Feature Image: André Alexis (Hannah Zoe Daviso)
André Alexis is the third Canadian to receive the Windham-Campbell Prize, an award of US$165k granted to eight writers each year from around the world who have exhibited exceptional work in fiction, non-fiction, or drama.
André Alexis’s marvellously imaginative Fifteen Dogs explores the controversial effects of human intelligence through, you guessed it, fifteen dogs who experience a divine intervention. It won the Giller Prize and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2015, and Alexis has just become the third Canadian ever to receive the Windham-Campbell Prize at a whopping $165,000, US. The world-renowned award is one of the richest honours a writer can accept, and the judges praised Alexis for his “mastery of literature’s history and a startling power of invention, balancing intellectual sophistication with a sense of humour, pathos, and beauty.”
The novel begins with two Greek gods, Hermes and Apollo, sitting in a Toronto tavern, stirring up — and drinking down — something mischievous, as most Greek gods do. They debate the usefulness of human consciousness and language, and strike a bet on whether animals would reach happier ends with human intelligence or not. Hermes believes they would, while Apollo is slightly less optimistic and views human intelligence as “an occasionally useful plague.” The stakes are set and the experiment begins. The gods happen upon a veterinarian clinic and bestow upon the fifteen dogs a strange and wonderful power that takes them down paths of discovery, fear, curiosity, poetry, violence, love, reflexivity — and you’ll have to pick up the book to find out what happens after all that.
I asked Alexis whose side he was on, Hermes or Apollo, when he began writing the novel, and if it ever changed during the process. “I’m always on Hermes’ side. If I had to be a worshipper of a Greek god, I would be a worshipper of Hermes, no question.” The trickster figure, the god of thieves, and the god of translators, Hermes can be found embedded within some of Alexis’s work, including a secret message to the god in his novel Childhood (1998). Throughout Alexis’s long career of words, he has also worked as a translator, which feeds into his extensive play in meaning, stylistics, and interpretation that echoes in his prose.
“Here’s the great deep, dark secret: we don’t know if our message is given to another person. I say a set of words or I write a set of words, and somebody reads those words or hears those words. I have no idea if the way I intended those words is the way you’ll receive them, but you know what? I have no idea that it isn’t.”
The Trinidadian-born writer has encountered some complications in peoples’ interpretation of Fifteen Dogs, reporting that a woman wanted to sue him for the way he treated the dogs in the novel, and that he received a letter from someone who believed that each of the fifteen dogs represented a Canadian author that Alexis was killing. He references how Nietzsche’s work was misinterpreted by the Nazis and used as propaganda, and he asks, “Is Nietzsche responsible? I don’t think so. But, you know, we put these things out in the world and we hope that our best intents are met in the reader, and we have no way of knowing whether they will be or not.”
The Greek gods in Fifteen Dogs share an opinion on the matter as Apollo tells Hermes, “Human languages are too vague,” and Hermes replies, “That may be, but it makes humans more amusing.”
Literature does not have a single identifiable point or purpose for Alexis because people naturally approach literature through different avenues depending on their relation to it. Alexis approaches it, obviously, as a writer, but also as a critic — he enjoys reviewing books for The Globe and Mail — and that means he has a keen eye for the more rudimentary elements of works such as the motivations behind dialogue, the rhythm, the organisation, the viewpoint, as well as the imagination behind the words.
If he would allow one purpose to be generalised about literature, it would be that literature provides a sharing of a vision of the world, by which we can calibrate our own existence in relation. The more versions of the world we are exposed to, the clearer our own version becomes — but no more significant than that. “Honest to god, I could not write if I thought it was so important that people need to read this. That would just be crippling in terms of my creativity.” Instead, Alexis prefers to take pleasure in the writing, in the art form, in how beautiful the language is, and how mysterious it is that he can write a sentence and someone can read it and participate in his thought process. “I find that amazing.”
The dogs use literature to learn about what a dog is and how to be one, but Alexis ensures that his novels are not instructive for humans in the same way; they cannot tell us how to be human or what a human is. Fifteen Dogs can, however, function as a sort of historical record of the progress of human thought.
“Throughout the novel there are quotes from St. Anselm, Hegel, Vichtenstein; I’m using all these different philosophies because in part when [the dogs] start to think like humans, they start to think like humans. There’s a kind of potted history of philosophy that’s going on in there. It was partly to keep myself amused while I was writing it, but also it made sense. If you’re going to give human thinking, then how have humans thought? How have humans thought about power? How have they thought about peeing? How have they thought about the world?”
Alexis’s fascination with philosophical thought buries itself in the concepts and ideas that drive his characters. When he spoke at Words Fest in November, he quoted a French psychoanalyst’s theory, that “the opposite of love is not hate, it is power.” This idea resonated with him because of the truth it raised about hate—that it requires an intimate and deep relationship with a person and an unfailing interest in what they are doing—as well as the truth it raises about power. “With power, you’re just using someone. And humans—this is the striking thing—we know the Greek gods just use us, so that was convenient to work with the Greek gods, but the fact is: humans use other humans.” He continues, “It’s a useful thing to think about, the non-relationship of power, when someone has no concern for what you are, what you feel, what you’re doing. You are simply an instrument to them. I think it makes sense to look at power and love, and think about how they illuminate each other, how different they are.”
Using Fifteen Dogs, Alexis explored the whole plane of love—from brotherly love between Frick and Frack, to the love that Nira and Majnoun feel—as well as the plane of power through the way that Benji instrumentalises others. “Benji just wants what he wants, and he uses dogs, humans, whatever is there to get what he wants, and, in fact, Benji—while being typically ‘human’ — is also very much an example of a loveless. He ends unhappy, he isn’t able to love, but so does the dog who loves end up unhappy, which I always thought was kind of interesting.”
Power and love form a significant relationship to examine within religion, which the dogs must also encounter and try to make sense of in their new consciousness. Alexis was raised Catholic but now considers himself a Catholic agnostic because he doesn’t believe in God, but the God he doesn’t believe in comes from within the Catholic tradition. He struggles with the idea of whether power can be ultimately loving and explains, “Within my tradition there is the powerful God, and that powerful God is supposed to be all loving. Now, there are moments in my tradition that are really fucked up if it’s a loving God. Like, okay, so the children that you love disobey you, so you drown them all except for two. I mean, that kind of screws up the whole loving thing, doesn’t it?”
Considering his recent award, Alexis is being duly recognized as an important writer of our time, and a lot of what sets him apart is his fearlessness in the face of weighty philosophies and startling truths with which he toys inventively using tools art has lent humans for centuries. Our realities have unquestionably been shaped by our imaginations, and Alexis stresses that mediums like poetry and visual art have existed for thousands of years.
“Listen, there’s a reason when we see those caves from 30,000 years ago, people are drawing on them. We are not doing this by accident, something of what we are as beings, as creatures, needs what goes on with the imagination,” Alexis argues, and he goes as far as to claim that anyone who cannot recognize that relationship is lacking in a sense of humanity. “We live in a world created by the arts,” he says, and it’s no surprise that science fiction preceded humans’ voyage to the moon, or that the Vatican banned Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, or that we make resolutions each new year and set intentions before we start our day. “There’s a connection between what we dream and what we do.”
A few years ago, almost like a dream—unexpected and unasked for, but arriving with a kind of wholeness in itself—five ideas for five different novels dawned upon Alexis in the same moment — the quincunx that is already more than halfway finished with Pastoral (2014), Fifteen Dogs (2015), and his most recent novel Hidden Keys (2016). As though the Greek gods heard him and told the muses to whisper the ideas into his ear, Alexis, now in his 50s, feels skilled and practised enough in the written art to execute them. “It’s kind of mystical to say this, but, you know, sometimes you’re just the door for something, and you either allow that to be or you don’t, and I did,” he says.
The quincunx has proven to be very demanding, and Alexis says he hasn’t been able to read for pleasure since 2009, when he began writing the first piece. He kept stopping and starting, fiction and non-fiction alike, his fatigue extending even into movies, which soon became a little distressing for him. Alexis requested to review novels so that he was forced to get through them. “I just feel like I need to finish this set of books before I go back to the place where I can do what I’ve been doing since I was fourteen years old — reading lots.”
That’s not to say that these five novels have been a great burden on him, however. Alexis feels no stress in writing the quincunx because the ideas already exist, and there is nothing left to do but write them.
“It’s a very difficult feeling to convey; they simply are within me. And I will get them out, god willing, unless I die first, but I feel no pressure, no anxiety about them. I mean, I feel the usual odd author anxiety—will people like them, will people like me, that sort of stuff. It’s because I’m human. But in a kind of real and deep way, they’ll come out and that’s it. And so, I am their instrument, which is a very weird way to feel about your work. Very weird.”
The fourth novel is already well underway and will complete the four outer corners of the quincunx, with the last one falling in the centre of the previous novels and tying them all together. After the last book is published, Alexis plans to return to his normal life, ruminating on new story ideas and going through his regular writing processes.
Starting out in the field of writing is a daunting and precarious decision that does not yield instant gratification. Like many writers, for a long time, Alexis was not very financially successful in his work or in the greater public sphere, and he was unsure of his capacities as a writer. Since he began writing at age nineteen, the most significant difference he perceives in himself and his practice is simply knowing now that he is, in fact, a writer. “I just feel a sense that I have worked, and worked, and worked at the art form, and that by virtue of working at it, I have become an artist. And it took me forty years, but I did it. I was a slow learner,” he laughed.
Alexis admitted he is not a happy person by nature, but rather a warrior, always prepared for a sudden twist of fate. “I figure if I’m too happy the gods will strike me dead. That said, I’m older, I know what I want, I know how the rest of my life is likely to look: I’ll be writing.”
It appears that by some other twist of fate, greatness was thrust upon greatness, and a mind consumed with the highest levels of human thought has been given the opportunity to produce work that is reflective and inquisitive of the human condition—and through dogs, no less.
I asked Alexis if he was happy after he had received the Giller Prize for Fifteen Dogs, and he replied, “In a kind of existential way, yeah, I’m at a place that I like being. And I hope it goes on for a while, but I don’t know. These things change very quickly” — that was before he won the Windham-Campbell Prize. He is quoted on the Windham-Campbell website saying, “My first reaction on receiving an email from Michael Kelleher, the Prize Director, was fear. I hesitated to respond.”
Though he lives with the fateful caution of a deeply learned person, André Alexis’s humble nature in combination with his unfailing knowledge of the literary craft is surely a sign of more sharp, sensitive, beautifully enlightened, and fantastically imaginative work we can expect from the writer in the very near future.