Nikolski by Nicolas DicknerNikolski by Nicolas Dickner


byNicolas DicknerTranslated byLazer Lederhendler

Paperback | February 10, 2009

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Selected as the 2010 CBC Canada Reads Winner!

Awards for the French-language edition:
Prix des libraires 2006
Prix littéraire des collégiens 2006
Prix Anne-Hébert 2006 (Best first book)
Prix Printemps des Lecteurs–Lavinal

Intricately plotted and shimmering with originality, Nikolski charts the curious and unexpected courses of personal migration, and shows how they just might eventually lead us to home.

In the spring of 1989, three young people, born thousands of miles apart, each cut themselves adrift from their birthplaces and set out to discover what - or who - might anchor them in their lives. They each leave almost everything behind, carrying with them only a few artefacts of their lives so far - possessions that have proven so formative that they can't imagine surviving without them - but also the accumulated memories of their own lives and family histories.

Noah, who was taught to read using road maps during a life of nomadic travels with his mother - their home being a 1966 Bonneville station wagon with a silver trailer - decides to leave the prairies for university in Montreal. But putting down roots there turns out to be a more transitory experience than he expected. Joyce, stifled by life in a remote village on Quebec's Lower North Shore, and her overbearing relatives, hitches a ride into Montreal, spurred on by a news story about a modern-day cyber-pirate and the spirit of her own buccaneer ancestors. While her daily existence remains surprisingly routine - working at a fish shop in Jean-Talon market, dumpster-diving at night for necessities - it's her Internet piracy career that takes off. And then there's the unnamed narrator, who we first meet clearing out his deceased mother's house on Montreal's South Shore, and who decides to move into the city to start a new life. There he finds his true home among books, content to spend his days working in a used bookstore and journeying though the many worlds books open up for him.

Over the course of the next ten years, Noah, Joyce and the unnamed bookseller will sometimes cross paths, and sometimes narrowly miss each other, as they all pass through one vibrant neighbourhood on Montreal's Plateau. Their journeys seem remarkably unformed, more often guided by the prevailing winds than personal will, yet their stories weave in and out of other wondrous tales - stories about such things as fearsome female pirates, urban archaeologists, unexpected floods, fish of all kinds, a mysterious book without a cover and a dysfunctional compass whose needle obstinately points to the remote Aleutian village of Nikolski. And it is in the magical accumulation of those details around the edges of their lives that we begin to know these individuals as part of a greater whole, and ultimately realize that anchors aren’t at all permanent, really; rather, they're made to be hoisted up and held in reserve until their strength is needed again.
Born in Rivière-du-Loup in 1972, Nicolas Dickner grew up in Quebec and studied visual arts and literature in university. Afterwards, he travelled extensively in Europe and Latin America before settling in Montreal, where he now resides. Dickner won two literary awards for his first published work, the 2002 short story collection L'ency...
Title:NikolskiFormat:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 8 × 5.15 × 0.8 inPublished:February 10, 2009Publisher:Knopf CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0676978800

ISBN - 13:9780676978803

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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Really Enjoyable Read I read this one years ago, but I recall enjoying it a lot. It is a very nice character study.
Date published: 2017-04-30
Rated 2 out of 5 by from What's the point of this book? 2.5 stars This tells three people's stories. They have all recently moved to Montreal. The narrator runs a bookstore, and is least often in the book. One is a young girl, Joyce, who has pirates in her family history and wants to be a pirate herself; she has run away. The third person, Noah, has come to Montreal to study archaeology. I never quite figured out what the point of the book was. There wasn't much of a plot, as far as I could tell. I was mostly bored, though the very end got slightly more interesting, as Joyce and the narrator interacted.
Date published: 2011-07-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from disappointed This book was highly recommended by a very well-read bookseller, and it's very well written; but I never came to care about the characters, so I just didn't get drawn in.
Date published: 2010-03-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from A little disappointing Started out great! I was in love with the opening narrator (the book store clerk). Touched on some great Canadian landscapes and very interesting themes and ideas. However, the latter half of the book didn't live up to the first half and was disappointing. I don't predict that it will win "Canada Reads 2010", but I may have to eat my words later this week.
Date published: 2010-03-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from A Post-modern Coming-of-Age Story Winner of Quebec’s top literary award and nominated for CBC’s Canada Reads 2010, Nicolas Dickner’s Nikolski is an imaginative novel of finding one’s place in a fragmented world. The book recounts the stories of three young adults from across Canada - Noah, who travels the Prairies with his mother in a trailer; Joyce, who lives in a small fishing village and feels trapped by her male-dominated family; and an unnamed narrator, who is cleaning out the Montreal apartment of his recently deceased mother as the story begins. Each of these characters simultaneously leaves their family and childhood behind as they seek to remake their lives on their own. From the beginning, one of the key themes of this novel is the symmetry of these three seemingly disparate narratives. In addition to family ties that the attentive reader discovers piece-by-piece throughout the work, all three characters converge in Montreal. Joyce, who finds work at a seafood shop, visits the narrator's bookstore. Noah, pursuing studies in archaeology, comes across Joyce as he conducts his "research," excavating Montreal's garbage lots by night. Dickner creates powerful moments as the characters continually bypass these opportunities to truly get to know each other and perhaps discover their surprising connections. Symbolism is powerful in this novel, and enhances the story by providing useful frames of reference to put together each of the characters' narratives. There is a mysterious book, missing its cover, that contains three separate stories. There are the stories of pirates that fascinate Joyce as she embarks on her own version of modern piracy. The background information on different kinds of fish and their migration patterns suggest some insights into the actions of these three characters, and perhaps of the generation they represent. This latter theme of rootlessness makes this book powerful, albeit challenging. Just like the characters' lives, Nikolski does not have a well-defined, predictable narrative from A to Z. Rather than drive home a singular message, Dickner uses his words and characters to create surprising images - the Prairies as a giant ocean, for example - and lets the reader derive his or her own interpretations. Surprisingly (at least for me), this results in a very satisfying read. What ultimately drives this book is Dickner's brilliant style of telling a story. At many points, his intimate prose leaves the impression that a storyteller is sitting right in front of you to tell the tale, whether he is talking about his characters or one of his many symbols in rich detail. Dickner's rendering of landscapes - from the landscapes of Prairie wheat fields, an Atlantic fishing town, and the working-class, multicultural streets of Montreal, and the beaches of Venezuela - is often breathtaking, and they nearly take on the roles of characters themselves. All this told with a healthy dose of wit. In Nikolski, I think that Dickner has created a unique novel, one that is a new take on the coming-of-age story for an increasingly migratory and rootless world. It may not be the most comfortable read, but its continual search for meaning in seemingly disparate events and characters leaves an oddly satisfying and relevant impression for our own narratives.
Date published: 2010-03-10
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Hidden Gem Nikolski follows 3 people through 10 years of their life. All of these individuals come from very different backgrounds and end up in Montreal where they all inadvertently cross paths or come close to connecting. This was a wonderful story which left me wanting more at the end, always a good sign. The author does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the vast and differing Canadian landscapes and how these landscapes affect the growth and development of the two main characters. Overall my favorite concept in this novel was how our stuff defines us now and to future generations who may end up digging through our garbage. Thank goodness for Canada Reads because I never in a million years would have randomly picked up this book, whch is sad because it truly is a wonderfuly story.
Date published: 2010-02-16
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting Read "Nikolski" is full of magical symbols: a Nikolski compass forever pointing somewhere away from the true north, an old three-headed book that passed through many hands and mishaps eternally remaining as one unicum (a word I actually learned from reading "Nikolski": a book that is only a single known copy in the whole world), and garbage, as rejects that had come to carry their own weight in the world. Among all these symbols, we followed the life of two characters who live their days in parallel to each other without once realizing their own hidden connections. I was thrown by the trick that the author did to introduce a mysterious first person narrator in the first chapter and then hide him until a long while through the book. I was confused for the first three chapters in my feeble attempt to work out the convoluted (more or less because a lot of them were unrelated and unimportant to the story line later on) list of characters. Surprise. Nevertheless, "Nikolski" is an interesting read.
Date published: 2009-05-02

Read from the Book

Magnetic AnomalyMy name is unimportant.It all started in September 1989, at about seven in the morning.I'm still asleep, curled up in my sleeping bag on the living-room floor. There are cardboard boxes, rolled-up rugs, half-disassembled pieces of furniture, and tool boxes heaped around me. The walls are bare, except for the pale spots left by the pictures that had hung there for too many years.The window lets in the monotonous, rhythmic sound of the waves rolling over the stones.Every beach has a particular acoustic signature, which depends on the force and length of the waves, the makeup of the ground, the form of the landscape, the prevailing winds and the humidity in the air. It's impossible to confuse the subdued murmur of Mallorca with the resonant roll of Greenland's prehistoric pebbles, or the coral melody of the beaches of Belize, or the hollow growl of the Irish coast.The surf I hear this morning is easy enough to identify. The deep, somewhat raw rumbling, the crystalline ringing of the volcanic stones, the slightly asymmetrical breaking of the waves, the water rich in nutriments – there's no mistaking the shores of the Aleutian Islands.I mutter something and open my left eye a crack. Where can that unlikely sound be coming from? The nearest ocean is over a thousand kilometres away. And besides, I've never set foot on a beach.I crawl out of the sleeping bag and stumble over to the window. Clutching at the curtains, I watch the garbage truck pull up with a pneumatic squeal in front of our bungalow. Since when do diesel engines imitate breaking waves?Dubious poetry of the suburbs.The two trash collectors hop down from their vehicle and stand there, dumbstruck, contemplating the mountain of bags piled on the asphalt. The first one, looking dismayed, pretends to count them. I start to worry; have I infringed some city bylaw that limits the number of bags per house? The second garbageman, much more pragmatic, sets about filling the truck. He obviously couldn't care less about the number of bags, their contents or the story behind them.There are exactly thirty bags.I bought them at the corner grocery store - a shopping experience I'm not about to forget.Standing in the cleaning-products aisle, I wondered how many garbage bags would be needed to hold the countless memories my mother had accumulated since 1966. What volume could actually contain thirty years of living? I was loath to do the indecent arithmetic. Whatever my estimation might be, I was fearful of underestimating my mother's existence.I went for a brand that seemed sufficiently strong. Each package contained ten revolutionary ultraplastic refuse bags with a sixty-litre capacity.I took three packages, for a total of 1,800 litres.The thirty bags turned out to be adequate - though I did on occasion enlist my foot to press the point home - and now the garbagemen are busy tossing them into the gaping mouth of the truck. Every so often, a heavy steel jaw crushes the trash with a pachyderm-like groan. Nothing at all like the poetic susurrations of the waves.Actually, the whole story - since it needs to be told - began with the Nikolski compass.- - - - - - - - - - The old compass resurfaced in August, two weeks after the funeral.My mother's endless agony had worn me out. Right from the initial diagnosis, my life had turned into a relay race. My days and nights were spent shuttling from the house, to work, to the hospital. I stopped sleeping, ate less and less, lost nearly five kilos. It was as if I were the one struggling with the tumours. Yet the truth was never in doubt. My mother died after seven months, leaving me to bear the entire world on my shoulders.I was drained, my thinking out of focus - but there was no question of throwing in the towel. Once the paperwork was taken care of, I launched into the last big cleanup.I looked like a survivalist, holed up in the basement of the bungalow with my thirty garbage bags, an ample supply of ham sandwiches, cans and cans of concentrated frozen orange juice and the FM radio with the volume turned down low. I gave myself a week to obliterate five decades of existence, five closetfuls of odds and ends crumbling under their own weight.Now, this sort of cleanup may seem grim and vindictive to some. But understand: I found myself suddenly alone in the world, with neither friends nor family, but still with an urgent need to go on living. Some things just had to be jettisoned.I went at the closets with the cool detachment of an archaeologist, separating the memorabilia into more or less logical categories:• a cigarillo box filled with seashells• four bundles of press clippings about the U.S. radar stations in Alaska• an old Instamatic 104 camera• over three hundred pictures taken with the aforementioned Instamatic 104• numerous paperback novels, abundantly annotated• a handful of costume jewellery• a pair of Janis Joplin-style pink sunglassesI entered a troubling time warp, and the deeper I plunged into the closets, the less I recognized my mother. The dusty objects belonging to a life in the distant past bore witness to a woman I'd never known before. Their mass, their texture, their odour seeped into my mind and took root among my own memories, like parasites. My mother was thus reduced to a pile of disconnected artifacts smelling of mothballs.I was annoyed by the way events were unfolding. What had started out as a simple matter of sweeping up was gradually turning into a laborious initiation. I looked forward to the time when I would finally reach the bottom of the closets, but their contents seemed inexhaustible.It was at this point that I came upon a large packet of diaries - fifteen softcover notebooks filled with telegraphic prose. My hopes were rekindled. Maybe these diaries would allow me to put together the pieces of the puzzle?I arranged the notebooks chronologically. The first one began on June 12, 1966.- - - - - - - - - - My mother headed off to Vancouver when she was nineteen, feeling that a proper break with one's family should be gauged in kilometres, and that her own falling-out deserved to be measured in continents. She ran away one June 25, at dawn, in the company of a hippie named Dauphin. The two confederates shared the cost of gas, shifts at the wheel, and long drags on thin joints rolled as tight as toothpicks. When not driving, my mother wrote in her notebook. Her script, very neat and orderly at the outset, quickly started to furl and unfurl, tracing the eddies and whorls of THC.At the beginning of the second notebook, she had woken up alone on Water Street, barely able to stutter a few halting phrases in English. Notepad in hand, she went about communicating through ideograms, by turns sketching and gesturing. In a park, she made the acquaintance of a group of arts students who were busy crafting delicate origami manta rays out of psychedelic paper. They invited her to share their overcrowded apartment, their cushion-filled living room and a bed already occupied by two other girls. Every night at about two a.m., the three of them squeezed in under the sheets and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes while they discussed Buddhism.My mother swore she would never return to the East Coast.Whereas her first weeks in Vancouver were recounted with a wealth of detail, the rest of her journey grew more and more elliptical as the demands of nomadic life evidently supplanted those of narration. She never stayed anywhere more than four months, but would all of a sudden take off to Victoria, then Prince Rupert, San Francisco, Seattle, Juneau and a thousand other places she did not always bother to identify clearly. She scraped by thanks to various paltry expedients: hawking poems by Richard Brautigan to passersby, selling postcards to tourists, juggling, cleaning motel rooms, shoplifting in supermarkets.Her escapade went on like this for five years. Then, in June 1970, we showed up at the Vancouver central station with two huge duffel bags just about bursting at the seams. My mother bought a train ticket to Montreal, and we crossed the continent in reverse, she curled up in her seat, me nestled in the depths of her uterus, an imperceptible comma in an as yet unwritten novel.When she got back home, she briefly made up with my grandparents - a strategic truce aimed at securing the endorsement she needed from them to buy a house. In short order, she purchased a bungalow in Saint-Isidore Junction, a stone's throw from Châteauguay, in what was to become the southern periphery of Montreal, but which at the time still retained something of the countryside, with its ancestral houses, its fallow land and its impressive population of porcupines.Now saddled with a mortgage, she had to take work in Châteauguay - at a travel agency. Paradoxically, this job put an end to her youthful roving, and to her diaries too.The last diary ended on an undated page, circa 1971. I closed it, deep in thought. Of all the omissions that punctuated my mother's prose, the most important was Jonas Doucet.Nothing was left of that transient sire but a stack of postcards scribbled with indecipherable handwriting, the final one dating back to 1975. I had often tried to crack the secret of those cards, but there was no way to make sense of their hieroglyphics. Even the postmarks were more revealing, as they limned out a path that began in southern Alaska, went up to the Yukon, then back down again toward Anchorage, and ended in the Aleutians - more precisely, on the American military base where my father had found employment.Under the pile of postcards was a small, crumpled box and a letter from the U.S. Air Force.I learned nothing new from the letter. The box, on the other hand, illuminated a forgotten pit in my memory. Now totally flat, it had once contained a compass that Jonas had sent me for my birthday. That compass came back to me in astounding detail. How could I have forgotten it? It was the only tangible proof of my father's existence, and had been the pole star of my childhood, the glorious instrument with which I'd crossed a thousand imaginary oceans! Which mountain of debris was it buried under now?I combed the bungalow from top to bottom in a reckless frenzy, emptying drawers and cupboards, searching behind the sideboards and under the rugs, crawling into the darkest recesses.It was three in the morning before I tracked it down, stuck between an aquarium-sized deep-sea diver and an apple-green garbage truck, at the bottom of a cardboard box perched on two rafters in the attic.The years had not improved the appearance of the poor compass, a five-dollar gizmo most likely found near the cash register of an Anchorage hardware dealer. Luckily, its lengthy proximity to metallic toys had not demagnetized its needle, which persisted in pointing (what seemed to be) north.Strictly speaking, it was a miniature mariner's compass, composed of a transparent plastic sphere filled with a clear liquid in which there floated a second, magnetized and graded sphere. The inclusion of one sphere inside another, as in a tiny matryoshka, guaranteed a gyroscopic stability that could withstand the worst storms: no matter how strong the waves might be, the compass would lose neither its bearings nor the horizon.I fell asleep in the attic with my head sunk in a cumulus of candy-pink insulation, the compass resting on my forehead.- - - - - - - - - - Superficially, that old compass seems perfectly unremarkable, just like any other compass. But on closer examination one realizes that it doesn't point exactly north.Some individuals claim to be aware at all times of precisely where north is located. However, like most people, I need a marker. When I'm sitting behind the bookstore counter, for example, I know magnetic north is located 4,238 kilometres away, in a beeline that runs through the Mickey Spillane shelf and goes to Ellef Ringnes Island, a pebble lost in the immense Queen Elizabeth archipelago.But, instead of pointing toward the Mickey Spillane shelf, my compass lines up 1.5 metres to the left, right in the middle of the exit door.

Bookclub Guide

1. Nikolski takes place over the course of a decade, 1989 to Christmas 1999, and the narrative often leaps over years at a time. What effect do these leaps in time have on your ability to relate to the characters, and on the novel as a whole? Why has Dickner chosen this trajectory?2. Why is Noah's narrative developed more fully than Joyce's, or the unnamed narrator's? Discuss the interleaving technique Dickner uses to tell their stories.3. Does Joyce change at all over the course of the novel? How so, or why not?4. Discuss Noah, Joyce and the unnamed narrator's relationships - or non-relationships - with their parents and extended families.5. In contrast to the three protagonists, who tend to be loners, Maelo exemplifies family and community support: finding jobs and rooms for all manner of newcomers, hosting jututo gatherings every Sunday, even setting Joyce up with his grandmother in the Dominican Republic. Why has Dickner given him this role in the novel?6. Besides being Joyce's uncle, who left Tête-à-la-Baleine at age fourteen to roam the world, Jonas Doucet is the father of both Noah and the unnamed narrator. In what ways do memories of him pervade and guide the lives of our protagonists?7. Discuss the notion of "trash archaeology" and what it says not only about the characters in Nikolski, but also about real life. Do you think it's possible to truly know a person based on what he or she throws away or keeps? Or a culture?8. What makes the protagonists pick up, pare down and take off so many times in Nikolski? Does this nomadic tendency reflect reality, or a natural human need to move on, or just the urges bred into each of them as individuals?9. Dickner goes to great lengths to juxtapose land and sea in this novel: there are nomads and pirates, wide prairies and wider oceans, and the sense that characters are more often lost or adrift than in control of their journeys. Discuss the ways Dickner evokes land and sea throughout the novel, and their respective pulls.10. More than one critic has commented on the short chapter "Little Dipper" during which we as readers survey Joyce's abandoned room. No characters are present but a story is told - as Dickner puts it, "the character was the room itself." Discuss how such attention to the details of characters' lives, as opposed to the characters themselves, ties in with broader themes of the book.11. Why does Joyce leave Montreal? What do you think she's going to do next?12. In the end, our unnamed narrator decides to escape the "gravitational pull of books" and get rid of his possessions. Discuss how holding on to the past, whether in memories or in property, is treated in the novel - is it a positive or negative compulsion?13. Why don't we ever get to know Arizna better?14. Both the house on Margarita Island and the Doucet house outside Tête-à-la-Baleine serve as repositories of history - yet also as refuges. Talk about the significance of these houses to Noah and Joyce. We never learn the fate of the Margarita Island house after the floods, but the Doucet house falls into the ocean. What could that signify?15. Talk about the significance of ancestry in the novel. Why do the ghosts of Noah's Chipewyan forebears hang around inside Sarah's trailer? Why does Joyce not care for her family in Tête-à-la-Baleine but obsess about the pirates on her mother's side? Why do a Bonneville station wagon called Grampa and an abandoned yacht named Granma appear here?16. Why doesn't Noah travel back to the prairies and track his mother down at some point? Do you think he ever will?17. What is the significance of Noah buying Simón every dinosaur book he can find in the bookshop, yet declining to buy back The Book With No Face (and just handing over the Caribbean map page instead)? And why does our unnamed narrator just put it back in the bin?

Editorial Reviews

"Despite the preponderance of clues and artefacts scattered throughout the story, Dickner does not tie everything up in a neat package. He lets certain threads dangle, giving Nikolski more substance and nuance. The story lingers in the mind long after the last page has been read, leaving the reader in its strange and wonderful orbit."–The Gazette"Nikolski offers a breathtakingly original perception of the world, mixing geography, cartography and longing in a language and construction both intellectually sophisticated and emotionally affecting."–The Globe and Mail"The characters are so infused with vitality and surprise that they become unforgettable; the language (and in translation - remarkable) is as lively as the characters; and the humorous, sweetly sad view of life in general is engaging… This novel is so richly textured and multi-layered that a single short review may do it a disservice. But its comic brilliance is undeniable - a hugely enjoyable read."–Edmonton Journal"Chock full of arcane detail about the sea, fish lore, antique books, travel and archaeology, Nikolski is the product of an eccentric mind propelled by an exuberant spirit."–Marianne Ackerman, The Walrus"Lederhendler's cadences and elegant vocabulary are a pleasure to read, while Dickner inexorably sweeps the reader along with the tide as the characters mature. This novel will bring a smile to your face and will be one you will want to read again."–Winnipeg Free Press"One cannot say it enough: this book is the discovery of the year… The humour is striking; his vision stunning."–Carole Beaulieu, L'actualité"Nicolas Dickner has a limitless imagination, great erudition and an inventive pen. He is the incarnation of the future of Quebec writing - nothing less."–Pierre Cayouette, L'actualité"If you are interested in the great wide world, submerse yourself immediately in this phantasmagorical, lively and fascinating novel."–Hugues Corriveau, Lettres québécoises"A carefully crafted, sumptuous first novel that will restore your taste for flights of fancy and for treasure hunts in time and space."–Benoît Jutras, Voir"Stylish, offbeat, poignant and perceptive."–David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas"Dickner excites the imagination of the reader to the point of ecstasy."–Le Monde"Nicolas Dickner, who uses beautifully spare prose which can be as darkly comic as it is affecting, isn't trying to tell a conventional story, he's trying to tap into a very modern idea: that we need to understand that we all connect with each other somehow, family or not. And he does so impressively well."–Metro (UK)