The Canadian writer Norman Levine is probably best known in this country for his association with St Ives. In his native country he has a different reputation, one founded on the stories and other material he wrote about it. What he wrote didn’t always please his fellow-countrymen, and one book, in particular, Canada Made Me, didn’t endear him to critics and others anxious to present a positive view of Canada. I think his reputation has recovered in more-recent years, and he’s now seen as an important writer when Canadian literature is discussed.

It was his time spent in Cornwall that first interested me, though I wouldn’t want to under-estimate the quality of the stories he wrote about growing up in Ottawa, or the family members he met when he re-visited Canada. They are well-written and evocative in their portraits of his mother and father and various other relatives. Levine was always a highly-autobiographical writer, and I’ve no reason to think that he needed to do much more than register and shape what he saw and experienced. This could be as true of a minor encounter with a waitress or nurse as it was with his sister or an old friend. He may well have lightly-fictionalised what took place, but I would guess that the essential structure of his account had a firm basis in the reality of the situation. He saw the possibilities in what was there, rather than trying to invent events and characters.

If that was true of what he wrote about his experiences in Canada, it was also apparent in the stories he set in St Ives. He may have changed the name of the place, and those of individuals he describes, but the fact remains that it would be almost impossible to read his work and not know where and what he was writing about. Is this a limiting factor? Does it distract from a detached evaluation of the work in a way that purists might say it does? I don’t think so. Is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises any less a successful work of art because we know which real-life characters were the models for Hemingway’s fictional ones, and we can identify where and when the events described took place?

It’s important to note that Norman Levine was mostly a writer of short-stories. He did have a novel, The Angled Road, published in 1951 and dealing with his time as a member of the Canadian Air Force based in Britain during the Second World War. And he wrote poetry which was published in the early-1950s in Wrey Gardiner’s little magazine, Poetry Quarterly, alongside John Heath-Stubbs, Vernon Scannell, and Michael Hamburger. A couple of poems that I’ve read – “Crabbing” and “The Fishing Village - quite clearly indicate that he was familiar with Cornwall even then.

It is the short-story form in which he excelled. His bibliography does refer to a second novel, From a Seaside Town, but it might be debatable as to whether or not it is a novel, as opposed to a number of inter-linking short-stories.  I’ll have a closer look at it later. The fact that he was mostly producing short stories, a form which has had its ups and downs in terms of attracting attention and readers, and which is not noted for bringing in high fees, points to something that frequently crops up in Levine’s writing. He was usually hard-up.

There is a story, “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice”, in which the narrator, a supposedly established Canadian writer, meets up with a group of fellow-Canadians he’d been at McGill University with after the war. They’ve all turned out be successful, one way or another, having good jobs, marrying wealthy women, and so on. The writer is broke and in London desperately trying to raise some cash. During the course of the afternoon with his one-time student colleagues he follows each to the lavatory in turn and taps them up for a “loan”, which, of course, they’ll never get back. They only realise that they’ve all been duped into giving him money after he’s left and they talk among themselves. “Our great author”, one says sarcastically

Some might doubt that this story is totally autobiographical. Surely a writer wouldn’t want his misadventures like this to be widely known? Perhaps he simply fictionalised a situation in which he’d perceived a certain potential? Perhaps? But knowing Levine’s tendency to write directly out of his own experiences, I’m inclined to think he may not have fictionalised very much. In another story, “We All Begin in a Little Magazine”, the narrator brings his family to London and stays in a house while the owner and his family are away for three weeks. He discovers that the man is a doctor, and also edits a little literary magazine. The house is full of books, the postman brings piles of review copies and letters every day, and people telephone to enquire about stories and poems they submitted to the magazine months ago. A stranger arrives on the doorstep and says he usually stays whenever he’s in London.

The location of the house is given as South London, but it’s actually in North London. I know it well. The editor is an old friend of mine and I’ve stayed there many times over the years. I can testify to the accuracy of the description of it, and to the fact that Levine certainly didn’t fictionalise very much, apart from changing the name of the magazine and those of the people who telephoned.

The impulse to make stories out of what he’d observed could sometimes cause difficulties for Levine. In 1961 he published a collection of stories with the title, One Way Ticket. The lead story (it’s actually a novella of around fifty pages) was called “The Playground”, and was quite obviously set in St Ives: “The water in the bay was a thick, deep blue. The sun brilliant. It showed up the fields on top of the cliffs of the far shore; the lower towans with the bald patches on the coarse grass; the long line at the bottom of dazzling sand. And the white lighthouse in the bay, a milk bottle with a camera stuck in its throat. Two French crabbers, anchored beside each other in the deep water, faced the wind”.   

The story continues with the narrator’s vivid descriptions of the town, and also his observations on its limitations. Fishing is declining and increasing numbers of holidaymakers clog up the narrow streets and crowd the pubs. He wants to meet more of the people who actually live there, and gets to know some of what might be called the “artistic community” and goes to “the round of parties in 1959”.  In a way, though the people concerned do live in the town, they’re not native to it, and their way of life is anathema to the real locals. Mothers tell their children: “keep away from them artists”. The fact that some of the supposed “artists” are homosexuals doesn’t sit easily in a community where “Wesleyan or Methodist” religious values are still strong.

A local man, a garage owner called Starkie, has become involved with the artists and their hangers-on, but beset by debts and other problems he commits suicide. The anger among the locals is noticeable, and one of the genuine artists, a man who was actually born in Cornwall, warns the crowd that Starkie mixed with to stay away from the funeral. Some of the local are convinced that Starkie was cheated out of his money, others that he had been corrupted by the homosexuals.

I’ve given a brief outline of the story, and it’s much more subtle in its portrayal of place and people than I’ve implied, in order to highlight that Levine’s account, closely based on actual events, angered some people when it appeared in print. He didn’t actually name St Ives, and people were obviously given fictional names and their characters loosely described, but it was clear to anyone with even a casual awareness of what happened just who was involved. As far as I know, Levine’s story didn’t lead to legal action in terms of allegations of libel, and any problems he encountered were related to personal reactions from individuals. They resented the way in which he’d painted a picture of one aspect of a close, small-town society that could cast a bad light on other parts of it which hadn’t been caught up in the events concerned. 

It needs to be emphasised that people are central to many of Levine’s stories, and what they tell him provides the material for what he writes. In “A Writer’s Story”, the narrator meets an old lady who asks him what he’s currently writing. He tells her that he isn’t writing anything, and she says, “You mean you don’t know any stories? I know lots”. She tells them to him, and they’re not made-up stories, but people and events from her own life. She introduces him to a friend, a man who says, “I’ve met lots of writers here”, and proceeds to recall visiting D.H. Lawrence and his wife when they lived at Zennor, and meeting Frank Harris. He also recalls seeing Stanley Spencer and watching Augustus John drink “a half bottle of whisky”. The way Levine handles these anecdotes, bringing out the character of the person recounting them, and the surroundings where they’re told, differentiates him from a journalist looking for local colour, or an academic researching the past. He makes a story out of people telling stories.

In “From a Family Album” the narrator (I use that term, but it’s obviously Levine) visits his late wife’s ailing mother, and then tells her story. As a girl she’d shown some talent for art, something her parents didn’t encourage, and had sent samples of her work to St Martin’s. She’d waited for a reply, but nothing arrived. Her life soon followed a standard pattern of work and marriage and family. Many years later, when her mother died, she was clearing out the house and came across a letter of acceptance from St Martin’s. Her parents had never shown it to her.

Because Levine was such a skilled storyteller it’s possible to simply string together his accounts of human frailties and unusual encounters in an entertaining way. In “I like Chekhov”, a small group of teachers from a local school meet in a pub where they all admire the landlord’s wife, “one of the attractive women in the town”. It’s obvious that they, with the exception of Chester, who hasn’t been to the pub before, all hope to develop a relationship with her, even though they’re married and so is she. When she finds out that Chester is a writer she tells him that she like Chekhov and invites him into the private accommodation behind the bar. Her husband is away on business. She shows him her small library, and they kiss. When Chester is with the other teachers again it’s clear that they’re envious of the fact that, in the space of a few minutes, Chester had advanced further than they’d ever done in several years. Their resentment at his success is obvious, but he’s not bothered. He’s leaving the town the following day.

A story called “Gwen John” isn’t really about her, though it does end with a brief account of her life and death: “With the Germans invading, Gwen John left Paris. Got as far as Dieppe. Collapsed in the street. People thought she was a vagrant. Took her to a hospice. Where she died. No-one knows where she is buried. Augustus John was supposed to do a memorial stone. But he never got around to it”. Somehow the terse statements match the sad facts of her life generally, and the muted and low-key nature of her art.

I said earlier that Levine’s name is usually related to St Ives, and he did live there for quite a few years, and continued to visit the town when he moved away. But I hope I’ve indicated that the subject-matter of his stories stretched far beyond the art and the artists of Cornwall. He knew Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, and others, and there is a reference to someone called Henry in “Soap Opera” who is based on Frost. But the story isn’t about him. As Alison Oldham said, it “is remarkable for the way the narrative oscillates between the present, in which the narrator’s mother appears to be dying, and different aspects of the past, from his mother’s memories of Poland to his own life in St Ives; also for the variations of anger and achievement which recur throughout”.

It is the “novel”, From a Seaside Town, which seems to accent the relationship between Levine and St Ives. The life of a financially-strapped writer is established at the start: “I tried magazines that I never wrote to before. Then waited to see what the postman brought. I found the whole day centred around the postman coming. I’d get up early and wait anxiously until I saw him in the street opposite. Then stand by the window, to the side, so he wouldn’t see me. I watched him as he worked the street opposite, before he came here. And hid until I heard the release of the letter slot. I got to know all the postmen’s habits. Who was fast. Who dawdled. Who talked”.

The local, the everyday life, is an integral part of From a Seaside Town, but there are breaks in the routine. Charles Crater, an artist from London, turns up in the town. He’s a friend of the narrator, and doesn’t really have anything in common with the abstract work that is the hallmark of the leading artists in Cornwall. His own work leans towards the figurative, even if an often-distorted version of it. He’s a character based on Francis Bacon, who Levine was friendly with and sometimes visited in his studio in London: “Against the wall are some canvases, their backs facing the room. In the centre, his easel caked with lumps of paint. And on the floor, in large untidy heaps, are all kinds of picture magazines – from German, France, Italy, America, England – with pages torn out of them. Charles constantly searches through picture magazines looking at the photographs”.

Other visitors turn up. A Canadian academic looks at something in the window of an Arts and Crafts shop: “a glass container filled with yellow coloured water and some wax. A light was at the bottom. And as the wax was heated it rose slowly in the liquid changing into different shapes. When the wax rose further it cooled and fell back forming other shapes. Then it rose again. He was fascinated by this. Watched it for several minutes “Somebody could have got a Ph.D with this”, he said. It was his highest tribute”. Those five words neatly sum up the kind of man he is.

Relatives from Canada come to call. And the narrator goes back to Ottawa to see his mother, and visit his father who Is in a nursing home and showing signs of dementia: “And he sat in the chair, not moving, looking out of the plate glass wall. If one of us touched his arm, he looked at us. And if we asked him a question he opened his mouth and got a bit red in the face. Then he would leave us and return to stare at the winter scene outside”.

I can’t fault the quality of the writing, which seems to me to exemplify Levine’s assertion that he’s noted for “the cleanness of his prose”.  He thinks it may be because he had to learn English as a foreign language. “I have a small vocabulary. No long words”.  It’s worth adding that he also once said, “The leaner the language, the more suggestive”.

I raised the question earlier about From a Seaside Town and its status as a novel, or whether it can be more accurately described as a series of interlocking short stories. In a way, it doesn’t matter as long as the whole reads coherently. And it does. But, as a matter of interest, it’s worth pointing to how Levine incorporated what had previously been published as stories into the framework of the novel. The incident described in “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice”, where the impoverished writer scrounges money from some fellow-Canadians he meets in London, crops up under the title “A Trip to London” as a chapter in the novel. And the story, “Why Do You Live So Far Away?”, is also used as a chapter in From a Seaside Town. They both do fit easily into the wider pattern of the book. And Levine isn’t the only writer who has published short-stories which later appeared as parts of a novel.

I’ve attempted to give a wider view of Norman Levine as a writer than might be available if he’s only seen as someone writing about St Ives. His work on that subject, and the town is in many ways at the centre of his writing, is evocative in that anyone familiar with the place will recognise his short, accurate sketches of its streets and buildings. But the writing stretches out to take in many other things. The subject-matter is not narrow. And when it’s dealt with in the kind of precise and perceptive prose that Norman Levine specialised in, the overall effect is impressive.


From a Seaside Town. Deneau & Greenberg, Ottawa, 1970.

“I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“We All Begin in Little Magazines” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“The Playground” in Why Do You Live So Far Away? Deneau, Ottaway, 1984. Also published as “A View on the Sea” in The Ability to Forget. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2003.

“A Writer’s Story” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“From a Family Album” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000. 

“I Like Chekhov” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“Gwen John” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“Soap Opera” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“Why Do You Live So Far Away?” in By a Frozen River. Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2000.

“Gwen John” and “Soap Opera” were also published in Something Happened Here. Viking, London, 1991,  “I Like Chekhov”, “I’ll Bring You Back Something Nice”, “We All Begin in Little Magazines”, “A Writer’s Story”, “Why Do You Live So Far Away?”, were in Champagne Barn. Penguin, Harmandsworth, 1984.

Everyone Was Working: Artists and Writers in Postwar St Ives by Alison Oldham. Tate St Ives, 2002.

St Ives: The Art and the Artists by Chris Stephens. Pavilion Books, London, 2018.