An English teacher’s new memoir, an exploration of time, family and fishing



In the vast ocean of published memoirs, Neil Besner may not be the most important catch of the day, but he certainly is a keeper.

Preview of the book launch

Click to enlarge

Fishing with Tardelli: family memories in lost time

By Neil Besner (ECW Press, 152 pages, $22)

In conversation with Warren Cariou and Dennis Cooley

● McNally Robinson Bookstore, Grant Park

● Friday, 7 p.m., free

Fishing with Tardelli: family memories in lost time, published in May by ECW Press, is Besner’s brief rumination on time, family and memory. And while Besner, 72, has written extensively about other authors during his decades teaching in the University of Winnipeg’s English department and his years as a freelance book reviewer for the Free pressthis is the first time that he has tackled his own story.

“I had written before that — I wrote songs, a few poems, a short story,” Besner explained on a recent visit to Winnipeg from Lake of the Woods, where he spends half the year (he lives in Toronto the rest of the time). “I love to write. I was a hidden writer for 60 years…but my work was overwhelming.”


ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Once Neil Besner retired in 2017, he was able to focus on writing and editing his memoirs.”/>

ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Once Neil Besner retired in 2017, he was able to focus on writing and editing his memoirs.

he will throw Fishing with Tardelli Friday at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Booksellers’ Grant Park, where he will be joined by Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley and University of Manitoba professor and writer Warren Cariou. The event will also be streamed on McNally Robinson’s YouTube page.

Besner started thinking about telling his own story in 2014, after reading Joe Fiorito’s memoir, The closer we are to dying, about the death of the author’s father. Once Besner retired in 2017, he was able to focus on writing and editing his own memoir, a two-and-a-half-year process.

“I thought, OK, now is the time. It’s now or never,” he says.

The essence of Fishing with Tardelli back and forth throughout Besner’s early years, from infancy through the age of 20, and the parental figures in his life – namely his mother Judith, his father Mortimer, his stepfather Walter and the titular Tardelli, on whose boat he learned to fish (among other life lessons).

Most of Besner’s early years were split between Montreal and Brazil, where he fished with Tardelli, coming of age in and around Rio de Janeiro Bay. (Besner’s own boat at Lake of the Woods is called Tardelli.)




The genealogical aspect of Besner’s life is a bit complicated. In Montreal, his parents Mortimer and Judith were friends with another couple, Walter and (another) Judith. Besner’s parents separated when he was about six years old, and his mother Judith took up with the man who would become his stepfather – Walter. Mortimer remained in Montreal, while Walter and Besner’s mother (known primarily in the book as Señor Valter and Dona Judite, respectively) moved to Rio de Janeiro. Walter, the last surviving subject, died in Rio in January 2022 at age 99 after contracting COVID-19[feminine].

The structure of Fishing with Tardelli turned out to be one of the most difficult aspects for Besner to understand.

“There were two things I was trying to do: One, I wanted to write about time and memory. I didn’t know if I knew how to do it right,” he says. “The other part is that I wanted to write about family. I wanted to write about the intimacy, or not, of family.”

He ended up dividing the book into four main sections – one each named after his father, mother, stepfather and the titular Tardelli.

“I was walking down Yonge Street one day (in Toronto). And it occurred to me that what I should do was just label the sections with the names of the parents. Once I had this structure in mind, so I knew I could come and go,” he explains.




<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p> Most of Neil Besner’s early years were split between Montreal and Brazil, where he fished with Tardelli, coming of age in and around the bay of Rio de Janeiro.”/>							
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>Most of Neil Besner’s early years were split between Montreal and Brazil, where he fished with Tardelli, coming of age in and around the bay of Rio de Janeiro.</p>
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<p>And although the writing style of <em>Fishing with Tardelli</em> can read more like literary fiction than a traditional memoir, Besner emphasizes that nothing is made up – everything is as he remembers it happening.			</p>
<p>“In my humble opinion, memory is all we have – it’s very, very important to get it right, to tell the truth,” he says.  “The events in the book are the things I remember. They’re barely true.”			</p>
<p>The back-and-forth nature of the book also serves to highlight Besner’s thoughts on time, which changed as he grew older.			</p>
<p>“It’s a flash, it’s instantaneous. I was trying to get prose to do that too,” he says.  “We sequence time and dates, and they’re very important to me…but they’re just markers. Time itself? I’ve given up trying to figure it out. It’s about trying to live in the moment, as best you can.”			</p>
<p>Perhaps appropriate, given the complicated nature of his family relationships and the cyclical nature of his memoirs, the final chapter of <em>Fishing with Tardelli</em> tells the story of how Besner met his wife Gail, whom he first dated in his early twenties and eventually married – just five years ago.			</p>
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p> The lure of writing memoirs prompted Neil Besner to consider writing more about his own life, including his time on a farm in Idaho and his years in Winnipeg.”/>							
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<p>ETHAN CAIRNS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p>
<p>The memoir writing draw prompted Neil Besner to consider writing more about his own life, including his time on a farm in Idaho and his years in Winnipeg.</p>
</figcaption></figure>
<p>“We met at McGill (University of Montreal) in 1971. We had been together for a year. I broke up with her in 1972, as she likes to remind me,” he recalls with a laugh.  “We had known each other without hair for 45 years. And then suddenly, one day, I came across her on LinkedIn. And then it was three months of email exchanges. She lived in Toronto.”			</p>
<p>The two reconnected in 2016 and married in 2017. They continue to visit Brazil regularly, with their annual Amazon River fishing trip set to resume in December.			</p>
<p>Those who took English lessons with Besner at the U of W may be disappointed to find that the book contains almost no reference to his time in Winnipeg, mainly because of the period he remembers in <em>Fishing with Tardelli</em>.			</p>
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“I spent 30 years here, much longer than anywhere else by far. And I still call Winnipeg home; it always will be. My children are both here. My grandchildren are all here,” he says.

The lure of writing memoirs led Besner to consider writing more about his own life, including stints on a farm in Idaho and, of course, his years in Winnipeg.

Once Fishing with Tardelli was over, Besner sent copies to members of his (very) extended family and waited anxiously to hear what they would say.

“The person I’m the hardest on in the book is probably my brother Derek. He read it in an afternoon, he emailed me and said, ‘I loved it. I love this book.’ And he wrote to me again and again why he liked it,” Besner says.

“I’m very close to him, but we hate each other, it’s one of those types of relationships. He said, ‘You wrote that with love…if our parents were alive, they’d find a great comfort in this book.”

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Ben Sigurdson

Ben Sigurdson
Literary editor, beverage author

Ben Sigurdson edits the books section of Free Press and also writes about wine, beer and spirits.

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