Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

The Aromatic Sweat of the Beloved

The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life (1794?)

The publication history of this book is rather convoluted, so 1794 is a provisional date; Casanova was working on the book at that time. Those who want to investigate such things can start here.

On to the passage in question:

I have always loved highly savoury dishes, such as macaroni made by a good Neapolitan cook, olla podrida, the glutinous codfish of Newfoundland, aromatic game meats, and cheeses that attain perfection when the tiny creatures inhabiting them begin to become visible. As for women, I have always found that the one I loved smelled good, and the stronger her perspiration, the sweeter she smelled to me.  (p. 7; from the Preface)

Who would have guessed Newfoundland was so sexy? Donne compares his lover’s body to the province; for Casanova, its cod remind him of the smell of a lover’s sweat. Two libertines, two mentions of Newfoundland; what an honour for our easternmost province.

Given the extent to which this blog ponders the themes of insecurity, inferiority and so on, I think we should pause here and just revel in this moment: Casanova loved the taste of Newfoundland cod. “Glutinous” might sound like a put-down, but, here at least, it clearly isn’t.; in fact, it’s a compliment. And thoughts of the strong flavour of Newfoundland cod lead him into thoughts of the strong scent of a lover. Could this be as good as it gets for references to Canada? We shall see.

The idea of macaroni as a highly savoury dish must also surprise Canadians accustomed to Kraft Dinner or the President’s Choice variants. Obviously Neapolitans have their own way of doing it.

That bit about the cheese though – ugh.

Fake Canadian Reference Alert

Having first attempted to cure the patient with oppilative remedies, Doctor Zambelli sought to correct his mistake with castoreum, which brought on convulsions and finally death. The tumour burst through his ear one minute after he died. The doctor left after killing him, as if he had no more business in our house. My father died in his prime, at the age of thirty-six. (p. 18)

The note on “castoreum” is as follows:

An extract made from the dried perineal glands of the beaver.

I confess: When I first read that sentence, I thought I had found another reference to Canada. What’s more Canadian than beavers? One of the standard symbols of Canada, a beaver even appears on our nickel:

Canadian Nickel (Tails side)

I considered beavers a North American animal, but a little research (yes, I do some now and then) told me there was also a Eurasian variety, slightly different from the North American. It’s impossible to tell from the text, but it seems likely that the castoreum given to Casanova’s father came from a Eurasian beaver.

At least the Latin name of the North American variety, Castor Canadensis, is clearly a reference to Canada. And, while we’re on the subject of Latin, the description of the doctor leaving as soon as the patient was dead, as if he had nothing more to accomplish, could be straight out of Martial.

I can’t leave this book without commenting on the Penguin edition of Casanova pictured above. Normally I’m a fan of Penguin books, but this one is terrible. It’s a tie-in with the 2005 Casanova film directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Heath Ledger, which was an amusing little comedy but hardly a masterpiece; that led to the book cover being defaced by this depressing notice:

Penguin Casanova Cover Blurb

I can’t stand the faux come-on language of “take pleasure in the movie” and “let the real Casanova seduce you.” This isn’t just cheesy; it’s cheese in which the creatures inhabiting it have become visible.

But what’s really depressing about the book is that the excerpts break off just when things are getting good; to give you but one example, Casanova’s threesome with two nuns is simply summarized by the editor. What’s the point in reading Casanova if you’re going to miss the threesome with two nuns?

The answer is no point, no point at all.

Fortunately there’s a better edition, which we’ll take up one of these days.

Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The plot of this novel centres on Gordon Comstock, who gives up a decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to concentrate on poetry and sinks gradually into poverty. He sees himself as a rebel against middle-class propriety (represented by aspidistra plants), but in the end circumstances (through the medium of his girlfriend, Rosemary) drag him back towards a happy mediocrity, where he probably belongs anyway. I liked this one, despite the somewhat disconcerting sense that, at times, I could almost have been reading my own autobiography.

It was also made into a decent film starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The film doesn’t get down into the gritty texture of poverty to the extent that the book does, but it’s entertaining. Bizarrely, I think it was released in North America under the title “A Merry War”. Perhaps the word “aspidistra” was considered too long or too obscure for North American viewers; still, when you have a title as fantastic as “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” it seems a shame to waste it.

Best of all, though, there are three – that’s right, three – references to Canada. We’ll take them in the order they occur. First:

Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water.  (p. 30)

It would be nice to think that this reference to Canadian butter suggests a cool, delicious dairy product that comes from the wide-open spaces of the new world, where proud farmers milk their cows and their daughters, faces cream-spackled, churn it into delicious fresh butter to be shipped back to England – in short, that the reference to Canadian butter is meant to provide a contrast with the dirty and poverty-stricken conditions in which Gordon consumes it.

Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.

The general tenor of the description of Gordon’s life in the boarding house is that it is mean and filthy; the dinner he eats seems to be of a piece with that (the bread is crumbly, the water musty – how lovely that “but” there, as if it required some sort of mysterious, almost alchemical cruelty to take cold water and still render it musty, thus draining it of pleasure). It seems more likely that Canadian butter represents something cheap and low-quality rather than something grand and delicious. Given the characterization of his landlady, if Canadian butter were good, it’s impossible to imagine that she would give it to Gordon.

We also have the phrase “mousetrap cheese,” which immediately follows “Canadian butter.” I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect it refers to cheese that is so bad that it’s appropriate for use in a mousetrap, but not for human consumption.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m not the first to have taken up this question; the Internet provides some further speculations.


She [Rosemary] was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told – the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments in the Indian army.   (p. 124)

This second reference ties in with the first in linking Canada and farming. Here Canada, along with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, represents a colony that offers opportunity to Englishmen who have little chance of getting ahead at home. Rosemary’s brothers are clearly enterprising types (unlike Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit) who have headed out to the corners of the Empire to make their fortunes through hard work and determination.

And finally:

Mr. Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by Mr. Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr. Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person.    (p. 271)

Now that’s remarkable: a reference to Canada that has nothing to do with farming, but instead focuses on a member of what would today be called the “creative class”. The New Albion is the publicity (i.e. advertising) firm where Gordon works in London; Mr. Clew was his boss when he quit.

At first this seems rather exciting: a Canadian live wire (one doesn’t often see those terms in close proximity) who is a big wheel in a London advertising firm. But if we pause over the sentence a moment, we realize that Mr. Warner has become successful by leaving Canada. In fact, it seems likely that, as a “live wire”, he was too bright, too creative, for dour Canada, and had to leave in order to find success on the grand stages of New York and London, where people with vision are appreciated.  And isn’t that one of the commonest tropes about Canadians – that the really great ones are the ones who succeed outside Canada?

And so, to summarize … what do we learn about Canada from Orwell? It’s a country of farms that produce cheap but inferior butter; and it’s a great place for Englishmen of modest dreams (i.e. those who want to be farmers) to go in search of opportunity, but any Canadian with a real spark of intelligence or creativity will inevitably leave for the U.S. or England. In a nutshell, we import England’s extraneous people and export anyone with genuine talent. This is, I suppose, typical of the way empires regard their colonies, but it still doesn’t feel like a vision one wants to rally around.

Stocked Salmon Smackdown

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2007)

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “that’s one of the problems you would have to solve, of course. But if it was me, and of course I’m a completely non-technical person, I’d think along the lines of constructing holding ponds at the bottom of the wadis seeded with salmon, keeping the water cool, injecting it with oxygen if necessary, and confining the salmon there for three or four years. I read somewhere that in Canada salmon stay in the lake systems for that amount of time.”   (p. 27)

Just to provide a little context, Harriet, an estate manager, is talking to Alfred, a fisheries scientist. She represents a fabulously wealthy sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen, and Harriet is trying to convince Alfred to take the idea seriously.

The reference to “lakes” makes it clear that she is not referring to Atlantic salmon on the east coast or Pacific salmon in British Columbia, which are natural populations of fish that have been running to the ocean and back upriver to spawn since time immemorial. Rather, she is talking about fish that were introduced, most likely into the Great Lakes.

I was, in my (largely misspent) youth, a keen fly fisherman and, even more so, a keen reader of fishing magazines, and I seem to recall there being a general prejudice in the fly-fishing community against fishing for introduced fish stocks. So going after Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland would be a fisherman’s dream, whereas catching a Chinook in Lake Ontario would be only a small step up from hauling them out of a pond at a fish farm.

By mentioning Canadian salmon in lakes, then, Harriet is showing that she doesn’t understand a distinction that is fundamental to any true fisherman. Indeed, one of the turning points in the novel comes when the sheikh learns he won’t be able to take wild salmon from the rivers of Scotland, and instead will have to stock his Yemeni river with farmed salmon. Both he and Alfred are crushed by the thought of having to use these inferior animals.

If we were inclined to overinterpret a bit (and, as should be evident by now, we are), we could argue that the passage reflects an unfairly negative view of salmon fishing in Canada. In fact our coastal fisheries are every bit as “wild” as the salmon fishery in Scotland; it’s only the salmon that were introduced to the Great Lakes that are in some sense “inferior,” but that is all that is mentioned here.

I’ll avenge the affront to my country by noting that I didn’t think much of this book; in fact, I’ll pay it the ultimate insult and say the movie, though cheesy, was better. It stars Ewan McGregor and the (currently ubiquitous) Emily Blunt, has a great small role by Kristen Scott-Thomas, and though it turns the book into a typical “opposites loathing and then attracting” romantic comedy (which the book really isn’t), it at least succeeds in being well-constructed and moderately enjoyable.

A Canadian Footnote

Since I’m on the subject of this novel, I can’t resist mentioning one other reference, which is not directly to Canada but implies Canada:

Eventually Peter took himself off – to go and play with his Blackberry, I expect.   (p. 154)

Peter is the Prime Minister’s press secretary – it’s not worth the effort of explaining how he fits into the plot, but what’s interesting here is that Blackberrys, manufactured by the Canadian company RIM, were so prevalent in 2007 that the British Prime Minister’s press secretary would have one, and that a British author would take the trouble to refer to it by name. This indicates how far Blackberrys had penetrated the public consciousness in the pre-iPhone years.

Since Harriet (who narrates the quoted line) despises Peter, it seems likely that the sentence purposely alludes to two common expressions for masturbation: “get himself off” and “play with himself”. But the Blackberry is such a bewitching piece of technology (or he is such a loser) that Peter would rather play with it than with himself. Whether RIM should be honoured by the reference I will leave to more seroious heads to decide.

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