Interview with David Bergen

David Bergen was born in a fishing village in British Columbia and grew up in Niverville, Manitoba. Author of seven novels and a short story collection, he is one of Canada’s most distinguished fiction writers. He has received numerous literary prizes, including the Scotiabank Giller Prize Award for The Time in Between, which also won McNally Robinson Book of the Year and the Margaret Laurence Award for Fiction. The Matter with Morris won the Carol Shields Winnipeg Award in 2011, and Bergen was recently honoured with the Writers’ Trust Engel/Find- ley Award for an author in mid-career. Bergen lives with his family in Winnipeg.

Rhubarb: All your books have intriguing titles, but perhaps the most evocative is your most recent one, The Age of Hope, which traces the main character’s life from youth to old age. Hope was born in 1930. At the end of the novel, she is about seventy. Her death, or at least the end of her active life, depending on one’s interpretation of the final pages, occurs at the turn of the twentieth century. Can your novel also be read as a portrait of an “age” in the sense of an era?

David Bergen: The title is slightly ironic, of course (chosen by the author certainly, because Hope would have no truck with that). Any lecture/book/novel that begins with “The Age of …” implies a grand treatise requiring gravitas. Hope’s life is anything but grand. It is quite simple, very understated. And so she is set off against the era that defines her. She is a little bit removed, not only from the events around her (the march of feminism, the death of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, the pill and the subsequent sexual revolution) but also from her- self. She positions herself outside of her own actions and regards her world—her choices, her lack of choice, her ill-fated choices—as if from a distance. And not an ironic distance. She is incapable of irony, except perhaps in the dismissal of her own significance.

R: Hope lives in a Mennonite town that she comes to find stifling, its inhabitants small-minded and hypocritical. Its setting, like that of Miriam Toews’s A Complicated Kindness, is easily recognized by Menno- nite readers from Manitoba, though you call it Eden. Is Hope’s Eden more stifling than Margaret Laurence’s “English” small town of Manawaka (a thinly dis- guised Neepawa), or small-town Ontario in Robertson Davies’s Salterton novels?

DB: I’m happy to see that you recognized the town. Hope’s Eden is very different from both Laurence’s and Davies’s towns. Hers has a deeper Germanic/ Russian ethos—and, of course, there are the inevitable vestiges of the Anabaptists with their penchant for living in but not being of the world, which is why Hope has such difficulty with the cloistered and narrow world of Eden. She is an outsider, a non-Mennonite growing up with Mennonites, and she must learn the rules, the language, the nuances of piety and pilgrimage. Of course, as she stands outside looking in, she bristles. And misbehaves. And grovels. And bristles some more. Is this stifling? It may be more stifling to those who don’t understand that they are being stifled. And so Hope has a certain freedom.

R: In at least two places, the novel seems to allude to the German sociologist Max Weber’s notion of the Protestant or Puritan ethic (a phrase he coined), according to which Protestant societies consider prosperity and wealth to be a visible sign of grace, a confirmation that those who have attained material success have been divinely blessed and predestined for salvation. This is an idea that many social philosophers consider to have been collectively internalized in Anglo-Saxon countries, notably the United States. Have Canadians, and more specifically Canadian Mennonites, bought into that? Is that one of the un- derlying themes of your novel?

DB: At a very emotional level, I was thinking back to growing up in Niverville, or visiting my cousins in Steinbach. Always, there was the sense that failure to succeed financially had to it the smell of sin. Obviously you hadn’t worked out your salvation, or you had closeted some iniquity. That said, the wealthy among us (secular and religious) have a fondness for gloating, for believing that profit is simply a matter of hard work … and, of course, for believing that financial success is the heart of the heart of the mat- ter. And so we arrive at one more irony, where the material world trumps the world of the soul.

R: In the novel, Hope doesn’t work, except for a brief stint with a cleaning service. She has four children, but has considerable help raising them, and she also employs help for housecleaning and laundry tasks. Is her sense of guilt and bewilderment about the way she lives her life (before her husband’s bankruptcy) rooted in an unconscious feeling of falling short, in terms of the norms and values of this “Protestant ethic”? Does that contribute to her breakdown?

DB: I don’t believe that Hope, maturing in the early fifties, has the same sense of “work” that we have to- day. You are correct, however, to recognize her bewilderment. She grows up poor, marries a car dealer, and is suddenly showered with “things.” Which is why, on her wedding night, she rises to inspect and marvel at the glittery gifts that have arrived unbidden. This creates conflict. That said, I don’t have a specific answer for her breakdown. It might be a culmination of events: her guilt over the glut of things, her alienation from both the community and her children, a sense of helplessness in the face of sudden myriad choices, and the hopelessness that arrives with the birth of her fourth child—which might be postpartum depression.

R: Do you see Hope as a representative of women in the “age” in which she lives? Or is she the opposite, an exception which the paradigm can’t accommodate?

DB: Both. She was perfectly content to drop out of nurse’s training to marry and have children. She wanted a home. She wanted a husband. She wanted security. And yet, having found all these things, she pushes against them. She runs away, she picks up hitchhikers, she finds solace in the oddity of the stranger. She makes herself into a stranger of sorts. She lives in a detached way, slightly bemused by the rules that govern right and wrong.

R: In your novels, names are often carriers of mean- ing. The significance of Hope is obvious, and ironic, in the sense that that is what the character lacks through most of the novel. In the book you explain the origin of Hope’s last name, Koop, as a noun, the meaning of which fits the context in that Hope is “cooped up” in her marriage and in her community. But the name itself is derived from Low German koopen, (“to purchase”). As an occupational name, it designates a merchant, fitting Roy Koop, a car dealer. It has also been explained as a patronymic derived from “Jakob,” associated with wrestling with the angel, but also one of the twelve apostles (English “James”). Did any of this enter into your decision to choose that name? And—a second question—do you find your readers and reviewers “get” the significance of the names you choose for your characters?

DB: Oh my, you have just given me a wonderful lesson in etymology and origin. I didn’t know about koopen, but I love it. I didn’t know about the patronymic. Love that too. I admit, with chagrin, that I was much simpler in my reasoning. I wanted Hope because it is, as you say, both ironic and obvious. Koop struck me as low sounding and simple and not at all sexy. (I apologize to all those Koops out there, who are, I am sure, absolutely sexy.) It isn’t far-fetched to think that many Mennonites are on the run from their names. And so, perhaps, I wanted a name that was “low” and unassuming and plain. Though Hope never runs from her name. She wouldn’t have it in her.

R: Your book tacitly evokes biblical Corinthians, which teaches the importance of “Faith, Hope, Love,” and according to which the greatest is Love. Hope lacks all of these through most of the novel, until the end, where she still seems to lack faith, but she has hope, and discovers that she has love. Like The Matter with Morris, the ending of the novel is life-affirming and, in a way, hopeful. When you were writing these novels, did you consider giving them a sad or tragic ending, letting them rest in the negative, so to speak?

DB: I don’t know if Hope lacks faith, or hope. Without doubt there can be no faith, and Hope certainly has much doubt. And it would seem to me that she has an underpinning of hope, otherwise she would not reach the age of seventy. She is wonderfully resilient, and doesn’t this require both faith and hope?

I am rereading Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, a novel about a man who leaves his privileged life and his family and lives as a vagrant and a drunk. Nothing especially life-affirming about that description, and yet as I read I am struck by the joy and power of the language that McCarthy uses. And the humour. It’s as if the author has turned my expectations upside down and forced me to see the world in a different way.

I did not set out to give Hope a happy ending. It surprises me when readers say that this book ends happily. I didn’t know that. I suppose it has surprised me in the past when readers have called certain of my novels bleak and sad. I didn’t know that either, which speaks more to my own naïveté, or perhaps to my lack of objectivity.