York humanities Professor Sylwia Chrostowska’s debut novel Permission was chosen as one of five books of the year (2013) by Quill and Quire review editor Steven W. Beattie. “One of the most intellectually bracing, technically fascinating Canadian-authored novels of the year was actually published in the U.S. by the indie press Dalkey Archive,” he wrote. The book is the first in Dalkey Archive’s Canadian Literature Series.
Permission consists of anonymous messages sent by the author to an acclaimed visual artist over the course of a year. It is the record of an experiment: an attempt to forge a connection with a stranger through the writing of a book. Part meditation, part narrative, part essay, it is presented to its addressee as a gift that asks for no thanks or acknowledgement – but what can be given in words, and what received? Permission not only updates the ‘epistolary novel’ by embracing the permissiveness we associate with digital communication, it opens a new literary frontier.
Beattie calls the novel “unclassifiable”. It is, he says, “…a frequently profound, occasionally frustrating meditation on the nature of identity, and the convoluted, often contradictory relationship between writer and reader”.
Teju Cole, author of Open City, which won the PEN/Hemingway Award and the New York City Book Award for Fiction, says “‘This fine and perplexing novel is itself something between a library and a cemetery, spinning around the hauntings of desire, the confusions of memory, the ambiguities of solitude and, above all, the mystery of writing.”
Chrostowska, a native of Poland who remembers dinner conversations about Solidarity and the risk of being listened in on, explains that the story was actually a one-way correspondence, illustrated throughout with photographs.
She is also the author of Literature on Trial: The Emergence of Critical Discourse in Germany, Poland & Russia, 1700–1800 (University of Toronto Press, 2012) and teaches European Studies at York.