To have and to hold (or not): Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig

I’ll admit it, I’d never heard of Canadian author Helen Weinzweig until I stumbled across her 1973 debut novel and, intrigued by its premise and its fragmentary form, decided that I had to bring it home. Before long, her name began to appear in my literary network with the American release of her second, and only other novel, Basic Black with Pearls from NYRB Classics last month, so I figured it was time to have a closer look at Passing Ceremony. The “Introduction and Memoir” by James Polk that opens the book had me wondering how her name had escaped me so long.

Polk, who was the editorial director at House of Anansi Press for many years, recalls how, in 1971, when the publishing house was still located in a less than glamourous part of Toronto, he received a large Birks jewelry box tied with a ribbon and addressed to “Editor.” Inside he found a stack of perfectly typed papers and a note instructing him to toss the pages in the air and arrange them as they fell. He could not quite imagine a market for such “chance” fiction in the current  Canadian literary marketplace, but as he scanned the fragments he soon found himself engrossed. It would become the first book he edited. (It was organized into and exists as a bound volume.) But if the initial packaging of the text surprised him, so did its author. Weinzweig, when she arrived to meet him, turned out to be a well-dressed woman, over fifty—“smart, wise, and funny” and well-read in everything from Beckett to Conrad, but harbouring a special affection for the French nouveau roman. She had, at this point, been publishing stories for several years, starting in 1967, when she was already fifty-two.

“One of the drawbacks of staring when you’re older is you know what good writing is, and you know you can’t do it,” she told the Globe in 1990. But she could do it. Everything she submitted to the magazines got published, in those mythic days when short stories had markets and commercial currency, though her age and gender bothered the critics. How could a nice Jewish housewife and mother seriously try writing, a man’s game, especially when she was so clearly over the hill?

Her style was startling and original, but sadly, after two novels and a collection of short stories, Weinzweig’s creative life would be cut short by either early onset dementia or a series of small strokes. Although she went on to live to the age of ninety-four, her short window of literary productivity makes her work that much more precious.

And so to Passing Ceremony.

What is played out through a series of fragments, is a most unusual wedding in the posh Rosedale neighbourhood of Toronto. The bride has a promiscuous past that no white dress will allow her to put behind her, and the groom is a closeted gay man abandoned by his lover. The estranged father of the bride arrives from Mexico with his young wife and baby, while his ex-wife is a sobbing puddle of shame throughout her daughter’s “big day.” The cast of assorted upper-class guests display an array of dysfunctional, often unpleasant, even suspect behaviours, thoughts, and obsessions. The reader swirls through the event, never quite catching enough to put all the pieces together, but gathering more than enough to know this is not a happy event.

The novel opens with a short monologue, the groom addressing his dead sister, admonishing her for missing, by her suicide, the act of sacrificial desperation that is about to unfold:

. . . if you could see me now: with this ring I thee wed and I will not fail you in sickness and in health as all the others did. Abandoned yet haunted by all of you, every night a nightmare of vanished faces. I take her, take thee, a small life, to have and to hold against my impossible longing.

Page after page, through a series of vignettes that range from  a short paragraph to a few pages in length, the reader eavesdrops on conversations, slips in and out of consciousnesses, and observes actions from a distance. Characters may or may not be identified. Perspective and style  shifts throughout. It is akin to being the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, and more. The assembled guests are generally an unpleasant, sometimes unsavoury, and occasionally tragic lot. If a wedding is, ideally, a celebration of love, this event—with a match as mutual means of escape at the centre—is more readily an evocation of the betrayal and failure of love. Yet there is also something so very human, and affecting, in the various confessions and mini-dramas being played out over the course of the evening:

How can I forgive you for what I will never know again. On your knees you promised. Those endless kisses. I was drugged like any addict. Enveloped in your languor. Aware of nothing but your whispers in the night. Now I’m thrust into the light and my eyes hurt from the glare. I do not wish your happiness. After all. It suits me to appear drunk.

The fragments that comprise this strangely engaging novel hint at the anger, humiliation, and false pride nursed by the assorted guests and family members present.

Helen Weinzweig, who was the wife of famed Canadian composer James Weinzweig, was no stranger to the well-heeled society she brings to life in her fiction. She captures the nuances of conversation—insinuations, veiled compliments and threats—in pitch-perfect tones:

—That’s the man, the doctor. His wife is supposed to die on the 30th.
—What’s today?
—The 18th.
—What if she doesn’t?
—Oh, but she will, he is a doctor.
—Suppose she rallies, they sometimes do, you know.
—Impossible—they say he treats his rats badly.
—Which one is his wife?
—The one with the sores.
—Did you know her when she was alive?
—Yes, she is a pretty little thing, rather pathetic, always begging you to like her.
—Beggars can’t be choosers.
—Doesn’t she know that?
—Apparently not, or she would have chosen life.

Much of what we hear or observe is deeply disturbing. Furtive confrontations suggest that more nefarious activities are at play. It is a dark satire in which the hapless couple at the centre—the fallen woman and her gay groom—are the most sympathetic, and unfortunate, of all the characters gathered for this unconventional and surreal passing ceremony. All that I know is that I am glad (and relieved) that I was able to attend vicariously.

Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig is published by House of Anansi Press.

Author: roughghosts

Literary blog of Joseph Schreiber. Writer. Reader. Editor. Photographer.

8 thoughts on “To have and to hold (or not): Passing Ceremony by Helen Weinzweig”

  1. My goodness this sounds extraordinary! I must admit to being heartened by writers who get going late in life, as once I’ve completed my extended project in the art of procrastination, I fancy giving it a whirl myself. I love the idea of a manuscript thrown into the air, the pages to be read at random. What an interesting woman. I feel an internet spend coming on!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this is a hidden gem. I noticed on Goodreads there were few reviews, suggesting few had read or appreciated it. In 1973 it must have been unexpected in the staid CanLit scene of the day!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I should make it clear in the review that although she submitted it as a chance fiction, it was released as a bound book (not that a certain degree randomness remains in the way it feels to read it, the fragments do have some order). Readers wanting strong narrative coherence will still find it a challenge though!

      The review, by the way has been updated to clarify, thanks Lisa.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds quite curious indeed. And perhaps more openly disorienting? I found Basic Black with Pearls to be quite the upset too. But it’s clothed in more traditional garb. (Until you get a peek beneath.) One of my favourite quotes from that one: “Perhaps I ought to try my hand at fiction. I would have to be careful: for me the power of the written word is so great that there would be the danger of my believing what I imagined.” Can’t you just imagine HW saying that rather than her character.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I had come to this years ago, I suspect it would have really been upended by it. I found the disorienting quality quite interesting and really wished I been made aware of more experimental Canadian literature years ago. Even now, she is not that well known. It will be interesting to see if the NYRB Classics release of Basic Black lifts her profile. She sounds like she was a fascinating woman (and tragic for the early loss of her ability to write after such a late start.

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      1. I was so surprised when an American reading friend mentioned that she was reading Basic Black. Just a moment later, I thought “NYRB”. What a sweet little imprint! (So good of them to plug Mavis Gallant too.)

        Liked by 1 person

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