Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the category “Fiction”

All the Way to Canada Just to Have an Orgasm

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008)

Who has never looked at a couple and wondered, How did she ever end up with him? This must, surely, be close to a universal experience. And, among recent American politicians, it’s hard to imagine that any couple could have inspired that question more often than Laura and George W. Bush. How did this quiet, intelligent, book-loving librarian end up with a man who seems, at times, little more than an aging frat boy?

American Wife is Curtis Sittenfeld’s attempt to answer that question through fiction. Loosely based on the life of Laura Bush (though the action is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin), the novel tells the story of elementary school librarian Alice Lindgren, who meets Charlie Blackwell, the wastrel son of a rich political family, at a backyard barbecue, falls in love with him, and marries him after only a couple of months. To Alice’s surprise as much as anyone else’s, Charlie, a borderline alcoholic and incompetent businessman, gives up drinking, finds religion, and goes on to become governor of Wisconsin and then President of the United States. (If you’re interested in further background on the novel, Sittenfeld wrote a fascinating article about Laura Bush back in 2004, which provides some insight into how, even at that time, she had begun to see her as an ideal character for a novel.)

The real heart of the book, for me at least, was the description of Alice and Charlie falling in love. The story is told from Alice’s perspective, in the first person, and I suppose I expected that at some point Alice would offer an explanation or a justification of why she decided to marry Charlie. (This would be in keeping with Alice’s character, as other parts of the book portray her as a thoughtful, rational woman who carefully considers her options before making decisions.) But Sittenfeld does something much more unexpected and striking: she uses this portion of the book to paint a remarkably convincing portrait of the irrationality of eros. Alice falls in love with Charlie not for any particular reason or reasons, but quite simply without reason; she can’t explain it because there is no explanation, and if asked for one, she might reply, with Catullus, “nescio, sed fieri sentio”. And so the answer to the central mystery — how did she end up with him? — turns out to be another mystery, the mystery of love itself. I found the essential reticence of this answer — the insistence that some things are simply inexplicable — strangely satisfying, and all the more so because it seemed so out of character for Alice.

But What About Canada?

Part of the plot involves Charlie becoming part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and so there are one or two references to the Toronto Blue Jays (and one to Paul Molitor, a Brewers player who went on to win a World Series with Toronto) that are just passing mentions and don’t really seem worth cataloguing. There are a couple of other passages that are a little more interesting, though.

A Distant Landmark

This scene occurs early in Alice’s relationship with Charlie, when they are kissing in his car:

Charlie pulled back an inch. “So I haven’t forgotten about what I owe you. Let’s go to my place.”
Confused, I said, “You don’t owe me anything.” And then I understood — he was grinning — and I said, “Oh, that.”
“I’m not taking no for an answer. You’ve got to claim what’s rightfully yours.”
And even though, as I drove, I felt stirrings of nervous anticipation, I also wanted to just stay forever in this limbo; I’d have been content to drive all the way to Canada, knowing that something wonderful would happen when we got there.   (163)

What Charlie “owes” Alice is an orgasm, which didn’t happen the first time they had sex. Canada, in this passage, serves as a marker of distance; it’s the furthest place Alice can imagine driving to, as if to say, I’m enjoying the anticipation so much that I’d drive all the way to Canada — and what could be further than that? — before Charlie goes down on me. Of course Canada isn’t really that far from Wisconsin — even another American location, like Texas or Florida, would stretch the anticipation out a lot longer. But because Canada is a separate country, it has an aura of distance, even if it isn’t physically further away than a lot of points in the U.S.

And perhaps we’re meant to think that Alice doesn’t really want to wait that long anyway.

Bizarre Geography Triangle

This scene takes place at Halcyon, the Blackwell family retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan (modelled, presumably, on the Bush family “compound” at Kennebunkport) when Charlie takes Alice there to meet his family for the first time:

I subsequently found myself in a conversation with Uncle Trip, also loquacious, who explained that he divided his time — for reasons of business or pleasure, I could not discern — among Milwaukee, Key West, and Toronto. This seemed to me at the time to be the oddest triangle imaginable, but really, for the Blackwells’ friends, it proved not to be particularly unusual at all. Milwaukee and Sun Valley, Milwaukee and the Adirondacks, Minneapolis and Cheyenne and Phoenix, Chicago and San Francisco. They sold textiles, or mined ore, or owned a gallery in Santa Fe, or they were consultants — this was before consulting was as common as it is today — or they had just taken a cruise around the the Gulf of Alaska, and it had, they reported, been marvelous.   (223-24)

Maybe it’s just my preconceptions showing, but I can’t help feeling that it is Toronto, specifically, that makes the original list of places seem so odd. Alice herself immediately suggests that it isn’t as odd as it seemed to her at first, and goes on to list other groupings of places, presumably representing where other friends of the Blackwell family divide their time. But there is no other Canadian location in any of these groupings, which, to me, actually reinforces the oddity of the original list. Having a place in Chicago and one in San Francisco really doesn’t strike me as that strange, but Toronto — a city in another country — that does seem out of the ordinary. And what could possibly be in Toronto? It’s not a Canadian cottage, since these people already have their place on Lake Michigan.

I suppose we’ll never know.

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The Decline of the Francophone Empire

Vikram Seth, The Golden Gate (1986)

For those not familiar with it, The Golden Gate is a verse novel written in the same 14-line rhyming stanzas as Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. The book follows the interlocking lives and love affairs of a series of mostly young characters who live in and around San Francisco in the Reaganite America of the early 1980s.

Among its many other virtues, the book contains one brief reference to Canada. It occurs at a party when one of the main characters, Liz, is cornered by Professor Pratt, an academic who (like many other academics) believes that his own peculiar hobby horse is as fascinating to everyone else as it is to himself. Here’s the full stanza:

4.13

But now Professor Pratt’s recaptured
His fugitive, and Liz endures
The bludgeonings of this most enraptured,
Most indefatigable of bores.
He raves of western Pennsylvania
With zealotry approaching mania:
“…Had we not taken Fort Duquesne,
My dear, the French would still remain
Entrenched in a confederation
From Louisiana to Quebec.
I tell you , Pittsburgh saved our neck —
Pittsburgh — redeemer of our nation!
My fourth book reexamines this.
It’s called The Pratt Hypothesis….”     (78)

This refers to a corner of history that I don’t know much about, but to give a rough outline: in the 1750s, when the French still controlled a large swath of North America (“New France”), they built a series of forts to try to consolidate their control of this territory. Several of the forts, including Fort Duquesne, were in what is now Pennsylvania. The fort was attacked several times during the Seven Years’ War (aka the “French and Indian War”); in 1758 the French burned the fort just before it could be captured by the British.

(The above paragraph is summarized from Wikipedia; if you’re curious to learn more, you can start where I started, with the Wikipedia entry on Fort Duquesne. It also includes an account of the Battle of Jumonville Glen, in which George Washington and his men attacked a French Canadian scouting party — really, the references to Canada multiply so quickly that I can’t keep up.)

The details of the Pratt Hypothesis seem, to me at least, a little garbled. The location where Fort Duquesne stood is now part of Pittsburgh, and the basic idea is that if the fort had not fallen, the French would still control a large chunk of North America. But how Pittsburgh — a city that didn’t even exist at the time being discussed — could be considered the “saviour” of the United States is difficult to make out. Of course Professor Pratt is being satirized here, and so presumably his theory is meant to seem preposterous.

The use of “we” in the seventh line, however, is fascinating. The battle for Fort Duquesne happened in 1758, before the countries of Canada and the United States existed. Forbes, the general who took the site of the fort after the French had burned it, was Scottish, not American, and he named the place Pittsburgh after the British statesman William Pitt the Elder (again, see Wikipedia). So the people who took the fort (the British) are not really the “we” being spoken of by Pratt, who would presumably be Americans. The British drove the French out, but when the Americans rebelled against British rule and formed their own country, they reaped the benefits. Pratt’s summary of events elides this distinction, making it sound as if the Americans defeated the French, captured Fort Duquesne and thus “saved” the United States.

As for Quebec itself, there isn’t any actual information about the province contained here; it simply marks the northernmost point of the imagined French region, just as Louisiana marks its southernmost extent.  This is quite a common way of referring to Canada, particularly in American writers, who often use our country as a marker of distance or the extent of something: see our post on Saul Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March for one recent example.

 

The Post-Apocalyptic Primitives of Labrador

John Wyndham, The Chrysalids (1955)

I don’t know how necessary a plot summary is for this book — do most people recall it from high school? In brief, the survivors of something know as “Tribulation” (nuclear holocaust, presumably) live on in small communities, where they are guided by religion and watch vigilantly for any mutation of plant, animal or human life.

The main character, David, befriends a girl named Sophie, who cannot go to school or play with other children because she was born with six toes, and if she is discovered she will be banished to “the Fringes”. In this conversation, David is trying to fill her in on some of what he is learning in school:

The world, I was able to tell her, was generally thought to be a pretty big place, and probably round. The civilized part of it — of which Waknuk was only a small district — was called Labrador. This was thought to be the Old People’s name for it, though that was not very certain. Round most of Labrador there was a great deal of water called the sea, which was important on account of fish. Nobody that I knew, except Uncle Axel, had actually seen this sea because it was a long way off, but if you were to go three hundred miles or so east, north, or north-west you would come to it sooner or later. But south-west or west, you wouldn’t; you’d get to the Fringes and then the Badlands, which would kill you.
It was said, too, though nobody was sure, that in the time of the Old People Labrador had been a cold land, so cold that no one could live there for long, so they had used it then only for growing trees and doing their mysterious mining in. But that had been a long, long time ago. A thousand years? — two thousand years? — even more, perhaps? People guessed, but nobody really knew. There was no telling how many generations of people had passed their lives like savages between the coming of Tribulation and the start of recorded history. Only Nicholson’s “Repentances” had come out of the wilderness of barbarism, and that only because it had lain for, perhaps, several centuries sealed in a stone coffer before it was discovered. And only the Bible had survived from the time of the Old People themselves.  (33)

There are other references to Labrador, and also to “the big island of Newf,” but the passage above contains the essentials. It’s a remarkable collection of common ideas about Canada, all captured in a couple of paragraphs. First there is the idea that Canada is cold — so cold that no one could live there for long, which is odd given that people have been living in Labrador for a while. The “Old People” using Labrador for growing trees and mining constitutes another iteration of the common idea of Canada as a country that is useful mainly for providing natural resources, and the importance of fish connects with this as well. And then there is that word “wilderness,” which seems here to be used metaphorically in connection with barbarism, but is nevertheless suggestive of Canada as a country lacking in civilization.

This last idea is further developed through a conversation between David and his Uncle Axel:

… Where are they and their wonderful world now?’
‘”God sent Tribulation upon them,”‘ I quoted.
‘Sure, sure. You certainly have taken in the preacher-words, haven’t you? It’s easy enough to say — but not so easy to understand, specially when you’ve seen a bit of the world, and what it has meant. Tribulation wasn’t just tempests, hurricanes, floods and fires like the things they had in the Bible. It was like all of them together — and something a lot worse, too. It made the Black Coasts, and the ruins that glow there at night, and the Badlands. Maybe there’s a precedent for that in Sodom and Gomorrah, only this’d be kind of bigger — but what I don’t understand is the queer things it did to what was left.’
‘Except in Labrador,’ I suggested.
‘Not except in Labrador — but less in Labrador and Newf than any other place,’ he corrected me.  ‘What can it have been — this terrible thing that must have happened. And why? I can almost understand that God, made angry, might destroy all living things, or the world itself; but I don’t understand this instability, this mess of deviations — it makes no sense.’   (70)

This fills out the picture of the post-Apocalyptic world a bit: the Black Coasts are the major U.S. cities, which have been reduced to burned rubble, and the glowing at night indicates the after-effects of nuclear war, as do the “deviations,” which are the genetic mutations that lead to people with six toes and so on, like Sophie. What is interesting for our purposes here, though, is that Newfoundland and Labrador suffered less than the other regions. The idea appears to be that these areas, isolated and remote from large population centres, would not have been targets for direct nuclear strikes, but would only be affected by the fallout from strikes on the major U.S. cities to the south. So again we have the idea of Canada generally, and Newfoundland and Labrador in particular, as being essentially remote wilderness places without enough people or industry to make them worth targeting in nuclear war.

Who Are These People Anyway?

The first passage quoted above also raises the tricky question of time. Apparently no one is certain how much time has passed since the Tribulation, but it is spoken of here as at least a thousand years, and in terms of many generations. Given that the ancestors of the characters in the novel have been living in Labrador for that long, it’s reasonable for us to ask: are the people in this book Canadians?

Since Labrador was considered uninhabitable in the time of the Old People, we are perhaps meant to assume that the original ancestors of the people now in Waknuk fled there from somewhere further south (the U.S.?) during the Tribulation, and that Labrador was remote enough that it was spared the destruction that reduced the more heavily inhabited areas of the continent to blackened rubble. At this point, however, they have been there long enough that it seems fair to consider the characters in the novel Canadians — or at least Labradorians, given that that name has persisted even though Canada itself no longer seems to exist as an entity.

This is of note because of what happens later in the novel. I don’t want to get bogged down in a tedious plot summary, but a little bit is necessary here: David, his cousin Rosalind and his younger sister Petra and several of the other characters are empaths who can communicate with one another through their thoughts alone. Petra, however, is much more powerful than the others, and is able to communicate with a far more technologically advanced group of Tribulation survivors who seem to live in New Zealand (called “Sealand”). In the end the New Zealanders come to rescue Petra, and David and Rosalind as well, from Labrador, where their special abilities put them on the wrong side of the religious zealots who run the Waknuk government.

The following passages come from the lead-up to this rescue, when Petra is trying to communicate with the empaths from New Zealand. Here they are trying to convey where they are:

‘Good,’ said Rosalind. ‘Look out, everybody! Here we go again.’
She pictured an ‘L’. Petra relayed it with devastating force. Rosalind followed up with an ‘A’ and so on, until the word was complete. Petra told us:
‘She understands, but she doesn’t know where Labrador is. She says she’ll try to find out….’   (125)

This is rather heart-breaking, really: our heroes are struggling to be rescued by the powerful super-beings from New Zealand, but with all their advanced technology and empathic powers, they’ve never heard of Labrador. In the post-Apocalyptic world, as in the pre-Apocalyptic one, Canada is just not significant enough to have registered on the minds of anyone outside of it.

And then the final insult, just after Petra has ended a conversation with the “Sealanders”:

We let her [Petra] prattle on. It was difficult to make sense of a lot of the things she said, and possibly she had not got them right, anyway, but the one thing that did stand out clearly was that these Sealanders, whoever and wherever they were, thought no small beans of themselves. It began to seem more than likely that Rosalind had been right when she had taken ‘primitive’ to refer to ordinary Labrador people.   (134)

So there we have it: in the end, our more-or-less-Canadian heroes are reduced to being called “primitive” by the New Zealand superbeings, who come riding to the rescue at the end because the empathic Labradorians, for all their extraordinary abilities, aren’t able to defeat a rag-tag bunch of mutants on their own.

Sigh.

 

A Tremendous Canada of Light

Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March (1953)

Though he was born in Lachine, Quebec, Bellow moved to the U.S. at the age of nine and I think, for the purposes of this website, he can be considered an American author. The Adventures of Augie March, however, does contain quite a number of references to Canada — enough that one might almost wonder whether, at some subconscious level, Bellow is trying to work out some issue(s) related to the country of his birth.

In any case, we’ll take a look at them.

Smuggling Immigrants Out of Canada

This idea comes up several times in the novel, and while I assume that Bellow’s family entered the United States legally, there is nevertheless an echo of his own history in this portrayal of immigration. The first reference occurs when Five Properties consults with Grandma Lausch about getting married:

Five Properties was keen on getting married. He took the question up with everybody and naturally had been to see Grandma Lausch about it, and she masked herself up as usual and looked considerate and polite while in secret she checked off and collected what she wanted for her file. But also she saw a piece of change in it for her, a matchmaker’s fee. She watched for business opportunities. Once she had masterminded the smuggling of some immigrants from Canada.  (25)

It recurs when Augie meets Joe Gorman, a character he was previously involved with in an aborted robbery attempt. This time Gorman has a new scheme:

“What’s up with you?” I said, for I didn’t want to ask explicitly; it was bad manners. “Do you ever see Sailor Bulba?”
“Not that dumbhead, he’s no good to me. He’s in an organization now, slugger for a union, and it’s all he’s good for. Besides, what I’m in now, I have no use for anybody like that. But I could do something for you if you wanted to earn a fast buck.”
“Is it risky?”
“Nothing like what worried you last time. I don’t go in for that any more myself. It’s not legitimate, what I’m doing, but it’s a lot easier and safer. And what do you think makes the buck so fast?”
“Well, what is it?”
“Running immigrants over the border from Canada, from around Rouse’s Point over to Massena Springs, New York.”
“No,” I said, not having forgotten my conversation with Einhorn. “I can’t do that.”  (174)

In the end, however, Augie does get involved, agreeing to help Gorman with the driving but not the actual immigrant-smuggling:

All this was how I decided, in my outer mind, to go; with the other, the inner, I wanted a change of pressure, and to get out of the city. As for the immigrants, my thought about them was, Hell, why shouldn’t they be here with the rest of us if they want to be? There’s enough to go around of everything including hard luck.  (174-75)

The subject appears one more time, briefly, in a conversation between Augie and his wife Stella:

“Oh, Augie! Please, honey, remember that you made mistakes too. You went to smuggle immigrants from Canada. You stole. A lot of people led you astray also.”  (574)

What’s interesting about this particular thread of the novel is that we have often seen Canada portrayed as a place that people want to escape to: a fresh start in Dickens and Basil Bunting, draft dodgers in Lorrie Moore, the Underground Railroad in Chris Kraus, an escape from an American fascist regime in both the Philips, Roth and K. Dick; but it is much more unusual to see Canada portrayed as a place people want to escape from. Here, however, at least according to what Augie says, these immigrants want to get out of Canada and into the U.S., apparently in search of better opportunities that Canada can’t offer them. So this represents an interesting reversal of a common theme.

Canadian Hunting Trips

I don’t want to regurgitate the plot of this novel, which is long and complicated, but just so that the following quotes make sense, I’ll note that the long central section involves Augie and a woman named Thea going to Mexico with an eagle named Caligula, which they are trying to train to catch iguanas (or some other lizard) for some purpose that, to be honest, I no longer recall. This passage is part of the explanation of how Thea and Augie end up together:

Now, when I had called in from South Chicago, Thea had told me she didn’t have much time, she would have to leave soon. And the first few days, as I’ve said, she didn’t speak of it, but eventually the open suitcases brought up the subject and she told me that she had been, and legally still was, married, and she was on her way from Long Island to Mexico to get a divorce. Afraid to hurt my feelings, all she’d say at the outset was that her husband was considerably older than either of us and was very rich. But gradually more came out. He flew a Stinson plane, he had tons of ice dumped in his private lake when it became lukewarm in July, he went on Canadian hunting trips, he wore cufflinks worth fifteen hundred dollars, he sent to Oregon for apples and they cost him forty cents apiece, he cried because he was growing bald so quickly, etcetera.  (340-41)

Here the Canadian hunting trips are clearly meant to be seen as one more element in the life of the leisured rich; beneath that, they carry the suggestion that Canada is a less civilized nation, more of an unspoiled wilderness where rich Americans can go to hunt. This, of course, connects naturally with the idea of the Canadian cottage in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “That Thing Around Your Neck,” and also with the idea of fishing in Canada that has come up in the work of several of Bellow’s rough contemporaries, such as John Cheever and Frederick Exley.

Canada As Metaphor

Canada also appears several times in the book in what I think of as a metaphorical sense; that is to say, the reference isn’t really about Canada, but rather uses Canada to stand in for some other idea.

For example, when Caligula, the eagle they are trying to train, escapes from Thea and Augie, it is described this way:

Thea shrieked at him, “You stinking coward! You crow!” She picked up a stone and flung it at him. Her aim was wide; Caligula only raised his head when it struck above him.
“Stop that, Thea! For the love of God, stop! He’ll tear out your eyes!”
“Let him try to come at me, I’ll kill him with my hands. Let him just come near!” She left her mind with fury, and there was no sense in her eyes. I felt my arms weak, seeing her like this. I tried to keep her from throwing another stone, and when I couldn’t I ran to unstrap the shotgun for use, and also to keep it from her. Again she missed, but this time came close, and Caligula took off. As he rose I thought, Good-by bird! There he goes to Canada or Brazil.  (386)

Here Canada is paired with Brazil, representing the farthest northern point Augie imagines the eagle might fly to, while Brazil represents the southern end of his imagined flight. There is no real idea of Canada here, though, beyond the fact that it is a place far to the north of Mexico.

There are several similar uses of Canada (or places in Canada) to convey other points. This one is part of a description of the typical conversation between Einhorn and his cronies:

Be this as it might, the topic inside the railed space of benches or at the pinochle game in the side-office annex was mostly business — receiverships, amortizations, wills, and practically nothing else. As rigor is the theme of Labrador, breathing of the summits of the Andes, space to the Cornish miner who lies in a seam under the sea.  (77)

The idea here seems to be that certain topics are inevitably associated with certain places. The fact that “rigor is the theme of Labrador” ties into larger ideas about Canada, and Labrador in particular, being a place with a harsh climate, where survival is difficult.

A similar idea comes up in this passage about Augie’s brother Simon:

Such a consideration would never trouble Simon. Whatever the place was, he would make it pay off, the only relation with it that concerned him; it had dollars, as the rock water, as the waste-looking mountain is made to spit its oil or iron, where otherwise human beings would have no wish to go, the barrens, the Newfoundlands, the scaly earths and the Antarctic snow blackened with the smoke of fuel tapped in Texas or Persia.  (248)

Here again, Canada — this time Newfoundland — is portrayed as a harsh place that no one would want to live, except for the fact that it contains natural resources that, through hard work and industry, can be turned into profit for those with the nerve to extract them.

And finally, after Augie’s attempt to help Gorman with the immigrant-smuggling falls apart, Augie hops freight trains to try to make his way back to Chicago:

As the sun went south it was back of us and not on the left hand; we were going north. There was no getting off either. I sat down, legs hanging at the open door, back-broken and dry, hungry furthermore, and my eyes followed the spin of the fields newly laid out for sowing, the oak woods with hard bronze survivor leaves, and a world of great size beyond, of fair clouds and then of abstraction, a tremendous Canada of light.  (183)

The movement at the end of that sentence, from cloud formations to abstraction to light — it could almost be a description of a Turner painting — gives the feeling of Augie watching a vast, shining land of possibility recede out of reach, and seems to give the lie to the aspirations of the immigrants who want to be smuggled out of that world and into the U.S. Is Bellow, whose own family made the journey from Canada to the U.S. when he was a child, looking back, through the eyes of his character, at Canada with regret and seeing in it a brilliant world of unlimited potential? It seems unlikely, given the ostentatious, almost aggressive American-ness of the novel’s famous opening paragraph. But perhaps that is overcompensation, and perhaps here, in this quietly reflective moment, we see his true vision of our country, a vision of opportunities forever closed off and lost.

Surely, along with Paul Muldoon’s “gateless gates of Canada,” one of the more beautiful images of our country that we have come across, if a slightly melancholy one.

 

In Rome in 1960, Everyone Drank Canadian Whisky

Alberto Moravia, Boredom (trans. Angus Davidson) (1960)

I suppose it would be glib to say that this novel induced in me the state alluded to in its title, but I’m afraid I did find it heavy going in certain stretches. Boredom is the story of a failed painter from a rich family who becomes obsessed with a young woman named Cecilia — they become lovers, but then he begins to suspect that she is having an affair with an actor, and that whenever she leaves his apartment, she goes straight to the actor’s. As part of this growing obsession, he takes to following Cecilia around and spying, first on the apartment building where she lives with her parents, and then on the actor’s apartment, hoping to catch her in the act, so to speak. In this passage he is sitting in a restaurant that has a large front window through which he can watch the entrance to the actor’s apartment building:

…the house in which the actor lived was framed in black marble and stood out against the white facade like an obituary notice on the page of a newspaper, but I immediately discovered that a bottle of whisky displayed in the window concealed at least half of it. It was quite possible that Cecilia might slip in or out of the house without my being aware of it, through the half of the door that I could not see. I tried moving my chair, but then I could not see the door at all because it was completely hidden by a large box of English biscuits. I wondered whether I could possibly put out my hand and remove the bottle; but I saw I could not do so without making the barman suspicious. In the end I decided to get rid of the embarrassing object by acquiring it. It was true that the barman might well have a similar bottle in reserve and would therefore not give me the one from the window, but I had no other means of achieving my aim. I called out: “I want that bottle there.”
He came over at once, a young, tough-looking man, thin and very pale, with one noticeable feature — a harelip which was ill concealed beneath a drooping black mustache. He asked, in a deep, confidential tone of voice, “The bottle of Canadian whisky?”
“Yes, that one.”
He bent forward, cautiously took the bottle from the window and appeared to be making a move to replace it with another standing near it. I said hastily, in a commanding voice: “Let me see it.”     (202)

I apologize for such a long quote, but as you can see just from that passage, it sometimes takes Moravia a while to get to the point (by which I mean, in this case, the reference to Canada), and he seems to delight in recounting every little twist and turn in the thoughts of his narrator, who is characterized by a state of endless indecision and self-questioning. Just to relieve the suspense you are no doubt feeling, I’ll let you know that the barman then gets called away by another customer, and so does not replace the bottle, leaving our narrator free to observe the apartment building door unobstructed.

As for the Canadian whisky, I don’t think it has any particular significance here, nor do I think we can discern anything about Moravia’s ideas about Canada from it, beyond the fact that the country produces its own whisky, distinct from American varieties. It’s noteworthy that Canadian whisky would be for sale in a restaurant in Rome in 1960 — clearly the export business was doing well. But given the general description of the restaurant, it seems that, if anything, Canadian whisky represents a cheap type of liquor that would be available in lower-end places rather than, say, a classy choice that would be served at parties given by the upper crust of Rome society.

In terms of Moravia’s literary style, the decision to specify Canadian whisky does have a certain significance, in that it shows his interest in rendering everything he describes in the most precise detail possible. I’m not sure the scene would read any differently if the bartender simply said, “That bottle of whisky?” but telling the reader that it is Canadian whisky does add another layer of specificity to the moment, which contributes to the sense of a reality described at a very particular and, to use a horrible contemporary term, “granular” level.

The Proust Comparison

Finally, I’ll just add that this entire book reminded me of the portions of In Search of Lost Time in which the narrator is agonizing over the question of whether Albertine has been unfaithful to him, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out the when, where and with whom of her numerous affairs. I’m thinking mainly of the “Captive” and “Fugitive” sections (which are, of course, a repetition of the pattern of Swann and Odette’s relationship in Swann’s Way), which I have to admit are some of my least favourite parts of Proust, so perhaps that’s why this novel didn’t really appeal.

Rush: Beloved Icons of a Norwegian Boyhood

Karl Ove Knausgaard, Boyhood Island (My Struggle: 3) (2014)

I really can’t believe that people have mistaken these books for literature. I finally got around to slogging my way through the second one, A Man In Love: 600 pages of pushing a stroller around Stockholm and moaning about “wanting to write!” and, to add insult to injury, not a single reference to Canada (unlike A Death in the Family, which at least had that redeeming feature). But I convinced myself that the second book was so bad because the events he was describing were relatively recent, and so time had not yet worked its alchemy, burning away the irrelevant details and leaving only the important, formative moments shining incandescently in his memory. This third one, I decided, would be much better, because it went all the way back to his childhood, and since Knausgaard would only be able to remember important things from so long ago, the book would be interesting.

How wrong I was. Knausgaard’s memory is much more formidable than I anticipated, and is matched only by his undying fascination with himself and his passion for recounting in excruciating detail every irrelevant and frankly boring event that has ever happened to him. This entire project is a monument to the way narcissism is devouring culture, but nothing more than that.

About the only good thing I can say about Boyhood Island is that it does contain one minor reference to Canada.

A New Fandom Heard From

Here at Wow — Canada! we have often noticed references to Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen in books written by non-Canadians; in fact, as experts in this particular field (a field in which, I suspect, no one else would wish to be an expert), I think we can say they are the three most commonly mentioned Canadians. With this proviso, though: they have been so completely absorbed into the culture of the English-speaking world that they are often mentioned without any reference to, or perhaps even any awareness of, the fact that they are Canadian.

But young Karl Ove, unique soul that he is, pays tribute to a different icon of Canadian music, one we haven’t seen mentioned before:

And then there was the music. It too opened my room with its moods and the strong emotions it evoked in me, which had nothing to do with those I normally felt in life. Mostly I listened to the Beatles and Wings, but also to Yngve’s music, which for a long time was bands and solo artists like Gary Glitter, Mud, Slade, the Sweet, Rainbow, Status Quo, Rush, Led Zeppelin and Queen, but who in the course of his secondary school education changed as other, quite different, music began to sneak its way between all these old cassettes and records, like the Jam and a single by the Stranglers, called ‘No More Heroes’, an LP by the Boomtown Rats and one by the Clash, a cassette by Sham 69 and Kraftwerk, as well as the songs he recorded off the only radio music programme there was, Pop Spesial.   (376-77)

I was a little hard on Knausgaard at the beginning of this post, but this made me happy. A reference to Rush, those Canadian icons of prog rock. Knausgaard doesn’t mention that they’re Canadian — does he even know? — but in a way that makes it more gratifying to see that a Canadian band has found a place in the listening rotation of these two Norwegian brothers in the 1970s.

This is exciting partly because it gives the lie to a peculiarly Canadian form of anxiety, which is linked to our provincialism: No matter how successful any Canadian becomes within Canada, we Canadians tend to assume that no one outside our borders has ever heard of them. More than that, we often assume that “true success” means “success outside of Canada.” (Hence Mordecai Richler’s joke about writers who are “world famous in Canada.”) Obviously Joni, Neil and Leonard have passed that hurdle — but Rush? I wouldn’t have guessed that their music had reached as far as Scandinavia, but clearly I was wrong.

The Secret of Knausgaard’s Appeal?

When I read this passage, I felt that little thrill I always feel when I see Canada or a Canadian mentioned in a book by a non-Canadian author. In this case, however, there was an added jolt of excitement because I used to hear Rush on the radio when I was around the age Karl Ove is in this book. And I think this helps illuminate what is actually appealing about Knausgaard’s writing: it promotes a form of nostalgia in that we see elements of our own lives mirrored in his books, and that lends his work a patina of importance because at some deep level all of us think of our own lives as important; all of us experience life as if we were the central character in an unfolding novel of existence. (Of course everyone we encounter is living their own novel where they are the main character and we are nothing but bit players, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less powerful for us.) Knausgaard’s narcissism, his obsessive focus on writing about every one of his insignificant thoughts and feelings, has a way of validating our own narcissism and making us feel that perhaps our own thoughts and feelings are also worthy of notice.

Speaking of Nostalgia…

Here’s a Rush song, though probably from too late in their career to be a part of Knausgaard’s experience of them. Feeling my own narcissism validated by reading Boyhood Island, I picked this one because I remember hearing it on the radio when I was young:

Ah, that takes me back. Maybe Knausgaard isn’t so bad after all…?

The Impressively Ubiquitous Joni Mitchell

Eileen Myles, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) (2010)

It is, of course, hard to say for certain what is true and what is fiction just based on reading a book, but this “novel,” to me, read a lot more like a memoir. (Perhaps that’s what Myles means by “a poet’s novel,” i.e. poets are incapable of writing about anything other than themselves?) It’s also odd that it’s called Inferno, since the book follows the tripartite division of Dante’s entire Divine Comedy: the opening section (the true Inferno) details Myles’ life of poverty when she came to New York City to try to be a poet, the middle section (written in the form of a grant application, a clever touch) suggests the possibility of effort redeemed, as in Purgatory, and then the final section, in which she has achieved the fame she longed for, is her Paradise.

Canada is not mentioned, but we have another reference to one of our country’s most famous musicians, Joni Mitchell — I say “another” because Mitchell is also mentioned in Myles’ Chelsea Girls, along with Neil Young and Canada itself. The Mitchell reference in this book comes as Myles is describing her early experience of going to poetry readings and performing at them as part of trying to break into the poetry scene:

It was clear that I could only venture into this world if I was alone — because if I had any friends at all they would just laugh at these weirdos, but in New York I had committed myself to a life in which I had nothing better to do. If this is what poets did and who they were I would be with them. It was a professional choice. It was high time I got on with my career. I was home alone most days except when I sat in a coffee shop to write so at night I needed an adventure, to step up like in the Joni Mitchell song: “she tapes her regrets to a microphone stand” — that was me, and one day I knew I would be famous. These scenes were part of it — pushing into the unknown, even if it meant sitting in a room full of creeps, in used leftover looking spaces waiting for my turn.     (49)

There’s nothing about Canada there, and it isn’t even mentioned that Joni Mitchell is Canadian, but we can see how her lyrics are a touchstone for a young woman starting out as a poet in New York, just as they were a touchstone for the characters in Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? For Myles, the song lyric seems to express the idea of taking a chance on something risky even if you aren’t certain it will work out, as the girl in “Blonde in the Bleachers” takes a chance with a “rock n roll man” even though she knows she won’t be able to keep him.

Eileen Myles vs Chris Kraus

I read Inferno because I came across a quote from it in an article about Chris Kraus somewhere. The quote was about a European reading tour that Myles and Kraus went on with Kathy Acker and was something along the lines of, “Chris Kraus was totally obsessed with Kathy Acker.” I’ve been interested in Kraus ever since I read her brilliant book torpor (several references to Canada) and I guess I was curious to see what else Myles had to say about her and what the context of that quote was. (Kraus’s name has also been around a lot lately because of  the I Love Dick TV series, and she seems to be getting some (much-deserved) notice as an early exemplar of the “autofiction” genre that includes currently trendy writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard (who also mentions Canada) and Sheila Heti (who is actually Canadian), not to mention Myles herself, since Inferno could probably fit under that umbrella.) As I said at the opening of this post, it’s hard to tell what is actually “true” and what is fictionalized in these books since the average reader will have no independent knowledge of the source material i.e. the writer’s actual life. I wonder, though, if torpor is a little more fictionalized than some other examples, and if that authorial shaping of the material, rather than simply recording it, is what makes it so good (though one could argue that the act of writing is itself a process of shaping). Maybe Kraus is just a superior writer.

As for what Myles has to say about Kraus, it turned out there was nothing in the book beyond what was quoted in the article, so the joke was on me.

Music

Here’s the song “Blonde in the Bleachers” quoted by Myles:

 

Clamorous French-Canadians

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H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories

The opening sentence of H.P. Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (not included in this book) runs,

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

Whatever you may think of this, Lovecraft clearly believed it, and his work is characterized by what my old Chaucer professor would have called the “inexpressibility topos” — whenever he reaches the cusp of describing the horrors stalking the characters in one of his stories, he falls back into saying that the horrors are so terrible that they can’t be described:

The colour … was almost impossible to describe…

…slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe…

…strange colours that could not be put into any words.

…things in the air which she could not describe.

…it had come in a way which could not be told.

There are things which cannot be mentioned…

All those quotes come from a stretch of about 10 pages in a single story, “The Colour Out of Space.” Clearly the theory is that whatever the reader imagines will be worse than anything the author can describe, but after a while this constant reliance on the same form of vagueness begins to seem more like the crutch of a weak writer than the habit of a strong one.

On the plus side, Lovecraft has several references to Canada.

Reanimating Corpses with the Canadian Army

From the story “Herbert West — Reanimator”:

In 1915 I was a physician with the rank of First Lieutenant in a Canadian regiment in Flanders, one of many Americans to precede the government itself into the gigantic struggle. I had not entered the army on my own initiative, but rather as a natural result of the enlistment of the man whose indispensable assistant I was — the celebrated Boston surgical specialist, Dr. Herbert West. Dr. West had been avid for a chance to serve as a surgeon in a great war, and when the chance had come he carried me with him almost against my will. There were reasons why I would have been glad to let the war separate us; reasons why I found the practice of medicine and the companionship of West more and more irritating; but when he had gone to Ottawa and through a colleague’s influence secured a medical commission as Major, I could not resist the imperious persuasion of one determined that I should accompany him in my usual capacity.  (70-71)

The reference here is to Americans who joined the Canadian army in order to fight against Germany in the First World War before the U.S. entered the war — which it would not do until 1917. West’s reason for joining is not, of course, the desire to defend his way of life or protect France against Germany’s territorial ambitions, but rather to secure a supply of the freshest possible corpses for his reanimation experiments.

This passage points up Canada’s status as a British colony, which automatically entered the war on the side of Great Britain as soon as Britain did, and contrasts it with the more isolationist stance that the U.S. took at that time, wanting as much as possible to remain separate from European conflicts. It is also interesting when contrasted with the general impressions of our two countries today, with Canada usually thought of as a more peaceful nation, while the U.S. seems more war-like; at the time when Lovecraft sets his story, it was Canada that had entered into a world conflict while the U.S. held back.

French-Canadians

The book also contains a couple of references to French-Canadians. From the story “The Call of Cthulhu”:

There were legends of a hidden lake unglimpsed by mortal sight, in which dwelt a huge, formless white polypous thing with luminous eyes; and squatters whispered that bat-winged devils flew up out of caverns in inner earth to worship it at midnight. They said it had been there before D’Iberville, before La Salle, before the Indians, and before even the wholesome beasts and birds of the woods.  (151)

A helpful note, from editor S.T. Joshi, informs us:

Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (1661-1706) was a French-Canadian who explored the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi River beginning in 1699, building several forts in the area.

If nothing else, an interesting reminder of the role French-Canadians played in the history of the United States at a time when North America had not been divided into the nations as we know them now.

There is also a passing reference to French-Canadians in “The Colour Out Of Space,” as part of a description of the uninhabited and mysteriously threatening area where the story takes place:

The old folk have gone away, and foreigners do not like to live near there. French-Canadians have tried it, Italians have tried it, and the Poles have come and departed.  (170)

We can’t conclude much about Lovecraft’s attitude to French-Canadians from that brief reference; he clearly thinks of them as foreigners, and lumps them in with European immigrants who have attempted to live in the part of New England he is describing, and then given up and moved on.

We can learn a little more, however, from a recent Atlantic essay by Philip Eil, The Unlikely Reanimation of H.P. Lovecraft, which discusses Lovecraft’s posthumous popularity (the stuff of every unsuccessful writer’s dreams: buy a Lovecraft Classic Thong or a Cthulhu Corset Top) and tries to reconcile it with the fact that he was also “a virulent racist.” The article fills out the picture of Lovecraft’s opinion of French-Canadians with this quote from one of his letters, about immigration to New England:

“undesirable Latins — low-grade Southern Italians and Portuguese, and the clamorous plague of French-Canadians.”

As in the passage from “The Colour Out Of Space,” Italians and French-Canadians are mentioned, though this time Lovecraft adds Portuguese immigrants instead of Polish ones. There is, however, quite a difference in the tone of the two passages. In the short story, no value judgment is made about the immigrants; they are simply mentioned as people who have tried to live in the area and then given up and moved away, as had the “old folk” (presumably native-born Americans) before them. In the letter, the “Latin” immigrants are directly called “undesirable,” presumably versus Anglo-Saxon ones, whom I suppose Lovecraft would have considered “desirable.” In terms of Eil’s question about how Lovecraft’s popularity can be squared with his racism, it’s perhaps worth noting that, at least as we compare these two strikingly similar passages, we can see that racist sentiments that he felt comfortable expressing in his letters are repressed in his fiction (in this case, anyway — I can’t claim to have read everything he ever published).

It’s interesting, too, that French-Canadians, as well as being classed among other “undesirable Latins,” are also given their own two extra modifiers: “clamorous plague”. The word “plague” imagines French-Canadians as a sort of disease, an idea that is common enough in the nativist imagination. But why are they “clamorous”? Do French-Canadians have a reputation for being particularly noisy? Does the fact that they speak French make them more irritating than Anglophone Canadians would be to an English speaker like Lovecraft?

I’m not sure we can answer that question definitively. We can, however, take note of a certain uncomfortable pattern regarding the representation of French-Canadians in books by non-Canadian authors.

Roberto Bolano, in 2666, has one of his characters say that “the worst swine from Canada are the French-Canadians“. In Lorrie Moore’s novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, the two main characters mock the accents and mannerisms of the French-Canadian tourists. And in Michel Houellebecq’s novel Platform, French-Canadian pensioners in Cuba are portrayed as savage almost to the point of animality.

It seems that, among writers from outside Canada, negative stereotypes about French-Canadians are surprisingly common. If we combine the portraits in Bolano, Moore and Houellebecq, we get an image of French-Canadians as ugly, loud, abrasive, rude, menacing, and even violent — a striking contrast with the polite image of Canadians in general. And in Lovecraft’s letter, at least, we see an analogous idea.

 

Not Even to Montreal?

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James Salter, Light Years (1975)

James Salter is one of those writers whose books I always start with a lot of excitement, expecting them to be among the best novels I’ve ever read; they start well, and then after about fifty pages I find myself irritated by what seems to me an increasingly mannered and precious style. (I talked a bit about this in the post on All That Is, which also mentions Canada.) Light Years, sadly, followed exactly that pattern. It’s about Nedra and Viri, a couple with two daughters who have what appears to be a perfect marriage and live a fabulous, cultured life in their gorgeous house just outside New York City, on the Hudson River. Salter’s goal here, I think, is to capture the key moments of life, in all their intense beauty or pain, but also to give a sense of how quickly those moments, and life itself, slip past. There are certainly some gorgeous passages, but the book becomes more trite as it goes on, and by the end it completely falls apart — I don’t know if there are words to describe the grating tedium of the last section of this novel.

But to come to the point…

A Reasonable Facsimile of Europe

The most interesting reference to Canada is part of a scene in which Nedra and Kate, the teenaged daughter of one of Nedra and Viri’s neighbours, are arranging to meet:

The elegance of the evening, the dishes remaining on the table, the ease with which Nedra and her husband treated each other, the understanding which seemed to stream from them, all of this filled Kate with a feverish happiness, that happiness which lies within the power of another to confer. She was drenched with love for these people who, though they had lived nearby all through her childhood, it seemed she was suddenly seeing for the first time, who were treating her as someone she longed at that moment to be: one of themselves.
“Can I come and see you while I’m here?” she asked.
“Of course.”
“I mean, I really like to talk to you.”
“I’d love to see you,” Nedra said.
One afternoon, then. They would walk together or have tea. She had never set foot beyond the borders, this woman Kate suddenly loved, this woman with a knowing face, not at all sentimental, who leaned on her elbows and smoked small cigars. She had never traveled, not even to Montreal, and yet she knew so well what life should be. It was true. In her heart she carried an instinct like that of a migrant species. She would find the tundra, the deeps, she would journey home.  (157-58)

Not even to Montreal! This is a marvellous detail, as it shows that Montreal, as a largely French-speaking city in North America, represents a sort of baseline of sophistication for cultured Americans, as if to say, if you can’t get to Europe, at least go to Montreal. The idea seems to be that Montreal will provide some facsimile of the experience of travelling to Europe, and while it obviously won’t be the same, at least it’s something.

As the novel proceeds, it turns out that far from being some rich girl brought up in luxury, Nedra actually grew up as the daughter of a relatively poor, chain-smoking travelling salesman in a small town in Pennsylvania. The reference to Montreal is an important element in the novel because it punctures the image we have of her and reveals one of the central contradictions of Nedra’s character: her appearance of sophistication despite her lack of any of the experiences or accomplishments that normally confer sophistication on a person.

Flying and Fishing, But Not Necessarily Fly-Fishing

There are a couple of minor references to Canada, which I’ll just note in passing. The first picks up on the reference above about travelling to Montreal, and comes as Danny, one of Viri and Nedra’s daughters, lies in bed with her boyfriend after losing her virginity:

She did not move. I have done it, she thought. The light that came through the windows was wintry. There was a bite to the air, as of coal. High up, faint, the sound of a jet crossing the city, en route to Canada, France.  (192)

The way Canada and France are placed together at the end of the sentence as possible destinations one might be flying to from New York seems an odd confirmation of the idea quoted above, that Canada is in some sense an alternate Europe. (In a weird way, the use of the comma rather than “or” almost makes it sound as if Canada is a place in France, like “Paris, France”. If only!)

The other reference is part of a description of a character named Peter Daro:

His great love was fishing. He had fished in Ireland, the Restigouche, he had fished the Frying Pan and the Esopus.  (248)

The Restigouche is a river in New Brunswick and is famous for its salmon fishing.

This reference, incidentally, is part of a growing pattern, which we have also seen in John Cheever and Frederick Exley, and suggests that mid-century male novelists primarily view Canada as a place to go fishing.

Neil Young, Of Course

It’s just very difficult to avoid references to Neil Young. In this scene, Viri gets drunk at a party and has an encounter with a much younger woman:

His attention was drawn back to Candis. She was sitting near him and was talking about the first thing men look at in a woman. Someone said it was the hands and feet.
“Not quite,” she said.
Together they found themselves going through the phonograph records.
“Is there any Neil Young?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Look at this.”
“Oh, God.”
It was a record of Maurice Chevalier. They put it on.
“Now there’s a life,” Viri said. “Menilmontant, Mistinguett…”
“What’s that?”
“The thirties. Both wars. He used to say that until he was fifty he lived from the waist down, and after fifty, from the waist up. I wish I could speak French.”
“Well, you can, can’t you?”
“Oh, just enough to understand these songs.”
There was a pause. “He’s singing in English,” she said.  (228)

I quoted a little more than necessary there, I suppose, just so I could include the joke at the end — Salter can be a very funny writer. The point here, obviously, is the generation gap between Viri and Candis — he’s into Maurice Chevalier, she’s looking for Neil Young — and we can just note that, as in Meg Wolitzer and Lorrie Moore, among others, it’s a Canadian who represents the idea of “singer the kids are listening to these days.”

Salter’s Style (Unrelated to Canada)

I was planning to write a long, involved consideration of Salter’s style here, but I find I don’t really have the time or the energy to tackle it, so instead, I’m just going to look at one example. Before I begin, though, I should say that Salter can write beautifully, and if you’ve never read him, he’s worth a look.

But as I noted above, I found his style increasingly grating as I went on, for a variety of reasons I suppose, but I want to talk about what I think we can learn from this passage:

Eve was tall. Her face had cheekbones.

Those two sentences appear at the beginning of one of the chapters in Light Years. Now, far be it from me to quibble with a great writer, but there is something going on here that I find troubling.

I’m not sure how to describe this — is it redundancy? is it obviousness?  is it tautologous? is it pleonastic? Of course her face had cheekbones; all faces have cheekbones. But the more interesting question to me is, how does a writer — and particularly a talented writer — write a sentence like “Her face had cheekbones”? My personal theory is that he doesn’t, really; he revises his way into it after first writing a somewhat different sentence, a sentence along the lines of “Her face was distinguished by prominent cheekbones,” but then deciding that that is a cliché, and revising it to something like, “She had prominent cheekbones” — but after a while that, too, seems to be a cliché, and finally the writer, searching for the taut, pared-down, lapidary style that authors of Salter’s generation, all following in the hallowed steps of Hemingway, were always seeking, settles on “Her face had cheekbones.” Clearly this sentence cannot have only its literal meaning, because if it did it would be simply stupid; it must stand in for some idea along the lines of, “She had prominent cheekbones,” but the writer, in his horror of cliché, has settled on this weirdly obvious statement as the best way to convey that — and so has come dangerously close to conveying nothing at all.

This kind of squeamishness is balanced by the other aspect of Salter’s style, which is a striving poeticism that, at its worst, turns into overwriting. (See the beginning of the first quoted passage, above, which reads like a breathless profile of a celebrity couple in a glossy magazine.) I’m all for writing that is beautiful, but when I can feel the author trying to make his writing beautiful, I think there’s a problem. Salter, as a stylist, sometimes feels like a model who can’t stop looking at himself in the mirror.

No One Suspects a Canadian

zinkprivatenovelist

Nell Zink, Private Novelist (2016)

This book actually contains two works, “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats” and “European Story for Avner Shats,” both of which could be described as exercises or experiments and both of which, as their titles make clear, have some connection to the Israeli writer Avner Shats. I’m going to consider them separately.

“Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats”

I won’t go into all the complexities of how this story was created, partly because I don’t completely understand it myself; I think it is Zink’s (extremely free) re-writing of a novel by Avner Shats called Sailing Toward the Sunset, which she sent to him in parts, by email, as some sort of friendly joke. The important information is that the main plot (of Zink’s version at least) revolves around a Mossad agent named Yigal and his love affair with Mary, a silkie from the Shetland Islands. This scene is between the two of them:

The next scene actually took place in Yigal’s bed, but I am informed by Shats that the vast majority of scenes in Israeli fiction take place in cemeteries, so we’ll say instead that Yigal and Mary were holding hands as they walked on noisy gravel past the blazing white stones and skinny cypresses of the old cemetery on the south side of Tel Aviv. They rested for a moment in the shade under an aluminum canopy, and he fetched her a cup of water. Several aisles away a funeral was going on. The naked body of a middle-aged woman, wrapped in a sheet, was slowly vanishing under half a ton of sand. Yigal lay on his back, watching a reflection on the ceiling. Mary drank with her head on a pillow, dribbling water down her chin. He turned toward her and asked, “How did you get here, anyway? Swim?”
“No, I flew. On an airplane.”
“What sort of passport?”
“Canadian.”
“How’d you get that?”
“I bought it.”   (82-3)

As a secret agent, Yigal is naturally interested in the particulars of how Mary is able to travel by plane when, being a silkie, she presumably has no “human” identification. The implication (though left unstated) of the passage is that a Canadian passport is essentially a free ticket to anywhere because, given our reputation as a nation of polite, boring mediocrities, no one would ever think that a Canadian could be engaged in any kind of nefarious activity. The Canadian passport is, therefore, a perfect cover in the espionage world, and I think we can assume that Yigal is impressed Mary has managed to get her hands on one.

(As an aside, espionage, which came up in one of our earliest posts (on John le Carré), has been experiencing a resurgence lately, featuring in our posts on Dickens, Kim Philby and James Jesus Angleton.)

The next reference to Canada comes in a section titled “‘My Memoirs’ by Nell,” which is described in the back cover blurb as “Zink’s heartrending memoir ‘My Memoirs.'” I have to admit I feel that oversells the impact of the piece somewhat, but maybe it suffered from my raised expectations. Anyway, here is the opening paragraph:

When I was eighteen, my mother and I took a trip to Greater Detroit, where my elder brother was in school. After two years on a tuba scholarship at Valley Forge Military Academy, he had chosen to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was majoring, of course, in mathematics, but had elected, in his first semester, to study both elementary Hebrew and elementary Arabic, and his grades were suffering. In the second semester, after our visit, he accepted his tuition money from our mother and used it to buy a very large and even mysterious stereo system. I remember the amplifier well, a silver cube with a vertical row of red LEDs and one knob. His record was The Velvet Underground and Nico. I bought him Songs of Leonard Cohen, and he played them both.   (226-7)

Things really don’t get any more heartrending from there.

We obviously can’t conclude much about Canada from this reference, though it is a compliment, I suppose, that Leonard Cohen’s debut album should have a place in such an obviously limited record collection, and we could perhaps argue that, along with the Velvet Underground, it suggests the arty, avant garde tastes of the narrator’s brother.

“European Story for Avner Shats”

Though it’s only a few months since I read Private Novelist, I really can’t remember much at all about this story — in fact I’d forgotten it was even in the book until I flipped through it again to work on this post. It has something to do with a group of students — or artists? — who meet at an artist’s colony — in Italy maybe? — and there’s a love triangle? — but anyway the important point is that there’s an old man in a nursing home who has hidden away a stash of valuable art, which several characters are trying to get their hands on. The reference to Canada comes in a scene between Eyal, who is trying to get the artworks by pretending to be a historian for a shipping company, and the old man, with the old man’s daughter acting as interpreter:

But generally the old man seemed pleased to meet the art historian of a shipping company, or to have a visitor — Eyal wasn’t sure. He claimed, the daughter translated, that he had been around the Horn sixty times under sail before 1935, though not always as captain, and began to list the ships by name. Eyal tried to write down all the names. In the end, bored of repeating herself and spelling things out, the daughter asked the old man to write them down himself.
The name of the eleventh ship, between “Anne Shirley, Prince Edward Island,” and “Netochka Nezvanova, Vladivostok,” caught Eyal’s eye. It was “Come Back Alone, Tuesday.”   (276-77)

This is a clever way to arrange a clandestine meeting. Both ships are rather obvious literary jokes, though pitched at very different registers: the Russian ship is named after a Dostoevsky novel, while the Canadian ship references the main character in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (and various sequels) which, while popular enough to draw tourists to Prince Edward Island every year, is not (I think it’s safe to say) generally regarded as a literary masterwork.

We could, if we wished, draw some rather pointed conclusions about the standing of Canadian literature in the international imagination. Apparently, when Zink asks herself, “What would be a literary name for a Russain ship?” she immediately thinks of Dostoevsky; when she asks herself the same question about a Canadian ship, she comes up with Anne Shirley (rather than, say, The Cat’s Eye or The Del Jordan or The Stone Angel — though the latter might be tempting fate as a ship’s name). Canada, we are forced to admit, is not known for producing writers of Dostoevsky’s standing, but rather for what is essentially a children’s book.

On the other hand, this may be the first time Lucy Maud Montgomery has been mentioned in the same sentence as Dostoevsky. So that’s progress.

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