The World of After
Format: Trade Paperback w/ Flaps
Size: 5.5" x 8.5"
FIC019000 FICTION / Literary
FIC071000 FICTION / Friendship
FIC014000 FICTION / Historical / General
Publication Date: April 17, 2021
When Kevin, an Irish Montrealer, attends graduate school at Oxford University in the early 1990s he meets Leon, a London Jew from a Communist family, and Alex, a Soviet defector’s son raised in Toronto. As the trio begins to form a complex and conflicted friendship, Alex pulls away and spends more of his time tutoring a charming, yet troubled, upper-class undergraduate and less of it with Kevin and Leon. In a fit of jealousy, Kevin and Leon play a prank on Alex and the undergrad, a prank with dire consequences.
Ultimately, the three young men go their separate ways, but what happened that night binds them together and helps lead them to freedom and self-discovery in a post-Cold War world.
“… Charming, with a sweeping but easy prose that evokes the ennui of Oxford as easily as the scars of war-torn Yugoslavia.”
— Justin Warshaw, Times Literary Supplement
Following is an excerpt from “What was Canadian fiction”, an interview Stephen Henighan gave to Lydia Perovic for her Substack newsletter, Long Play.
“Few Canadian writers are as international as Stephen Henighan: in research interests, languages spoken, countries of residence, and the fiction itself. He teaches Spanish-American literature in the School of Languages and Literatures at the University of Guelph and is Editor of the Biblioasis International Translation Series. He is the author of a dozen books, his latest The World of After (Cormorant Books, 2021). It’s narrated by a listless young man – think Girls, or Sally Rooney characters, but male – who leaves Montreal and his unhappy relationship and takes up a scholarship to Oxford. The Berlin Wall had recently fallen and the 9/11 was still far away, the western world believing the respite from history would last. The narrator makes some important friendships, hops from bed to bed and country to country, until everybody around him settles down into a marriage, a political project, a profitable career. Everybody but him. I took a train to Guelph the other day to ask Henighan about these characters and some of the issues, literary and political, swirling around CanLit and world literatures.
Kevin the narrator is quite different from you, although you too did your PhD in Oxford?
Obviously some people read it as autobiographical but there are significant differences. One is that I’m really an immigrant. I came to Canada at the age of 5 and we went back to England when I was in my teens… I was born in Hamburg, Germany. My British mother and American father met on a beach in Yemen when they were both working for their respective governments closing down their representation in the crown colony of Aden just before it became independent Yemen. I lived my early childhood in rural north of England, a little bit in central Michigan and then in the Ottawa Valley. We then went back to the UK and then university in the States followed and Montreal for a few years and then back to the UK, and in between very long stays; 7 months in Colombia, and I studied in Romania, I studied in Germany etc.
You didn’t grow up in Canada?
I grew up mainly in the Ottawa Valley. With a lot of interruptions. But my consciousness is very much an immigrant consciousness and especially in southern Ontario. I never know what the right thing to say is, and I can’t get over how repressed and constipated they are and how they won’t express how they feel.
Kevin is different from me in that he is a fourth or fifth generation Montrealer… When he goes to England he has to learn things and he’s a klutz, whereas having grown up with a British mother and having spent much of my childhood with a stepfather who is a Scot educated in England, I’m very conscious of every nuance of English accent and class assumption and irony, and Kevin doesn’t get any of that stuff.
And how did your parents end up in Canada?
That’s I guess Canadian academic history. Universities in Canada expanded like crazy in the late 1960s because of the Baby Boom but there were not enough Canadians with a PhD around so they massively imported, Brits and Americans mainly but also some people from other parts of Europe, to work in universities. If you looked at the humanities departments, and probably the science to some degree too, early 1970s you’d probably get 3/4 of Profs that were foreigners and that’s actually what stimulated the rise of Canadian nationalism in universities. We’ve been taught history by foreigners, was the rallying cry.
So what is Kevin’s problem? He’s a man in desperate search of political urgency. Any kind, anywhere.
He’s come out of this commitment to left, which comes from his father who’s sort of an ineffectual leftist. His mother still supports good causes but has decided she needs a regular job, and he has worked for a nationalist think tank at McGill which I can divulge is based on a think tank run by somebody I’ve never met, Kari Levitt, famous Canadian nationalist who wrote Silent Surrender (1970), the book about the arrival of American multinational corporations in Canada after the Second World War. When I was living in Montreal I met somebody who was working as Kari Levitt’s assistant and that’s where the idea came from. Kevin has come out of the campaign in 1988 to try and fight off free trade and that’s the baggage he brings to his meetings with people in Oxford like Leon and Alex.
We don’t even know how Kevin would have voted in the 1995 referendum – and there’s a lot about the referendum in the novel. He’s a little bit empty, I thought. He wanders around Europe looking for… something.
There is a sense of somebody who’s lost. My hope is that at the end he finds something, although that something is pretty modest. He does at least make a decision at the end whereas for much of the book he is being buffeted by circumstance. He decides he’s not going to take over the think tank.
And we never learn what his thesis was about!
We just know it’s a disaster. That’s another way we are different. I wrote my thesis in record time and then actually sat there for another year or so of funding just studying languages… but I knew a lot of people who had Kevin’s problem.
Kevin is the aimless millennial character that we know so well today, although he’s of the 1990s.
My argument regarding that would be that the 1990s is sort of the 1920s reprised. I think at one point Leon says this – the 1990s is the time when the bipolar structure of the world collapses and at least in theory you could do lots of other stuff and you could seek out new directions. I remember there *was* a lot of excitement when I was living in London in early 1989, about the revival of the idea of the Mitteleuropa. People would eagerly consume Timothy Garton Ash’s columns in the Independent… I did a trip in early 1989, just before everything changed. I spent a month in Hungary, a few days in Slovakia, then ten days in Poland and a few days in the Czech part. In Hungary, things had basically changed. It wasn’t official yet, but there was a lot of things you could do that you weren’t able to do a year earlier. I went to a couple of universities and I made friends that I’m still friends with…Czechoslovakia was unbelievably orthodox, still. They flew the Soviet flag next to the Czech flag everywhere. Gorbatchev’s book on Perestroika was for sale in Hungary but not in Czechia. Then I went to Poland, got off the train in Krakow and stepped right into a demonstration. Poland was in the state of utter insanity. There were about to go into the election that Solidarity won.
Meanwhile, Kevin does his misery tourism around war-torn Bosnia, with Catherine. I love that scene in Mostar with the crazy hobo who upsets the oblivious CanadianAmerican duo… while Kevin wants to take a photo of war ruins.
It’s good to talk about the Mitteleuropa part of the novel because everybody just wants to talk about the Oxford bit.
Oxford must look different now, the High table and the rituals.
Yes, I actually went back ten years later to do some research and all of that had changed. The people they hired in the 1990s were people who had partners that they actually wanted to go home to rather than having this life that just consisted of the Common Room. I graduated in 1996 and my college at that stage had 60 Fellows of whom 2 were women. Now I think it must be approaching 50-50. I can only remember one Fellow who was not white, a South Asian economist. That must have changed too. I wanted to write about Oxford among other things because most writing about Oxford is from the POV of an upperclass Englishman, and chiefly about the undergraduate experience. The graduate experience has always been more cosmopolitan.
Isn’t it great that Leon the Marxist marries a wealthy socialite at the end?
He ends up with a house in Muswell Hill!
And isn’t Kevin actually in love with his mate Alex? They date the same women, and there’s a scene in which Kevin is having sex with Alex – by proxy that is Catherine.
Yes, I wanted to write about male friendship and that includes the homoerotic aspect of male friendships. In a way, that’s the one enduring relationship for Kevin. That scene with Alex on the phone I almost cut, I thought maybe that was a bit too blatant, but in the final round of edits the publisher didn’t mention it. The competitiveness of male friendship, it’s something I wanted to get into, but also the way that there is always the veneer of homoeroticism in any male friendship – more so in some than others.
Kevin says at one point, until now I’ve been preoccupied with women, but Oxford has made me extremely homosocial.
It was still a misogynistic place, replete with gay male misogyny which we don’t think about much in North America; we tend to see gay men as allies to feminism. But in Britain there’s definitely a strand of gay male culture that is misogynist and it’s embodied in the upper class, mainly. I arrived there in 1992, a couple of the more conservative colleges didn’t admit women till 1980s and for a lot of the Fellows it was an unwelcome recent event.
There’s that recent book by Richard Lipscomb, Women Are Up to Something: How Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley, and Iris Murdoch Revolutionized Ethics, about the Oxford philosophy department during WW2, when the handful of women there had the freedom to actually do philosophy. But then the men returned.
I remember attending Terry Eagleton’s inaugural lecture when he was made a Professor, or was he given a Chair? Anyway, some sort of distinction. And I remember John Bailey and Iris Murdoch coming in, and Murdoch was in early stage Alzheimer’s, it was obvious she wasn’t entirely there.
I can’t believe you were in the same room with Iris Murdoch! Well, some of her in any case.
That’s one of the weird things about having studied there. A lot of people graduate and you hear about them later. I was in a Canadian politics class in which another student sitting next to me was a guy named Mark Carney. He was very silent. Never said anything. At the end of the class turned to me and said You feel really passionately about this stuff, don’t you? I think he had come as a Rhodes but he had stayed on to do his PhD. He was about 28 then, but seemed much older, he came in in a tweed jacket and he was already married with two kids. And there are various people who are now in American politics who were also Rhodes scholars. Who else did I meet… I was at George Steiner’s inaugural lecture. Which was great.
This was when they made him Chair of Comparative Literature, maybe 92-93. The irony of that was that he failed his PhD at Oxford and the report recommending failure of his PhD said “this is a work of comparative literature”… He was supposed to study English literature, or French literature, or German, and of course Steiner being Steiner, could only compare multiple literatures. But I was there during his inaugural lecture. Lectures at Oxford at least in my day and I think it’s still the case were open to everybody, people could wander off the street and listen. It’s only the tutorials that are closed and they are normally one-on-one and one-on-two.
Is the Dean Bess with his gay sex parties based on anybody real?
Er yeah. And the American thriller writer Larry Beinhart who wrote among other things Wag the Dog, he was at Wadham College when I was there, as a visiting mystery writer. And he desperately wanted to write a novel about these parties but I don’t think he ever did.
But Oxford aside, the Eastern European bit of the novel was important for me. All these little countries in the 1990s EE becoming themselves again was seen by a lot of people as a break on all the free trade agreements that sprung up as soon as the Cold War ended. And we thought the diversity of Transylvania or the diversity of Slovakia would give us a lesson in how cultures could interact and mingle etc. but of course it didn’t happen. There was a strong belief in that, and I wanted to put that into motion and that’s what Kevin’s quest is. It’s the quest of what comes after the Cold War. He’s wandering and he’s naïve but I did want to play with those ideas a bit.
For about 10 years we thought, no more binary world. Now we’re going to have a multi-polar world, more democratic one – and Timothy Garton Ash said the period of freedom goes from 11/9 in Berlin to 9/11 in NYC. First couple of drafts I didn’t really know what I was doing but by the third draft I was conscious that I was writing an 11/9 - 9/11 book. In 1988-89 I lived in the UK and worked as a data entry clerk at the Paddington health authority and then I saved up that money to travel in Eastern Europe, just before the Wall came down. There was a kind of revival of Mitteleuropa literature from 1930s happening, with people like Sándor Márai… The travel books of Patrick Leigh Fermor, those came into print again. That influenced my view of the world; an extended part of my education was being in London and reading all that stuff.
Does it look quaint to you now, this feeling of ‘nothing will ever be the same’? The end of communism in EE appears a bit swept away by other events. The fact that China’s regime never fell yet it incorporated capitalism.
Yeah, it showed that you could be Stalinist and neoliberal at the same time. And the fear is that that’s where we’re heading.
And Russia is back to where it was in the 1970s and 80s, geopolitics-wise.
In a certain way, yes. There was a hope of it opening. Things you get in Catherine’s letters from Moscow is a certain despair at the sight of these pizza stands and born-again Christians…
And Alex is a bellwether for all things Russian. Now how come he never integrated in Canada?
I think we’ve all had this experience, we meet people who have become very Canadian when they come here, and then we meet people who never really made the effort to figure it out. And there are certain families I know, not necessarily Russian origin but other backgrounds, who still don’t really know what the capital of Canada is and everything is about what’s going on in their country of origin.
No there’s a ton of people who are not interested in integrating. And the American TV is always available so they probably know more about the US anyway.
And sometimes people come here for a temporary job, and a few years becomes ten years and twenty years but they really don’t see it as integrating.
But isn’t it also kinda Canada’s fault? What narratives do we offer them?
Yes. Canada doesn’t insist on much. And is almost weary of insisting on much, so there’s that.”