Adam Gopnik’s “Winter”

It was my good fortune on October 26 to attend the final lecture on Adam Gopnik’s tour to deliver this year’s Massey Lectures on the theme of “Winter.” It took place in the beautiful Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory, University of Toronto. Gopnik of course is the famous New Yorker writer, with a number of bestselling books, including Paris to the Moon. On “winter,” this most Canadian of themes, the author is careful to point out his bona fides, that though born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Montreal.

It is a great pleasure to attend a live lecture and I went with such anticipation, which was somewhat dampened by the length of the introductions and formalities.

Adam Gopnik's published Massey Lectures on Winter.

Gopnik has woven together a wonderful, evocative series of ideas about something that is so deeply seated to most Canadians that we are hardly aware of it. He begins this last lecture, “Remembering Winter,” with a reference to the paradox of ice wine that “the hardest weather makes the nicest wine.” We won’t all agree—that wine is not “nice” to me, far too sweet—but in the case of Joni Mitchell’s song “River,” it is a revelation when he says that it evokes “a kind of Magical place of memory.” “Oh I wish I had a river/I could skate away on.” I felt most comfortable with this evocation of personal memories, buried in our own winters past, and in particular in how artists, poets and artists have responded to and expressed winter. He quotes 15th century French poet and vagabond François Villon’s love poem, “Ballad of Yesterday’s Beauty’s,” with its haunting refrain “Mais où sont les neiges d’autan?” (“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”)

I loved Gopnik’s statement “What else is poetry for, save to memorialize an everyday emotion?” He includes the text of two amazing poems: “The imaginary Iceberg,” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “90 North” by Randall Jarrell. Of course these poems relate winter to death. It is a metaphorical union one would expect. As Jarrell writes:

“I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me
Is worthless as ignorance:
Nothing comes from nothing.”

Adam Gopnik delivering the 2011 Massey Lecture on “Remembering Winter,” Koerner Hall, at the Royal Conservatory, University of Toronto.

But the author is not satisfied with that one side of winter in memory. His real theme is more as he says “Winter started as this thing we had to get through; it has ended as this time to hold on to.” To illustrate this he refers to that best of all Christmas carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” about the remaking of the world in the desolate solstice. And he tells the story of an 1869 Arctic German expedition, whose ship had sunk and whose men, clinging to survival in tiny shelters on an ice floe, opened a leaden box one late December eve and joyfully saw that it contained bright crackers and toys so that they could celebrate Christmas.

In this vein the great French-Canadian poet Émile Nelligan’s “Soir d’Hiver” would have fit nicely:

“Ah! Comme la neige a neigé!
Ma vitre est un jardin de givre
“Ah! Comme la neige a neigé!
Qu’est-ce que le spasme de vivre
À la douleur que j’ai, que j’ai”

(“Oh how the snow has snowed!
My window is a garden of frost
Oh! How the snow has snowed!
What is this spasm of life
To the pain I have, I have!”)

Adam Gopnik delivering the 2011 Massey Lecture on “Remembering Winter,” Koerner Hall, at the Royal Conservatory, University of Toronto. (phot by James Marsh)

I was less interested in Gopnik’s quite long sidetracks into urban planning (in particular the underground labyrinth beneath downtown Montreal) as I hate malls, particularly the monstrosity in Edmonton that sucks the life out of the heart of the city in both winter and summer, and another on the role of the automobile in destroying the city’s soul.

The lectures are available however you want them, filmed, recorded, printed and I am sure that in any form will give pleasure to and extract surprise from any Canadian. Each essay is filled with provocative insights and allusions.

I thanked the author afterward for evoking the Proustian idea of memory reconstituting our lives in the Canadian context and later spent time writing down my own childhood memories of winter with a new insight. Of course, this is a big country. Winter in Edmonton is a far cry from winter in Montreal (much less Vancouver where plus temperatures are considered “chilly”). Think of walking a shaggy dog in -40 degrees, in a world so frozen that it acts like a sensory depravation tank, under a blazing blue sky, almost blind and hearing only the squeak of rubber on the ice crusted snow—the very essence of solitude.

Winter: Five Windows on the Season will air on Ideas from November 7 to November 11 on CBC Radio One. The published series is available from House of Anansi Press. Visit the Massey Lectures for more information.

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