted to stop the outbreak of the Second World War through international soccer matches.

"He was convinced the sporting spirit would prevail over the war spirit," Henighan said with fondness at the naivete of thinking.

His stories take his readers to concentration camps in Nazi Germany and to Bosnia during the genocide. One of the stories is about a Hungarian in Montreal. Another of an East German writer in Toronto.

"In some ways, he's a cinematic writer," said Dan Evans, a book seller at the Bookshelf and a fan of Henighan's writing. "But you can tell he's thinking about his sentences, too. It only gets flowery when the scene necessitates. And I think his dialogue is bang-on."

"When Words Deny the World," a series of essays Henighan wrote about the Canadian literary scene in 2002, was sharply critical of the Canadian literary scene and he took a lot of flack for it.

"He's got the persona of a literary bad boy now, but his critical writings are incredibly precise. He's an excellent thinker," Evans said.

"All his braininess, travel and world-weariness go into his books. For Stephen to put out novels and stories (after "When Words Deny the World") is really exposing his throat."

Henighan was born in Germany but spent most of his childhood on a farm in the Ottawa Valley. He lived for a long time in Montreal, but has studied or travelled all over the world. He speaks six languages: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian and German and teaches Latin American literature at the University of Guelph.

Henighan said he's always been a storyteller. At four years old, he would dictate stories to his mother, who would write them down. As soon as he learned to read, he gobbled up books, he said.

"The problem with young writers, generally, is that they don't read enough. TV and film gives a sense of narrative, but you don't get the literary texture by watching movies. You learn to write by reading," he said.

"You don't have to experience war in the jungle to write a good story. You can make anything interesting if you tell it well enough."      — Joanne Shuttleworth