Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “March, 2013”

Do Not Read about Canada

A Day in the Life of Canada (1985), featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon

I’m perpetually getting distracted from literature by these foolish asides. Ordinarily I wouldn’t bother with this, but there are two points of interest for me here, one related to the subject of this blog, and the other purely personal.

Anyway, here is Jimmy Fallon’s “Do Not Read” List for Spring 2013:

The part about A Day in the Life of Canada starts around 2:25, and Fallon’s approach really seems a little easy; the book was part of a series of A Day in the Life of… books done in the mid-80s, so the fact that the clothes are a little outdated is hardly surprising. The choice of cover photo is a little … odd, I admit, once you start analysing it. (And why, incidentally, is a book from 1985 on the Spring 2013 “Do Not Read” list? Has some recent event catapulted A Day in the Life of Canada back into public consciousness? Is there an imminent danger that, without Fallon’s warning, millions would rush out and read it?)

You can learn a little more about the book, and the series (which also included Australia, Japan, and Hawaii, among others), from its Amazon page. And should you wish to ignore Fallon’s advice, new and used copies are still available!

More interesting for our purposes is the discussion between Fallon and his sidekick about what they might find inside in the book (around 3:10). Fallon starts off by saying he loves Canada and has a lot of fans here, but what we get is this rather depressing list of clichés:

Probably pictures of maple leaves, ice hockey…
Yeah, sure.

So there is a good look at the ground Canada has staked out in the American mind: hockey, poutine, and pleasant scenery (maple leaves and mountains). Fallon seems almost shocked to think we have anything as advanced as store mannequins up here; isn’t Canada just a wilderness with a few ice rinks scraped out of the endless tundra?

As for the personal reason: as a child, I had a copy of A Day in the Life of Canada. (And scrolling through the YouTube comments on the video, I see I’m not alone: the comment “Oh my god I own that Canada book!” had 29 likes as of this writing.)

I got it as a gift, and my recollection is that, with typical Canadian humility (or is it insecurity?), we were thrilled that our little country had been included in the series. Being part of it was a point of national pride, and I recall the book being written up as a great opportunity to present Canada to the world. No doubt the thoughtful aunt who gave it to me bought it partly out of a feeling that buying a copy was somehow showing her support for Canada itself.

Given that, 28 years later, Jimmy Fallon’s mind still turns to maple leaves and ice hockey when he thinks of us, it seems the book may not have been the roaring success we hoped for.


Plath Goes Camping – In Canada!

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Collected Poems by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems (1981)

This Faber edition of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems is edited by Ted Hughes (I don’t know if you can see that from the picture); his notes on the year 1959 confirm, with a little more detail, what we learned from Wikipedia on the subject of Plath visiting Ontario in 1959:

Setting off in July [of 1959], she [Plath] and TH [Hughes]  drove around the United States, from Canada to San Francisco to New Orleans and back, camping on the way – a journey of about nine weeks. In September they accepted an invitation to Yaddo, the artists’ colony near Saratoga Springs, in upstate New York. (288)

It’s hard not to notice the odd construction of the first sentence, which makes it sound as if Canada is another part of the U.S., on a par with San Francisco and New Orleans. By virtue of his being English, I tend to expect Hughes to have a little more awareness of Canada as distinct from the U.S. than Americans would (we’re the ones who didn’t revolt, remember? The good children who bowed their heads obediently beneath the colonial yoke?), but clearly that is a misapprehension on my part.

Knowing Plath had been in Canada in 1959 sent me scouring through her Collected Poems in search of a reference to our great land. I started looking in the poems written in 1959, and was disappointed, but I had better luck in the section of the book covering 1960; it took her some time to write about us, apparently. I’m going to quote the poem in its entirety, as it seems almost like a portrait of Canada as seen by an American:

Two Campers in Cloud Country

(Rock Lake, Canada)

In this country there is neither measure nor balance
To redress the dominance of rocks and woods,
The passage, say, of these man-shaming clouds.

No gesture of yours or mine could catch their attention,
No word make them carry water or fire the kindling
Like local trolls in the spell of a superior being.

Well, one wearies of the Public Gardens: one wants a vacation
Where trees and clouds and animals pay no notice;
Away from the labeled elms, the tame tea-roses.

It took three days of driving north to find a cloud
The polite skies over Boston couldn’t possibly accommodate.
Here on the last frontier of the big, brash spirit

The horizons are too far off to be chummy as uncles;
The colors assert themselves with a sort of vengeance.
Each day concludes in a huge splurge of vermilions

And night arrives in one gigantic step.
It’s comfortable, for a change, to mean so little.
These rocks offer no purchase to herbage or people:

They are conceiving a dynasty of perfect cold.
In a month we’ll wonder what plates and forks are for.
I lean to you, numb as a fossil. Tell me I’m here.

The Pilgrims and Indians might never have happened.
Planets pulse in the lake like bright amoebas;
The pines blot our voices up in their latest sighs.

Around our tent the old simplicities sough
Sleepily as Lethe, trying to get in.
We’ll wake blank-brained as water in the dawn.   (144-5; dated July 1960)

Quite a beautiful poem, and obviously there’s a lot more there than can be dealt with in one little blog post. But we’ll pick up a couple of key ideas, which fall fairly neatly into patterns we must be coming to expect by now.

First, Canada is wild. This idea begins in the combination of the title and subtitle, where camping (a wilderness activity) is directly associated with being in Canada. The first three words, “In this country,” make clear that the speaker is describing a different, unfamiliar place; not home, but a new, strange land that is unfolding before her.

The first two stanzas expand the wilderness idea – the dominance of the rocks, the sense that the landscape can’t be tamed by human power – and the third cements Canada’s status as wilderness by contrasting it with the “Public Gardens” where people have imposed order on nature. Plath herself seems bored of so much civilization; the Canadian wilderness offers a welcome relief from the order of civilization.

Second, Canada is big. This idea is developed in stanzas 4, 5 and 6: the clouds that are too big for Boston’s “polite skies,” leading up to the gorgeous image of the sunset as “a huge splurge of vermilions.” I love that: Canada is a country so rich in natural beauty that we can be spendthrift with it, splashing it carelessly across the skies evening after evening.

(Incidentally, the sunset imagery reminds me of the song “Canadian Sunset.” And the line about night arriving “in one gigantic step”  recalls to my mind the fact that John Coltrane’s classic “Giant Steps” album was recorded in 1959.)

The size and rugged wildness of Canada lead into the fascinating final section of the poem, where it seems the country has the power to actually de-civilize the campers with its “old simplicities,” making them “wonder what plates and forks are for” and finishing with the image of them waking “blank-brained,” all traces of the people they were and the civilizing culture they had absorbed erased by Canada’s massive, encroaching emptiness.

I’m not sure whether that’s a compliment or not, but it’s certainly an image of a country with a strange kind of power. And yet it doesn’t seem threatening; at least to me, the overwhelming sense of the poem is a kind of relaxing into forgetfulness, a willing escape from the quotidian reality of the more “civilized” United States.

There is another, brief reference to Canada in a poem a couple of years later. I was only going to quote the relevant stanza, but it seems cruel to chop up a poem, so here’s the whole thing:

Crossing the Water

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

A little light is filtering from the water flowers.
Their leaves do not wish us to hurry:
They are round and flat and full of dark advice.

Cold worlds shake from the oar.
The spirit of blackness is in us, it is in the fishes.
A snag is lifting a valedictory, pale hand;

Stars open among the lilies.
Are you not blinded by such expressionless sirens?
This is the silence of astounded souls.   (190; dated 4 April 1962)

Obviously a much darker and more brooding poem, suggestive of a couple in crisis; there is none of the warmth of  confronting the wilderness together that seemed to radiate from “Two Campers”. The entire poem is only 12 lines long, but the word “black” (or a form of it) occurs five times, plus the word “dark” once for good (or bad?) measure.

Canada here represents an area of vast size; the idea that the shadow of these trees could cover it adds to the sense of towering menace conjured by this small poem.

For a slightly disjunctive experience, here is Hughes reading the poem:

Odd to hear it in his voice. Perhaps there’s a recording of Plath reading it out there, but I couldn’t find it.

Stompin’ Tom Connors: 1936-2013

We pause in our relentless quest for references to Canada by non-Canadians to honour a Canadian who put Canada right there in his songs: Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Thanks to Dave Sylvestre for the song recommendation.

Lumberjacks Ho!

Edward St Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels) (2003)

If you want to talk about books with great puff quotes, it’s pretty hard to ignore this new edition of the Patrick Melrose novels; here are a few samples:

“Rich, acerbic comedy … philosophical density” -Zadie Smith

“A masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England” -Alice Sebold

“Acidic humour, stiletto-sharp” -Francine Prose

“The most brilliant English novelist of his generation” -Alan Hollinghurst

“Perversely funny” –People magazine

With accolades from everyone from Zadie Smith to People magazine, you know you’re in the presence of greatness, or at least a reasonable facsimile.

This edition of the first four novels in the series, released to coincide with the hardcover publication of the fifth book, At Last, seems to indicate St. Aubyn’s star is rising in North America – he’s certainly trendy, appearing in The Millions Hall of Fame (scroll down to December 2012) and in a recent NYT Book Review interview (his response to the “literary dinner party” question is hilariously pretentious). He was even interviewed recently by Eleanor Wachtel on Canada’s own CBC. (Alas, the subject of his attitude toward Canada is not raised, but it’s worth listening just to hear his drowsy, aristocratic drawl.)

Never Mind, the first novel in the original Patrick Melrose trilogy, takes place at a country house in Lacoste, France and covers a single day – the day 5-year-old Patrick is raped by his father for the first time, and his parents host a dinner party. The characters are drawn from the very upper reaches of English society, and they mainly fall into two categories: ciphers of cruelty (Patrick’s father David being the main example) or self-loathing victims (his mother, Eleanor, is the central type here). The others either follow David in attempting to humiliate people, or follow Eleanor in enduring the humiliations piled on them.

The writing is exquisite: richly metaphorical, and with subtle shifts in tone and diction as the omniscient third-person narration moves between characters. There is a particular flavour to the chapters dealing with Patrick that captures something of the nature of childhood perception without going to the extent of, say, the opening paragraphs of Joyce’s Portrait. (St. Aubyn uses a more extreme version of this technique again, to remarkable effect, in the opening pages of Mother’s Milk, told from the perspective of Patrick’s son Robert, also five at the beginning of that novel.)

So in the case of Never Mind, the accolades quoted above are certainly deserved. But why does all St. Aubyn’s subtlety, all his command of metaphor and psychological insight, desert him when it comes to the subject of Canada? Does our nation bring out the worst in even the best writers? Here is the relevant passage, dialogue between Anne, an American, and her lover, the English philosopher and academic Victor Eisen as they prepare to go to the dinner party at the Melrose’s house:

Anne came out of the house carrying two glasses of orange juice. She gave one to Victor.
“What were you thinking?” she asked.
“Whether you would be the same person in another body,” lied Victor.
“Well, ask yourself, would you be nibbling my toes if I looked like a Canadian lumberjack?”
“If I knew it was you inside,” said Victor loyally.
“Inside the steel-capped boots?”
“Exactly.”   (86)

I don’t know if one could come up with a more trite and clichéd view of Canada if one set out to do so. Lumberjacks – really? We aren’t all lumberjacks in (steel-toed, by the way, not steel-capped – that sounds so high fashion, somehow) boots.

And how Canadian are lumberjacks, anyway? Here’s the relevant entry from the Oxford Canadian Dictionary:

lumberjack n. N. Amer. esp. hist. = LOGGER.

The entry immediately following, however, is this:

lumberjack jacket n. Cdn (also lumberjacket) a jacket, usu. of warm, red and black checked material, originally worn by loggers.

So lumberjack is a North American word; there’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about it – though we can, apparently, take credit for lumberjack jackets, a.k.a. “lumberjackets”. (Just as an aside, here’s Canadian Ryan Gosling fulfilling his birthright by making the lumberjacket look good. Wow Canada!) But Anne takes the trouble to specify a “Canadian lumberjack” when teasing Victor about nibbling her toes. Why? Are Canadian lumberjacks considered particularly unattractive?

And how, finally, to interpret this rather pathetic slide into cultural obliviousness? The kindest view to take is that St. Aubyn is aware of the cliché, and uses it to characterize Anne as an American who trades in casual stereotypes about her fellow North Americans. (Perhaps she does think Canadian lumberjacks are less attractive than their American brethren.) And yet Anne is one of the few remotely likeable characters in the book, and it seems a shame to give up on her so easily.

The alternative is to attribute the cliché to St. Aubyn himself; as a member of the British aristocracy, perhaps this is how he thinks of Canada – good enough for an occasional lumberjack joke, but that’s about it.

He’s certainly not the only Englishman to view Canada this way:

From colonial times through Monty Python to Edward St. Aubyn, it appears the British view of Canada hasn’t changed much. Sad to think that, despite all our efforts, we’ve made so little progress in the minds of our former overlords. To them, we’re still – and perhaps will always be – literally the “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

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