Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “May, 2014”

The Fabulous Canadian Cottages of Rich Americans

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009)

The title story in this collection is about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, moves into her uncle’s house, leaves her uncle’s house after he attempts to coerce her into sex, and then works as a waitress while trying to put herself through school. While waitressing, she meets and begins an affair with a handsome young American (his eyes are the colour of extra virgin olive oil) who comes from a wealthy family. The story is written in the second person singular, a technique that I find often struggles to shake the aura of the writing workshop assignment; so, in the following passage, “you” is the main character, “he” is the boyfriend, and “they/them” are the boyfriend’s parents:

You were angrier when he told you he had refused to go up to Canada with them for a week or two, to their summer cottage in the Quebec countryside. They had even asked him to bring you. He showed you pictures of the cottage and you wondered why it was called a cottage because the buildings that big around your neighbourhood back home were banks and churches. You dropped a glass and it shattered on the hardwood of his apartment floor and he asked what was wrong and you said nothing, although you thought a lot was wrong. Later, in the shower, you started to cry. You watched the water dilute your tears and you didn’t know why you were crying.  (126)

Maybe you were crying because you weren’t going to get to visit his fabulous cottage in Canada?

Cottaging is such a quintessentially Canadian activity that it’s a bit of a surprise we haven’t come across it before, though we have taken note of its close cousin, camping, through Sylvia Plath and Roberto Bolano. But here it is at last.

This is an intriguing passage because it contains two quite different views of Canada. The first to emerge is a very “American” way of looking at us: Canada as an idyllic land (“Quebec countryside”) where rich Americans can buy cottages that let them escape from the stress of their hectic lives. This idea of Canada seems to belong not so much to the narrator herself, but rather to be an expression of what Canada means to her boyfriend’s family.

But then he shows her a picture of the cottage, and the narrator’s own point of view comes through in her comparison of its size to that of churches and banks in Nigeria (“back home”). In quick succession, Canada has been contrasted with two very different countries, to different effect: first with the United States, which makes us seem like a wilderness playground; then with Nigeria, which makes us seem like an obscenely wealthy nation where the cottages are bigger than Nigerian banks.

The choice of a bank for the comparison is significant, as it tightens the focus on wealth, which is central to the story. We are reminded that, relative to most of the world, Canada is a wealthy country, where private cottages can be the size of public buildings in other places. We are also reminded that the family of the narrator’s boyfriend is rich enough to afford, not just a home, but a cottage, that would easily dwarf any home she might have known in Nigeria. The Canadian cottage becomes, not just a marker of wealth, like the hardwood floor, but a marker of a kind of excess – of having more than anyone really needs.

The reference to the cottage is a small moment in the story, but it plays a key role, sharpening the distinction between the life the narrator has left behind and the world of her boyfriend, which she is moving into. A cottage in Quebec – a cottage the size of a Nigerian bank – is just one of the many things rich Americans possess, and its presence reaffirms the financial and cultural gulf that separates the lovers.  

In case you were wondering how things turned out for you, in the end you went back to Nigeria, parting somewhat ambiguously from your rich American boyfriend after he drove you to the airport.

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Back In Those Old Folky Days

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Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:

 

A Cozy Home for Plagiarists

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Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

At Swim-Two-Birds is a “metafictional novel,” full of literary gamesmanship (gamespersonship?) and excerpts from books both real and imagined – including, I believe, an essentially complete version of the Irish epic Sweeny Astray. (I say that on the basis of having read Seamus Heaney’s translation.) There is something to flatter pretty well any style of literary poseur; Classical poseurs such as myself, to pick one example close to my heart, will delight in jokes like the following:

They met two decadent Greek scullions, Timothy Danaos and Dona Ferentes, ashore from the cooking-galley of a strange ship.  (101)

I’m not sure how to even begin summarizing this novel in such a way as to make the context of the following quote clear, but I’ll give it a shot. The main character is a university student who lives with his uncle and apparently spends little time studying, and a great deal of time out with his friends, drinking and regaling them with excerpts from a novel he is writing. The student’s novel, which makes up much of the book, is about an author named Dermot Trellis and a group of characters he has invented for a novel he is writing; the characters, however, are offended by what Trellis wants them to do in the book, and so they begin plotting to overthrow him and gain their freedom. With the help of Trellis’ son Orlick (conceived when Trellis rapes a female character immediately after creating her for his novel), they begin a new novel in which Dermot Trellis is brutally assaulted and dragged across the Irish countryside, almost to the point of death, and then put on trial for his crimes in a court in which the characters from his novel are both the witnesses against him and the judges.

Got that? Okay, good.

The reference to Canada comes during the trial, when William Tracy, another author and a rival of Trellis, gives evidence:

Is there any other incident which occurs to you explanatory of the character of the accused?

Yes. During his illness in 1924 I sent him – in a charitable attempt to entertain him – a draft of a short story I had written dealing in an original way with banditry in Mexico towards the close of the last century. Within a month it appeared under his own name in a Canadian periodical.

That’s a lie! screamed Trellis from his chair.   (200)

So Trellis is being accused of plagiarism – one of the worst allegations that can be levelled at an author, hence his angry reaction. But, given that the novel takes place in Ireland and the main characters are, presumably, Irish, why the reference to a Canadian periodical?

I think the implication here is twofold: first, Trellis is understandably eager to prevent Tracy from detecting his plagiarism, and he’s afraid that if he publishes Tracy’s story in a journal in Ireland or England, Tracy will see it and recognize the theft. Accordingly, he publishes it in a place that he considers so obscure that Tracy would never read a journal from there – if it even occurred to him that journals could be produced in so backward a place: Canada!

(This plan has clearly gone awry, and raises the intriguing question of what Canadian literary journals would have been available in Ireland in 1939?)

Second, it’s hard not to feel that aspersions are being cast on the stringency of the editorial policies at Canadian magazines of the day. Granted, if a story comes in the mail, an editor will tend to assume that the name on the first page is the name of the author; and yet there is an implication of poor quality and general carelessness here, as though Trellis’ subterfuge would never have passed in a journal in the UK, but is the sort of thing one can get away with by practising on the innocence of those distant colonials in Canada.

The overall impression of Canada, then, is of a distant, slightly wild and unregulated place, where almost any sort of literary crime will pass unnoticed. It is an outpost with literary pretensions but without the real knowledge or expertise to produce anything of reliable quality, and filled with rubes who can be imposed upon by even the most rudimentary subterfuge.

Conclusion of the discussion of the reference to Canada. 

Biographical Reminiscence of How I Came to Purchase this Book (in the Style of Flann O’Brien)

I had, at that time, a group of friends of a decidedly literary bent.

Collective Description of this Group of Friends: Literary, musical, mildly disputatious, garrulous.

We determined among ourselves on the formation of a sort of a Society, or a Club, the purpose of which would be to read the honey-sweet words of the finest and most illustrious authors, and then to meet together in a selected public house to consume spiritous liquors and engage in pleasant colloquy, occasionally verging into mild disputation, on the interpretation and relative merits of said works. Beyond that, this embryonic Club had a further purpose, which was to offer lightsome, frolicsome (not to say gay) diversion from our days, which were spent drearily enough in the employ of [Note: I have here removed the name of the company on the advice of my attorneys]  – a formalizing, in a way, of the kind of discussions we would indulge in surreptitiously around the office and which we desired to carry on beyond its confines, so that we could more freely debate the relative merits of different authors, discuss the finer points of the iambic pentameter or the dactylic hexameter, regale one another with humorous excerpts from the various manuscripts we all had in progress at the time, and occasionally come out with melodious though melancholy staves which we had composed in our idle moments, along the lines of the following:

I sit here, heartsore, at my desk;
this job, it not at all fulfils
the dreams that animated my youth;
it barely pays the bills.

Note: I have here excised some ten or twelve further stanzas, feeling that their juvenility might render them somewhat embarrassing.

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. According to a set of very abstruse and precisely worked-out rules guaranteed to ensure that we only brought our minds into contact with the finest things that had been thought and written through the centuries of endless struggle waged between Art and The Darkness, it was eventually determined that At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) would be the work that would mark the first stage of our Society’s journey towards Enlightenment.

Note: I have here taken the advice of legal counsel and removed a long passage descriptive of the lengths I went to seeking a copy of the above-named novel, on the grounds that it might be construed as libellous of persons still living. 

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. When I opened the door of this establishment and stepped into its shadowy interior, the light from the street behind me poured – poured is the only word – slowly in, as if it possessed a viscosity, it poured like mellow-glowing syrup slowly into all the dusty dingy corners of that venerable bookstore and spread a pale honeyed light on the serried volumes crammed on the shelves, their spine-colours faded several shades lighter than their cover-colours despite the best efforts of the shielding gloom around them. The door closed; the shadows gulped down the light; and out of the restored darkness, as if himself restored to courage now that the light had passed, a little man sprang up at me.

Description of the man: Short, rotund, bearded and bespectacled, something gnome-like, though not at all gnomic, about him.

Can I help you find anything? he asked. I replied that I was in search of a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien, nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan. At these words his eyes grew wide, his jaw slackened, and a most peculiar expression overtook his countenance.

Nature of the expression: Amazement, delight, intermingled with a hint of suspicion and trepidation, as a child receiving a gift they fear they will not be allowed to keep.

Wow, he said, and followed that one word with a long pause. Sorry, it’s just – in all the twenty-five years I’ve worked here, this is the first time anyone has ever asked about a good book. Mostly people come in asking for crappy bestsellers.

Okay, I said, I’ll let you enjoy the moment.

Thank you. He let the silence stretch on.

Nature of the silence: Past lengthy, past uneasy, on the cusp of departing the realm of the uncomfortable and entering into the realm of the weird and perhaps disturbing.

At last, seeing really no other alternative, I chose to arouse him from reverie with a sharp query, along the lines of, So, about the book? At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien, actually christened Brian O’Nolan, or, more correctly, Brian O Nuallain?

Oh, right. Sorry, we haven’t got it.

Pause to allow readers to formulate their own philosophical reflections on how the ships of our dreams inevitably founder upon the reefs of reality.

At that moment I abandoned my afore-stated plans [Note: the afore-stating of these plans was part of the passage excised for legal reasons] to find a rare, exquisite first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, ne Brian O’Nolan, in a dusty corner of some little-visited used bookstore, the sort of physical object that would have delighted my literary companions and made both it and, by extension, myself, the object of many pleasingly envious exclamations, and instead bought a cheap paperback copy at a big-box bookstore. Conclusion of the foregoing.

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