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Clamorous French-Canadians

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

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

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

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

The colour … was almost impossible to describe…

…slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe…

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

…things in the air which she could not describe.

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

There are things which cannot be mentioned…

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

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

Reanimating Corpses with the Canadian Army

From the story “Herbert West — Reanimator”:

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

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

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

French-Canadians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Cold War Begins… In Canada

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Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (2014)

John Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (which also mentions Canada) made me curious enough to read this book, which does a good job of tracing Philby’s betrayal and also situating him in his time and social milieu (“I was asked about him, and I said I knew his people”).

There are a couple of references to Canada; the first describes the defection of Igor Gouzenko:

In September 1945 Igor Gouzenko, a twenty-six-year-old cipher clerk at the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, turned up at a Canadian newspaper office with more than one hundred secret documents stuffed inside his shirt. Gouzenko’s defection would be seen, in hindsight, as the opening shot of the cold war. This trove was the very news Philby had been dreading, for it seemed entirely possible that Gouzenko knew his identity…. For the first time, as he waited anxiously for the results of Gouzenko’s debriefing, Philby may have contemplated defection to the Soviet Union. The defector exposed a major spy network in Canada and revealed that the Soviets had obtained information about the atomic bomb project from a spy working at the Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory in Montreal. But Gouzenko worked for the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, not the NKVD; he knew little about Soviet espionage in Britain and almost nothing of the Cambridge spies. Philby began to relax. This defector, it seemed, did not know his name.  (96-97)

How exciting is that — the “opening shot” of the cold war, and it happened right here in Canada. Macintyre focuses on the threat Gouzenko poses to Philby rather than on anything related to Canada, which makes sense given the subject of his book, and Canada doesn’t appear as a major player in the intelligence game he describes. On the other hand, we were considered important enough to be the home of a “major spy network,” though it’s hard not to wonder if our British and U.S. allies might not have been the real targets. At the least, our country comes across as a place where significant things occasionally happen.

(The “Anglo-Canadian nuclear research laboratory” might also suggest that Britain was the real target of the Soviet network in Canada, assuming it means the lab was a cooperative effort between the British and Canada and not an Anglophone Canadian lab located in Montreal. If it was a British-Canadian lab, one can’t help but wonder whether the British were furious with the Canadians — who, given our colonial past, must have been the junior partner in the relationship — for allowing a security breach to occur. Which would be ironic, considering how deeply Philby was embedded in British intelligence and how utterly he betrayed his country — but Macintyre doesn’t say anything about the British reaction to Gouzenko.)

This next passage describes Philby’s arrival in the United States, where he became MI6 chief in Washington, DC:

At Union Station he was met by Peter Dwyer of MI6, the outgoing station chief, and immediately plunged into a whirlwind of introductions and meetings with officials of the CIA, FBI, the State Department, and the Canadian secret service. All were delighted to shake hands with this urbane Englishman whose impressive reputation preceded him….  (128-9)

The Canadians are mixed in with the Americans and British, which makes sense as we were allies. Canada is mentioned last, and must surely have been a minor contributor when it came to intelligence work, but nevertheless, there we are, shaking hands with Philby and delighted to meet him like everyone else. And this reveals a characteristically Canadian tendency when it comes to our place in world affairs: we like to feel we’re at the big table, even if we aren’t necessarily contributing enough to earn our place there.

The larger point, I suppose, is not how much this book has to say about Canada, but how little — which leads us to the unsurprising conclusion that while Canada worked with the U.S. and Britain, it was not exactly a powerhouse nation when it came to espionage during the Cold War.

The Video Evidence

Nothing to do with Canada, but here’s Philby’s 1955 press interview, in which he denies being the so-called “third man” in the Cambridge spy ring, plummy accent and all:

Counting the Troops Heading to Canada

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Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

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

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

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

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

Still, it’s nice to be mentioned.

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

How Quebec Was Won

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Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Music

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

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

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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 Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit

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François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (1850)

Canada has an interesting presence in French literature. Based on my (admittedly limited) reading (further study is needed, as they say) our country seems to be much more in the minds of earlier writers (i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries) than in the minds of 19th-century authors. I suppose this makes sense in that references to Canada dwindle in French literature after France loses its colonial interest in our country; still, it feels counterintuitive, somehow, that when, in the 19th century, we would expect Canada’s profile in Europe to be growing, in France, at least, it seems to be shrinking.

Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb enacts this process in miniature: there are a number of references to Canada in the early parts of the book, which deal with the last couple of decades of the 18th century; as the book proceeds into the 19th century, however, Canada vanishes from the narrative and European matters take up Chateaubriand’s attention. (I should also mention that the Penguin edition I read (pictured above) contains  only selections from the book, so there may be later references to Canada that weren’t included.)

The “Father of French Romanticism” Considers a Career as a Lumberjack

This passage relates a discussion between Chateaubriand and his parents about what career path he should choose (it’s basically down to the army or the church):

I hit on an absurd idea: I declared that I would go to Canada to clear forests or to India to join the army of one of the princes of that country.

By one of those contrasts which are to be found in all men, my father, normally so reasonable, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He grumbled to my mother about my changes of mind, but decided to despatch me to India. I was sent off to Saint-Malo, where a ship was being fitted out for Pondicherry.  (71)

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this suggestion of going to Canada “to clear forests”; the author himself calls it “absurd,” and it may be no more meaningful than a modern teenager’s threat to run away from home if they don’t get their way. Still, the idea of Canada as a wilderness of trees needing to be cut down is apparently already firmly established, and while Chateaubriand doesn’t use the word “lumberjack,” we can see the outline of that quintessentially Canadian figure hovering in the background.

This perceived lack of civilization is in marked contrast to the impression we get of India, where apparently there are princes with armies on the move — something much more aligned with the activities of European men in the late 18th century. It’s perhaps not surprising that Chateaubriand’s father in the end chooses the aristocratic pursuit of war-making for his son rather than the more laborious job of tree-cutting.

A Country that Keeps Getting In the Way

But Chateaubriand didn’t just fantasize about running away to Canada; after the French Revolution, he actually came here. (You can get a sense of his overall impression from two quick facts: the chapter of his book that includes the trip to Canada is called “Among the Savages,” and the phrase “the Canadian forests” comes up repeatedly.) His reasons for the trip were, first, to see the United States (not Canada), and second, to discover the Northwest Passage, which he seems to have thought would be a fairly simple matter.

Before he reaches North America, however, his ship encounters some difficulties due to wind and weather. Instead of arriving in the U.S., he finds himself off the coast of Canada, as if our country were somehow preventing him from reaching his destination. This is part of a description of the journey after a stop-off on the island of Graciosa:

The wind forced us to bear north, and we arrived at the Banks of Newfoundland. Some floating icebergs were drifting around in the midst of a pale, cold mist.  (123)

It’s pretty clear that Newfoundland is not where he wants to be, and the description has a compressed quality that shows a distinct lack of interest. This vision of Canada is probably more or less what a European of the period would imagine: a few icebergs and a cold mist — which isn’t so bad since there’s nothing to see anyway. What do these French sailors do now that they have arrived on the shores of Canada? They beat a hasty retreat to the nearest French possessions:

We steered for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, looking for a new port of call.  (124)

In fairness, Canada isn’t really his object, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

What’s The Opposite of “Civilizing”?

They make it to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Chateaubriand strikes up a bit of an acquaintance with the Governor there:

I dined two or three times with the Governor, an extremely polite and obliging officer. He grew a few European vegetables on a slope outside. After dinner she showed me what he called his garden. A sweet, delicate smell of heliotrope came from a small patch of flowering beans; it was not wafted to us by a gentle breeze from home, but by a wild Newfoundland wind which had no connexion with the exiled plant, no attractive element of reminiscence or delight. In this perfume which was no longer breathed in by beauty, purified in its breast, or diffused in its wake, in this perfume of a changed dawn, a different culture, another world, there lingered all the melancholy of nostalgia, absence, and youth.  (125)

And in the next paragraph, still referring to the Governor:

My host inquired after the Revolution; I asked him for news of the North-West Passage. He was in the van of the wilderness, but he knew nothing of the Eskimos and received nothing from Canada but partridges.  (125)

The opposition between the “wild Newfoundland wind” and the flowering bean plants sets up the contrast one would expect between the wilderness of Canada and the civilization of Europe. We get the impression that Canada is a desolate country where fragile beauties are beaten down rather than cherished and enjoyed.

The statement that the Governor is “in the van” (i.e. the vanguard) of the wilderness is an interesting one. We should perhaps expect the opposite statement: that as the governor of these French islands right next to the wilds of Newfoundland, he is in the van of civilization, standing at the tip of the civilizing influence which Europe has pushed out towards the wilds of Canada. And yet Chateaubriand sees it the opposite way; if Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are the van of the wilderness, then that suggests that the process is moving in the other direction, and that the wilds of the New World are stretching their influence back towards the supposed colonizers, and perhaps will somehow uncivilize the civilizers, so to speak.

(I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the use of a specific word in a book I have only read in translation, but just for comparison, here is a passage where Chateaubriand uses “vanguard” in the more expected way:

It has been observed that the settlers are often preceded in the woods by bees: these are the vanguard of the farmers, the symbols of the industry and civilization whose coming they herald.  (143)

There we can see “vanguard” used in its more standard sense, which suggests that perhaps Chateaubriand was intentionally playing with its meaning in the earlier passage, suggesting that Canada had a kind of de-civilizing power that Europeans had not yet recognized, as it does in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” Or perhaps it’s just an instance of carelessness, by either Chateaubriand or his translator.)

Melancholy Reflections on Past Defeats

Chateaubriand has some interesting observations on the failure of the French colonial project in Canada:

In the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.
Montcalm, given the task of defending Canada unaided, against forces which are regularly replenished and four times his own in number, fights successfully for two years, defeating Lord Loudon and General Abercromby. At last his luck deserts him; he falls wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a hole made by a bombshell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble enemy Wolfe dies facing him; he pays with his own life for Montcalm’s life and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.  (142-43)

It seems odd, at first, that Chateaubriand would go to the trouble of describing a defeat, and yet it’s in character with the overall tone of much of the book, which could perhaps best be characterized by the world “melancholy”. His vision of life is one in which anything good is always in the past; the present is always slipping away; and the future holds only the promise of worse things to come. It is fitting, then, that he sees a tragic glory in Montcalm’s defeat, and awards him what would now be called a “moral victory” simply for having held out so long against such terrible odds. This kind of ringing, elegiac tone is the essence of Chateaubriand’s style and one of the key elements of his romanticism.

A Visit to the Falls

While in America Chateaubriand naturally wants to see for himself one of its greatest natural wonders, Niagara Falls. He makes his way there, travelling with “a troop of settlers and Indians”:

It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the rattlesnake, which allows itself to be bewitched by the sound of a flute. The Greeks would have turned my Canadian into Orpheus, the flute into a lyre, and the snake into Cerberus or perhaps Eurydice.  (144)

It’s hard to be certain what to make of this; the “Canadian” is presumably one of the natives, not one of the settlers. At first Chateaubriand seems to be saying that Canada does not lend itself to mythologizing, in the way the world of the ancient Greeks did; and yet, with his tales of rattlesnakes charmed by flutes, is he not himself actually mythologizing in much the same way?

In any case, he goes on to visit Niagara Falls:

The Niagara Falls savages in the English dependency were entrusted with the task of policing that side of the frontier. This weird constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from passing. I had to send the Dutchman to the fort at Niagara for a permit in order to enter the territory of the British government. This saddened me a little, for I remembered that France had once ruled over both Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it; it is signed: Captain Gordon.  (145-46)

The phrase “English dependency” means Canada, as opposed to the United States, and makes clear that the Falls Chateaubriand went on to visit were what we now think of as the Canadian side. This passage offers a very different take on the French colonial experience than the earlier one: there, Montcalm’s loss was portrayed as being somehow honourable, even glorious; here, the loss of France’s possessions in Canada brings only sadness. (Sadness — at least in its literary form, “melancholy” — is, as I alluded to above, the keynote emotion of this book.)

It seems worthwhile, since we’ve come across references to Niagara Falls several times before, to quote at least a bit of Chateaubriand’s impressions:

Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall to me. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror as I entered the wood which concealed from my view one of the most awe-inspiring sights that Nature has offered to mankind.
We dismounted, and leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way across heaths and copses until we reached the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the Falls. As I was moving forward, the guide caught me by the arm; he stopped me at the very edge of the water, which was going past with the swiftness of an arrow. It did not froth or foam, but glided in a solid mass over the sloping rock; its silence before its fall contrasted with the roar of the fall itself….
The guide continued to hold me back, for I felt so to speak drawn towards the river, and I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in….
Today, great highroads lead to the cataract; there are inns on both the American and English banks, and mills and factories beneath the chasm.
I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not been far enough up the Nile to see its cataracts, which are mere rapids; I make no mention of the waters of Terni and Tivoli, graceful adornments for ruins or subjects for the poet’s song: “Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus.”
Niagara eclipses everything.   (146-47)

That passage pretty much has it all, doesn’t it? What a concentration of romantic ideas: the joy mingled with terror as he is about to come face to face with Nature’s sublime; the strange, bewitching appeal of death as he yearns to throw himself into the current; the reference to the shallow consumerism that has now taken over and degraded the site, so different from its unspoiled state when he visited; and finally the implication of a wild and savage beauty in the Falls, utterly unlike the refined waters of Terni and Tivoli.

That last is, of course, a typical association with Canada, but in the view of the romantic mind, the idea of a wilderness ceases to be something menacing, or something that needs to be tamed or civilized, and becomes instead something that must be appreciated for its natural beauty. We are seeing here the idea, which would ultimately become a cliché, that the unspoiled wonders of nature are more beautiful than all the works of man, and that God is, in a sense, the first and ultimate artist.

Conclusions?

Chateaubriand inaugurates several strands of what we might think of as a “romantic” view of Canada. First, in his plan to run away here to become a lumberjack, we glimpse the petulant teenager strain of romanticism, always trying to shock or upset his parents. In his desire to find the Northwest Passage, we see the romantic image of the discoverer-hero, setting out to map the uncharted wilderness for the benefit of all mankind. His references to First Nations people seem to partake of the “noble savage” idea, while his discussion of Montcalm’s loss on the Plains of Abraham is replete with the melancholy sense of vanished glory and noble failure.

And finally, there is the discussion of Niagara Falls. Chateaubriand may not have had a huge impact on Canadian history — he never got around to locating that pesky Northwest Passage, after all — but he certainly had a major, if unwitting, impact on the Canadian tourist industry. His account of visiting Niagara Falls is the earliest one by a major European writer that I have come across, and in his visit he essentially set the pattern of Canadian tourism that still prevails today: when people come to Canada, if there’s one thing they know they want to see, that one thing will be Niagara Falls. In places around the world where Canada is known for absolutely nothing else, we are known for Niagara Falls.

And the reason Chateaubriand wanted to see the Falls — the desire to be confronted with what we might call “the natural sublime” — is the same reason people come today, and his description of the feelings aroused by the sight will be meaningful to anyone who has been there. Beyond that, in his description of the “great highroads” and the “inns” that have sprung up around the Falls since his visit, he took note of the beginnings of the tourist industry that dominates Niagara Falls today, and he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the hotels, gift shops, and casinos that have appeared since. Ripley’s Museum might shock him a little.

Further Ambiguity

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Wendy Cope, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986)

As with Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, one of the poems in Wendy Cope’s collection confronts us with an ambiguously Canadian reference.

The Poem

The Lavatory Attendant

I counted two and seventy stenches
All well defined and several stinks!
–Coleridge

Slumped on a chair, his body is an S
That wants to be a minus sign.

His face is overripe Wensleydale
Going blue at the edges.

In overalls of sacerdotal white
He guards a row of fonts

With lids like eye-patches. Snapped shut
They are castanets. All day he hears

Short-lived Niagaras, the clank
And gurgle of canescent cisterns.

When evening comes he sluices a thin tide
Across sand-coloured lino,

Turns Medusa on her head
And wipes the floor with her.   (49)

The Commentary

The flushing toilets make “short-lived Niagaras,” which to a Canadian will immediately raise thoughts of Niagara Falls (Canadian side). But of course there are also falls on the American side, and it is impossible to say whether Cope is thinking of Canada or the U.S. (a problem that has arisen before). Most likely she is just thinking of the humour inherent in comparing a toilet flush to one of the largest waterfalls in the world, and isn’t thinking about Canadian versus American sides at all — such things concern us, not her.

Since the Canadian falls are the larger and more impressive, however, the comparison is inherently funnier if the Canadian falls are meant, because the contrast is greater. And since Cope herself is a British poet, I feel we can draw on our history as a British colony and claim the reference as a Canadian one.

And while it’s an honour for Canada to be home to (the most impressive part of) a waterfall that is so famous poets from other countries draw on it for comparisons, we might note that Canada is, yet again, known for a natural feature that happens to be within our borders rather than for anything that could really be considered a Canadian accomplishment.

The Commentary on The Commentary

The thought process in the second paragraph above reveals a peculiarly Canadian form of insecurity: we’re convinced that the world in general takes no notice of us, and so when we come across a reference that might be about us, but might not, we’re very keen to convince ourselves that it is about us, because it makes us feel important to be referred to by non-Canadians. Being noticed forms a sort of bulwark against our own feelings of national insignificance.

As for the third paragraph, how typical: go to great lengths to claim a reference is Canadian, and then complain that it’s not complimentary enough.

The Fur-Rich Forests of Canada

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William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2001)

I sometimes feel that a reference to Canada in a book like this doesn’t really “count,” in the sense that it’s not surprising that a book about the history and circumstances of the French Revolution would mention Canada. In this case, however, there is a certain, possibly suggestive, oddity to the way Doyle’s book treats Canada, and so I’m going to quote it.

This paragraph is about France’s struggle to maintain its prestige in the generations following the death of Louis XIV in 1715:

Rivalry with the British was fought out on the oceans of the world. At stake was dominance of the sources and supply of the tropical and oriental luxuries for which Europe was developing an insatiable appetite. Footholds in India, staging posts to China, fur-rich Canadian forests, tropical islands where sugar and coffee could be produced, access to supplies of slaves to work them: these were the prizes for which the British and French fought almost uninterruptedly throughout the 1740s and 1750s.  (19-20)

We have come across a passing reference to the fur trade before, and the fact that fur was a luxury item that Canada supplied to Europe isn’t really news. And the word “forests” is attached, seemingly automatically, to Canada, reminding us that at the time under discussion Canada was mainly wilderness.

There is an oddity about the passage as well, however, that comes out if you linger over it a bit. What Doyle is really talking about, it seems – or at least his own words when he generalizes the subject matter before listing the specifics – is “tropical and oriental luxuries.” Coffee and sugar are grown in the tropics; the “staging posts” to India and China presumably supply the “oriental” luxuries. But how does Canada fit into this? The “fur-rich Canadian forests” are, obviously, neither “oriental” nor “tropical,” and yet Doyle drops them into the middle of his list without appearing to notice the incongruity.

Now, granted, the book is subtitled “A Very Short Introduction,” and so it’s a bit mean-spirited to criticize the author for not explaining details more fully – particularly in regard to Canada, which, it must be admitted, is extremely tangential to the topic in hand. Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit slighted, as if Doyle’s very carelessness in referring to Canada suggests that he doesn’t think our country is important enough to warrant a category of its own, and so he has simply lumped it into a list of colonial possessions and products even though it doesn’t really fit. (This is in contrast to the French administrations he is writing about, incidentally, which clearly did think their colonial possessions in Canada (among other places) were important and valuable, and struggled to keep them.)

Doyle’s attitude here is consistent with that of other non-Canadian authors, who simply don’t seem to think Canada is worth much conscious attention.

Happy Canada Day.

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