Fishing With Tardelli: A Memoir of Family in Time Lost by Neil Besner

Neil Besner’s intriguing and insightful memoir, Fishing With Tardelli, begins with two epigraphs about remembering by Elisabeth Bishop and Philip Roth. These serve as lures or double hooks for his reader, as well as the lives and literature that inform his complex family history and structure of this singular and multifaceted book. The chapters devoted to his surrogate father “Marinheiro Manuel Tardelli,” his stepfather “Senhor Valter,” and his biological father “Mort the Sport,” are visually subdivided by fish icons in ECW Press’s tasteful design. From Brazil to Montreal and Winnipeg, schools of fish run through Besner’s narrative, memories, and families.

 A comma-suffused opening sentence sets the stage for his rite of passage: “I was twelve the first time I went fishing with Tardelli on the Moby Dick, twenty-four feet, lapstrake, the used boat my stepfather, Walter (“Unca” in those early years), had bought, he told us the first day we stepped aboard, as a ‘stepping-stone’.” Repetition of “first” and Melvillean allusion introduce an epic quality, while stepfather, stepped and stepping-stone signal displacement and a process of development – spiritual for the stepson, materialistic for two of his fathers. Various names change and coincide in the memoir, while “lapstrake” hints at the overlapping construction of memory and a prose style befitting Proustian nostalgia and Hemingwayesque adventure.

The first-person “narrator” describes the nexus between fishing, life, and writing: “I remember the feeling of the first fish on my line. I was using a silver zigzag, zeegee-zagee in Portuguese.” Bilingual and multi-cultural, Besner zigzags north and south across decades and a hemisphere in his coming-of-age romance and Bildungsroman. A complete angler, he alludes to Kafka, Bellow, Henry Miller, Spinoza, Atwood, and a host of other writers – his surrogate family. “Memory is first cousin to lateral association” – the zigzag of lines, life, and literature. (Coincidentally, Leonard Cohen is his cousin too.) Redeeming memory, all of these writers make up for lost time.

Besner fishes with Tardelli, feuds with his stepfather, and barely knows his real father. His relationship with his mother, “Dona Judite,” is equally fraught. To ward off those demons, he takes Saul Bellow’s advice: “hold the blow”; that is, not to retaliate, but also to absorb through the writing life. He also borrows from Bellow in his mix of highbrow and lowbrow, Wallace Stevens’s metaphysical lyricism and Damon Runyon’s street smarts – whether in the streets of Rio, Chicago, or the parking lots of Montreal.

Subduing any violence, the writer nevertheless learns how to use a slingshot against family philistinism. His father is addicted to gambling, the son to words and the wisdom of the heart. Distances and absences between parents and children in this family saga and romance are poignant. Besner’s net captures elusive parents, zigzagging from mysterious marriages in Montreal in the 1940s until his own marriage in 2017 to Gail, whom he had met at McGill in 1971. Their 45-year hiatus constitutes yet another absence. A family tree at the end of the book helps to sort out all the interrelated names of characters who are larger than life. Besner skilfully navigates the waterways of Brazil, the St. Lawrence, and Lake of the Woods. A life well lived and well written, Fishing With Tardelli is a memorable memoir of emotions recollected in semi-tranquility where the child is father to the man.

Neil Besner divides his time between Toronto and Lake of the Woods. He was born in Montreal and grew up in Rio de Janeiro. He is fluent in Portuguese and returns to Brazil frequently to teach at Brazilian universities. He taught Canadian literature at the University of Winnipeg for 30 years.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ ECW Press (May 24 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 120 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 177041634X
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1770416345
Poetry Editor

Michael Greenstein is a retired professor of English at the Université de Sherbrooke. He is the author of Third Solitudes: Tradition and Discontinuity in Jewish-Canadian Literature and has published widely on Victorian, Canadian, and American-Jewish literature.