Sunday, September 09, 2007

John Barth in My City

I am deep in the thick of John Barth's "LETTERS," a novel that requires every inch of attention in order to digest. I am completely drawn into its elaborate conceits and the extraordinarily vivid world of its characters...almost TOO vivid. It is, after all, about the delicate line between fiction and reality, inspiration and fabrication. I constantly need to ask myself (much as the characters do): did this really happen? Is this a real place?

Presumably because it's (partially) related to the war of 1812, southern Ontario figures frequently in the book (in particular Ottawa, Niagara Falls, and Toronto), but usually in a sketchy way which implies that Barth didn't really visit during his research. When, on page 200, Lady Amherst writes about travelling to Stratford for the Shakespeare Festival, I got a creeping sensation...this book is getting awfully close to my stomping grounds. My mother and I were in Stratford just three weeks ago.

Then, suddenly:
...I was handed a sealed envelope with my name on it by one of the ushers. I was obliged to sit before I could open it. The note inside, in a handwriting I knew, read: "My darling: Dinner 8 P.M., Wolpert Hotel, Kitchener."
Yes, I LIVE in that city which Barth describes as "in the middle of nowhere." What's more, the "very European old hotel" is no doubt the WALPER Hotel, built in 1893 after a fire destroyed the original 1820's structure. The Walper is a grand old landmark where drag queens such as yours truly have, at various times, performed in "the improbably elegant German dining room on the second floor."

Given the way the book is going, I'm waiting to come across the character of Muffy St. Bernard IV, bastard offspring of Napoleon and Mary Shelley.

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