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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Boredom”

All the Way to Canada Just to Have an Orgasm

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008)

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

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

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

But What About Canada?

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

A Distant Landmark

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

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

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

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

Bizarre Geography Triangle

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

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

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

I suppose we’ll never know.

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In Rome in 1960, Everyone Drank Canadian Whisky

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Proust Comparison

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

Rush: Beloved Icons of a Norwegian Boyhood

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

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

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

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

A New Fandom Heard From

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

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

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

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

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

The Secret of Knausgaard’s Appeal?

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

Speaking of Nostalgia…

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

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

Toronto, City of Boring Professorial Peccadilloes

Christopher Reid, Nonsense (2012)

The reference to Canada appears in the long narrative poem, “Professor Winterthorn’s Journey,” which makes up the opening section of the book. It’s about a retired literature professor who, following the death of his wife, goes “on a whim” to a conference in some unnamed, presumably European city in order to … see what’s new in his field? reconnect with old colleagues? get away from his own grief? give Christopher Reid an excuse to write a poem? The reasons aren’t completely clear.

It turns out that Professor Winterthorn, despite his frequent protestations of love for his wife and sorrow at her death, has carried on a number of affairs behind her back, mainly with colleagues at conferences like this one. (So perhaps we can add another option to the list of possible reasons for his trip?) At this point in the poem he is having dinner with a woman with whom he had an affair in Budapest; this is what leads to the little catalogue of affairs in which Canada features:

And before? Before Budapest?
Stockholm, Toronto, Buenos Aires —
Seven steps is all it takes
to trace the series
back to where it began.

A dance of seven steps
with pauses, sometimes of years, between:
how international,
how lightsome and how notional
his infidelity had been!

Yet that’s a living, breathing,
emphatically present
woman sitting and eating there.
And his wife was one more present than that:
till she began to disappear.

Or he did.

What happened?     (41)

What indeed? I’m not sure that question is ever really answered, but in this little catalogue of the locations where Winterthorn’s affairs have taken place, we can at least be mildly exicted to see Toronto included. Presumably the cities have been chosen to represent places where academic conferences are held, since Toronto and Stockholm don’t seem like the sort of cities one would automatically associate with romance. And the choice of Toronto will be particularly striking to Canadians, who tend to think of Montreal as our country’s city of “romantic love” — an opinion shared by U.S. President Warren Harding, to name just one. It’s hard not to feel that any love affair occurring in Toronto must have been of a rather grey and banal type — although perhaps that’s the point. Are we meant to think of Winterthorn’s affairs as rather drab and uninteresting, with the choice of Toronto, rather than Montreal, being intended to emphasize this?

That interpretation probably suggests Reid spent a lot more time thinking about adding Toronto to that list than is really likely.

For those interested in such things, the passage also gives a glimpse of Reid’s style. The drift from the concrete to the vague is characteristic. As can be seen, he seems to favour short lines of no particular metre, enlivened by occasional rhyme but not anything so onerous as a regular rhyme scheme.

No One Suspects a Canadian

zinkprivatenovelist

Nell Zink, Private Novelist (2016)

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

“Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“European Story for Avner Shats”

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Young, the Bard of Boring Suburbanites

wolitzercov

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:

The Romance of Canada 3: David Lodge Insults Us

lodgesmallworld

David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)

I’ll warn you at the outset, this one may sting a little. I’ve included it as part of the “Romance” series because the book is subtitled “An Academic Romance,” but the idea of romance at issue in this novel is that of Chretien de Troyes or Ariosto, not the “romanticism” of Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.

Anyway…

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. It was recommended to me in graduate school by someone I didn’t have tremendous respect for, and so I didn’t read it out of suspicion of the source, so to speak. As always happens in these cases, all I managed to do was deprive myself of a reasonably enjoyable book.

Small World — the second in what is now called Lodge’s “campus trilogy” — is a satire of academic life in general and, in particular, of academic conferences. The main characters are almost all academics, and they spend all their time jetting around the world from one conference to the next, where they argue, drink and sleep with one another.

To give his narrative some shape, Lodge has superimposed on it several different quest narratives, the main one being Persse McGarrigle’s quest for Angelica, a beautiful girl he meets at a conference and whom he then pursues around the world for the rest of the book, always one step behind her. Lest anyone miss the point, many of the characters are provided with names that signal their function in the novel or their relationship to characters from romance: Sybil Maiden, for example, an elderly woman who has prophetic fits; or Arthur Kingfisher, past wunderkind of the field of literary theory who has withdrawn into himself due to impotence and writer’s block (the Fisher King with a hint of King Arthur) and who only recovers when Persse (Percival) asks an ambiguous (and “healing”) question at — where else? — the MLA conference.

All of that, of course, is beside the point for our purposes; what we really want to know is, what does it have to say about Canada?

As you would expect in a novel where most of the characters spend their time flying around the world, there are several passing references to Canada that don’t say anything about the country but are just place names. There are also a couple of mentions of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most famous literary critic, which give us a sense of what a significant intellectual presence Frye was among literary academics in the late 70s and early 80s: both The Anatomy of Criticism and his ideas about romance as a genre are referenced approvingly here.

And with that short paragraph, we’ve taken care of the neutral and positive side of Canada in this novel. There are several other passages which give a more focused picture of Canada and Canadians, and in those, I’m afraid, Lodge — or his characters — don’t have much good to say.

A Land of Windswept Exile

In this scene, Howard Ringbaum and his wife Thelma are flying from Canada (where he works) to England for a conference. Howard has been trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Thelma to have sex with him on the plane so that he can join the “Mile High Club,” which he has heard about from a younger colleague, and his bitter reflections following his failure lead to some thoughts on Canada and how he ended up there:

The same characteristic trait, displayed in a party game called Humiliation devised by Philip Swallow many years before, cost Howard Ringbaum dear — cost him his job, in fact, led to his exile to Canada, from which he has only recently been able to return by dint of writing a long succession of boring articles on English pastoral poetry amid the windswept prairies of Alberta….  (91)

Here we get an image of Canada as a windy, desolate wasteland, almost comically unsuited to the sort of sophisticated cultural life required by academics. Ringbaum explicitly thinks of his position in Canada as an “exile,” and so living in our country is construed as so bad it can serve as punishment for a misdeed.

A Cutting Put-Down

Things only get worse. Later in the novel, the subject of a trip to Vancouver comes up between Rudyard Parkinson (a professor) and Felix Skinner (an academic publisher):

“They’re giving me an honorary degree in Vancouver next week. It didn’t really sink in, when I accepted, that I’d actually have to go there to collect it.”
“I say, what a bore,” said Felix Skinner sympathetically.  (156)

The phrase “What a bore” could be taken to refer to Vancouver — indeed, ideas of boredom do seem to track fairly closely with references to Vancouver in world literature — but it could also simply refer to the tedium of flying to distant places to receive honorary degrees, and we need not take it as a direct insult to Canada. A few pages later, however, Rudyard Parkinson goes to Vancouver to get his degree, and we get this:

He began bitterly to repent of the vanity which had prompted him to accept this perfectly useless degree, flying ten thousand miles in three days just for the pleasure of dressing up in unfamiliar robes, hearing a short and probably inaccurate panegyric in his honour, and exchanging small talk afterwards with a crowd of boring Canadian nonentities at some ghastly reception or banquet where they would all no doubt drink iced rye whisky throughout the meal.  (162)

There really can’t be any doubt about that one: Canadians are conceived of as dull, unsophisticated bumpkins, and the idea of spending any time in their company is tantamount to torture. There is so much caught up in those three words, “boring Canadian nonentities,” that they almost seem to summarize the world’s idea of our country — not just the word “boring,” since we’ve grown moderately comfortable with the idea of our own dullness, and have even started to take a certain pride in it in some ways — just another word for “peace, order and good government” you might almost say. But “nonentities” — that word contains so much, because of course the Canadians in the novel — though we never get to know them as characters — are fighting against this very characterization. By giving an honorary degree to a well-known British academic, by having him come to their university to receive it, the Canadians are trying to raise their own profile in the academic world, trying to become something other than nonentities. And yet they can’t: even their guest of honour, who should be well-disposed towards them, sees the trip as a nuisance and the people he meets as precisely the nonentities they don’t want to be.

From Lodge’s perspective, and for most of his readers, this episode in Vancouver would be just another example of his satirizing of the academic world. As a Canadian, however, I find myself reading it “against the grain” (to borrow a term from literary theory): instead of snickering at the Canadian academics, I sympathize with them, and feel a sort of embarrassed pity at the way their desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (such a Canadian desire) is so casually dismissed.

The good news about Vancouver, however, is that, while being there may be torture, it is a torture that is easily forgotten, at least based on Parkinson’s thoughts two pages later:

Vancouver, of which he had in any case seen little except rainswept roads between the airport and the University, had already faded from his memory.  (164)

The association of rain with Vancouver is not surprising, and the conclusion of the sentence seems to say a lot about Canada: it may be dull, but at least it is eminently forgettable.

A Final Nod to Newfoundland

There’s one other reference to Canada, spoken by Philip Swallow to Joy, who becomes his lover for part of the novel:

Philip squeezed her knee. “You are my Euphoria, my Newfoundland,” he said.  (222)

This is obviously a reference to the Donne poem which was the subject of our first ever Wow Canada post; it is also, of course, a characterizing detail, since it makes sense that a university professor would quote Donne to his lover. Lodge has even modernized the spelling to match the name of our easternmost province.

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

adlercover

Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

I tend to think of Renata Adler as a journalist rather than a novelist; she is perhaps best known for her legendary takedown of Pauline Kael in the NYRB, and used to write for The New Yorker. She also wrote novels, however, and this one is apparently a sequel of sorts to Speedboat, which I haven’t read. Pitch Dark doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s a fragmented narrative which isn’t as interested in recording a sequence of events as it is in capturing the shifting thoughts of a woman after the break-up of a long-running affair with a married man.There is a lot of repetition, a lot of going back and cycling through things, each time in a little more detail – the overall effect, for the reader, is of watching as events and emotions are gradually illuminated and the pieces of the story fall into place.

For the first reference, I’ll quote a little more than the mention of Canada, just to give a sense of the book’s style:

The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.
The turning point at the paper was the introduction of the byline.
Here’s who I knew in those days: everyone.
Everyone?
Well, not everyone in the world, of course. But a surprising number and variety, considering the lonely soul I was when I was young, and the sort of recluse I have since become.
“It’s really too much. I can’t tell you who they’ll seat next to you,” Claire said, after dinner, at the guarded island villa. “Wives, Canadians. They sit you next to anyone.” Also, “The daughter married an octoroon. A baboon. I don’t know.”  (49)

When I first read this I thought it was a reference to seating on an airplane. (For some reason, the use of “seat” as a verb makes me think of airplanes.) But I think it’s really about who you’re seated next to at a dinner party. The speaker seems to be a wealthy woman of leisure (“guarded island villa”), accustomed to eating out and with nothing much to think about other than who sits beside her.

As for the reference to Canadians, even my generally sunny outlook on life can’t convince me that it’s a compliment. The statement that “[i]t’s really too much” makes it clear that the people being discussed have offended her with their seating plan; the example of “Canadians” (coupled with “wives”) seems to suggest that these two categories of people are composed of utterly uninteresting and undistinguished individuals who have either nothing, or too much of no interest, to say, and that enduring a meal beside them is pure torture. This fits neatly into a pre-existing stereotype of our country: that it is – and we are – boring.

There seems to be an issue of, if not class, precisely, then of status, tied up in this as well; behind Claire’s statement lies the unspoken assumption that being seated next to interesting or important people is an indication that you are also considered important; being seated next to “wives” or “Canadians”, on the other hand, shows that you are an afterthought rather than a significant guest. And so sitting next to a Canadian doesn’t involve only the torture of a boring evening; it’s also a form of social insult. Life in high society is tantamount to warfare, and dull Canadians are its skillfully deployed ordnance.

Later in the novel, there is a cluster of references to Canada in a section in which the narrator is looking for a place to rent – the implication is that she wants a secluded place where she can escape after her affair has ended.

To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island…. I mentioned wanting to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Gavin said he had friends who had a place on an island off Vancouver. Maybe I would like to rent it.  (105)

Here, Vancouver is merely a place marker, giving a sense of the location of the island they are talking about. A description of the island follows:

The island had a rain forest. One flew to Vancouver, from there to another island, then took the ferry; two islands later, there one was. No worry about hospitals, there was a military installation there of sorts, the nearest observation post for Siberia. Siberia, I said. Well, yes, the island was six hundred miles, in fact, from Vancouver. There was a car there, I should pick it up from their friend the Danish baron.  (106)

One of the characteristics of Adler’s narrator is that she is persistently worrying at things, mentally going back over experiences, questioning, trying to read into events and comments. This is the process that is beginning here, as she finds out more about this island retreat, and it begins to seem a little less appealing than it did at first. Suddenly, it is a long way from Vancouver – and Vancouver itself has become richer in meaning than it was when it was first mentioned: no longer simply a place marker, it has now come to represent the last outpost of civilization, and we sense that proximity to Vancouver has suddenly become desirable.

Then the presentation of Graham Island begins to take on a darker cast:

Well, I called the Dutch baron, and his accent seemed instantly recognizable to me. I thought, What was this German pretending to be a Dane doing on an American island, six hundred miles from Vancouver, which is the nearest outpost to Siberia. I thought, a war criminal. My state of mind. I still resolved to go. It was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Two nights before I left, however, I had a thought. I had begun to worry a bit about the isolation. I called the owners of the house. I reached the wife. How far, I asked, how far from their house was the nearest neighbouring house. Oh, she said, not far. You can see it from the window. It’s just up the hill actually. A very interesting house. Built and owned by a Haida. Of course, he leases it now. The first trace of a hesitation in her voice. To the government of Canada. She distinctly paused. As a retreat. I said, A retreat. She said, Yes. But there are never more than six. I did not ask six what. She said, Alcoholic. Indians. Well, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.  (106-7)

There are several difficulties – or at least oddities – in this passage. First, the transformation of this “baron” from Dutch to German to Danish is very rapid and somewhat difficult to understand; he could certainly be a German pretending to be Dutch, but then how does the idea that he’s (pretending to be) a Dane arise? Is this an intentional error meant to convey the narrator’s confused state of mind?

And then there is the reference to Graham Island as “an American island”. In fact, Graham Island is a Canadian island, off the coast of British Columbia and part of the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands (now a popular tourist destination). Although close to Alaska, it is definitely part of Canada – is this, again, some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the narrator?

Regardless of these issues, a couple of distinct ideas about Canada emerge. First, we have the common idea of a remote wilderness – it contains a rain forest, it is “beautiful, and quiet,” which no doubt means sparesely populated, the sort of place where one can escape from the pressures of modern life and retreat into peaceful solitude. And yet as the narrator seeks further details, a more menacing element emerges, first in the form of the possible war criminal – admittedly we can’t say that he is a war criminal, as the narrator herself admits that her “state of mind” has suggested this inference – and then the Haida house, being leased to the Canadian government as a retreat.

This, finally, is the breaking point for the narrator; when she learns the nature of this house she states, “I couldn’t do it.” Yet this seemingly unequivocal statement is followed immediately, and characteristically, by one that adds a layer of ambiguity: “Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.” What, precisely, does this mean? Our country’s treatment of first nations people is certainly one of the greatest stains on our collective conscience; does the narrator feel that, in living on the island, she would be implicitly condoning a history that she finds morally repugnant? Or is it that she feels the occupants of this retreat would be unpleasant neighbours who would compromise the peaceful solitude she is seeking? It’s hard to say, though the phrase “Maybe I should have done it” – if we read it to mean, Maybe I should have been more open-minded and not pre-judged the situation – seems to suggest the latter. But her attitude is difficult to interpret.

Without question, however, there has been a development in the idea of Canada: as the passage begins, Adler’s narrator sees it as nothing more than a quiet wilderness where she can escape her problems; within a couple of pages, however, Graham Island has changed from a fantasy getaway into a real part of the real world, complete with its own real-world problems that grow out of the difficult history and politics of Canada itself. (One could say, in fact, that the isolation and solitude that originally attracted Adler’s narrator to Canada are the same factors that attracted the other residents, and it is the presence of those other residents that ultimately convinces her not to go. Further proof of Marvell’s dictum, “Two Paradises ’twere in one / To live in Paradise alone.”) The passage questions and complicates obvious notions about Canada, and ends up providing a more nuanced and complex portrait of our country than we often see.

But before I go on too long, I will recall the following sentence from Pitch Dark:

So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time. (43)

Indeed.

Gateless Gates and Canadian Intertextuality (Paul Muldoon Part III)

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Paul Muldoon, Madoc: A Mystery (1990)

Please note the page numbers refer to the edition of Poems 1968-1998 pictured above.

An Attempt to Provide Some Context

Would anyone be so bold as to claim that they understand Madoc: A Mystery? I certainly won’t. The title is, in this case, perfectly apt: it is a mystery. However, I feel like I ought to attempt to provide at least a rough sketch of the book’s “plot” (for lack of a better term), in order to present the reference to Canada in some sort of context. So here goes.

Madoc: A Mystery contains a few independent short poems at the beginning, but is mostly the long, title poem. It is divided into short sections, each titled with the name of a philosopher in square brackets. I’m not a profound student of philosophy, but it seemed to me that the section titles went in roughly chronological order, i.e. the earliest sections of the poem have the names of the Pre-Socratics as their titles (Pythagoras, Heraclitus), and by the end we’re at least brushing up against the contemporary (Habermas, Kristeva). The title refers to Madoc, a mythical Welsh prince who supposedly journeyed to America in the 1100s and founded some sort of Welsh tribe there. Robert Southey wrote a poem about him called, somewhat predictably, Madoc.

Muldoon’s poem takes, as its jumping-off point, a plan by Coleridge and Southey to leave England for America and form a “pantisocratic” society in Pennsylvania. They never actually made the trip to North America, of course, but Muldoon begins by imagining that they had, and placing them, along with some other characters (including a talking, syphlitic horse named Bucephalus) in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As the poem proceeds, it also draws in historical figures who actually were in America at the time, including Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and the explorers Lewis and Clark.

I should make clear that the book is really more concerned with American history than Canadian; to the extent that you can tell where it takes place, it takes place in the U.S., and the other “characters” who appear are mainly American. Canada does, however, make one notable appearance.

The Reference to Canada

I’m going to quote four consecutive sections from the poem, as I feel like they are all part of the reference to Canada.

[MAIMONIDES]

‘And the devil was pleased for it gave him a hint
for improving the prisons of…’

_____

Coleridge stops in his tracks. A Seneca
wearing only a breech-

clout
and a skunk

bonnet and cradling an arquebus
has just stepped out

from behind a beech.
Coleridge is genuinely perplexed.

He unclasps and dabbles
in the portmanteau

for which Southey and he drew lots.
He brandishes John Eliot’s

Algonquin Bible
and quaveringly intones the name of ‘Manitou’.

The Mohawk, as he turns out to be, goads
and bullies

him through the gateless gates
of Canada

and into
the formal gardens and unfathomable fountains

of this, the summer palace
of the Old Man of the Mountains.

[FIBONACCI]

Up a spiral staircase with precisely two hundred and thirty-three
steps, each conjured from the living rock.

[BACON]

Through the hoopless hoop of a black rainbow.

[AQUINAS]

To the room where Thayendanegea, Joseph Brant,
appears to him as in a dream,

his head shaved but for a scalp-lock
adorned with a white

feather, his bearskin
robe, his shirt a calico

print
set off by a solid brass

gorget, his sword-stick with its brass ferrule.
He offers Coleridge tea and scones,

pres-
erves and clotted cream.

He folds his arms: ‘Would
you say you came here of your own free will?’  (225-7)

That gives a sense, anyway, of what the book is like. It will take a wiser head than mine to determine the relationship between the philosophers in the titles and the content of the sections, but I will note three things: Coleridge is described as “perplexed” and the most famous book by Maimonides is the Guide for the Perplexed; the number of steps (233) is a number from the Fibonacci Sequence; and the question of free will is one that was extensively considered by Aquinas (though also by numerous other philosophers). Could it all be that straightforward?

But let’s get to the good stuff – one of the most exquisitely suggestive descriptions of Canada I’ve come across, and all conveyed in so few words:

…the gateless gates
of Canada

I’m torn here; I’ve reached that point one sometimes reaches with poetry where trying to explain why something is beautiful simply drains the beauty from it. This image of Canada as a country separate from the U.S. and yet not clearly marked off as such seems to me to speak quite compellingly about the wilderness our country once was, and the mystery and strangeness it once possessed for Europeans. Of course this idea is immediately undermined by the description of “formal gardens” that follows, and ultimately leads to tea and scones with Joseph Brant.

And what of Brant? Born in what is now Ohio, he is technically an American; however, he fought on the Loyalist side (i.e. for the British) during the American Revolution (a subject that came up recently), and lived the later part of his life and died in Canada, and so has come to be associated with our country as well. I think the tea and scones here must be a nod to (or a mockery of?) the fact that Brant’s lifetyle in Canada was apparently very much that of an English country gentleman – he certainly appears somewhat dandified in this passage. And his question, which ends this sequence, has undeniable resonance for a country of immigrants like Canada, a country that people choose to come to – even if they feel to some extent that they have been pushed to it by circumstances in their homelands, just as Coleridge here is “goaded and bullied” across the border. (One could almost read the sequence as a fable of immigration.)

Wow – Canadian Intertextuality

There’s one more reference to consider, which isn’t directly to Canada, but related to our work here at Wow – Canada!:

[MANDEVILLE]

It moulders now in the double-dusk
of the valise,
along with a copy of Voltaire’s
L’Ingenu;   (230)

The Ingenu involves a Frenchman who was raised in Canada by the Huron and, as we have already noted, contains numerous references to Canada. Muldoon probably mentions it here simply because its subject matter relates to that of Madoc: A Mystery, but for us, this passage represents the exciting first instance of what we might call “Wow – Canada intertextuality”: a book that refers to Canada and also refers to another book that refers to Canada. So a big moment.

In Conclusion

I want to enjoy those two lines one more time:

…the gateless gates
of Canada

 

A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

The March 30, 2014 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes features a story on Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys, which involves a Canadian trader, Brad Katsuyama. While working at RBC, he figured out how a quirk in the speed at which trades reach different trading centres was allowing high-frequency traders to make significant profits by essentially front-running the orders of regular traders. He ultimately started his own exchange (! – I didn’t even know you could do that) with the goal of making trading more fair and transparent.

The piece is interesting to watch on its own merits, and it ties in nicely with the more “scientific/technological” side of Canada we’ve been noticing lately, but I couldn’t help wondering, as I sat through it, whether it would provide a glimpse into American attitudes towards Canadians. There is a certain tone of condescending surprise that runs throughout the piece, as though it’s remarkable that Canadians have even heard of the stock exchange, never mind figured out how it works. And then there’s this quote from the host, Steve Kroft, at about the 11:50 mark (11:30 in the YouTube version at the top):

That’s when Katsuyama, a conformist even by Canadian standards, decided to do something radical.

“Even” is the key word in that sentence, suggesting that we Canadians are extremely conformist to begin with, and Katsuyama is, if such a thing is possible, an extremist when it comes to conformity. This seems to me a classic American stereotype about Canadians, one in which they define themselves as the bold, entrepreneurial, free-thinking North Americans and us as their polite, boring, status-quo neighbours to the north. Could this perception be rooted all the way back in the phenomenon of United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution and our decision to remain a British colony rather than striking out on our own?

Hard to say, but whatever its source, the attitude clearly persists: Canadians are the human equivalent of a dull grey suit, forever masking ourselves and our true feelings, never stepping out of line, never doing anything unexpected but always plodding steadily along without really going much of anywhere.

On the other hand, according to the 60 Minutes report, it took a Canadian – not to figure out what was going on, since apparently other people had figured that out, at least to some extent, but it took a Canadian to actually make the effort to stand up to the vested interests and try to change an unfair system. This phrase, also from Kroft, sums it up nicely:

You beat speed by slowing down?

I suppose Americans would consider that a very Canadian approach to heroism.

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