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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the category “Fiction”

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:

 

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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

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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:

gossegray

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:

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

dfostercover

David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

I bought this book for two reasons: first, its seductively minimalist, Rothko-esque cover (see above), and second, because it bills itself as a “re-telling” of the myth of Attis, which I’m familiar with from Poem 63 by Catullus (available online in Latin and in English — essentially, Attis, swept up by the ritual of Cybele, emasculates himself, then regrets it. (Apologies to Catullus (and his fans) for that summary.))

The novel takes place mainly in 1968 and tells the story of a group of young people (more or less “hippies”) who move to the remote Erinungarah Valley to start a commune. It’s made up largely of unattributed dialogue and long-ish digressions on history, mythology and Australian botany, not all of which is as fascinating as it might be; in the end (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story (à la Tristram Shandy, I suppose) since the main characters have only just arrived in the Valley and begun setting up the commune when the narrator announces that he is about to die and can’t finish the book.

Foster, however, has woven in enough hints and “flash-forwards” that we can figure out more or less what is coming: at some point in the relatively near future, Attis (a foundling who grew up in the Valley and becomes a leader of sorts to the communards) will decide that all the problems of the world are caused by men, and that the only way to bring peace and harmony to humanity is to eradicate the scourge of “maleness”, at which point he will castrate himself and be transformed into a tree. Most of the other men follow his lead and castrate themselves as well (but don’t turn into trees), and after that the Valley becomes a paradise where everyone gets along and no one ages–or maybe they just age more slowly than normal, it’s a little hard to be certain. But you get the idea: when male genitalia disappear, society’s problems vanish as well.

Note

Since writing the above summary, I have acquired (no mean feat) and read Foster’s The Ballad of Erinungarah (1997), a book-length poem purporting to be written by Timothy Papadimitriou, who appears in The Glade as a small child. It is in some sense a continuation of the story of the novel, describing how the goddess Brigid appeared in the Valley and seduced (in a purely intellectual/spiritual sense) Attis, which ultimately leads him to castrate himself. It is written in a rather fragmented style, though, and certainly doesn’t answer all the questions a reader will have after finishing the novel. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much you could get out of the poem if you hadn’t read the novel first. The Ballad, alas, fails to mention Canada and so can’t be treated more fully here.

The Canadian Dodge

The novel includes a (very minor) Canadian character, as well as a couple of other additional references to Canada and Canadians. We’ll start with the Canadian, who first appears in the list of characters at the beginning of the book — a list that Foster uses throughout the novel to further the plot, which is helpful given the book’s “unfinished” state. It’s also a handy way to keep track of who’s who in a novel full of unattributed dialogue spoken by a huge and shifting cast of (largely indistinguishable spaced-out hippie) characters:

Johnny Dakota. Late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian vocalist. Guest at the Latin Quarter nightclub in Sydney. Used Michael Ginnsy on one of his albums (appeared recently at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, according to the Herald Metro).  (xxiv)

We can’t glean much about what Foster thinks of Canada from that brief description. He’s clearly aware that we have a First Nations population, and perhaps he adds that element to Johnny Dakota’s background to give him a little more interest. (As a side note, the novel also mentions “Eskimos in igloos” (351), which at least has the advantage of bringing up the common idea that Canada is cold.)

When Johnny Dakota actually appears in the novel, he is described as “a plump man with the Oriental eyes of a native Indian” (110). He then engages in a brief conversation with Diane Zoshka, a teenaged protester who will become the lover of Attis and one of the founders of the commune in the Erinungarah Valley:

‘I’ll have a large Scotch.’
‘You will not!’
‘Come on, let her have one. Don’t be a party poopa.’
‘She is just fifteen, Johnny.’
‘I’m jailbait, Johnny. Better watch out for me. So what do you think about Vietnam?’
‘I dunno. I’m Canadian.’
‘But are you happy with the situation in Vietnam?’
‘I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.’  (110)

Fascinating, no? Diane, a professional protester with communist leanings, is obviously against the war in Vietnam. Whether she assumes that Johnny is American and wants to confront him about the war, or whether demanding what people think about Vietnam is simply her way of making conversation, is a bit hard to tell. Johnny’s response, however, is the classic move of Canadians when they are mistaken for Americans by people from other countries — essentially, “Hey, don’t blame me for that whole Vietnam thing, I’m Canadian, I had nothing to do with it.” (We might compare this with the idea of Canada as a haven for draft dodgers, which came up in a Lorrie Moore novel.)

The dodge doesn’t work, though. Diane follows up by asking what he thinks of the situation in Vietnam (a Canadian can have an opinion, after all), and Johnny responds with “I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.” This also strikes me as characteristically Canadian: he doesn’t come out strongly for or against the war, instead trying to stake out a middle ground while leaning a bit towards the perceived opinion of his interlocutor. But where did that “we” come from? In answer to her first question, he distanced himself from Vietnam by saying he was Canadian, implying that it was an American war that he had no part in. The next time he speaks, however, he is suddenly saying “we” opened a can of worms, as if admitting some sort of Canadian complicity in the war.

This tiny scene contains a very astute portrayal of the position of the Canadian in the world: on the one hand, we don’t want to be associated with Americans and we insist on distinguishing ourselves from them; on the other, if we aren’t careful we slip into identifying with them because, at some level, we recognize that we really are very similar and that we have tended to be on the same side in major conflicts. Johnny Dakota, with his insistence that he’s Canadian and his slipping into “we” when talking about Vietnam, is emblematic of our country’s ambiguous position with regards to the U.S., and our own frequently conflicted feelings about it.

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

Johnny Dakota: late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian. Had a hit with that Crash Craddock cover, what was the name of it again? Appeared at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, in the nineties. Needs a new agent.  (112)

That gives you a sense, at least, of how Foster uses the repetition of his character descriptions to further the plot of the novel and hint at the outcome, though it’s not the best example because Johnny is such a minor character that he doesn’t come in for much development. I don’t think he appears again after this, which might be suggestive in itself: Canada, a place you think of once or twice, and then promptly forget about.

(As a side note, my research indicates that a character named Johnny Dakota appeared in a 1991 episode of the American TV series Saved by the Bell. I have no idea whether Foster was referring to this.)

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

There is also a brief mention of Canada in a passage dealing with the spread of the potato around the globe:

It was the potato blight caused the famine of 1845 and led to the Great Emigration of Celts to northern Tasmania, northern California, to Gippsland, Canada, the State of Idaho — to anywhere, in short, where conditions were found to comport with the propagation of the ancestral aliment.  (xxxviii-xxxix)

This is just a passing reference, obviously, with Canada lumped in with several other places, but it does represent another example of the theme of immigrants coming to Canada in search of a better life.

A Canadian Expert

In an excursus on the disappearance of cedar trees large enough to provide fine cabinetwood, we come upon a reference to another Canadian, this one not fictional but real:

World population, about 500 million in the time of Juvenal — David Suzuki says one billion, Paul Ehrlich about a third of that: I’d say they were guessing — was only one or two billion by the time of the Industrial Revolution. By 1990, it was five billion.  (361)

Now David Suzuki is a name well known to me — as a child, his CBC show The Nature of Things was one of the few television programs I was allowed to watch (because it was judged “educational,” I suppose). I haven’t been able to track down the source of the idea attributed to Suzuki here, but he’s a Canadian being mentioned as an expert on the issue of world population (something he has commented on).

The Video Evidence

Since our Canadian, Johnny Dakota, apparently had a big hit with a Crash Craddock cover, I thought we might as well put up some Crash Craddock. He’s so utterly original — never heard a voice or a sound like that before — that I can’t understand why he isn’t better known, although this song was apparently a big hit in Australia. Maybe it’s the song Johnny Dakota covered?

And here’s one from his later, “country” phase — ahead of its time, as it’s all about the importance of applying sunscreen:

And here are the opening credits of The Nature of Things:

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon

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Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)

The White Boy Shuffle isn’t an easy book to summarize; I suppose you could call it a satirical coming-of-age novel. It follows Gunnar Kaufman as he grows up in Los Angeles, becoming a high school basketball star and poet, and on to Boston University, where he publishes his first collection of poetry, Watermelanin, which sells “126 million copies” and causes him to be seen as a “saviour” to African-Americans. You can tell Beatty himself started out as a poet — the novel is written in the dense, allusive, metaphorical style characteristic of much contemporary poetry.

The only reference to Canada comes near the end of the novel, when Gunnar and his best friend, Nick Scoby, are students at BU. At this point, Gunnar has made a speech saying that African-Americans “need some new leaders … who are ready to die.” Inspired by this speech, Gunnar’s “followers” begin killing themselves after writing “death poems,” which they send to Gunnar. Here Scoby is planning his own suicide — he will later jump from the roof of the BU law school — though I don’t think Gunnar realizes it:

Nick stared past the coastline, and my eyes followed his. The only thing barely visible in the foggy night was Boston’s pathetic skyline. The top of the glassy Hancock Building poked through a cloudbank that covered its lower floors in a vapory trenchcoat.
“Tallest building in Boston, right?”
“Fifty some-odd stories, the Sunday afternoon brunch from the top supposed to be the move. You can see to Newfoundland or some shit.”
“They don’t have no nighttime dinner thing?”
“Nope. Closed up.”
“What’s the second tallest building?”
“The Prudential Building, but I think BU’s law school is the third.”
“Can you get in there at night?”  (204)

Newfoundland again! The reference is rather indefinite, though: “You can see to Newfoundland or some shit” means, essentially, “You can see to Newfoundland or some other place that’s far enough away that it’s impressive you can see it from Boston” — the focus is on the quality of the view provided by the Hancock Building, and Newfoundland is brought in merely to mark the distance. This seems like a typically American view, with a point in Canada being used as a way of measuring the greatness of something American (in this case, the view); there is no interest in the distinct qualities of Newfoundland, and it has no identity of its own.

The idea of distance also seems to imply a certain kind of obscurity, in that the view is only remarkable if the place you can see is a long way away. And Newfoundland, way off in another country, is just the kind of far-off, unvisited, almost mythical place that would make the view seem impressive.

Music — In Memory of Nick Scoby

Since Sarah Vaughan is one of Nick Scoby’s favourite jazz musicians (and one of mine too), here she is singing “Misty” (which seems appropriate to the foggy scene above — though I suppose I could have used “A Foggy Day”):

This is my favourite version of “Misty” — no video though:

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