Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Portrait of the Artist as a Bear: Jazz, Nietzsche, and the Animal Mask

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Portrait of the Artist as a Bear: Jazz, Nietzsche, and the Animal Mask

Article excerpt

How does an author use a talking animal in realistic fiction? This essay examines the history of bears in legend and literature, as well as theories of Nietzsche and jazz, in order to understand Rafi Zabor's saxophone-playing bear in The Bear Comes Home as a literary protagonist and a jazz artist in search of his groove.


To live alone one has to be a beast or a god--says Aristotle. But there
is a third case: one has to be both--a philosopher.--Nietzsche, Twilight
of the Idols

Talking bears rarely amble into serious literature. When they do, their presence in a novel of literary merit sparks water-cooler discussions on exactly how a talking animal affects a novel, or whether it affects the novel at all, and how an author employs such a character effectively. Underlying that discussion is often the hidden premise that such an outrageous assault on realism should have some effect on the novel, else it begs the brute's intrusion. This discussion appeared in reviews of Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home, a novel that asks the reader to believe a bear's artistic journey as a jazz musician.

Marc Kloszewski of The Library Journal brings up legitimate problems with believing this fantastic element in a realist novel. Kloszewski writes: "First novelist Zabor asks us to take the bear's odyssey fairly seriously, expecting us to accept the bear in these situations as easily as the book's characters do. This is a shame, because Zabor's scenes of musical life are vivid and knowledgeable, and his dialog is uniformly excellent; adding that talking bear seems gimmicky and at odds with the effective reality of the work. With all this strong material, one wonders why the main character is a bear. Perhaps to sell more books?" (128). Kloszewski reveals in his review some important concerns about acceptable boundaries for literary fiction, about the juxtaposing of real and surreal, and about contextual consistency. While readers know bears can talk in children's literature, fantasy, and science fiction--even satire--these literary forms create a plausible context inherent in the genre. They have the kind of world that can bear a talking bear. Can the "effective reality" of Zabor's novel handle this wild element? That The Bear Comes Home earned its author a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and charmed most critics, speaks to Zabor's ability to bridge two very disparate worlds, despite boundaries, and make them work.

That is not to say that this novel does not struggle with a bear hero. This bear does seem to lack a certain bearishness. He is removed from everything bear-like (no forest habitat, no other bears, no bearish habits) surrounding himself with humans, human cities, etc. He speaks so much like a human that who would suspect he was really a bear if the narrative did not keep demanding we see him as one, refusing to give him a name, calling him insistently "the Bear," lest we view him as a man with a nickname? Except for the sex scenes, where Zabor describes bear sex in detail, the Bear's bearishness does not matter. When scientists kidnap the Bear early in the novel, to learn his secrets of larynx and opposable thumbs, it seems more a diversion than a substantial plot point, and it has little, if any, effect on the characters or novel afterwards. All this works against the Bear as a bear, and since there are plenty of effective and entertaining representations of anthropomorphized bears in less realistic settings already in the fictional world by other authors--Bisson's "Bears Discover Fire," Kotzwinkle's The Bear Went Over the Mountain, Kipling's The Jungle Book, Pullman's armoured polar bears in The Golden Compass, LaFarge's Crimson Bears, even Adams's Shardik, where the bear does not speak out loud but has his every movement interpreted as communication to humans--it makes Zabor's bear seem, in comparison, like a man in a bear suit.

These points might cause one to side with Kloszewski's assessment of the Bear as gimmick, if not for the Bear's self-awareness of being a bear, his fighting all the past images of bears in literature and in folklore--he cites nearly every bear reference in literary history--and the curious way that the characters comment on the Bear's lack of bearishness, his ignorance of his heritage, his denial of this side of himself. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.