Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “November, 2013”

It’s Glacier Season in Canada!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Nov. 26, 2013)

As you may have guessed if you visit this space occasionally, I read a fair bit (too much) about football during the NFL season. Every week I tell myself that I won’t write about football columnists here, and then every week I read something that is too good to resist.

Next week I’m definitely going to write about something literary. But I just can’t let this, from Gregg Easterbrook’s latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, slip by. He’s talking about the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their victory in the Grey Cup:

Underdog Hamilton trailing host Saskatchewan 24-3 in the second quarter of the Grey Cup — Canada plays its title game in November, before glaciers cover the fields — the Tiger-Cats faced third-and-goal, the CFL equivalent of fourth-and-goal, on the Rough Riders’ 3.

He hasn’t noticed that Roughriders is one word – a discussion we’ve had before – but at least he’s conversant in the basics of three-down versus four-down football.

But glaciers? Really? Have we come no further than that? Do Americans still have so little notion of what Canada is actually like that mainstream columnists can get away with jokes about glaciers advancing across our country every December? And this from a writer who believes in global warming and so must be aware that glaciers are actually retreating, not advancing.

Yes, America, it’s true – glaciers cover Canada every winter. But just like Canadians themselves, Canadian glaciers are so polite that they stop 1.6093 km (one mile, for your convenience) away from the US border so that you won’t be bothered by the massive sheet of ice that covers our northern land for four months every year.

I like Gregg Easterbrook’s column – I don’t always agree with him, and I could do without the sci-fi references, but overall I think he’s an intelligent and insightful writer and a well-educated man. And yet, when it comes to Canada, this well-educated and intelligent American instantly sinks to the lowest cliche available to make a joke at our expense. Really, it’s a bit dispiriting.

I suppose that’s what I get for reading too many football columns.

Fame – or Infamy?

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Brett Michael Dykes, “A New Subplot for Manning vs. Brady” (The New York Times)

As you may or may not know, things have been a little hectic in the city of Toronto lately. Sometimes it’s diverting, and sometimes you just want to forget – for a little while at least – that we’ve become a global laughingstock.

Sunday mornings are one of the latter times for me. If I can find a few minutes of quiet, I like to spend it with the NFL previews in The New York Times. What better way to escape from reality than to retreat into what Gregg Easterbrook so aptly calls “the football alternate universe”? But what greeted  – or should I say affronted? – my eyes this Sunday when I reached the capsule preview for the 2-8 Buccaneers at the 6-4 Lions? The following:

After starting the season 0-8, Tampa Bay has suddenly won two in a row, including a 41-28 thrashing of Atlanta in Week 11. And in the Buccaneers’ last loss, they forced overtime against Seattle, probably the N.F.C.’s best squad. So perhaps the team that looked to be imploding like the N.F.L.’s version of Toronto’s mayor, Rob Ford, has turned a corner.  (Nov. 24, 2013, S2)

Now, this isn’t completely news – in fact, we’ve already noted the presence of Toronto’s mayor in one online football column. But this is different; this is the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times, America’s unofficial paper of record, deigning to notice our little outpost of civilization here amid the frozen wastelands of the North.

And it’s not just a slightly amused, “Look at the crazy stuff going on up in Canada” news article buried somewhere near the back of the front page section. It’s in the Sports section, which is actually more significant than a news article. Being mentioned in the Sports section proves that the Rob Ford scandal has percolated through American public consciousness so completely that even the NFL game previews aren’t complete without a cheap joke at his expense. The NFL itself, apparently, isn’t complete without at least one team representing the league’s version of our mayor.

(The Bucs, history will note, went on the defeat the Lions, despite being 10-point road underdogs. Is this a sign that the mayor is also about to turn things around?)

How long, Toronto – how long have we dreamed of this sort of recognition? I’ve always felt that, as Canadians, we were like a little brother, eager to gain the attention of our big brother (not to say Big Brother) to the South. And now we’ve got it: segments on Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, interviews with Anderson Cooper and Matt Lauer, and finally, a mayor so well known that football writers make jokes about him and just assume everyone will understand.

Why has Rob Ford struck such a chord south of the border? I’ll offer my personal theory: it’s because he’s just like Chris Farley. Numerous American outlets have pointed out the resemblance as part of Rob Ford stories – and not only does Ford look like Farley, he behaves like the sort of character Chris Farley played. Ford resonates with Americans because he conforms perfectly to an archetypal comedic character they’re already familiar with.

That’s just a theory – but whatever the reason, we’re at the top of America’s mind – though it took Rob Ford to get us there. Is this victory, or a kind of defeat?

Lumberjacks Again

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Herman Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities (1852)

William C. Spengemann begins his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of this novel by stating, “If Pierre were not written by the author of Moby-Dick, it would probably not be in print today”. I can’t say I disagree. Ezra Pound once described later Henry James as “cobwebby,” and it’s a term that might apply here as well; Melville seems, at times, more interested in spinning out metaphors than in telling a story.

Now, if you love that sort of thing – if you read Moby-Dick and thought, “The writing was great, but I could have done without the whole chasing the whale storyline” – then this could be the book for you. It’s even been made into a film: POLA X (the trailer really doesn’t do it justice), directed by Leos Carax, who also made the exuberantly bizarre Holy Motors.

When I watched POLA X, just as I started reading the book, I was really put off by Guillaume Depardieu’s performance, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he starts limping and staring madly around for no apparent reason; having read the book, I now understand what he was trying to convey. But the first third of the film is exquisite; the buildings and scenery make it look like a period piece set in the late 1700s, and then Depardieu comes roaring through on his morotocycle – marvellous.

But to return to the novel.

I feel like I need to set up the quote with some sort of summary of the plot, but it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin. I’ll give it a go: Pierre is a youth living a charmed life in the idyllic surroundings of Saddle Meadows, his family estate. His father is dead, he lives with his mother, and he is engaged to marry the beautiful and perfect Lucy.

But then … a mysterious young woman named Isabel appears, and tells Pierre that she is his half-sister, conceived when their father had an affair with a Frenchwoman, who is now dead. For various reasons, Pierre accepts this information as true, and as the novel progresses, what he thought to be his life essentially falls to pieces around him. The following passage comes after he has learned (from a letter) that Isabel is his sister but before he has met with her and heard her full story; I’ll quote it at length to give a bit of the flavour of the prose:

It was long after midnight when Pierre returned to the house. He had rushed forth in that complete abandonment of soul, which, in so ardent a temperament, attends the first stages of any sudden and tremendous affliction, but now he returned in pallid composure, for the calm spirit of the night, and the then risen moon, and the late revealed stars, had all at last become as a strange subduing melody to him, which, though at first trampled and scorned, yet by degrees had stolen into the windings of his heart, and so shed abroad its own quietude in him. Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke.  (86)

The metaphor here is fairly straightforward in its essence, if somewhat lengthily elaborated and filigreed, in accordance with Melville’s style at this point in his career: Isabel’s revelation has destroyed the things Pierre thought he knew about himself and his life as completely as fire destroys a forest. Naturally a lumberjack (“timber man”) would look on the ruined forest the way Pierre looks on his overthrown preconceptions; and when Melville thinks of lumberjacks, apparently, he thinks of Canada.

This is a little odd; the United States must have had its fair share of lumberjacks in the 1850s. But Melville seems to be imagining a land that is nothing but forests; not a country with some urban areas and some forests, as he no doubt thought of the U.S., but a country that contains nothing but trees and has no reason to exist other than to employ lumberjacks.

A country, in other words, like Canada. As the phrase “the immeasurable fields of fire-brands” clearly indicates, Melville thinks of Canada as little more than an endless, empty wilderness of trees, punctuated by the occasional lumberjack.

A Wounding Omission

Regardless of the precise nature of the reference – and yes, even if it includes lumberjacks – it’s always exciting to see Canada mentioned in a book by a non-Canadian. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain pain that comes from a moment in a book when one expects a reference to Canada, and then it doesn’t come. I’ll memorialize one such moment here, where Melville refers to the death of one of Pierre’s ancestors, also named Pierre:

Grand old Pierre is dead, and like a hero of old battles, he dies on the eve of another war; ere wheeling to fire on the foe, his platoons fire over their old commander’s grave; in A.D. 1812, died grand old Pierre. The drum that beat in brass his funeral march, was a British kettle-drum, that had once helped beat the vain-glorious march, for the thirty thousand predestined prisoners, led into sure captivity by that bragging boy, Burgoyne.  (31)

The year is 1812, a new war is beginning; as a Canadian, one naturally expects a reference to Canada here, as we think of the War of 1812 as a conflict between Canada and the U.S. But Melville sees it as another conflict – or a fresh eruption of an ongoing conflict – between the U.S. and Britain. And no doubt he’s right – the vast majority of the military assets deployed on “our” side must have been British.

Still, it comes as a bit of a shock, particularly given the extensive commemorative efforts (check out those costumes!) made by the Canadian government for the bicentenary of the war last year.

Poor Herman, he can’t win. When he talks about Canadian lumberjacks, we’re offended that he thinks we’re all lumberjacks; when he fails to mention us, we’re offended at the omission. This is why they say literature is a thankless profession.

Scandal in Canada? Impossible!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (November 12, 2013)

Just a brief note on a sentence from Gregg Easterbrook’s most recent Tuesday Morning Quarterback column:

If it’s any consolation, government hanky-panky is international. There is a corruption scandal in Canada, hard as the phrase “Canadian scandal” seems to be to write.

Ha ha ha.

Easterbrook is playing on the impression – general among Americans? – that Canada is simply too nice and polite – or too boring – a country to have a scandal, or at least a scandal that can measure up to the fantastic scandals that the U.S. routinely produces. And, granted, the Senate scandal that Easterbrook links to doesn’t have the salacious fascination of, say, the troubles of Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer.

But hasn’t Easterbrook noticed that Canada is curently in the throes of a scandal that is consuming media attention, not only up here, but around the world? (That last article, incidentally, is typically Canadian in its attitude toward international media attention: we’re horrified that the world is laughing at us, but at the same time, it’s hard not to notice a certain excitement in the catalogue of headlines we’re getting in more glamorous cities like London and New York.)

How far do we have to go to shed our goody-two-shoes image?

Based on his earlier reference to Canada, it’s clear that Easterbrook’s impressions of our country form a fairly small cloud hovering around the idea that we’re boring and excessively nice. So perhaps he just refuses to believe that such things can occur here. Or perhaps he’s too focused on football to pay any attention to Toronto city politics. But in another corner of the football journalism world, we rated a small notice this week:

d. I suppose we shouldn’t laugh at Toronto mayor Rob Ford, but every time I hear the tape of him talking about smoking crack, I can’t help it. Ford: “Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors. Probably approximately about a year ago.” And then, basically, apologizing, wanting life to go on as before.

e. Rob? That’s sort of a big deal.

f. Doesn’t Rob Ford look exactly like Chris Farley’s slightly older brother?

Clearly, Canada can produce a captivating scandal after all. The issue isn’t us: Canadians can be just as corrupt and venal as people of any other nationality. And while it’s a banal observation, I’ll make it anyway, just for the record: once impressions about national character take hold in people’s minds, they’re remarkably hard to shake, even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. No matter what we do, a lot of Americans will always think of Canada as that quiet, dull nation to the north, full of people so polite they apologize every time someone steps on their foot.

At least we’re doing what we can to shake that image.

Escape Into Hopelessness

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Basil Bunting, Complete Poems (2000)

I don’t know how well it comes across at the size above, but that cover photo must be one of the all-time greats in the annals of collected poetry volumes: Bunting casually reclining in a wicker chair against a Mediterranean background (the back cover tells us he’s in Rapallo, Italy – how Poundian!), his (carefully coiffed?) facial hair simply glorious in its effrontery.

Of course Bunting, so proud of being a Northerner (as opposed to what he calls a “Southron”), couldn’t resist mentioning our Northern land:

The Complaint of the Morpethshire Farmer

On the up-platform at Morpeth Station
in the market-day throng
I overheard a Morpethshire farmer
muttering this song:

Must ye bide, my good stone house,
to keep a townsman dry?
To hear the flurry of the grouse
but not the lowing of the kye?

To see the bracken choke the clod
the coulter will na turn?
The bit level neebody
will drain soak up the burn?

Where are ye, my seven score sheep?
Feeding on other braes!
My brand has faded from your fleece,
another has its place.

The fold beneath the rowan
where ye were dipt before,
its cowpit walls are overgrown,
ye would na heed them more.

And thou! Thou’s idled all the spring,
I doubt thou’s spoiled, my Meg!
But a sheepdog’s faith is aye something.
We’ll hire together in Winnipeg.

Canada’s a cold land.
Thou and I must share
a straw bed and a hind’s wages
and the bitter air.

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Sheep and cattle are poor men’s food,
grouse is sport for the rich;
heather grows where the sweet grass might grow
for the cost of cleaning the ditch.

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.     (1930; pp. 112-13)

In the main, the poem is the moving lament of a farmer for the home and land he is leaving, which he sees falling into disrepair and uselessness without his care. Canada appears as the country he’s leaving for, where he will seek a new life.

We encountered a similar view of Canada in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, where our country represents a new opportunity for Amy’s brother Tip. Whether it’s the 70 years that have elapsed between the two works, or some other reason, Bunting’s poem seems to take a much more bitter view of Canada; it’s quite clear that the farmer doesn’t want to go – presumably only the utter desperation of his present situation is driving him to it – and furthermore, doesn’t believe things will be any better when he arrives. (Tip, admittedly, doesn’t want to go to Canada either, but Amy seems to believe that our country represents a genuine hope if he would only seize it.)

Not this Morpethshire farmer – his heart is with the farm he must leave, not the country he is going to, and the first half of the poem is filled with images of its decay. Only in the second half does he get to Canada – introduced by the mention of Winnipeg, no less.

Now, I must admit, I’m always a little suspicious when a poet uses a proper name as a rhyme word, and I grow even more so when, as here, two proper names are rhymed with each other. It just seems to have a slight whiff of desperation about it, and one feels that words are being chosen to provide rhymes rather than because they are the right words. (No doubt poets often choose words to provide rhymes, but the reader shouldn’t feel it. The most perfect rhyme words are the ones that seem inevitable; you can’t imagine any other word in that place, and the rhyme appears almost coincidental.) But which came first: is the sheepdog conveniently named “Meg” in order to allow Bunting to bring in Winnipeg, or, having decided, for reasons we may never know, that the dog simply had to be named Meg, did Bunting pull down his atlas and scan the page showing Canada in search of a name to suit his rhyme scheme? (If so, he got pretty lucky.)

Canada appears more naturally in the following two stanzas, although the ideas associated with it are hardly surprising; it’s “a cold land,” apparently – Bunting never visited Toronto in August – and also “a bare land.” In fact, the cluster of words associated with Canada in those two stanzas could almost stand as a summary of the image our nation has in the minds of others: “cold,” “bitter air,” “bare,” “north wind,” “snow.” These aren’t earth-shaking revelations, but it’s noteworthy to see such a complete image of Canada captured in such a compressed form.

The poem does, however, raise the intriguing question of why Canada is a bare land, in a stanza we’ll quote once more:

Canada’s a bare land
for the north wind and the snow.
Northumberland’s a bare land
for men have made it so.

Interesting, no? Canada is a bare land, but no reason is offered as to why it is bare. Northumberland, which the farmer must leave, is also a bare land, but here the reason is clearly stated: “men have made it so.” So Northumberland wasn’t always bare; it was fruitful once, but was spoiled by men. The bareness of Northumberland is portrayed as the result of negative human action, while Canada was never anything other than bare and never will be; bareness is an aspect of its eternal and unchanging essence.

In the final stanza, Bunting introduces another part of Canada, and again, conveniently, it provides him with another rhyme (who knew Canadian place-names were so rich in poetic possibility?):

A liner lying in the Clyde
will take me to Quebec.
My sons’ll see the land I’m leaving
as barren as her deck.

That’s a great conclusion, but it does make the reader – or the Canadian reader, at least – wonder a bit about Bunting’s grasp of geography. I suppose the idea is that the ship will take him as far as Quebec (City? or just some part of the province?), and from there he’ll journey by some other means to Winnipeg, where he will start his new life.

Still, it’s hard not to feel that some of Bunting’s references to Canada grow out of the need for rhymes rather than from a desire to discuss our country.

Bunting’s own explanatory notes are included in the Complete Poems, and from them you can learn interesting words, like Southron, as well as the proper pronunciation of the word “scone”: it rhymes with “on,” not with “own”. (My mother always pronounced it Bunting’s way. At the end of Macbeth, however, it seems like it ought to rhyme with “one” – but the pronunciation of Shakespearean English is a snakepit best left undisturbed.) He also has the following note on this poem:

The war and the Forestry Commission have outdated this complaint. Cowpit means overturned.

The second bit of that note, at least, is helpful. As for the first part, presumably World War II (and the Forestry Commission as well?) have created work in England for men like the complaining farmer of the poem, making emigration to Canada unnecessary.

Something about the end of this poem always reminds me of the famous (is it famous? maybe not) painting by Ford Madox Brown called “The Last of England”.

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The barren land behind, the barren land ahead, and the barren ship’s deck in between.

The dominant mood of Bunting’s poem is bitterness, and the bitterness of failure in England colours the prospect of Canada as well, making it appear an inhospitable place that no one would journey to except in cases of utter desperation. Not exactly one to quote in the travel brochures.

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