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Forde Abroad

by John Metcalf

John Metcalf has not published a stand-alone book of fiction in some 10 years. This is unfortunate, because he is one of Canada’s best writers. With the publication of Forde Abroad, a brilliant 80-page novella, Metcalf makes us feel we have read a much grander work.

Metcalf is editor of Canadian Notes and Queries magazine and fiction editor at The Porcupine’s Quill. Forde Abroad, a sequel to the novella Travelling Northward, was originally published in 1996 in The New Quarterly.

The story follows Robert Forde, a curmudgeonly, late middle-aged Canadian novelist, on a trip to communist Alpine Slovenia. He is to be a guest speaker at a convention of Canadianists. To the chagrin of his wife, he is also to meet his muse, Karla, an East German woman with whom he has corresponded for years.

Metcalf delivers Forde’s journey in a dense but elegantly lucid style. Like one of Le Carré’s reluctant heroes, Forde stumbles through the medieval and verdant Soviet landscape opinionated, repulsed, drunk, and ill, but ultimately euphoric. Forde may scoff at theorists and malign Canadian readers, but he cannot help exulting at nature and at his own mysterious writerly gifts.

Metcalf himself stumbles but once. A passage in which Forde expounds to Karla on art – “It arises from the realness of the world … art encompasses ideas but it’s not about ideas” – falters because the passage itself is about ideas.

Forde Abroad is a superb work. Its artistry arises exactly because of Metcalf’s ability to mirror the “realness of the world,” especially at its most bizarre, a skill he handles with an economy so masterful that, like the rejuvenated Forde, it leaves us sated yet desiring more.