Susan Patrick is a librarian at Ryerson Polytechnical University.
Champagne Barn is a collection of short stories by Canadian author Norman Levine, who, while living in England, established his reputation as a writer with Canada Made Me in 1958. The stories in this collection, written between 1958 and 1978, have the flavour of autobiographical sketches, as they are mainly first-person reminiscences, and the first-person narrator is a writer. Although the name and circumstances of the writer generally change from story to story, the first-person technique gives the writing an intensely personal quality. Levine himself has said that the book forms a kind of autobiography, but one written as fiction. The 23 stories are grouped into four sections, basically following four periods in the writer’s life: a childhood in the poor immigrant Jewish community in Ottawa; some years of relative privilege as an officer in the RCAF and then a government-assisted veteran student at McGill University in post-war Montreal; again years of poverty as the struggling expatriate writer in England; and later years as an established writer in England and Canada. The collection is neatly balanced, with a return to the childhood neighbourhood used as a point of departure and conclusion. The writing style is straightforward, and the characters and locales vividly drawn, conveying a strong sense of place. Running through the book is a touch of nostalgia and a feeling of loss — of past homes and neighbourhoods; of loved ones now gone; of people briefly encountered but never really known; of a life gone by, and experiences, never to be recaptured, that have touched the writer in some way. The stories detail the writer’s observations of the people and life around him, and of his own reactions to them. “The English Girl” is a moving remembrance of a lost love from university days. The frustration and desperation of the financially struggling writer are adroitly depicted. “A Visit” and “Why Do You Live So Far Away?” are insightful dissections of the emotions involved in the clash of cultures when the writer’s Jewish-Canadian relatives visit his English home and family. The final stories centre on the writer’s return to Canada as a successful author, and his coming to terms with the homeland which, in his early years, he felt he had to leave in order to be able to write. Levine’s thoughtful evocations of his past provide the reader with an intimate portrait of some aspects of a writer’s life.