Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

Alice-Oswald

Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.

 

If You Can’t Say Anything Nice…

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Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (2014)

The elevator pitch for this novel would run something along the lines of, “Aging, ignored female artist shows her work under three male pseudonyms and is proclaimed a genius.” That’s fine as far as it goes — and it’s certainly a catchy premise for a novel — but it also oversimplifies the book. The artist, Harriet Burden (talk about loaded names!) chooses three separate male artists, and gets them to agree to show her work as theirs. As the novel goes on, though, these masquerades are revealed to be more complicated than they seemed at first, and the dividing line between mask and collaborator blurs, raising the question of whether it is possible to create art under an alternate identity without that other identity somehow influencing the nature of the work. One of the pleasures of this novel, with its multiplicity of voices and plot that constantly twists back around on itself, is that everything turns out to be much more complicated than it seems.

The novel is set up as if it were a scholarly book about Harriet Burden, edited by “I.V. Hess” and composed of excerpts from Harriet’s extensive notebooks, interviews and written statements from her friends, lovers and family members, and articles and reviews from art journals that chronicle the reception of Burden’s work. This approach becomes a bit tedious at times — it’s hard not to notice that all the “speakers” of the different documents sound not just remarkably like one another, but also remarkably like an upper-middlebrow literary novelist — but overall it’s an effective way to construct the narrative and build suspense (The Blazing World is surprisingly suspenseful for a novel about contemporary art.)

The first reference to Canada comes from one of Harriet Burden’s journals, which make up a significant portion of the novel:

There was also the remarkable case of Dr. James Barry, who entered medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1809, passed his examination for the Royal College of Surgeons in England in 1813, became a surgeon in the military, traveled from post to post, and rose through the ranks. When his career ended, he was inspector general in charge of military hospitals in Canada. He died in London in 1865 from dysentery. It was then discovered that he had been a she. Barred from medicine by her sex, she had changed it.  (32)

James Barry was a real person, and the outline given here is essentially true. (S)he did serve as inspector general of hospitals in Canada, though for a relatively brief period, and Canada appears at this point in the novel merely as an element of historical fact; Hustvedt has nothing to say about Canada or Canadians, though the fact that an English person was in charge of Canadian military hospitals does reinforce our status as a (former) British colony.

The second reference comes in a footnote, added by the author/editor Hess to another of Harriet’s notebooks, in which she provides this quote from one of Harriet’s inspirations, Margaret Cavendish. Cavendish is describing burning her manuscripts after the works have been printed:

“But howsoever their Paper Bodies are Consumed, like as the Roman Emperours, in Funeral Flames, I cannot say, an eagle flies out of them, or that they turn into a blazing star, although they make a great Blazing Light when they Burn; And so leaving them to your Approbation or Condemnation, I rest, Madam, Your faithful Friend and Servant, CL.” Sylvia Bowerbank and Sara Mendelson, eds., Paper Bodies: A Margaret Cavendish Reader (Toronto: Broadview, 2000), 81-82.  (329)

This only tells us that the book was published in Toronto, so it doesn’t say much about Canada as a country, other than to make clear that work of intellectual value is sometimes produced here. It’s a real book, so you can consult it if you’re curious to learn more about Margaret Cavendish.

From our perspective, then, The Blazing World is a bit vexing: it mentions Canada twice, but it’s hard to glean much from these references. I suppose we can conclude that a book can mention Canada without actually saying anything about Canada.

Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:

 

The Western Buddhists of Nova Scotia

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Allen Ginsberg, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992 (1994)

I can’t say I loved this book; there were a few really good poems in it, but it struck me as the sort of book a poet publishes when he’s reached that level of fame that lets him publish essentially anything he takes the time to write down. The opening poem, “Improvisation in Beijing,” contains the line “I write poetry ‘First thought, best thought’ always,” which is, I suppose, a noble sentiment. But, while I hate to be churlish, and I certainly don’t have any desire to add to the already overwhelming level of snark burdening the world, it’s hard not to feel the lack of revision shows, and that some of the poems — and so the book itself — might have benefited from second thoughts, and perhaps even third and fourth ones.

But it contains two poems that mention Canada — would second or third thoughts have removed those references? — and so I can’t complain — or, I should say, I won’t complain any further, since I see that, like Fielding with his digression, in talking of my complaint, I have made it.

On to the poems.

Supplication for the Rebirth of the Vidyahara Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche

Dear Lord Guru who pervades the space of my mind
permeates the universe of my consciousness,
still empties my balding head and’s stabilized my wand’ring thought
to average equanimity in Manhattan and Boulder

Return return reborn in spirit & knowledge in human body
my own or others as continual Teacher of chaotic peace,
Return according to your vow to pacify magnetize enrich destroy
grasping angry stupidity in me my family friends and Sangha

Return in body speech & mind to enlighten my labors
& the labors of your meditators, thousands from L.A. to Halifax
to relieve sufferings of our brothers, lovers
family, friends, fellow citizens, nations and planet.

Remember your vow to be with us on our deathbeds
in living worlds where we dwell in your tender perspective
breathe with your conscious breath, catch ourselves thinking
& dissolve bomb dream, fear of our own skin & yelling argument
in the sky of your mind

Bend your efforts to regroup our community within your thought-body
& mind-space, the effects of your non-thought,
Turbulent ease of your spontaneous word & picture
nonmeditative compassion your original mind

These slogans were writ on the second day of June 1991
a sleepless night my brother’s 70th birthday on Long Island
my own sixty-fifth year in the human realm visiting his house
by the Vajra Poet Allen Ginsberg supplicating protection of his
Vajra Guru Chogyam Trungpa

June 2, 1991, 2:05 A.M.

I’m not sure why he adds the date and time, given that the last stanza already includes that information, but he’s the poet.

There isn’t much about Canada here, really; Halifax simply marks the furthest extent from Los Angeles, suggesting the sheer number of meditators who are praying together. If you took a map of North America and, starting in L.A., drew a diagonal line across the continent to the northeast, you would probably end up somewhere near Halifax, though Ginsberg could just as easily have said L.A. to, say, Portland, Maine, and created essentially the same effect.

Which begs the question: why does Ginsberg choose to mention Halifax here? I found out while doing a little research on a later poem in the collection:

Who Eats Who?

A crow sits on the prayerflagpole,
her mate blackwinged walks the wet green grass, worms?
Yesterday seagulls skimmed the choppy waves,
feet touching foamed breakers
looking for salmon? halibut? sole?

Bacteria eat parameciums or vice versa,
viruses enter cells, white cell count low —
Tooth & claw on TV, lions strike down antelopes —
Whales sift transparent krill thru bearded teeth.
Every cannibal niche fulfilled, Amazon
hunters eat testicles —
Enemy’s powers & energy become mine!

August 13, 1992
Gampo Abbey, Nova Scotia

I like that one, especially the “bearded teeth” of the whales.

In this case Canada isn’t actually mentioned in the body of the poem, but based on the Canadian location added at the end, I think we can assume that it was written in Nova Scotia and therefore reflects the poet’s view of a Canadian scene. So what impression does “Who Eats Who?” give?

The most obvious thing to note is the focus on wildlife, to the exclusion of everything else: we get the sense that Canada is occupied mainly by birds, fish and whales — there are no honking cabs or corner stores here, not even the fishermen we had in Whitman, which were an indicator of at least some level of human occupation and activity. If anything, the state of civilization in Canada seems to have regressed in the century between Leaves of Grass and Cosmopolitan Greetings, and we are back to nothing but animals and the poet sitting, looking at them, and writing down what he sees.

How does this poem explain the reference to Halifax in the previous one? Gampo Abbey, where “Who Eats Who?” was written, is a Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. So that probably explains why Halifax is mentioned in “Supplication”; the monastery isn’t actually in Halifax, but Ginsberg is presumably thinking of this Nova Scotia monastery when he imagines the meditators “from LA to Halifax”. We can forgive him, I think, his slightly sketchy Canadian geography.

Video Evidence

Here is some video of a marvellous reading Ginsberg gave to launch Cosmopolitan Greetings in 1994 — the poems really come alive in performance:

That was so much fun I can’t resist putting up the third part, which includes “To Jacob Rabinowitz” (one of my favourites from the book) and also Ginsberg singing (!):

Whitman’s Kanadian Snow-shoes and the Future of Newfoundland

whitman

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)

I should begin by saying that I read the entire Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass (pictured above) many years ago. I picked it up recently and re-read a few poems here and there, and that’s when I actually noticed the references to Canada in “Song of Myself.” I did not, however, re-read the entire book, so there may be other references to Canada in other poems — something left to discover, perhaps.

“Song of Myself” is obviously much too long for me to re-type here; since the main reference to Canada that I want to discuss comes in section 16 of the poem, I am presenting that section. (If you care to re-read the whole poem — and why wouldn’t you? It’s Poetry Month, after all — it’s available via the Poetry Foundation here.)

16

I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)  (203-204)

Not a passage that requires much explanation in and of itself; it’s one of Whitman’s many expansions on the idea succinctly expressed in the oft-quoted “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” line (section 51), as he insists he is all different kinds of people in typical list-making, paradox-piling Whitmanian style.

The reference to Canada marks a shift: in the first nine lines, Whitman says “I am” these different types of people (a Yankee, a Georgian, a Hoosier and so on), but in line 10 he switches to “At home …” and the next three lines enumerate places where he feels at home. And so Whitman is not directly associating himself with Canadians — he does not say, “I am the Kanadian on his snow-shoes” — but rather that he is:

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

That single line contains a remarkable little cluster of ideas associated with Canada: the snowshoes, obviously, carry the standard notion of Canada as cold and snowy; they are immediately followed by the phrase “up in the bush,” which shows again the way Americans conceive of us as “up” because we are to the north of them and also, in the word “bush,” the idea that Canada is an undeveloped wilderness; and then, with the fishermen off Newfoundland, we come to the image of Canada as a country rich in natural resources (here fish — perhaps even the “glutinous codfish of Newfoundland” so beloved by Casanova?) to be exploited.

We might even draw in the following line, with its “fleet of ice-boats”: they are not labelled as “Kanadian,” the way the snowshoes are, but given their proximity, and the fact that no other place is mentioned until Vermont in the following line, it is tempting to wonder if they also have a Canadian connection. If they do, they obviously further the association between Canada and the cold.

The more you consider them, though, the more elusive the references become. Does “At home on Kanadian snow-shoes” imply that Whitman has actually been to Canada, and that he went snowshoeing there? Does it mean that he is comfortable wearing snowshoes in winter, and that he thinks of snowshoes as somehow distinctively Canadian, or as coming from Canada? (Did he own snowshoes? Were they made in Canada? The unanswerable questions pile up.) “Up in the bush” might or might not refer to Canada, but it’s certainly suggestive coming right after the “Kanadian snow-shoes.” (The idea of Canada’s “northerliness” is definitively stated in section 31, where Whitman writes, “the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador.”) And even the mention of Newfoundland could be disputed, since Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada at the time Whitman was writing (I explained my attitude to this in a post on John Donne). Strangely, though, its placement in that line seems to associate it proleptically with the country it would ultimately join, almost as if Whitman, ever oracular, could see the future of our easternmost province.

Of course Whitman isn’t really talking about Canada here; we come in merely as one of the many regional identities he associates himself with, but this is not a record of personal experience — it’s a poetic stance and a philosophical statement of oneness with all humanity.

Or perhaps that requires a qualification: this is not a statement of oneness with all humanity, but with American humanity. It’s striking, is it not, that this one line, with its Canadian snowshoes and Newfoundland fishermen, is the only line in all of section 16 that refers to a place outside the United States?

In fact, in a quick re-reading of “Song of Myself” I found, in addition to the line above, a couple more references to Canadians and one mention of Labrador, but nothing about any other country or nationality except the English ship in section 35 (I may have missed something) — almost as if Whitman were aware of the U.S., and had some notion of the existence of Canada, and beyond that … nothing much. Whitman seems to be at great pains to associate himself with the representatives of every region of the U.S., but doesn’t show much interest at all in the people beyond its borders. And this absence of other nationalities makes the references to Canadians that much more striking: why are we alone represented here in “Song of Myself”? Did Whitman feel some sort of brotherhood with Canadians that he didn’t feel with other nationalities? Did he see Canada as a new nation, like the U.S., that was in the process of forging its identity — a process of which his own poetry was a part? Or does he simply think of Canada as an extension of the United States, and a “Kanadian” as a regional type on the same level as a Georgian or a Hoosier?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a reminder of how quintessentially American — or North American? — a poet Whitman is.

Finally, what to make of the fact that Whitman apparently spelled “Canada” as “Kanada”? (It’s not a one-time accident: he also mentions a “Kanuck” in section 6 and a “Kanadian” in section 39, both times in lists of different “types” of people). I think the “C” spelling must have been pretty much settled convention by the latter half of the 19th century (see Dickens’ 1857 novel Little Dorrit, for example), but Whitman is idiosyncratic in many ways, and if this is another of his idiosyncrasies, well, who am I to argue?

Neil Young, the Bard of Boring Suburbanites

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Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings (2013)

This novel begins with a group of teenagers forming a clique at a summer arts camp and naming themselves “the Interestings,” and then follows the course of their lives into adulthood. (The set-up reminded me, weirdly perhaps, of what I’ve heard about this book, though I haven’t actually read it. I wonder if it mentions Canada….) Jules Jacobson, the central character, is a bit of an outsider in this group (she feels lucky to be included), and her experiences and perceptions are at the heart of the book, though it goes on occasional tangents to focus on other characters.

There are no direct references to Canada as a country, but there are a couple of references to Canadians that seem worth mentioning; they even pick up on figures we have come across before.

1. Leonard Cohen

The first relates to Jonah Bay, one of “the Interestings” and the son of Susannah Bay, a famous folksinger who seems to be loosely modelled on Joan Baez. Barry Claimes, another folksinger and a friend of Susannah’s, has been struggling, and failing, to write his own original songs. He begins inviting Jonah over to his house, where he plies the child with hallucinogens, hands him a guitar and records whatever comes out of his mouth. Claimes then works Jonah’s spontaneous, drug-fuelled compositions into songs, which he presents (or, you might say, “claims” — ha-ha) as his own.

At this point in the novel Jonah has figured out that something is wrong in this relationship with Barry, but Barry keeps phoning him:

Barry called him back a dozen times, and Jonah didn’t realize that he could simply not answer. Each time the phone rang, Jonah answered. And each time, Barry Claimes said he cared about him, he missed him, he wanted to see him, Jonah was his favorite person, even including all the folksingers he had known — even including Susannah and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and Richie Havens and Leonard Cohen.  (126)

Leonard Cohen, the lone Canadian, simply appears in a list of folksingers; there is no comment on the fact that he is Canadian, or on Canada as a country; we simply notice a Canadian taking his place in that particular pantheon.

To me, however, the reference to Cohen seems a little odd. This scene in the novel takes place in 1970; certainly Cohen had put out albums at that time, and was known as a folksinger, but was he really a figure that people would think of in the same breath, so to speak, as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger? (Contrast, for example, Graham Nash’s reference to him as “Joni’s Canadian friend” in his memoir, which suggests that, to Nash at least, Cohen wasn’t well-known.) Cohen has endured and his reputation has grown over the intervening time, and especially since the 1990s (even in Russia), and I wonder if his appearance here is more reflective of the time the novel was written (2010-2012, presumably, given that it was published in 2013) rather than the time it takes place.

2. Neil Young

The second Canadian reference occurs when Jules is on the phone with her best friend, Ash, discussing Ash’s brother Goodman. At this point in the novel, it is 1976:

From the next room Jules could hear her sister Ellen’s roaring blow-dryer, and the same Neil Young album that seemed to be on autoplay, with the singer’s thin voice now singing, “There were children crying / and colors flying / all around the chosen ones.”  (169)

Jules’ sister, obviously, is listening to After the Gold Rush (released in 1970). I suppose this idea of irritation at a sibling’s taste in music expresses one of the universal truths of human life: I have heard my father make the same complaint about his sister, although in that case it was Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” that she was listening to over and over.

What is interesting here, I think, is the question of what liking Neil Young says about a person. To Jules, Ash and her brother Goodman represent everything she yearns for in life: they live in New York City, their parents are wealthy and sophisticated, and they are brought up in a world of art and culture. By contrast, Jules despises her own life outside New York in an ugly house with her dull sister and widowed mother, which to her is the very definition of everything boring and suburban.

Neil Young’s music is associated with Jules’ sister — that is, with the stultifying absence of culture in suburbia — rather than with Ash and her family in New York City. This Canadian musician, then, represents the dull, middle-of-the-road, and vaguely irritating musical taste of the suburban bourgeoisie, which is what Jules yearns to escape. (This is notably different, by the way, from Neil’s totemic position as a culture hero to current American hipsters.)

There is also an undeniable tone of exasperation in the description: the record “seemed to be on autoplay,” the singer has a “thin voice,” and perhaps most of all, Jules’ sister is listening to it with her hair dryer on (providing a version of the “vacuum cleaner continuo” suggested by another Canadian, Glenn Gould?) — it’s hard to ignore the implication that listening to Neil Young is no pleasure. The fact that he is Canadian is never directly expressed in the novel, but could the American stereotype of Canadians as rather dull and unadventurous lie behind this choice of Neil Young as representative of boring taste in music?

(Alternatively — and if we wanted to try to salvage a bit of Neil’s reputation here — we might observe that Ellen is listening to an album, which originally came out in 1970, in 1976. This might suggest that it is not Neil Young himself whose music is dull and suburban, but only that Ellen’s taste is rather behind the times.)

Regardless of that, the presence of both Leonard Cohen and Neil Young in the novel shows again the extent to which Canadian artists and performers are woven into the cultural texture of American life, something we have noticed before in books by Lorrie Moore and Dave Van Ronk, to name just a couple of examples.

3. The Music

Here is Leonard Cohen live in 1970, to give an idea of what his music sounded like at that particular point in time:

And here is “After the Gold Rush,” with Neil’s voice admittedly sounding thin even by his rather attenuated standards:

Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From

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Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.

Becoming?

Almost?

But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

Exiled to the CFL

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Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)

This “fictional memoir” (which presumably means much the same thing as “semi-autobiographical novel”) gives an account of Exley’s drinking, time in mental institutions and ardent New York Giants fandom, among other things. It ends (SPOILER ALERT!) with Exley sitting down and writing a semi-autobiographical novel, making the book a sort of record of its own creation. Along the way, there are a few references to Canada.

Football on the Glacier

One of the key elements of the book is Exley’s obsession with (or, to put it in contemporary terms, “man-crush on”) Frank Gifford. They were at USC at the same time (though they never knew each other), and Exley follows Gifford’s career as a pro, becoming a fan of the New York Giants and going to watch them play at the Polo Grounds. Exley also develops a fascination with Steve Owen, who coaches the Giants during the early part of Gifford’s time there, but is fired a couple of years before the team wins a championship. When Exley hears about Owen’s death, he decides to go to his funeral, and reflects on Owen’s post-Giants career:

It was Owen who over the years kept bringing me back to life’s hard fact of famelessness. It was for this reason, as much as any other, that I had wanted to make the trip to Oneida to make my remembrances. After the day at the Polo Grounds I heard of Owen from time to time, that he was a line coach for one NFL team or another, that he was coaching somewhere in Canada — perhaps at Winnipeg or Saskatchewan. Wherever, it must have seemed to him the sunless, glacial side of the moon.  (70-71)

The path of Owens’ career after he leaves the Giants is clearly one of decline. To be a line coach in the NFL, after having been a head coach, is a significant step down, and to end up coaching in the CFL marks an even greater fall, to the sort of job no one would take unless they had no better options. The very vagueness of the reference — “Winnipeg or Saskatchewan or somewhere” — reinforces this, suggesting the narrator isn’t sure where Owen went but the specific place doesn’t really matter, all that matters is that it’s in Canada, and nothing in Canada matters.

The comparison of Canada to the “sunless, glacial side of the moon” further emphasizes the magnitude of Owen’s decline — he’s been utterly cast out of society into a harsh, depopulated wasteland — and brings in by implication the common idea that Canada is cold. Our country is portrayed as a place of exile from a better and more civilized world for a football coach just as surely as it is for an academic in a David Lodge novel.

And how marvellous is that phrase, “life’s hard fact of famelessness”? This idea — Exley’s desire to achieve fame, and at the same time his self-loathing rage at his inability to do so — is central to the novel, and makes Owen into a kind of avatar of the author’s self-image. And so, in a way, Canada becomes the gloomy resting place of those afflicted by famelessness, the most shameful of all American diseases.

The Upstate New York Connection

We have noted before the tendency of writers from, or writing about, upstate New York (including Lorrie Moore, Chris Kraus and James Salter) to show a greater — and perhaps more accurate? — awareness of Canada than American writers generally, no doubt as a result of our geographical proximity. Much of A Fan’s Notes also takes place in upstate New York, and this scene, from a series of reminiscences about Exley’s father, emphasizes that closeness:

In 1938, the day before President Roosevelt snipped the ceremonial ribbon opening the International Bridge spanning the Thousand Islands and uniting the U.S. with Canada, it is told, apocryphally or otherwise, that my father beat that exemplary poseur to the punch, with wire cutters severed the cable which had been strung across the bridge’s entrance to bar hoi polloi, climbed into the back seat of a convertible roadster, and had himself driven over the arcing, sky-rising span, while in imitation of F.D.R. he sat magnificently in the back seat, his jaw thrust grandly out, and, hand aflutter, bestowed his benedictions on the lovely and (one somehow imagines) startled islands.  (30-31)

By “International Bridge,” Exley must mean the “Thousand Islands Bridge,” which opened in 1938, when Roosevelt was president, and the fact that a bridge is all it takes to “unite” our two countries emphasizes our proximity. Exley’s father’s ability to drive across the bridge so easily before it has opened could be read as a reference to our “undefended border” with the U.S., which is a theme that has come up several times before. And we have already noted President Roosevelt’s connection to Canada (he owned a cottage on Campobello Island), which is probably not being alluded to here but is still interesting given his opening of the bridge.

But beyond the obvious fact that Canada is directly north of the U.S., there’s really nothing being said about our country; it’s as if we exist only by virtue of our geographic relationship with the U.S. The bridge to Canada is a staging-ground for one of Exley’s father’s legendary adventures, but there is no suggestion that he would use it to actually travel to Canada.

Fishing in Canada (Again)

Canada is mentioned in relation to one of Exley’s girlfriends:

She was spending a lot of time with her sister because her sister’s husband, Ronald, had just died of a heart attack. Her sister had found him on the davenport. There had been a smile on Ronald’s face. He was probably dreaming of fishing in Canada because he went there every year, the two of them went together. “Ronald loved to fish,” she said dolefully. “Oh,” I said.  (148)

The connection between fishing and Canada, in the context of salmon, was the subject of one of our earliest posts, and appeared more recently in our post on the stories of John Cheever. I’m not sure there’s anything new here; the portrayal of Canada as a place Americans go on fishing vacations is in line with the idea of Canada as a less developed, more “wilderness” nation than the U.S. where Americans can go to escape their everyday lives (see also the Canadian cottage).

The Fraudulent Surgeons of Montreal

And then there is also this, in relation to a train journey:

I found myself drinking beer and eating ham sandwiches in one of these booths with a Marine sergeant returning from Korea, a vernal-cheeked coed with large breasts, coming from some cow-sounding college in Pennsylvania where, she had loftily announced, she was studying veterinary medicine, and a goateed and fraudulent-looking surgeon travelling to Montreal.  (176)

It’s hard to draw too much from that; the association of the “fraudulent-looking” surgeon with Montreal may suggest that Canada is a bit of a backwater when compared to the U.S., the sort of place where fraudulent medical practitioners can take advantage of the ignorant populace — but it’s hard to say.

In Conclusion (Almost)

I suppose it’s a testament to how much ground we’ve already covered in the last three-plus years here at Wow — Canada! that while there are a number of references to Canada in A Fan’s Notes, there’s not much new. We get the idea that Canada is cold, that the CFL is an inferior league to the NFL, and that Canada is easy to get into (undefended border) but somehow a less advanced or developed nation than the U.S., which makes it a great place to go fishing (wilderness) but not to go for a medical procedure (fraudulent surgeons). But these are all familiar ideas about our country, and it is beginning to feel as if there are a limited number of ways of portraying Canada that recur throughout the works of different authors.

And Finally…

This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but it seemed worth at least a brief mention. Much of the novel takes place in bars (no surprise there, I suppose, given that it’s about a failing writer); this is from a description of one of them:

Invariably from some nook in the room a life-sized, cardboard, and Technicolored waitress named Mabel winked forever lasciviously and invited one to shout, “Hey, Mabel,” and demand a bottle of Black Label.  (265)

This refers to Carling Black Label, an “iconic Canadian brand” (as they say in the “ad biz”) that became popular outside Canada (which is the standard Canadian way of measuring success), in both the U.S. and the UK. Exley is describing one element of the “Hey Mabel — Black Label” ad campaign that ran in the U.S. during the 1950s and 1960s, and the way he describes the cardboard waitress as “invariably” part of the bar’s milieu indicates how established the Carling brand was as an element of American popular culture (you can read this brief history of Black Label if you’re curious). Here’s a sample of the TV ads that helped make Black Label so successful in the U.S.:

Animated version:

Later on, this series of ads was successful in the UK:

Sadly, due to my age, I don’t recall any of these classic ads from when they originally aired; what I remember is the early 90s Black Label campaign, when Black Label became a popular brand with the hip downtown crowd. The ads were a riff on the 60s originals in the way so much 90s “culture” was a “meta” reference to something that had come before:

I guess it seemed cool at the time.

The Perfect Place for a Safe Adventure

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Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (2005)

This novel begins with Olga’s husband, Mario, announcing that he is leaving her and their two children; from there, it becomes an intense account of the anger and humiliation Olga feels as she struggles to deal with Mario’s departure and to re-create herself now that she has lost the relationship that defined her identity to the world and to herself. She becomes increasingly distracted, loses herself in the past, obsesses over Mario’s new lover — all of which culminates in a gruelling single day in which she becomes trapped in her apartment with her two children, one of whom is sick, a dying dog, and no phone or other means of communicating with anyone outside. She begins to hallucinate, she can’t manage her children, she can’t even unlock the door: she goes through a mental and emotional collapse in which her entire identity breaks down.

Ultimately she emerges from this, finds a job, makes a sort of uneasy peace with her husband, and “gets on with her life,” as the contemporary phrase has it. And yet perhaps the most striking aspect of the novel is its portrayal of the rebuilt life of a divorced working mother of around 40 as, in a way, more brutal and humiliating than the complete breakdown. At the beginning of the novel, Olga has the mask she has been wearing for years — wife, mother, homemaker — ripped from her face, and she is gradually forced to confront the mysterious stranger beneath. But this experience of being directly in touch with her true, unfiltered self is unbearable, a direct path to breakdown and insanity. In the end she learns to put on a new mask of normalcy, but the self-abnegation necessary in this makes it seem like the most horrifying transformation of all.

The book refers to Canada, but unfortunately not at one of the more interesting or intense points in the story; I wish the reference to our country had come up when Olga surprises Mario and his new girlfriend on the street and beats her husband bloody, for example, or at some point during her one-day breakdown, which is described in excruciating detail. But it comes near the beginning, as Olga is reflecting on her history with Mario — not a particularly interesting context. And perhaps that in itself says something about Canada: we’re just not a country that people associate with excitement. In any case, here it is:

Where was I coming from, what was I becoming. Already at eighteen I had considered myself a talented young woman, with high hopes. At twenty I was working. At twenty-two I had married Mario, and we had left Italy, living first in Canada, then in Spain and Greece. At twenty-eight I had had Gianni, and during the months of my pregnancy I had written a long story set in Naples and, the following year, had published it easily. At thirty-one I gave birth to Ilaria. Now, at thirty-eight, I was reduced to nothing, I couldn’t even act as I thought I should. No work, no husband, numbed, blunted.  (30)

No details are given about Canada; it is simply mentioned as a place Olga and Mario lived for a while shortly after they were married, but we aren’t told what made them decide to go to Canada in the first place, or why they left. It stands out as the only North American location they lived in, and it’s hard not to wonder if they weren’t particularly impressed with Canada, given that they went straight back to Europe (Spain and Greece) before returning to Italy.

I suppose we can assume that Olga and Mario didn’t find anything particularly appealing about Canada — nothing appealing enough to make them stay, anyway — but that’s about it. We can perhaps think they were drawn to Canada out of a very contemporary, toned-down (we might almost say “denatured”) version of the “spirit of adventure”: Canada is a completely safe place and yet just different enough that it might draw a young European couple for a brief period, if they want to “see some of the world,” perhaps, or “get some different experiences,” before returning to Europe, where they have children and build their real lives.

The Romance of Canada 5: The Difficulties of Trans-Border Romance

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James Salter, All That Is (2013)

According to Richard Ford, “James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” The slight preciousness of the term “American sentences” alerts you to the fact that the purpose of that particular (American) sentence is not to communicate a thought, but to impress upon you how intelligent and finely attuned the speaker is.

Which isn’t to say Salter is a bad writer; he is, in fact, a very good one. All That Is was his last novel and, given its portentous (not to say pretentious) title, it was perhaps intended to be a sort of summing up of his view of life. It’s the story of Philip Bowman, who serves in World War II, becomes an editor at a mid-sized literary publishing house, gets married and divorced, travels, has affairs, and … well, that’s about it, to be honest. The story is told in a sort of floating third person voice, which allows Salter to move among his characters, telling parts of the story from different points of view (though he never drifts far from Bowman), or pausing the narrative to give portraits of the minor characters Bowman encounters.

To the extent that the novel has a plot, it is provided by Bowman’s sex life. Salter has said that he thinks “the major axis of life is a sexual one,” and that is apparent here, as sex for Bowman (and for the other male characters) offers not just momentary bliss, but the opening up of new possibilities of existence. There are some remarkably beautiful passages in the book (not all of them — or even most of them — about sex), and Salter’s floating narrative voice allows him to achieve some stunning effects — the chapter titled “Christmas In Virginia” is a clinic (as they say), and worth reading for anyone interested in writing prose.

After a while, however, the repetitively epiphanic treatment of the male orgasm becomes a bit tiresome. Even worse, it leads Salter to write sentences like this: “The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse.”

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

There are a couple of references to Canada in the novel; I’ll deal with the more substantial one first.  This comes towards the end of the book, in a chapter dealing with a character named Eddins, who is struggling to cope with the death of his wife and adopted child. The passage refers to several younger women he knows, though I wasn’t able to decide whether we’re meant to think he’s slept with them or not:

There was also Joanna, the fat girl, enormously fat with a wonderful personality who was a teller at the bank. She was good-natured, forthcoming, with a beautiful voice, but unmarried. No one would think of marrying her. She could speak French. She’d spent a year and a half in Quebec, studying. She impulsively joined a choir there the first week and he, this man, was in it. His name was Georges. He was older and had a girlfriend, but before long he dropped the girlfriend and took up with Joanna. She came back to the States, but he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave. He would come to New York on the weekend, two or three times a month. It went on for nine years. She was terribly happy and knew it would end, but she wanted it to last as long as it could and didn’t say anything. In the tenth year they got married. Someone told Eddins she was going to have a child.  (272)

That paragraph isn’t representative of Salter’s best writing, unfortunately, but it does give a sense of the casual, straightforward, and seemingly unstudied style that characterizes much of the book — I say “seemingly” because, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, the illusion of ease in writing is the most difficult thing to achieve. It’s also a good example of his way of dropping in little portraits, sometimes covering years or even decades, of characters who will never appear in the book again. (It reminds me a bit of the voiceover narration in the film Y Tu Mama Tambien, which breaks in periodically to remind us that while we are following the story of the three main characters, countless other stories are going on around them simultaneously.)

And what about Canada? Eddins lives in upstate New York, and, as we have already seen in novels by Chris Kraus and Lorrie Moore, proximity can make Canada a presence for characters who live in that region. But Salter’s attitude to Canada here is very different from what we have seen before: in torpor, the idea of crossing the border into Canada is a simple and possible one, while in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?, Canadian tourists make up most of the customers at an upstate New York theme park.

By contrast, Salter’s narrative puts the emphasis on the difficulties faced by the couple in this cross-border romance: “he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave.” This makes Canadian identity sound like a prison from which one can’t escape. Given the distances people immigrate in the contemporary world, it’s hard to understand how getting from Quebec to upstate New York could be such a problem, but Salter doesn’t elaborate, he simply states these things as facts. Are we, perhaps, to understand that these words are not really Salter’s, but those of Georges, and that he is making excuses to Joanna for not moving to New York with her? And yet they get married and have a child together, so clearly Georges is committed to her, and ultimately able to overcome the obstacle of the Canada-U.S. border — which is, after all, famously “undefended”.

Whatever his reasons, Salter emphasizes Canada’s status as a separate country, which sets him in contrast to many American writers, who often seem to see Canada as nothing more than an extension of the U.S. And perhaps this idea of difference is significant from the romantic point of view: we can’t say for certain from the passage above, but maybe the differences between them are part of the attraction between Joanna and Georges. “Vive la différence,” as they say.

Canadian Club

No, this is not some club, along the lines of the Mile High Club, for people who have had sex with Canadians, but rather the whisky, which comes up in a description of Kimmel, who serves in the Navy with Bowman during the Second World War:

He was dark-haired and skinny and walked with a loose gait that made him seem long-legged. His uniform always looked somehow slept in. His neck was too thin for his collar. The crew, among themselves, called him the Camel, but he had a playboy’s aplomb and women liked him. In San Diego he had taken up with a lively girl named Vicky whose father owned a car dealership, Palmetto Ford. She had blond hair, pulled back, and a touch of daring. She was drawn to Kimmel immediately, his indolent glamour. In the hotel room that he had gotten with two other officers and where, he explained, they would be away from the noise of the bar, they sat drinking Canadian Club and Coke.  (6-7)

I was left uncertain as to what sort of atmosphere Salter was trying to conjure here. Are we to think of this as a classy seduction scene, with the Canadian Club the perfect choice of the sophisticated man-about-town? Or is there supposed to be something a bit tawdry about it, with Canadian Club representing the sort of cheap liquor a man uses to get a woman drunk enough for sex? I’m not sure, but the fact that they’re mixing their Canadian Club with Coke makes me lean towards the declassé interpretation.

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