Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “March, 2017”

Canadian French, Stranded in the Barbaric Anglophone Sea

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J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature (1884, trans. Robert Baldick)

Huysmans’ À Rebours is perhaps best known to English readers as the mysterious “yellow book” that has such an impact on the title character in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It concerns des Esseintes, the last surviving member of an aristocratic family who, having devoted himself to society and debauchery in his youth, withdraws to a small house outside Paris. There isn’t much of a plot; for long stretches, the book devolves into little more than a catalogue of des Esseintes’ tastes in literature, art and interior decorating, the latter being particularly trying for anyone not fascinated by curtains and wallpaper.

In writing, he prefers the ornate style of “Silver Latin” and obscure religious authors, which are usually dismissed as decadent, and Canada is mentioned in the context of des Esseintes’ literary taste:

The very opposite had been the case with the ecclesiastical writers; confined to their own territory, imprisoned within an identical, traditional range of reading, knowing nothing of the literary evolution of more recent times and absolutely determined, if need be, to pluck their eyes out rather than recognize it, they necessarily employed an unaltered and unalterable language, like that eighteenth-century language which the descendants of the French settlers in Canada normally speak and write to this day, no variation in vocabulary or phraseology having ever been possible in their idiom, cut off as it is from the old country and surrounded on all sides by the English tongue.  (164-5)

The obscure, involuted style that results when a language is cut off from the possibility of development is at the heart of des Esseintes’ decadent aesthetic, and it’s interesting to see French Canada brought in here as an emblem of this form of isolation. And the image of Canadian French separated from the forward currents of French spoken in France and trapped on its own as an island amid the sea of anglophone North America echoes the structure of the novel itself, where des Esseintes isolates himself from society and spends his days in a strange stasis that he cannot escape.

Huysmans and Proust

This paragraph in Huysmans’ novel recalls one of our earliest posts, which dealt with a reference to Canada in Proust. In that passage, from Time Regained, Proust claims that French men at the end of the First World War would pay for sex with French-Canadian soldiers because their accents recalled an older form of French speech. So, apparently, Huysmans and Proust both thought of French Canada in an analogous way, as a place where an older form of the French language had been preserved unchanged. (I can’t personally attest to the accuracy or inaccuracy of this impression.)

Would Proust have known that his reference to the French spoken in Canada echoed one made by Huysmans? Was he even familiar with Huysmans’ book? Jean-Yves Tadié, in Marcel Proust: A Life, raises the question, “Had Proust read À Rebours?” ( p. 158),  but leaves it frustratingly unanswered. Proust, according to Tadié, did refer to des Esseintes once, in a letter, so clearly he was at least aware of the character — but the character’s name, in Parisian society, was used as a byword for decadence, so it’s possible Proust was referring to des Esseintes as a “type” without having actually read the book.

Besides their shared view of Canada, there is another significant connection between Huysmans and Proust: the French aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou served as the model for both des Esseintes and for the Baron de Charlus in In Search of Lost Time. Of course there are tremendous differences as well, scale being only the most obvious. But something of the reflectiveness and interiority of Huysmans’ essentially plotless novel is also present in Proust’s masterwork.

A Canadian Reader Takes Offence

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Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (1991)

I haven’t actually read all of this book, so I have no idea how many references to Canada it may (or may not) contain; I read a few parts, in connection with Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, the Kim Philby book that I recently posted about.

In the course of reading it, however, I came across this page, annotated by some previous Toronto Public Library reader:

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Now, I’m not the one who wrote in the book — I swear! — but this anonymous reader is quite correct: Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is spelled “Ottawa,” not “Ottowa” as it appears in Mangold’s book. As you can see from the indignant (perhaps even aggressive?) style of the handwriting and the multiple exclamation marks, the comment inked in the margin is a sort of Canadian cri de cœur, a protest against the continuing insignificance of our country in the eyes of the world. This book is, obviously, an extensively researched treatment of a complex subject, and one that the reader would expect has been thoroughly edited, fact-checked and so on — and no doubt it was. And yet when it came to the spelling of a Canadian location — our capital city, no less — an error that would embarrass a Canadian schoolchild was allowed to creep in.

Why? The only explanation — or at least, the only explanation likely to present itself to a Canadian — is that no one involved in the publication of the book knew the spelling was wrong, and no one cared enough to check. And this sort of error is precisely the source of so much Canadian insecurity about our place in the world (of which this website is, I suppose, one expression), and scribbling corrections in the margins of library books is just the sort of impotent, vaguely pointless outlet we find for our rage — because we have no other.

The Cold War Begins… In Canada

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Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014)

John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also mentions Canada) made me curious enough to read this book, which does a good job of tracing Philby’s betrayal and also situating him in his time and social milieu (“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people”).

There are a couple of references to Canada; the first describes the defection of Igor Gouzenko:

In September 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a twenty-six-year-old cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, turned up at a Canadian newspaper office with more than one hundred secret documents stuffed inside his shirt. Gouzenko’s defection would be seen, in hindsight, as the opening shot of the cold war. This trove was the very news Philby had been dreading, for it seemed entirely possible that Gouzenko knew his identity…. For the first time, as he waited anxiously for the results of Gouzenko’s debriefing, Philby may have contemplated defection to the Soviet Union. The defector exposed a major spy network in Canada and revealed that the Soviets had obtained information about the atomic bomb project from a spy working at the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory in Montreal. But Gouzenko worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, not the NKVD; he knew little about Soviet espionage in Britain and almost nothing of the Cambridge spies. Philby began to relax. This defector, it seemed, did not know his name.  (96-97)

How exciting is that — the “opening shot” of the cold war, and it happened right here in Canada. Macintyre focuses on the threat Gouzenko poses to Philby rather than on anything related to Canada, which makes sense given the subject of his book, and Canada doesn’t appear as a major player in the intelligence game he describes. On the other hand, we were considered important enough to be the home of a “major spy network,” though it’s hard not to wonder if our British and U.S. allies might not have been the real targets. At the least, our country comes across as a place where significant things occasionally happen.

(The “Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory” might also suggest that Britain was the real target of the Soviet network in Canada, assuming it means the lab was a cooperative effort between the British and Canada and not an Anglophone Canadian lab located in Montreal. If it was a British-Canadian lab, one can’t help but wonder whether the British were furious with the Canadians — who, given our colonial past, must have been the junior partner in the relationship — for allowing a security breach to occur. Which would be ironic, considering how deeply Philby was embedded in British intelligence and how utterly he betrayed his country — but Macintyre doesn’t say anything about the British reaction to Gouzenko.)

This next passage describes Philby’s arrival in the United States, where he became MI6 chief in Washington, DC:

At Union Station he was met by Peter Dwyer of MI6, the outgoing station chief, and immediately plunged into a whirlwind of introductions and meetings with officials of the CIA, FBI, the State Department, and the Canadian secret service. All were delighted to shake hands with this urbane Englishman whose impressive reputation preceded him….  (128-9)

The Canadians are mixed in with the Americans and British, which makes sense as we were allies. Canada is mentioned last, and must surely have been a minor contributor when it came to intelligence work, but nevertheless, there we are, shaking hands with Philby and delighted to meet him like everyone else. And this reveals a characteristically Canadian tendency when it comes to our place in world affairs: we like to feel we’re at the big table, even if we aren’t necessarily contributing enough to earn our place there.

The larger point, I suppose, is not how much this book has to say about Canada, but how little — which leads us to the unsurprising conclusion that while Canada worked with the U.S. and Britain, it was not exactly a powerhouse nation when it came to espionage during the Cold War.

The Video Evidence

Nothing to do with Canada, but here’s Philby’s 1955 press interview, in which he denies being the so-called “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring, plummy accent and all:

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