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Michael Tregebov/cover of his latest novel, "Shot Rock"

By BERNIE BELLAN
Elsewhere on this website you can read my review of  former Winnipegger Michael Tregebov’s latest book, titled Shot Rock. That book tells the story of a Winnipeg Jewish curling club that is faced with a division between members who would like to sell it to Dominion Stores and those who would like to retain it as a curling club.

 

 

 


In keeping with one of the more obvious themes of this paper, which is to feature a fair bit of nostalgic writing about a past in Winnipeg that is probably familiar to quite a few of our readers, I thought I would delve more deeply into the history of the Maple Leaf Curling Club – and whether Tregebov’s novel, even though a piece of fiction, was inspired by true events. (In the story on the opposite page, we have much more about the history of the Maple Leaf Curling Club.)
I spoke with Michael from his home in Barcelona, Spain via Skype on August 30. I asked him whether, in fact, there had been “a big controversy over the sale of the Maple Leaf Curling Club?” I should note that I actually used to curl at the Maple Leaf club on Machray Avenue and I have a vague memory of its final chapter, but I just couldn’t recall any particular controversy over its closing, which was sometime in the early 1970s. I seem to recall having to move to what was then called the Highlander, which was a brand new facility at the time, and which seemed quite modern in comparison to what was a pretty dated Maple Leaf club.
Interestingly, as research for this article, I went down to the site of the old Maple Leaf club. It is now a church, known as Zion Apostolic Church, but as soon as I saw it I recognized it immediately as my old curling club, which I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. It’s still quite an imposing structure, as you can see from the photo on page 1.
So, when I asked Michael whether there had actually been a controversy surrounding the sale of the Maple Leaf back in the day, I was somewhat surprised to hear from him that “no – it just died a slow death…Why can people not accept the fact that you can just make up a story?”
“No, don’t get me wrong,” I replied. “I just wondered – and so did some other guys I spoke to, whether we had forgotten something that might have happened in a long-ago period in our lives. It got me to thinking that your book might have been at least partially based on a true episode.”
Michael suggested though, that the sale of the Maple Leaf club actually happened after he had left Winnipeg – which means that it wasn’t at all inspired by anything with which he was familiar. “It’s like so many other things that happened in the north end – like synagogues closing,” he observed.

I asked him whether, when he first started to write novels, beginning with The Briss in 2009, The Shiva in 2012, and now Shot Rock (which is to be released Sept. 26), all of which are set in Winnipeg, he modeled his writing style on Mordecai Richler – who used Montreal as the setting for most of his novels? Or, I wondered, was he tired of being asked that question?
“These three books are part of my plan for a human comedy of the history of Winnipeg – through Jewish people – and non-Jewish people,” he answered. “I started at first on a novel about my grandmother, but it just got too impossible to do. I wanted to paint that whole experience – from my grandmother’s time to our generation, and just sort of trace the history of it.” “That first book (The Briss) was just out of instinct, wanting to write about it, but then I really got interested in a whole human comedy after reading Proust,” Michael continued. “Our (Jewish) history is very much about our relationship to assimilation…how much do you retain, how much do you give up?
“You see it in Philip Roth too – his Jewish characters and how they deal with American assimilation – which I think is much stronger than Canadian assimilation for different historical or political reasons.”
I said to Michael: “You write poetry too.” (And I had a particular reason for making that observation.)
He answered: “I’ve stopped. I think I’ve really lost my muse. I think prose will do that. I think novelists are really fallen poets.”

The reason I asked him about his poetry, I explained, was that there had been a novel a few years back titled Yiddish for Pirates, written by a Canadian Jewish poet by the name of Gary Barwin. I thought it interesting that here we have two Jewish Canadian poets producing funny novels with Jewish themes. I asked Michael whether he knew Gary Barwin?
“He’s written a blurb on the back cover of my book,” Michael responded (but not on the back cover of the edition I received, which was a reviewer’s copy). “As a matter of fact I’m doing the launch of the book together with him (Barwin) in Burlington, Ontario. He’s also launching a new book.”
I said to Michael that his publicist didn’t include Winnipeg on the list of tour stops he’s going to be making when he comes to Canada this month. I wondered whether he will be stopping in Winnipeg. (What a shame it would be if he weren’t!)
He said that he will be in Winnipeg for the Winnipeg Writer’s Festival from the 21st to the 26th (of September).

“There are three things I have to do,” Michael noted. “One of them is to give a talk at the Saul and Claribel Simkin Centre,” he said. Thinking of the name “Simkin”, he wondered whether there was a connection between the people whose names are on the Simkin Centre and “Feivel Simkin” who, he reminded me, “ran the first Jewish newspaper in Winnipeg.”
“Sure,” I said. “He was one of the ancestors of the current Simkin family. He was quite a prominent leftist.”
“He was my Uncle Morris’s best friend,” Michael added. “My Uncle Morris Gray was an MLA for 25 years.”
“I remember Morris Gray,” I said. “He had a book store on Main Street.”
“Yes,” Michael said. “He had a book store and a travel agency.”
“And he sold the book store and the travel agency to Mr. Witman,” I noted.
“I remember Mr. Witman going over to my uncle’s store and the two of them drinking whiskey in the afternoon,” Michael said. “I remember my uncle getting sick, but they were just laughing their heads off. I didn’t know what was so funny.”
I could see where he might have been inspired to begin writing about the “human comedy” – as he put it.

“But you know,” he noted, as we ended our conversation, “Balzac’s Human Comedy had 90 novels. I’ve got 87 to go. I’m going to have to live to be 150. So a third of my life is over.”

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