Carole Corbeil was very much like her writing - gentle, tough and relentlessly insightful. Her death from ovarian cancer last Friday has seriously shaken Toronto's artistic community.
I met her just after the publication of her debut novel, Voice-Over. I remember that first interview. She was obviously nervous, still in the first flush of excitement that goes with finally publishing a novel. She toyed with her lunch and gulped on her words as she confessed that she could hardly believe that anyone was interested in her work. Typical - she wasn't the type to tout her talent.
Voice-Over is rich with her gifts. Her story of a troubled Quebecoise transplanted to Toronto is a powerful evocation of French displacement in English Canada and of the paradoxical challenge of living in two languages in a bilingual country. And to this day there hasn't been any fiction that so captures Toronto's Queen West in the early 80s.
But I remember the book most for its ferociously honest depiction of the first throes of motherhood. Corbeil was brave enough not to romanticize the experience of living with a newborn, a stance that I know helped sustain me when I became a new mother.
She covered the arts for both the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star, and was one of the only people I ever met who really earned the right to be a critic.
She was such a skilled writer that you knew her opinion was never driven by insecurity or meanness. She seemed to shudder with delight at anything beautiful. And she was so awestruck by the appalling powers invested in arts reviewers that she couldn't help but take on those issues in her second novel, In The Wings. Robert Pullwarden, the theatre critic she creates, is a cautionary portrait - power-hungry, manipulative, vengeful. Everything Corbeil wasn't.
She was, instead, a study in understated grace. I learned the virtues of this quality when I participated with her on a panel alongside Gloria Steinem at the Stratford Festival in the early 90s. Exercised by Steinem's presence in all the wrong ways, I did everything but jump through hoops to get the Yankee star's attention. But it was Corbeil whom everybody noticed.
In her brief but deft remarks she recalled the nuns who taught her, not as mindless victims but as strong women trying to come to terms with their faith. It was a humbling experience to be sitting beside her at that moment, a lesson in how the workings of a supple mind and a subtle intellect will always triumph over flash and trash.
A memorial celebrates her life and art on Sunday (October 15) at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson) at 7:30 pm. 504-8988.