Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “October, 2015”

The Romance of Canada 4: Escape to the Barrens

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Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Man Who Saw America” (NYT Magazine, July 5, 2015)

Nicholas Dawidoff, who appeared here before in the guise of a football writer, has a fascinating article about photographer (best known for The Americans) and filmmaker (best known for Cocksucker Blues) Robert Frank in the NYT Magazine. It’s worth reading on its own merits, but Canada does play a small role, when Dawidoff describes Frank’s reaction to his own growing fame:

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north.  (42)

“A barren hillside far in the Canadian north” — how romantic that sounds! Later in the article, however, it turns out that the place he moved to was Mabou, Nova Scotia. Here’s Dawidoff’s description of the move:

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked [June] Leaf [his girlfriend] to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’

Now, if you consult a map, you will see that while Mabou may be barren, it is roughly as far north as Maine. (If Frank is “the man who saw America,” Dawidoff is “the man who never saw (a map of) Canada.”) It’s a bit troubling that this kind of error can make its way into The New York Times (even if only the magazine) — doesn’t anyone check these things? Do the editors really think a place that’s much closer to Martha’s Vineyard than to the Arctic Circle represents the “far north”? Perhaps they think anywhere in Canada is the far north. Or perhaps this is just another instance of Americans’ total indifference to our country and everything to do with it.

Beyond that, Frank’s girlfriend saying that flying to Nova Scotia proves that she would “do anything for him” is quite charming, suggesting, as it does, that travelling to Nova Scotia is a perilous undertaking from which one is fortunate to return alive. And while Dawidoff doesn’t say it directly he certainly implies, through the references to the thick boots and the strong March wind, that Canada is cold — one of the most common ideas about our country.

The main impression of Canada conveyed by this article, however, is that it is a remote, unpopulated land that is ideal if you’re looking for somewhere to escape to. (We saw a similar attitude to Canada in Kris Kraus’s novel torpor.) And perhaps I’m imagining things, but I even feel like there is a certain admiration in Dawidoff’s tone as he describes Frank’s abrupt departure from New York. We do tend to idolize great artists, and far be it from me to suggest that Frank doesn’t deserve Dawidoff’s adulation; but there is a special reverence reserved for those who not only produce great works of art, but who also reject the trappings of fame and celebrity that come with their accomplishment. The reclusive genius is a romantic figure, admired for being more honest and true to the artist’s calling by virtue of having rejected fame, and in describing Frank’s flight to Canada, Dawidoff places him firmly in that category.

And so Canada plays a role here, not as an independent nation with an identity of its own, but rather as a marker of authenticity that validates a particular kind of American achievement: ironically, it is by leaving New York for Canada that Frank establishes his status as a true American original, a genuine artist not interested in his own fame but devoted only to the tough realities of his art.

What, after, all, could represent a more complete rejection of fame than leaving New York City (and “all the glories of the art world” — what are those, I wonder?) for Canada? And not just Canada, but a “barren hillside” in the (supposedly) “far north”?

In fact, there are probably areas in the United States that are just as much a wilderness as the most wilderness-y areas of Canada; and yet escaping to a cabin in Montana doesn’t have the same romantic finality, the same grandeur in terms of a gesture, as fleeing to Canada, where of course acclaim can never pursue you because, as everyone knows, in Canada the mechanics by which acclaim comes to be don’t exist: there are no magazines, no newspapers, no television, no radio, no people or communities; just an endless succession of barren hillsides where American artists fleeing their own celebrity huddle together to stay warm against the unending cold.

The Demonstrably More Peaceful Land to the North

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Pascual Restrepo, “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.,” The New York Times (October 11, 2015)

I happened to come across this article as I was browsing through the Sunday NYT this past weekend. The whole thing is about Canada, and I can’t quote the whole thing, obviously, but you can read the article if you’re curious. Here’s the first sentence:

For many Americans, the phrase “Canadian violence” is an oxymoron.

There, in miniature, is the American attitude to Canadian violence: Canadians are peaceful by nature, and therefore Canadian violence cannot exist.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the article, which argues that the presence of RCMP outposts at the time the Canadian west was settled prevented it from becoming a region of lawless violence like the American west. Instead, I just want to note a couple of points that relate to our purposes here at Wow — Canada!

First, the article suggests that specific historical factors could have made Canada a less violent nation than the U.S., and so it offers some background for the cliché of peaceful Canadians that we have considered several times ourselves.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the article indicates that Americans find Canada’s peaceful nature compelling enough that it is the subject of scholarly research at major American universities. (The author the article is originally from Colombia, but he’s studying at MIT, so, if we wanted to be grandiose — which of course we don’t — we could almost say that interest in the history behind Canadian non-violence spans the rest of the Americas.) And not only that, but it is compelling enough — and the apparent oxymoron of the words “Canadian Violence” in a headline is considered “grabby” enough — to be featured as an op-ed in the closest thing the U.S. has to a “paper of record.”

Whatever you think of the content of the article, its existence (like the presence of cartoons about Canadians in The New Yorker) indicates that our neighbours to the south have noticed us and find us, to some extent, interesting. At last we’re getting some of the attention we deserve — and we haven’t even had to change our polite, non-violent nature to get it. Who says virtue isn’t rewarded?

The Romance of Canada 3: David Lodge Insults Us

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David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)

I’ll warn you at the outset, this one may sting a little. I’ve included it as part of the “Romance” series because the book is subtitled “An Academic Romance,” but the idea of romance at issue in this novel is that of Chretien de Troyes or Ariosto, not the “romanticism” of Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.

Anyway…

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. It was recommended to me in graduate school by someone I didn’t have tremendous respect for, and so I didn’t read it out of suspicion of the source, so to speak. As always happens in these cases, all I managed to do was deprive myself of a reasonably enjoyable book.

Small World — the second in what is now called Lodge’s “campus trilogy” — is a satire of academic life in general and, in particular, of academic conferences. The main characters are almost all academics, and they spend all their time jetting around the world from one conference to the next, where they argue, drink and sleep with one another.

To give his narrative some shape, Lodge has superimposed on it several different quest narratives, the main one being Persse McGarrigle’s quest for Angelica, a beautiful girl he meets at a conference and whom he then pursues around the world for the rest of the book, always one step behind her. Lest anyone miss the point, many of the characters are provided with names that signal their function in the novel or their relationship to characters from romance: Sybil Maiden, for example, an elderly woman who has prophetic fits; or Arthur Kingfisher, past wunderkind of the field of literary theory who has withdrawn into himself due to impotence and writer’s block (the Fisher King with a hint of King Arthur) and who only recovers when Persse (Percival) asks an ambiguous (and “healing”) question at — where else? — the MLA conference.

All of that, of course, is beside the point for our purposes; what we really want to know is, what does it have to say about Canada?

As you would expect in a novel where most of the characters spend their time flying around the world, there are several passing references to Canada that don’t say anything about the country but are just place names. There are also a couple of mentions of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most famous literary critic, which give us a sense of what a significant intellectual presence Frye was among literary academics in the late 70s and early 80s: both The Anatomy of Criticism and his ideas about romance as a genre are referenced approvingly here.

And with that short paragraph, we’ve taken care of the neutral and positive side of Canada in this novel. There are several other passages which give a more focused picture of Canada and Canadians, and in those, I’m afraid, Lodge — or his characters — don’t have much good to say.

A Land of Windswept Exile

In this scene, Howard Ringbaum and his wife Thelma are flying from Canada (where he works) to England for a conference. Howard has been trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Thelma to have sex with him on the plane so that he can join the “Mile High Club,” which he has heard about from a younger colleague, and his bitter reflections following his failure lead to some thoughts on Canada and how he ended up there:

The same characteristic trait, displayed in a party game called Humiliation devised by Philip Swallow many years before, cost Howard Ringbaum dear — cost him his job, in fact, led to his exile to Canada, from which he has only recently been able to return by dint of writing a long succession of boring articles on English pastoral poetry amid the windswept prairies of Alberta….  (91)

Here we get an image of Canada as a windy, desolate wasteland, almost comically unsuited to the sort of sophisticated cultural life required by academics. Ringbaum explicitly thinks of his position in Canada as an “exile,” and so living in our country is construed as so bad it can serve as punishment for a misdeed.

A Cutting Put-Down

Things only get worse. Later in the novel, the subject of a trip to Vancouver comes up between Rudyard Parkinson (a professor) and Felix Skinner (an academic publisher):

“They’re giving me an honorary degree in Vancouver next week. It didn’t really sink in, when I accepted, that I’d actually have to go there to collect it.”
“I say, what a bore,” said Felix Skinner sympathetically.  (156)

The phrase “What a bore” could be taken to refer to Vancouver — indeed, ideas of boredom do seem to track fairly closely with references to Vancouver in world literature — but it could also simply refer to the tedium of flying to distant places to receive honorary degrees, and we need not take it as a direct insult to Canada. A few pages later, however, Rudyard Parkinson goes to Vancouver to get his degree, and we get this:

He began bitterly to repent of the vanity which had prompted him to accept this perfectly useless degree, flying ten thousand miles in three days just for the pleasure of dressing up in unfamiliar robes, hearing a short and probably inaccurate panegyric in his honour, and exchanging small talk afterwards with a crowd of boring Canadian nonentities at some ghastly reception or banquet where they would all no doubt drink iced rye whisky throughout the meal.  (162)

There really can’t be any doubt about that one: Canadians are conceived of as dull, unsophisticated bumpkins, and the idea of spending any time in their company is tantamount to torture. There is so much caught up in those three words, “boring Canadian nonentities,” that they almost seem to summarize the world’s idea of our country — not just the word “boring,” since we’ve grown moderately comfortable with the idea of our own dullness, and have even started to take a certain pride in it in some ways — just another word for “peace, order and good government” you might almost say. But “nonentities” — that word contains so much, because of course the Canadians in the novel — though we never get to know them as characters — are fighting against this very characterization. By giving an honorary degree to a well-known British academic, by having him come to their university to receive it, the Canadians are trying to raise their own profile in the academic world, trying to become something other than nonentities. And yet they can’t: even their guest of honour, who should be well-disposed towards them, sees the trip as a nuisance and the people he meets as precisely the nonentities they don’t want to be.

From Lodge’s perspective, and for most of his readers, this episode in Vancouver would be just another example of his satirizing of the academic world. As a Canadian, however, I find myself reading it “against the grain” (to borrow a term from literary theory): instead of snickering at the Canadian academics, I sympathize with them, and feel a sort of embarrassed pity at the way their desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (such a Canadian desire) is so casually dismissed.

The good news about Vancouver, however, is that, while being there may be torture, it is a torture that is easily forgotten, at least based on Parkinson’s thoughts two pages later:

Vancouver, of which he had in any case seen little except rainswept roads between the airport and the University, had already faded from his memory.  (164)

The association of rain with Vancouver is not surprising, and the conclusion of the sentence seems to say a lot about Canada: it may be dull, but at least it is eminently forgettable.

A Final Nod to Newfoundland

There’s one other reference to Canada, spoken by Philip Swallow to Joy, who becomes his lover for part of the novel:

Philip squeezed her knee. “You are my Euphoria, my Newfoundland,” he said.  (222)

This is obviously a reference to the Donne poem which was the subject of our first ever Wow Canada post; it is also, of course, a characterizing detail, since it makes sense that a university professor would quote Donne to his lover. Lodge has even modernized the spelling to match the name of our easternmost province.

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