Steven Heighton may be Canada’s most romantic novelist. Not romantic as in affairs of the heart—although he does write stirringly of love—but as in the capital “R” Romantic of the 19th-century poets. The Romantic Movement emerged out of the ideals of the French Revolution, and its literary practitioners rebelled against the neo-classicism of the previous age, celebrating imagination and individual feeling over decorum and form. In the beauty of the natural world they discovered comfort and inspiration. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Heighton, who has written four novels and three books of short fiction, is also a poet; his seventh collection, The Waking Comes Late, won a Governor General’s Award in 2016. In novels such as The Shadow Boxer, Afterlands and Every Lost Country he applies his romantic vision, which explores dynamic nature, altered states of consciousness and the efforts of individuals to fulfill their physical, artistic and moral potential.
The Shadow Boxer is a Künstlerroman that tells the story of Sevigne Torrins, a young poet who dreams of moving to Toronto to pursue his literary ambitions. For now Sevigne—who is reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Jude—remains in a cabin near Lake Superior caring for his alcoholic father, but he does not despair; the stunning northern Ontario landscape fuels his creative spirit and passion for life. Here is Heighton’s evocation of a remote island sacred to father and son, intimating scenes from Wordsworth’s The Prelude:
He’d walked along a rough path through mixed pines and emerged in a clearing ringed by poplar and birch, their delicate small leaves spangling in the breeze. In the clearing was a pond, spring-fed, banked with granite and drained by a creek flowing down through a meadow of devil’s paintbrush, goldenrod, purple vetch and sumac, and on the rocky edges of the meadow a heath of blueberries, countless berries ripening from pink to deep blue in that vivid sun.
Like Coleridge, Heighton is particularly adept at conjuring the sublime, as he does in 2005’s Afterlands, which he based on the 1872 Polaris expedition to the North Pole. The multinational operation is doomed when half the party is swept away on an iceberg on which they struggle to find food and shelter. Yet they cannot help being awed by the infinite night sky, the way “the floe seems to slide not over the sea but through the heavens.” And later the day is “alive with light, as if charged with dazzling particles—the sun’s rays reflecting off the ice and the hut and the slow, dignified armada of icebergs convoying them south.”
Heighton also explores the politics of the period. Afterlands is a masterful dramatization of the Romantic nationalism (or national Romanticism) that arose in Germany in the later half of the 19th century. Romantic nationalism insisted that the right to self-determination applied to peoples united by language, race and traditions, as well as individuals. In the novel the German contingent takes up the nationalist cause. They hang a raggedy flag over their hut and draw a border in the snow. Roland Kruger, one of the crew, has zero desire to defend this line. He had joined the expedition to escape his country’s increasingly nationalistic attitude and, as a pacifist who believes strongly in the notion of neutrality, he cannot stomach the idea of restoring old divisions on the ice.
Often Heighton’s discussion of borders is metaphorical or psychological—along the lines of personal boundaries that will not be crossed. In Every Lost Country a former member of Doctors Without Borders realizes that his love for his family surpasses his commitment to his beliefs. Lewis Book is the resident physician on a Canadian climbing expedition in Nepal. He has brought along his troubled teenage daughter, who spies Chinese border guards shooting at a group of pilgrims illegally crossing into Tibet. Book soon finds himself arrested, and caught between his belief in non-violence and the need to protect his family. Heighton’s protagonists are often non-conformist melancholics with faith in brotherly love and a cherished sense of community. Their stark individuality clashes with the need in times of crisis for individuals to fight together as one. They want to be individuals and they want to be part of the group.
Of course, Heighton is not only a Romantic author, but also a Canadian author, which is to say that many of his concerns are Canadian ones. His preoccupation with boundaries, for instance, reflects our hyper-awareness of the Canadian border with the United States—our anxiety cranked way up as a result of Trump’s anti-Muslim edicts and the nightmare of the Mexican border wall. Heighton is not the only Canadian whose fiction prominently features borders: David Bergen’s recent Stranger involves a Guatemalan woman who illegally enters the United States to reclaim her kidnapped child, and in Dimitri Nasrallah’s Niko, Lebanese refugees face racism after crossing into Greece.
Heighton’s fictional settings are often historical or far-flung. His protagonists like to make themselves outsiders in foreign lands. (The Shadow Boxer, too, skips between Canada and Cairo, where Sevigne’s mother and brother live.) Yet for all Heighton’s obsession with foreign borders and personal boundaries, it is Canada that seems to be his central concern: the fact that we are not a nation united by mother tongue or customs or race, but strenuously—vociferously—multicultural, individuals with roots in hundreds of nations with hundreds of borders. Is it really possible to be our multiple selves—true, strong and free—and, at the same time one, united country? This is a question frequently posed by Canadian writers of colour, and one Heighton ponders most elegantly as well.
In his latest novel, The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, Heighton introduces us to Elias Trifannis, a 30-year-old Canadian soldier of Greek descent. The story opens around 2011 in Cyprus, where Elias is receiving psychiatric treatment. He refuses to sleep because he can’t stop dreaming about a horrific incident in Kandahar, where he had been stationed.
Things are about to get worse. When he meets an attractive journalist at a Turkish-owned bar, soldiers trail them to the beach and begin to shoot. The soldiers are enraged to see a Greek man romancing a Turkish woman. The journalist appears to get fatally wounded and Elias runs for his life, escaping into Varosha, the dead zone behind the Turkish border. Greek Cypriots abandoned Varosha after the 1974 Turkish invasion, and to this day the area remains forsaken, surrounded by barbed-wire fences and patrolled by Turkish soldiers. But Elias is stunned to find a small, mostly Greek community hidden inside the ghostly town. Once again he is held at gunpoint. The villagers must learn to trust him; they fear he will leave and report them to Turkish authorities. But after some weeks Elias develops an unusual feeling: the sense he is starting to belong.
This may be the most Romantic of Heighton’s novels, dealing as it does with man apart from sordid civilization, living simply and communally in an isolated village. The nightingale of the title loudly serenades Elias outside his window at night. As with the bird of Keats’s poem, the song suggests Elias’s altered consciousness, a joyful, dreamlike state that proves he is finally wide awake. Elias has been sleepwalking through life without a genuine sense of purpose or community. As a teenager in Montreal he lifted weights to look like a jock, the better to disguise his love of books. Eventually, he joined the army to please his macho father and for a while felt part of something “solid.” But that was before the violence in Kandahar.
Particular images and specific words recur in Heighton’s work, deepening in richness and adding nuance: water, mountains, ice, sky, island, dolphins, birds. There is often guitar music. And the word “wake” regularly appears. Sometimes “wake” refers to the ritual before burial or the trail of water left by a passing ship. Heighton also uses “wake” in the ordinary sense of being roused out of sleep and to connote becoming aware, alert, knowledgeable, mature.
One example comes in the title poem from his Governor General’s Award–winning collection:
But the waking comes late.
In the early evening of a life, with dusk
redoubling in a still hectare of hemlock,
tamarack, redcone cedar, you might stir
out of self-induced coma and stare
years down into the mind—
too late, you might fear, this insight,
like others before it, might wane, the crucial life-change
fail to hold.
Nightingale is in part the story of a man’s awakening. It is also a novel about soldiers, and perhaps manhood. Heighton describes the men in Elias’s unit as boys in a video game. Yet the Turkish colonel Kaya is the reason the village has survived. Kaya spends most days playing tennis and his nights womanizing. It turns out he is part Byron, part Batman—a surreptitious hero who fights evil and saves lives. Below Kaya in the hierarchy is Captain Polat, whose deranged ambition causes him to become a threat to the secret village. Polat represents the traditional male, whose drive for power inevitably culminates in military action. At the same time, Heighton thrillingly brings back Roland Kruger of Afterlands—or perhaps one of his descendants—a different kind of man altogether. A former United Nations peacekeeper, Kruger lays down his weapons for good after being compelled to use deadly force.
A number of Canadian critics—John Metcalf is one—insist there is no such thing as a Canadian literary tradition; they believe the literature, with an increasingly immigrant population, is too diverse to contain uniquely Canadian themes. Of course, this diversity—a reflection of the country’s multicultural makeup—can also be seen as a distinguishing feature. In Heighton’s fiction, certainly, cultural diversity is a significant theme. Elias, for instance, is the grandchild of a Greek immigrant who finds himself in the land of his ancestors. What is his relationship to Canada? What is his relationship to Greece?
In Varosha, Elias refers to himself as a “refugee,” while Roland Kruger, on the other hand, is a former UN peacekeeper. “Refugee” and “peacekeeper” are two words found in any authorized biography of Canada. They help tell the story of who we think we are.
A true Romantic, Heighton clings to the ideals of the French Revolution. His stories ruminate on the question of whether, and how, we can commit to practising brotherhood within our multicultural nation and in the conflict zones of the wider world. Such exquisite, powerful meditations on who we are place Heighton among the great Canadian writers.
Heighton’s 2016 Governor General’s Award for poetry was long overdue. It boggles the mind that this brilliant storyteller has never received a major fiction prize. His focus is contemporary, but he is a practitioner of the old school, a writer for those who love to read widely and deeply.
Donna Bailey Nurse is a juror for the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.