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Carrion Conspiracy : SWANN by Carol Shields (Viking: $17.95; 313 pp.)

August 20, 1989|Ursula Hegi | Hegi is the author of "Intrusions" and "Unearned Pleasures and Other Stories." and

What happens when literary criticism takes a writer's work so far from her intent that, finally, it loses its essence? Carol Shields asks disturbing questions about the nature of theft in her novel, "Swann." Who is the real thief--the person who steals the last rare copies of a murdered poet's book, the scholars who use her poems to seek recognition for themselves, or her husband who brutally murders her?

Fifteen years after Canadian poet, Mary Swann, is killed without an apparent motive, a symposium is held in Toronto, drawing Swann experts from all over the United States and Canada. Shields focuses on four of the participants--a critic, a biographer, a publisher, and a town clerk.

The feminist critic, Sarah Maloney, considers herself Swann's discoverer. Exulting in the "womanly brilliance" she bestows on her postgraduate students, she indulges in a running, internal commentary on her thoughts, feelings, and actions. This tireless reflection is amusing at first but soon becomes repetitive and transforms a potentially complex character into a caricature.

Her correspondence with Swann's biographer, Morton Jimroy, evolves from their mutual interest in the work of the murdered poet. Sarah likes to believe that Mary Swann "invented modern poetry." She keeps it a secret that Swann worked with a rhyming dictionary which resulted in unfortunate choices such as nerves/preserves, shelf/myself, light/bite. Certain that her connection to Swann will bring her recognition at the symposium, she distorts Swann's poems and life to fit her interpretation.

Jimroy is flattered by Sarah's letters and indulges in sexual fantasies in which she seduces him. A lonely, silly, and pompous man, he still carries the presence of his ex-wife, Audrey, with him, romanticizing even those habits that used to annoy him, making anonymous phone calls to her late at night and, eventually, to Sarah.

As a biographer, he is drawn to his own flaws in people he writes about--Pound's "elephantiasis of the ego" and Starman's emptiness. He ignores the "peculiar ordinariness of Mary Swann's letters" in his attempt to link "Mary Swann's biographical greyness with the achieved splendour of Swann's songs." He starts off as an interesting character but, as with Sarah, Shields overworks his peculiarities until he becomes a caricature of himself.

Rose Hindmarch, the town clerk in Nadeau where Swann lived, has been invited to the symposium because she has convincingly exaggerated her relationship with the reticent poet.

The fourth major participant in the symposium is 80-year-old Frederic Cruzzi, Swann's publisher, the last person to see her alive. The winter day Swann arrived at his house unannounced with her manuscript, "her face was small, purplish . . . eyes squeezed shut . . . hunched sweatered shoulders and the whiteness of scalp under scanty hair. . . ." He never saw her again because that night, when she got home, her husband killed her.

Cruzzi and his wife, Hilde, founded Peregrine, a small press, and published regional authors they both believed in. Their relationship is alive and convincing. "The two of them occasionally made gifts to each other of their dreams." Cruzzi is by far the strongest character in "Swann," revealing a uniqueness and depth that make it puzzling why Shields didn't develop her other characters with the same skill.

As the date for the Swann Symposium draws closer, the last known copies of Swann's book, her hand-written journal, and a few unpublished poems disappear mysteriously. The suspense, however, is transparent since Shields, in the early pages of the novel, introduces the person who has the incentive and proximity to steal Swann's material.

Yet, this deliberate theft illuminates the real theft which is far more subtle and damaging, a theft that has been happening from the moment Swann brought a bag filled with loose papers to Cruzzi, and the publisher and his wife spent all night reconstructing the poems that were nearly destroyed by accident. "A curious conspiracy had overtaken them. Guilt, or perhaps a wish to make amends, convinced them that they owed Mrs. Swann an interpretation that would reinforce her strengths as a poet."

The real theft continues with Maloney's discovery of the poet: "In a sense I invented Mary Swann and I am responsible for her," with Jimroy's leading questions which provide him with material that will bring him fame, with the corruption of Rose Hindmarch as she embroiders stories about her friendship with Swann. It's a theft that implicates the scholars at the symposium who spout their competing theories without regard to the integrity of Mary Swann's poetry.

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