Review: Leaving Tomorrow, by David Bergen

David Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014). Hardcover, 275 pages, $27.99.

“Writing,” says David Bergen, “is a way of figuring things out. If you can’t ask certain questions in church, maybe you can ask them in fiction.”1 But for the main character in Bergen’s eighth novel, Leaving Tomorrow, reading is also a means of figuring things out. For this young man, maturity means learning to love another human being as much as he loves stories and books.

Arthur Wohlgemuht grows up in the 1960s on the ranch where his father is employed, near the fictional town of Tomorrow in southern Alberta, an inquisitive and bookish child who’s aware of how he’s different from those around him. In some ways he resembles the romantic artist, even to the extent of developing minor temporal lobe seizures, an ailment that he can describe as “a romantic problem, one of dreaminess and inspiration and intelligence.”

The opening half of Arthur’s first-person narrative covers his life before he leaves home. He relates very early events, including his own birth, as if he remembers them, and makes himself sound impossibly mature. This is partly explained later when, during seizures, he sees images from his early life, but it also suits Arthur’s style to give his experiences a heightened significance.

Literature becomes one of Arthur’s great passions when, at age twelve, he’s given access to an unlimited supply of books while convalescing from a broken leg. “Those were the months,” he says, “when . . . I discovered love.” Precociously, he reads Flaubert and Stendhal, whose works become both a model and a means to interpret his life.

Women are Arthur’s other great love, starting with his mother and the sister he barely knew (Em died when he was a year old) and continuing with the daughter of his father’s employers, his brother’s girlfriend, his adopted cousin Isobel, and later his employer in Paris and the waitress at his habitual café. Through affection, lust, or romantic longing, he’s attracted to them all.

What complicates things is that Arthur quickly creates a fantasy around each woman he meets: “I fit them into my world, . . . loved them, . . . and had us living out a life of affection and care and desire.” He’s occasionally aware of how improbable these fantasies are, but carries on with them nonetheless.

The constant among all these women is Isobel. Between visits they write to each other, and those letters form the foundation of a love that takes them years to recognize. She’s the one woman with whom Arthur shares an intellectual bond as well as a physical attraction, the one most conscious of and resistant to his idealizing tendencies, and in the end his strongest link with home.

Relations with his brother Bev, on the other hand, are hostile and complicated. Arthur thinks he’s “of greater moral character” than Bev, while Bev sees Arthur as self-righteous and an oddball. And yet Arthur takes the blame for a car accident in which Bev hits a man on a dark highway. Acknowledging his reasons for doing this becomes part of his maturing. The second half of the book deals mostly with Arthur’s year in France, where he studies French and teaches English to the young son of a suburban couple in Paris. He doesn’t exactly hate the ranch, he’s just certain the intellectual life he craves will be found elsewhere. He’s on a quest to remake himself, “a plebeian striving for aristocratic grace.” As might be expected, what he finds is not entirely what he looks for.

In its bare outline, this is a very familiar story that follows in the well-established literary tradition of the rural kid going off to the city (Robertson Davies, for one, wrote several variations on this theme). What makes this particular version so enjoyable is Arthur’s distinctive voice—his narrative flair, the way his romantic leanings can tip toward the absurd, his mingling of self-deprecating wit and extravagant self-regard. Without being entirely likable, Arthur is decidedly attractive.

Arthur grows up Mennonite and, for him, leaving home includes rejecting the Church, and even God. This, too, is a familiar theme, particularly in work by Mennonite writers, but here the more prominent (and more interesting) thread involves the interplay of Arthur’s ideals and his encounters with living human beings.

“I had imagined finding a woman with whom I might have deep conversations about books and art and ideas,” he says. The Paris waitress who becomes his lover is, instead, a practical woman who prefers holding hands and talking about her work and her daughter. When Arthur talks of his ambitions, she is amused: “She touched my jaw and said that . . . I was a handsome farmer who thought that just because he could read and write and think a little, he was better than the other peasants.” It’s an assessment Arthur disputes, briefly, but doesn’t deny.

Bergen’s elegant prose and deft touch with dialogue make Leaving Tomorrow a pleasurable read. He wraps up the narrative with a judicious balance of resolution and open-endedness, melancholy, and hope.

Joanne Epp grew up in a small prairie town and eventually ended up in Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared in Rhubarb, The New Quarterly, and The Dalhousie Review, among others, and her first book-length collection, Eigenhem, will be published this spring by Turnstone Press.