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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.

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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?

salterlightyears

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.

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.

Counting the Troops Heading to Canada

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Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

The reference to Canada appears fairly early in the novel, during Charles Darnay’s trial in England for treason:

Silence in the court! Charles Darnay had yesterday pleaded Not Guilty to an indictment denouncing him (with infinite jingle and jangle) for that he was a false traitor to our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, prince, Our Lord the King, by reason of his having, on divers occasions, and by divers means and ways, assisted Lewis, the French King, in his wars against our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth; that was to say, by coming and going between the dominions of our said serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, and those of the said French Lewis, and wickedly, falsely, traitorously, and otherwise evil-adverbiously, revealing to the said French Lewis what forces our serene, illustrious, excellent, and so forth, had in preparation to send to Canada and North America.  (65-6)

While this novel was published in 1859, it is of course set at the time of the French Revolution; this scene takes place around 1780, and the forces referred to are those being sent to fight against the Americans in the American Revolution. The French were, by this point, openly allied with the Americans, and so information passed to them about English forces would have helped the American revolutionaries.

It’s a bit odd that the forces are being sent to “Canada and North America,” since Canada is part of North America, but I think this little slip reveals something about how Canada is seen in this passage. Our country is, essentially, a means to an end: troops are being sent to Canada to try to protect England’s colonial possessions in North America, and particularly in what would become the United States. Canada is really just a staging ground in the struggle for something more valuable.

Still, it’s nice to be mentioned.

For a fuller consideration of Dickens’ attitude to Canada, and a brief account of his visit here, see our post on Little Dorrit.

“Ask not what Canada can do for you”

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Eileen Myles, Chelsea Girls (1994)

There is nothing new or remarkable here, at least with reference to Canada, but this book does repeat a couple of ideas we’ve seen before, and I’ll simply catalogue those.

A Place to Dodge the Draft

This is from the story “1969”:

I’d often be found passed out on the couch of the house I stayed in that summer with Crime and Punishment on the floor next to my toes. If I could finish that book that summer then my life wouldn’t be a complete waste. I had a boyfriend. His name was Mike and he was also a blackout drinker. He was 21 and had just graduated from college. I thought we looked alike. He would always get drunk and say to me, “Leena, I ain’t gonna march.” I always felt like I was in a movie when he said that. Who does he think he is, I wondered. He wasn’t going to Canada. The war would end. Something would happen. He just wasn’t the type. When those foreign things would erupt from his soul it would just be so strange. It was like he was turning into a thing. I’d grab his dick and the crisis would be over. He was the first person I really had sex with.  (102-3)

When Mike says “I ain’t gonna march,” he means he won’t join the army and go to Vietnam, although the narrator (Myles herself?) seems to interpret this as self-dramatization on his part. It isn’t clear why she thinks he wouldn’t go to Canada — too uncivilized? he’s not decisive enough to take that step? — but Canada exists in the minds of these characters as a place to get away from the draft. Beyond that, though, the book has nothing to say about our country.

Neil Young and Joni Mitchell

There are also references to two Canadians who were staples on the U.S. music scene in the late 60s and early 70s. This is from the story “Bath, Maine”:

The place looked kind of “datey,” like it was attached to a restaurant. The clientele was sunburned and clean, like vacationers. Was I feeling better? In the last place when I had nothing to say in my notebook I began to write the words from the jukebox

And only love
can break
your heart
So try to make sure
right from
the start…

It made me suspicious. (7-8)

The song on the jukebox is, of course, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Canadian Neil Young — though he isn’t actually named in the story. I’m not sure why it makes her suspicious.

This is from “1969” again:

The safety of it all, the baby being held by the parents in the middle of the highway. Going home. Not even going to Woodstock.
Liked that baby, huh Leena? “Mo” asked me that from the front seat. I was that kind of Leena by now, and that was the end of the first night. Joanie Mitchell didn’t show. Do you blame her? I finally saw the movie in 1987. It would have been painful before then though I didn’t know why.  (113)

It’s strange that she spells Mitchell’s name as “Joanie” rather than “Joni”; if that has some significance, it’s not clear to me.

Larger Thoughts?

I suppose we could argue that these references are typically American in the sense that they see Canada only in terms of what it offers to Americans — a place to avoid the draft, a place that supplies music for Americans to listen to — but never question or wonder about what Canada is actually like on its own terms.

There is more about Canada as a haven for draft dodgers and about Joni Mitchell in our post on Lorrie Moore; there is more about Joni Mitchell in our post on Graham Nash and our post on Dave Van Ronk; and there is lots more about Neil Young here.

The Music

Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock” seems appropriate, and this live version includes a little explanation of why, as Myles says, she “didn’t show”:

Here’s the CSNY version from the “Woodstock” film Myles mentions:

And here is the album version of “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” presumably what is on the jukebox:

How Quebec Was Won

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Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:

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Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.

Music

Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:

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