“Life is lived in short stories; we live in moments.”
On the basis of fourteen carefully and beautifully written short stories and one novel, the Canadian author Alistair MacLeod has distinguished himself as one of the finest and most respected of the contemporary English language writers. I have read his short story collections, and read them again, and then again, and with each reading my appreciation for his elegant and sympathetic prose has grown. When finally it was published in 1999, I devoured his novel, No Great Mischief. Twice. And just last week I read it a third time. Each reading of it has brought me something different, has left me breathless, not unlike my re-readings of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners.
One day in recent years, not long after Alistair MacLeod had won an international literary award for his novel, I climbed aboard a plane to Toronto, where I was taking my viola for some much-needed maintenance. I found my seat, and as the passengers filed on I opened my book, I forget which – the previous night I had completed my second reading of No Great Mischief, so whatever it was, it didn’t stand a chance of being remembered. When I glanced up from my book, who should be making his way toward me but the Great Man himself, wearing a tweed cap and a pleasant expression. I sucked all the air out of the plane while Alistair MacLeod walked past me to his seat some rows back, and there I sat for the two-hour flight, quivering, ignoring my book and thinking of all the clever things I might say to him. I was completely star-struck.
In all the confusion of leaving the plane there was no time for chit-chat. I and my viola were pushed out by the crowd, and that was that.
Or so I thought.
Standing by the luggage carousel, wearing his tweed cap and a pleasant expression, was Alistair MacLeod. With pounding heart I made my way over to him, and ever-so-cool, I asked him if this might be the carousel for the flight from Halifax. He smiled and said he certainly hoped so. Then I screwed up my courage and said in a small voice, “Mr MacLeod?” At which point the Great Man flushed various shades of purple. “Oh, no,” he said, clearly embarrassed at being recognised by a stranger. Then and there, we held a blushing contest, which I’m sure I won. Not knowing what else to do, I commenced blathering:
“I don’t want to bother you, Mr MacLeod, but I just have to tell you I’ve read everything you’ve written at least twice, and your work has given me such pleasure, I just want to thank you…”
At which point buddy-next-to-me poked me in the arm and said, “That a fiddle ya got there, Miss?”
In disbelief I turned to buddy and we chatted briefly about my “fiddle.” In hindsight I recognize that he probably did me a big favour, rescuing me from my blathering self, but at the time I rather wished I’d left my conversation-starting viola on the plane. When I turned back to see if there was anything left of my chat with Alistair MacLeod, of course he was gone.
Buddy stood next to me, looking pleased with himself.
“Ya think anyone else on the flight knew that was Alistair MacLeod?” he asked, with a wink.