Ice Fishing in Gimli: Bibliophilic Rapture in the Cold or Twilight’s Last Gleaning
by Gary Michael Dault
Border Crossings, May 2007, pp. 76-82
The five ice-grey volumes of Rob Kovitz’s epic accumulation of text and illustration, his mute yet clamouring, self-proclaiming "novel," Ice Fishing in Gimli, are stacked on a table 20 feet from my keyboard. They look like a low-rise, concrete-block building from 500 yards away. I keep them at a distance because they are dangerous.
It’s a sweet danger, but a danger still. If the books are near to me, I will take them up and read around in them. At which time, it will become almost impossible to disengage myself from this white tar-baby of a book, this vast, centripetal hopper into which everything that can be harvested from the outside world that has anything to do with ice-fishing (in Gimli or otherwise), ice, snow, water, fish, the Armand Bombardier, the Idea of North, the idea of architecture, and especially northern architecture (Kovitz is an architect), the ideas swarming about exploration, survival and human meaning, the ideas we have about ideas—has been introduced. Ice Fishing in Gimli is a white (w)hole.
What is the book like? Well, it’s a living. And a sort of death too, being a vibrant monument, reeling quietly in my hands with a kind of acquisitional violence, an archive-fever, that makes its cool ice-expansive exterior—with its greyed-out, emblematic image of an intense-eyed fisherman leaning back from his delicate network of lines like a haughty magician at the climactic, rabbit-from-a-hat moment, as he pulls a small silver fish from the frigid waters of Lake Winnipeg—seem preternaturally inviting, participatory, in a way that both announces and anesthetizes the caution the book requires.
I keep putting the book down, because it will take over my life. Last night, I turned my back on it and picked up, in defiance, John Updike’s considerably less encyclopedic novel, Gertrude and Claudius, 2000. But there’s no getting away from Gimli. I was a few mere paragraphs into the book—Updike’s recasting of the Hamlet story—when I came to his description of the warrior-prince being actively considered as the husband-to-be for Gerutha (Shakespeare’s Gertrude), the daughter to the King of Denmark. His name is Horwendil, and he has been deemed "quite handsome, with his candle-pale skin, his curly flaxen hair, his short straight nose, his icy blue eyes long as minnows in his wide face …" Icy blue eyes long as minnows? That might have made Gimli. It still might, after Kovitz reads this.
Having said as much serves to make clear, I hope, that Rob Kovitz’s encyclopedic "novel" has not been composed—at least not in the conventional sense—but rather compiled. Kovitz hasn’t actually written any of this gigantic or, more accurately (since the Rabelaisian reference is ultimately appropriate) Gargantuan tome—except for a brief "editorial notice" on the first page of Volume One that explains both how, and the degree to which, the work is still under construction.
It’s a sweet danger, but a danger still. If the books are near to me, I will take them up and read around in them. At which time, it will become almost impossible to disengage myself from this white tar-baby of a book ...
Gimli might (un)reasonably be characterized as a meta-fiction; it is, at least, the kind of meta-fiction which will surely seem, on the one hand, sufficiently "meta" to any reader who hefts the weight of the collected learning enshrined within the book’s present five volumes (Kovitz claims there will be at least two more volumes before the work is finished; he refers to its current, five volume form as its "second progress edition," the work’s having been exhibited three times now—as an installation, not as a book). And it will seem impeccably "meta" to note that the work now proceeds through 3315 pages and, by the end of its trajectory (according to Kovitz), will finish at page 4000. On the other hand, it no doubt remains a bit of a stretch for many observers of the Gimli artifact to see this proliferating object as a work of fiction.
In what way(s) can Ice Fishing in Gimli be considered a novel, meta or otherwise? Perhaps the answer—or an approach to it—will arise from further discussion of the book’s nature.
Kovitz who, as I mentioned, is an architect by training, first went to Gimli in order to design and build a house in that town for his retired parents. He lived there in 1996 and 1997. He described the place for a non-Gimli-ite like me, during a recent telephone conversation about his work, as a "Manitoba prairie town, a cottage community, lying about an hour’s drive north of Winnipeg,î and yes, when his titanic project began, he, too, knew nothing about Gimli but what could be gleaned of its atmospheres from Guy Maddin’s 1988 film Tales from the Gimli Hospital (Maddin’s photograph appears on page 1178, in Volume Three) and that the place had been an Icelandic settlement, the chief occupation of which was its ice fishing and local commercial fishing industry (Kovitz noted the fact, surprising to me, that Lake Winnipeg, on which Gimli nestles, is the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world).
The book’s beginnings lay in Kovitz’s desire to document the ice fishing industry in Gimli. But soon it began to change its direction and its texture, filling out, in addition to its original goal, and becoming—after a half-dozen years of steady labour—something more accurately resembling what Kovitz terms a "book of metaphors of fishing and ice." An encyclopedia, actually, of metaphors of fishing and ice.
There’s a little game I like to play with novels—perhaps many people do—that involves reading only their first and last lines, as a sort of appetizer (verbal calipers you can then pick the book up with). I know somebody who commits these alpha and omega lines to memory: say "Call me Ishmael" to him, and he’ll answer "… and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled 5000 years ago."
First lines are crucial, and here are the first lines of Volume One of Ice Fishing in Gimli: the book opens with a prefatory page titled "Clues in the Snow" under which the reader will find, first, a two-line contribution by somebody named John Haines (from a book, hitherto unknown to me, called The Stars, the Snow, the Fire): "I have imagined a man," writes Haines, "who might live as the coldest scholar on earth, who followed each clue in the snow, writing a book as he went." This is hair-raisingly fine, is it not? And a brilliant beginning for Gimli? For me, the mystery of Kovitz’s somehow finding and filing this incandescently perfect piece for the opening of his book is a mystery fully as inexplicable as John Haines’s having come up with his "clue in the snow" passage in the first place. Claiming (or to maintain some northern imagery, staking-a-claim) is the new composing.
Unable any longer to bear my ignorance about John Haines (this is one of the ways Gimli spreads its beneficent wings), I Google him and find him to be, according to an organization called Ice-Floe, International Poetry of the Far North, "one of the North’s finest poets," a writer born in 1924, and author of such books as Winter News, 1967, and News from the Glacier, 1987. Kovitz has neglected to give the Haines book its full title—which is The Stars, the Snow, the Fire: Twenty-five Years in the Northern Wilderness, 1989—but now I know. And I’m only four lines into the first volume. I am already, as a reader, what Laurence Sterne’s protagonist, Tristram Shandy, was as a "writer" of his own story: which is to say that I am falling ever more rapidly and maddeningly behind.
The Haines citation is immediately followed by a snippet from Frederick Philip Grove’s Over Prairie Trails, 1922: "A house has its physiognomy as well as a man, for him who can read it"—a reference that makes clear from the outset that Ice Fishing in Gimli is both a structure of words and a structure per se. If the book is not exactly a work of architecture (but see the long section in Volume Three, pages 1084–1251, called "Towards a New Architecture"), it is, at least, morphological: this exceedingly enterable book is almost a building.
It is no accident (nothing seems to be in this juggernaut of compilation) that Gimli’s second opening citation is from Frederick Philip Grove. Grove is important to Kovitz for a couple of reasons: first, because, as Canada’s earliest novelist of importance, he lends his tincturing imprimatur to the idea that Gimli is indeed a novel. Grove, the "quintessential Canadian" (page 3176), is afforded 27 pages (citations from, comments about) in the still mostly blank Volume Five (its snow-white pages waiting to be filled), in a section called "The Lonely Passion of Frederick Philip Grove," a title which, I take it, has been harvested, in true Kovitz fashion, from novelist Brian Moore.
Second, Grove seems to be some sort of literary father figure for Kovitz—or, if not quite that, his stentorian, novelistic presence near the end of the prodigious Gimli artifact nevertheless seems to position Grove as somehow presiding over the long trajectory of the book as it works its way from simple aggregation to a complex, swarming, shaping, accumulating aggregation—that sidles up, in its multi-valenced way, to fiction. "Gimli possesses a strong arc, a strong narrative," Kovitz told me during a recent telephone conversation, "and it’s highly autobiographical." Autobiographical in the sense that it is Kovitz who is choosing the citations and putting them where they make the most sense, "novelistically" speaking? "It’s more than that," Kovitz explains. "There’s a character that starts to emerge, as the book proceeds—a Don Quixote character." Who is also, I venture, the Rob Kovitz character.
There’s a lot of upfront Don Quixote, in fact both the book and the character. In the beautifully organized "Exposition of Method," Don Quixote is a sort of procedural overture that begins Volume One: "Idle reader, you can believe without any oath of mine that I would wish this book, as the child of my brain, to be the most beautiful, the liveliest and the cleverest imaginable. But I have been unable to transgress the order of nature, by which like gives birth to like …"
This telling snippet of the Quixote is immediately followed (as Kovitz-Quixote modulates into architect-Kovitz) by a short passage from Architecture From the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space, 2001, by the brilliant Elizabeth Grosz (unlisted, annoyingly, in Kovitz’s normally responsible list of sources): "I would like to think of a text, whether book, paper, film, painting or photograph, as a kind of thief in the night. Furtive, clandestine and always complex, it steals ideas from all around, from its own milieu and history, and, better still, from its outside, and disseminates them elsewhere …" This, in turn, is followed by reminders from Marshall McLuhan (in The Medium is the Massage) about the relatively recent advent of the concept of "authorship" ("… the invention of printing did away with anonymity …"), thereby setting up an inverse cultural matrix for Kovitz within which selective and directed "compiling" might be seen to have replaced or at least modified and extended the nature of authorship, the advent of computer-assisted assemblage having now subordinated authorship to the status of provender, the raw material of the selection process. Kovitz quotes from A.S. Byatt, appropriately, from her Babel Tower who, in turn, is allowing one of her characters to quote from William Burroughs on the Burroughs/Brion Gysin "cut-up" method of composition: "The point of words is that they have to have been already used, they have not to be new, they to be only re-arrangements, in order to have meaning …"
Is Ice-Fishing in Gimli a novel—or meta-novel? I think so. I like to think so. I know what the work is not: it is not, despite its size and the endless density of its learning, a Menippean satire—and I am referring here to that long literary tradition said to have begun with the Greek satirist Menippus, a tradition whose practitioners exulted in the generation of literary works of great formal excess involving a gleeful compositional extravagance and impropriety of both structure and tone. Apuleius’s The Golden Ass is a Menippean satire; so is Petronius’s The Satyricon, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, Pope’s Dunciad Variorum, and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Pale Fire. Sterne’s nine-volume Tristram Shandy is the greatest Menippean Satire of the last 300 years, its formal improprieties running to black pages, blank pages, marbleized pages, and squiggly drawings attempting to clarify the progress of the book’s tortured, switchback narrative.
"There may or may not be certain things going on under the book’s surface," Kovitz tells me mysteriously. What things? I don’t know—tonal things, the weight and ordering of citations, borrowed feints and alarms, discursions and adjacencies, wicked, telling juxtapositions, snack food for thought.
Gimli feels like these works, but is different. For one thing, it is not a satire—though Kovitz has suggested to me that one of the major themes of the work is "the decline of the book in an increasingly non-reading world," a lamentable condition apparently but not really mocked by Gimli’s compendium-heft. "There may or may not be certain things going on under the book’s surface," Kovitz tells me mysteriously. What things? I don’t know—tonal things, the weight and ordering of citations, borrowed feints and alarms, discursions and adjacencies, wicked, telling juxtapositions, snack food for thought. No, Gimli’s only formal impropriety is its massive, hopper-like totalizing nature, its intimidating, exhilarating avoir-du-pois, its doorstop-thereness. There is no arch, knowing, authorial intrusion. There is no clandestine, devil’s advocate voice thrumming through the piece, no insinuating asides addressed to the reader/viewer, no conspiratorial winking or leering. Rather, Gimli is utterly transparent, fully disclosed, open as an expanse of frozen lake; what you get is what there is.
Except for those "certain things" that may or may not be going on "under the surface"—like fish under the ice. Yes, come to think of it, there are dreams. And reflections. And speculations. Sub-aqueous things that go bump in the unconscious.
It should also be noted at this point that the five current volumes of Gimli are as visually rich as they are citationally dense; you can’t turn more than a page or two in any of the volumes (well, okay, there aren’t many pictures in Volume Four) without encountering this generous rush of black and white illustration, ranging from full-page spreads (photographs, film stills, charts, book covers, maps) to graphic vignettes, decorations and blandishments, cartoons, plans, often with strips of glued-on caption or commentary, as waggishly intrusive as the collaged messages of ransom notes. My favourite section of Gimli, graphically speaking, is the chapter in Volume Two called "The Transport." It’s all about snowmobiles, and it is probably the definitive study of them. It is a sparkling bit of compendium mastery too, in the sense that nowhere in all of Gimli does Kovitz’s mordant shaping wit come so strongly and inventively to the fore as here, in the matching and mutual amplifying of illustration and text. It is quintessential Kovitz to quote Snowmobile inventor J. Armand Bombardier, and to sidle up next to it with a thunderous moment from Ezekiel 1:21: "When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels" (page 775).
Coda: I’m trying to decide why I feel so much clean, pure affection (as a ground for the intellectual excitement it continually stirs up) for Ice Fishing in Gimli. I don’t know Gimli, after all, and I don’t know ice fishing. I think it’s because there is little in literature that is more enjoyable than an enticing, compelling citation: something that will galvanize us into the desire, if not the actual opportunity, to fly off in another direction, to pursue, to follow up. And Gimli is all citation. It is a literary lodestone, a paradoxically great buoyant weight of gatherings, a switchboard, a transformer, an epically-scaled game of mixing and matching and the humble/arrogant pursuit of wholeness and the whole: the joy, scarcely ever to be felt by any of us, that lies in making a stab at completeness: at the hopelessly dear dream of knowing everything about something.
Rob Kovitz’s Ice Fishing in Gimli is a multi-volume bookwork-in-progress which has been exhibited at Gallery One One One in Winnipeg in 2004 (3 volumes, 1594 pages) and at YYZ Artist’s Outlet in Toronto in 2006 (5 volumes, 3321 pages). It is scheduled to be published by Treyf Books in 2008.
Gary Michael Dault is a critic, poet and painter who lives in Toronto.