In The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs, George Fetherling brings together samples of literary memoirs by twenty-two well-known Canadian authors: organized the-matically under four general headings, these essays and book excerpts record experiences that span the better part of the twentieth century within and beyond the borders of Canada. Similarly, in The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir, Myrna Kostash explores her experiences—specifically, her relationships with “rebel men”— over three decades in Canada, Greece, Poland, Ukraine, and Serbia. But while Fetherling’s anthology reflects rather conventional notions of literary memoir, Kostash’s book reshapes the horizon of life-writing in Canada.
In comparison to the more conventional samples of literary memoir collected in Fetherling’s anthology, Myrna Kostash’s The Doomed Bridegroom stands out for the way in which it pushes the memoir genre in exciting new directions. In terms of Kostash’s oeuvre, too, The Doomed Bridegroom represents a departure from her previous writing. Readers will find her revisiting subjects (feminism, ethnicity, the sixties generation, the New Left, and Eastern Europe) that have long occupied a central position in her writing; they will find, too, the sharp journalistic style that she honed in such works as Long Way From Home: The Story of the Sixties Generation in Canada (1980) and Bloodlines: A Journey Into Eastern Europe (1993). But in this memoir Kostash reveals—for the first time and with remarkable candour—the intensely personal aspects of her writing life. In the aftermath of the Sexual Revolution, she explores “the erotic possibilities of female heterosexual desire”—the “inextricability,” in fact, of “political and sexual desire.” The Doomed Bridegroom addresses her attraction to “heroic figures in the extremity of resistance and sacrifice,” and her subsequent “obsession to narrate a personal history of arousal by transgressive men, alive and dead, in Poland, Ukraine and Greece.”
Divided into six chapters, each focused on one of her lovers, The Doomed Bridegroom begins with Lenny, an American draft-dodger she meets while a university student in Edmonton, and Kostash then traces her subsequent involvement with Kostas, a (supposed) communist freedom fighter in Greece; K, an aging Polish communist (but pro-Solidarity) bureaucrat; Vasyl Stus, a persecuted Ukrainian poet; the Mennonite Canadian writer Patrick Friesen; and, finally, an unnamed Serbian poet she meets in 1997 while visiting Belgrade. Kostash incorporates shifting first- and third-person accounts of real encounters and imagined scenarios with her lovers, excerpts from their love letters and poetry, and even a constructed dialogue between herself and a mock interviewer. The boundaries of fiction, non-fiction, autobiography, biography, and travelogue are radically blurred. And as she explores her relationships with her bridegrooms—who are married to history, to their political causes and, at times, to other women (but never to her)—she simultaneously unfolds a narrative of the doomed bride. Her project is as much about coming to terms with her decision neither to marry nor to bear children (“I would bear books”) as it is about understanding the seductive pull of fraught historical and political milieux.
At times, Kostash seeks to disentangle her real lovers—like Kostas (a salesman of agricultural chemicals, in fact, and married with two children to boot)—from the romanticized roles she once assigned them; at times, she seeks to script herself imaginatively into the harsh realities of her imagined lovers’ political circumstances, as in the case of Stus (whom she never actually met). With Friesen, as she examines the uneasy (and uneven) historical relations between Ukrainians and Mennonites in colonized Ukraine (as well as the reductive representations of Ukrainians rife in Mennonite Canadian literature), she becomes the “primal Slavic body”—the figure of the Ukrainian slut—sharply juxtaposed against the chaste Mennonite wife. Throughout her memoir, Kostash establishes her subject positions—as a Ukrainian Canadian, a feminist, an advocate of the New Left; as a comrade, a girlfriend, and a mistress—only to undermine them in moments of self-doubt and even loathing inspired by historically determined circumstances.
Ultimately, what makes Kostash’s The Doomed Bridegroom such a richly provocative book are precisely the ways in which she challenges Fetherling’s notion that literary memoir is akin to the “traditional realist novel.” Midway through her memoir, Kostash asks, “Is there a narrative here?” Readers may well ask, too, “Is there a narrator here?” In fact, there are multiple narratives—and narrators—here, but they emerge in a stylistically complex marriage of historical and imaginative detail that requires work on the part of the reader. This is Kostash at her most vulnerable, her most demanding, and her best. The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs is, by contrast, an easy read.
— Lisa Grekul, Canadian Literature
“For Kostash, each relationship is a link to a political struggle – a cause that is, in its danger and demand for self-sacrifice, the real love object. The political is not only personal here, it’s erotic…Kostash’s tone is compassionate, not judgmental; she treats her feckless lovers and her younger, gullible self with equal generosity.” —Barbara Carey, Toronto Star
“In each of Kostash’s stories, she offers not only engaging frankness about often catastrophic affairs of the heart, but also narrative experiments in storytelling. Self-interviews, journal fragments, and even reconstructed political histories are among the literary devices employed to get at the always elusive truth….’Oh, my doomed darling,’ Kostash sighs at the end of this wise memoir that gives both romance and politics a good name.” —Stan Persky, Vancouver Sun
“I think Myrna Kostash’s collection, The Doomed Bridegroom, is one of the most important and original books to have been published in Canada in a long time.” —Alberto Manguel, Montreal Gazette
“Kostash, with her motley crew of voices, remarkable synthesising vision, keen research and a bloodhound’s nose for sniffing out history’s revealing moments, pulls it off. In style.” —Judith Fitzgerald, Confluences