I am sitting on the subway, reading with horror and fascination. Is this how it really was? I ask myself.
Miriam Moscowitz, the main character of Cary Fagan’s new book, The Student, is in her final year studying English at the University of Toronto. It is the 1950s, and she has asked her professor for a recommendation letter:
He avoided looking at her but took the pipe from his mouth. “Whatever for?”
The question took her aback. “Well, to do my Masters and then my PhD.”
“No, no, I mean whatever do you want to do a PhD for? To spend several years of your life, not to mention the valuable resources of this university, for nothing?”
I make a note in the margins: I must ask someone. Is this what really happened? “You certainly can’t expect to be hired by any of the other colleges,” her professor says in so many words. As a Jew, the subtext reads, she stands no chance of a professorship outside of University College, and as a woman, no chance anywhere at all.
I have to find someone the same age as Miriam, born in the late 1930s. Someone who can attest to the horror of this sexism and anti-Semitism. My mother, perhaps? No, too young. My grandmother, maybe? No, too old (and too dead). My mother, then: she’s Jewish, graduated from University College, and grew up middle-class near Forest Hill in Toronto, just like Miriam. She is ten years Miriam’s junior, but that may be close enough. Maybe I’ll ask her. Maybe.
With The Student, his seventh novel, Fagan sketches an intimate portrait of middle-class Jewish life in 1950s Toronto. Films at the Eglinton Theatre, Shabbat dinners every Friday at home, pastrami sandwiches from Switzer’s Deli, cottaging on the south shore of Lake Simcoe. Many of these places I never knew personally, but I nonetheless understand their symbolic purchase.
There are, of course, the era’s darker realities. The cottages are restricted to land where Jews are permitted to buy. Clubs and universities have quotas. The Junior Common Room at University College is nicknamed the Jewish Common Room. It isn’t for social climbers, Miriam believes, it’s for students with genuine intellectual ambition. Students at Victoria and St. Mike’s disagree: they see their Jewish colleagues not only as social climbers but as degenerates and heathens.
The sexism Miriam experiences in the book is somewhat more insidious, barring her professor’s. It is the stuff of quotidian discrimination: The men who leer at Miriam and solicit her unwantedly. The ones who laugh at her expense and crack jokes at the idea of a female (university) president. Today, we might call these acts microaggressions. But Fagan is clear about their cumulative impact — the disillusionment and the sense of alienation:
She walked out the room, down the hall and into the cold afternoon. . . . She had thought of them as all in this together — the common pursuit, Leavis had called it. And had she ever really been taken seriously?
The professor’s comments, however, are direct, in both execution and consequence. For Miriam, they cause a pivotal fracture. Fagan shows how discrimination like this operates, breaking down its victims’ sense of self and filling the spaces with self-loathing. “What she felt most was a terrible embarrassment or shame that made her cheeks burn,” the narrator explains. “It felt as if she had done something very wrong, something that would make everyone she knew feel disappointed in her.”
My subway train passes Rosedale Station and emerges into the light of day. I look up at the profile of a woman seated in front of me. Her hair is grey and trim. She wears glasses. Her hands are folded neatly in her lap. She seems about Miriam’s age. I wonder if I can ask her if what I’m reading is true.
“Hello, ma’am,” I say to myself. “I’m reading this book about a young woman in Toronto in the 1950s. It is about sexism, anti-Semitism, and racism. Can you tell me if her experiences are true? Did it really happen this way?”
I look back down. I should just ask my mother. Maybe.
Shortly after the meeting with her professor, Miriam meets Charlie. He is a fellow student, an American, and a civil rights activist. It is 1957, three years after the watershed Brown v. Board of Education decision at the United States Supreme Court. In Little Rock, nine black students approach the doors of their public school and demand admittance. Riots break out. President Eisenhower federalizes the Arkansas National Guard to escort the children to school. In Charlie’s apartment, Miriam finds a shrine of sorts, a commemoration, clippings taped to his closet door:
Crouching lower, she examined a photograph of one Negro girl in sunglasses with books under her arm while a mob of white people screamed at her. There was one particular white girl, just behind, screaming murder as if she might do something violent.
Charlie represents a different future for Miriam. Miriam’s boyfriend, Isidore, is her conventional high school sweetheart. He is the son of family friends. He buys a house in the suburbs, wants children, follows in his father’s footsteps in business. Although he is “kind, and big-hearted, and devoted,” Miriam is ambivalent about him and the future he represents, especially in light of her meeting with her professor.
Charlie is restless. He would prefer mobilizing in Little Rock to studying architecture in Toronto. He positions conformism against activism with his point of view:
“That’s the way it is these days, isn’t it?” he said. “What they want for all of us. Get married, have a baby, sign the mortgage, another baby, a car, a two-week vacation and a burial plot. It’s like we beat the Nazis and it gave us the right to own a washing machine.”
She goes to bed with him. It would be unfair to say that by cheating on her conformist boyfriend, Miriam takes up with Charlie and his call to activism. Fagan is unyielding: he refuses to flatten his characters into clichés. Miriam isn’t one to cheat; she’s never cut class. She is serious and disciplined and more than a bit judgmental. After the sex, “she didn’t feel relieved or liberated or pleased with herself. She thought that she might throw up.”
She vows never to return to Charlie. Weeks go by. She goes to a party. She returns. This time, it’s different:
And she went again. And felt for the first time something more powerful than anything she had ever imagined. It wasn’t worship of him, peculiar and imperfect man that he was. She knew it was about her. And it was not without pain. It was a delicious cut that she caressed over and over so that it wouldn’t heal.
In moments like these, Fagan’s writing sings. Ordinarily, his prose is unadorned and spare, and there is unassailable power in its simplicity. Occasionally, however, he needs more to get the job done. To do so, he turns to a capacious metaphor, just enough to hold the many dimensions of Miriam and her feelings. It is a compositional strategy befitting this densely packed novel, which often reads like an extended short story. Here, it’s Fagan’s raison d’être: to capture his characters, with their choices and their motivations, in their full complexity.
Miriam struggles to do the same. Her yearning to understand herself is a central tension in the novel that carries us along with it. She returns regularly to this question, and most directly at the end of the book.
Now in her seventies, Miriam has retired from a successful professorship in English at U of T and is confronted with her husband’s third affair. The moment echoes her professor’s sexism years before: “And what had overwhelmed her first was not heartbreak but shame. As if she herself had done wrong.”
She is older now, and perhaps wiser. She turns to her latest project of self-understanding. Reading works from queer and feminist theory and revisiting the objects of her own personal archaeology — letters she wrote in her twenties and an annotated copy of Henry James — she begins to unfold the questions of self, memory, and meaning:
We have memories, we think we know who we once were, but do we really? . . . That’s what I’m really interested in. Not in being young again but in knowing better this young self. And this older one, too. . . . Miriam, you must meet Minnie. And now you two can have a good talk and get to the heart of things.
Miriam writes this on August 21, 2005, when the final third of The Student takes place. It is one month following Canada’s legalization of gay marriage. We learn that Miriam spent time advocating for marriage equality while she was a professor. Her son, Michael, is gay, and today is his wedding.
I freeze as I read this. Suddenly, it appears, Fagan has added me to the picture. Not only did my mother agitate for gay rights — she fought for AZT during the AIDS crisis — but she also has a gay son: me. I’m at Michael’s wedding and it feels like my own, complete with my older siblings. During the toasts, I’m giving his same speech:
Honestly, my mother has always helped me to see that the world is a larger place than just the circle of our own lives. And that we are part of that larger world and have a responsibility to it.
A day or two later, I turned to my mother at Shabbat.
“So,” I said, “it seems I’m reading the story of your life.”
“Oh,” she said. “What are you reading?”
“Cary Fagan’s The Student,” I answered. “You don’t happen to know him, do you?
She paused and smiled widely. “I’ve known him for years.”
I emailed my editor. “Am I in a conflict of interest?” I asked. “Not in a conflict of interest, no,” he reassured me. “But I think you’ve stumbled upon your hook.”
Miriam, of course, isn’t my mother, and I’m not Michael. But with The Student, Fagan has created something real. Not because he seemingly wrote about my mother, nor because he somehow included me. And not just because of the countless 1950s Jewish Toronto nostalgies and his carefully chosen, vivid details.
It is the richness of his characters, his insistence on revealing their full humanity, that resonates from one generation to the next. The truth of their struggles, the pain of their suffering, their resistance to — and activism in shaping — the society and history pressing in around them. Fagan has created an accurate portrait of two key moments in history. Even those of us who weren’t there can feel it.