A Boatload of Languor and Dreaminess

May 27, 2004 |

House on the River: A Summer Journey
By Nessa Rapoport
Harmony Books. 146 pages. $22.

In literature’s most ambitious exploration of the collision between Canada and the Jews, “Solomon Gursky Was Here,” novelist Mordecai Richler conjured Ephraim Gursky, a highly Bronfmanesque patriarch and explorer who so influences Inuit tribes that they don taleisim long after his death. Reading that novel and a couple of Richler’s others, one senses the author marshalling all his creative energies to deliver something richly, and uniquely, Canadian Jewish.

Nessa Rapoport takes an alternate route toward a similar destination in her memoir, “House on the River.” Whereas Richler’s fiction bubbles over with excitement and frenzy, transgression and lewdness, Rapoport’s essay ponders gently and brims with languor. If a sense of Canadian Jewishness emerges in the book, it seems not the result of writerly contrivance, but rather as if it washed ashore lackadaisically. This subtle effect is, of course, intentional.

In “House on the River,” Rapoport — an essayist, poet and novelist — describes a summer boat trip, which to her seems “the most sublime of voyages.” On a rented houseboat in 1997, the author, her two children and her mother join her Uncle Nat and Aunt Ora in re-creating the trip that Nat and Ora made 10 years earlier along a series of interconnected Ontario rivers called the Trent-Severn Waterway. Rapoport barely sketches the daily travels, however, and the trip includes no thrills or colorful locals: This is not “Deliverance” or “Life on the Mississippi.” The vast majority of the action transpires in the author’s mind and memories.

The sleepy hamlet of Bobcaygeon, Ontario — the Jerusalem at the end of Rapoport’s pilgrimage — has a seemingly infinite capacity for inspiring her nostalgic reveries. (And Rapoport is not the only one on whom Bobcaygeon has worked this magic; a 1998 hit single named for the town, by Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip, muses: “It was in Bobcaygeon I saw the constellations/Reveal themselves one star at a time.”)

Rapoport’s personal nostalgia for Bobcaygeon centers on her grandmother, whom she used to visit there. “The boat trip,” Rapoport notes, “is a communion with her memory.” This remarkable woman, born in Canada in 1897, served as a matriarch — no less influentially or iconically than Richler’s Ephraim Gurksy — over the Jewish Canadian clan into which Rapoport was born.

A polymath who “had read all of Shakespeare by the time she was 12,” Bub, as she is called, “wrote and broadcast her commentary” on Canadian national radio for 30 years, founded a school and was, stunningly, “the first woman and first Jew to receive a doctorate in physics” from the University of Toronto — which she did while pregnant with her second child, in 1926.

Reminiscences of Bub, other family members and the times she spent with them comprise the highlights of Rapoport’s book. She evokes resonant Sabbath memories, right down to the overabundance of dessert: “My grandmother calls us in to candlelighting,” she writes, “to the ravishment of Friday night dinner, challah too soft to cut, brisket flaking, potatoes drenched in gravy, lemon cake and brownies and apple pie as dusk turns to night.”

She likewise nails sensory details likely familiar to those who summer in cottages and lakehouses, whether in central Canada or elsewhere: “the air spiced with pine, the slap of our bare feet on porch boards, the murmur of the river against the dock, the smell of heat on the mesh of the screen door,” and afternoons when “lunch is almost too much effort.”

In addition to recording such sensual beauty and homey warmth, Rapoport delves into her consciousness as writer and reader. Although she packs a library book for the trip, she’s so busy on deck that by day two she has “read scarcely a page.” She laments that she is “snared by the writer’s dilemma”: She “can either record life faithfully or live it.” And despite intentions to seize the moment, she tends toward the former, given the “burden of [her] consciousness, its relentless translation of experience into language.”

The language with which Rapoport renders her simple weeklong trip is often striking and unwaveringly lyrical (which, perhaps, is not surprising given that her previous works, along with a novel and the seminal anthology of Jewish fiction she co-edited, include a book of prose poems). At times, her diction flirts with pretension: She refers to herself as a “palimpsest,” for example, and to the sidewalks of Manhattan, N.Y., as gilded pediments. If such highly decorous abstractions are what she means by “the triumph of literature over life,” I expect that there are some readers who will root for life to make a stronger showing.

And yet the “delicious languor” and “Sabbath dreaminess” of Rapoport’s prose evinces the mood of a lazy, hot summer afternoon away from the city and its cares. As such, she has impressively distilled into literature one essential element of Canadian Jewish culture.

[Originally published in the Forward.]