The apprenticeship of David Bezmozgis: Author wants people to visit Bathurst and Finch the way he made a pilgrimage to St. Urbain Street
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 June 2004)

A quarter of a century ago, Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union began carving out a new community for themselves along the Bathurst Street corridor in Toronto, stretching north from Sheppard Avenue to Steeles. After a few years they could sit in the park all afternoon without hearing a word in any language but Russian.

Among the new arrivals of 1980 was a six-year-old, David Bezmozgis, who came from Riga, Latvia with his parents. Last year his autobiographical fiction about north Bathurst began appearing in U.S. and Canadian magazines, and this week, the week of his 31st birthday, brings the publication of his beautifully written Natasha and Other Stories (HarperCollins), a notable literary event. These intricately linked narratives disclose a world that most readers will find both new and vaguely familiar -- a world, as the young narrator says, "delirious with striving."

Bezmozgis (pronounced Bez-MOZE-ghis) likes Canada, and after a return visit to Latvia with his parents last year he's sure as hell glad to be here and not there. Even so, his stories don't exactly celebrate life in the West. He defines his corner of immigrant Canada with affection but without illusion. If being in Canada was a triumph for these refugees, it was also (as for many earlier generations) an agony. Out of desperation they escaped from Soviet tyranny, but in Canada they found themselves confronting fresh reasons for desperation: a new language, a new society with new demands and new humiliations. In one story the mother, father and son, invited out of pity to the home of a smug, condescending rich man, discover with shame their lowly status among those who arrived earlier in the same promised land. They also realize how far they must rise just to be marginally acceptable.

From this ghetto David Bezmozgis went to McGill and then to the University of Southern California film school in Los Angeles. He now has two short films behind him and a feature film script moving through the development process in Canada. He's also contemplating a novel. Recently, just before returning to Toronto after a period in the U.S., he spent four months in Trastevere, the old Jewish section of Rome, which may figure in the novel. But much of his time in the last decade has been spent developing stories about the Berman family and especially Mark Berman, the stand-in for David.

He shows us several versions of Mark -- as a little kid who discovers he must help guide his parents through a strange country; as a boy whose unhappiness takes the form of schoolyard violence; as a perpetually stoned 16-year-old learning about sex from Natasha, an enticing 14-year-old, newly arrived from Russia, who turns out to be as tough as an old boot; and as a young man slowly accepting the first pains of adulthood.

Bezmozgis's emergence into the light of publishing has much to do with a friendship he made in Los Angeles in 1999. There he came to know Leonard Michaels, an excellent but underappreciated writer, who died last year at the age of 70. "When I read him it was a revelation," Bezmozgis says. "It was like recognizing something about myself." In Bezmozgis we can occasionally hear echoes of the diamond-hard intransigence that marks the Michaels stories collected in I Would Have Saved Them if I Could and other books.

Bezmozgis imagined that a Michaels story, Honeymoon, would make a film, and wrote a movie script based on it. That went nowhere, but in the process Michaels and Bezmozgis became friends. "He was generous to all sorts of writers," Bezmozgis says. Michaels read Roman Berman, Massage Therapist, one of the best stories in the book, and liked it. This meant a lot to Bezmozgis. Moreover, he connected with a network of writers who knew each other through Michaels. One of them, Wyatt Mason, a writer and a translator of Rimbaud, passed on a Bezmozgis story, Natasha, to Lorin Stein, an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Stein liked it and asked to read more. Eventually he signed up Natasha and Other Stories. Rights have since been sold in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, Spain, Japan, Israel, and Latvia, as well as Canada. This spring Farrar, Straus showed an unusual commitment to the book by sending Bezmozgis on a pre-publication tour of Chicago, Washington, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, to meet independent booksellers.

Early reviewers in the U.S. have compared him to an amazing list of writers--Isaac Babel, Saul Bellow, the young Philip Roth, even James Joyce. Bezmozgis has lately been getting used to this kind of adulation. But when Farrar, Straus bought his book, he was startled. "I believed the stories were good, but nothing had ever happened to me before, so I thought that getting a book published was a remote possibility--so remote that if it had never happened in my life I wouldn't have been surprised."

Sometimes, in the hands of a good writer, a nowhere place turns into a somewhere. A subtle combining of observation and imagination can give a writer's hometown or district a life in literature and history. When Mordecai Richler began writing in the 1950s, nobody but the locals knew anything about the St. Urbain St. district of Montreal--and even they didn't consider it important. Richler made capturing it in fiction the central project of his life. Today, people across Canada and in many other places know that "St. Urbain St." means a whole topography of conflict, love, disappointment, striving, conniving, comedy and tragedy.

Bezmozgis has always admired Richler. When he was an undergraduate at McGill a decade ago he made a point of visiting St. Urbain St. "It's not much to look at," he says now, "but I looked." He knew that a magician had transformed those plain streets.

Obviously, he has something similar in mind for the urban landscape of his own childhood. Recently he spoke about how attractive he finds "the idea of mythologizing this nowhere place that doesn't mean anything to anyone. Maybe it will mean something to people far away if you write about, and maybe they'll even make a pilgrimage to look at Bathurst and Finch." The idea seems no more outlandish than Richler's idea seemed 50 years ago. In the hands of Bezmozgis, in fact, it doesn't seem outlandish at all.

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