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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Escape”

The Perfect Place for a Safe Adventure

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Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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James Salter, All That Is (2013)

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

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

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

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

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Club

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

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

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

The Romance of Canada 4: Escape to the Barrens

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Nicholas Dawidoff, “The Man Who Saw America” (NYT Magazine, July 5, 2015)

Nicholas Dawidoff, who appeared here before in the guise of a football writer, has a fascinating article about photographer (best known for The Americans) and filmmaker (best known for Cocksucker Blues) Robert Frank in the NYT Magazine. It’s worth reading on its own merits, but Canada does play a small role, when Dawidoff describes Frank’s reaction to his own growing fame:

Acclaim was likewise anathema. By the 1960s, just as his work was gaining a following, Frank abruptly moved on from still photography to become an underground filmmaker. Ten years later, with all the glories of the art world calling to him, Frank fled New York, moving to a barren hillside far in the Canadian north.  (42)

“A barren hillside far in the Canadian north” — how romantic that sounds! Later in the article, however, it turns out that the place he moved to was Mabou, Nova Scotia. Here’s Dawidoff’s description of the move:

Overwhelmed in New York, craving ‘‘peace,’’ Frank asked [June] Leaf [his girlfriend] to go to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, to find them a home. It was winter. She bought a pair of thick boots and flew north: ‘‘He knew I’d do anything for him,’’ she says now.

They moved to Mabou, where the March wind was so strong you had to walk backward. They knew nobody, and the house they’d purchased overlooking the sea was, in the local expression, ‘‘after falling down.’’

Now, if you consult a map, you will see that while Mabou may be barren, it is roughly as far north as Maine. (If Frank is “the man who saw America,” Dawidoff is “the man who never saw (a map of) Canada.”) It’s a bit troubling that this kind of error can make its way into The New York Times (even if only the magazine) — doesn’t anyone check these things? Do the editors really think a place that’s much closer to Martha’s Vineyard than to the Arctic Circle represents the “far north”? Perhaps they think anywhere in Canada is the far north. Or perhaps this is just another instance of Americans’ total indifference to our country and everything to do with it.

Beyond that, Frank’s girlfriend saying that flying to Nova Scotia proves that she would “do anything for him” is quite charming, suggesting, as it does, that travelling to Nova Scotia is a perilous undertaking from which one is fortunate to return alive. And while Dawidoff doesn’t say it directly he certainly implies, through the references to the thick boots and the strong March wind, that Canada is cold — one of the most common ideas about our country.

The main impression of Canada conveyed by this article, however, is that it is a remote, unpopulated land that is ideal if you’re looking for somewhere to escape to. (We saw a similar attitude to Canada in Kris Kraus’s novel torpor.) And perhaps I’m imagining things, but I even feel like there is a certain admiration in Dawidoff’s tone as he describes Frank’s abrupt departure from New York. We do tend to idolize great artists, and far be it from me to suggest that Frank doesn’t deserve Dawidoff’s adulation; but there is a special reverence reserved for those who not only produce great works of art, but who also reject the trappings of fame and celebrity that come with their accomplishment. The reclusive genius is a romantic figure, admired for being more honest and true to the artist’s calling by virtue of having rejected fame, and in describing Frank’s flight to Canada, Dawidoff places him firmly in that category.

And so Canada plays a role here, not as an independent nation with an identity of its own, but rather as a marker of authenticity that validates a particular kind of American achievement: ironically, it is by leaving New York for Canada that Frank establishes his status as a true American original, a genuine artist not interested in his own fame but devoted only to the tough realities of his art.

What, after, all, could represent a more complete rejection of fame than leaving New York City (and “all the glories of the art world” — what are those, I wonder?) for Canada? And not just Canada, but a “barren hillside” in the (supposedly) “far north”?

In fact, there are probably areas in the United States that are just as much a wilderness as the most wilderness-y areas of Canada; and yet escaping to a cabin in Montana doesn’t have the same romantic finality, the same grandeur in terms of a gesture, as fleeing to Canada, where of course acclaim can never pursue you because, as everyone knows, in Canada the mechanics by which acclaim comes to be don’t exist: there are no magazines, no newspapers, no television, no radio, no people or communities; just an endless succession of barren hillsides where American artists fleeing their own celebrity huddle together to stay warm against the unending cold.

Salmon Fishing in Canada

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John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

Through poor planning on my part , I found myself at the cottage with nothing to read over the long weekend. This book has been on the shelf there for years, and, seeing from the cover that it was a “majestic” nationwide bestseller (what makes a bestseller majestic? I wondered. I must know!), I gave it a try.

Cheever is one of those mid-century American fiction writers that I’ve heard of but never actually read, although I feel like I’ve been confronted with this particular copy of his stories for as long as I can remember (more on that below). I knew of “The Swimmer” (it was even made into a Burt Lancaster movie), and with nothing else to read I started there. After that I skipped around, reading stories based on their titles (Best Title Winner: “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear”). I should say that I have no idea how many references to Canada there are in this book, since I haven’t read anywhere near all of it, but in the eight or ten stories I read, I found two.

“The Enormous Radio”

This story is about Jim and Irene Westcott, a couple who live in a New York apartment. Their tastes run to classical music, and Jim buys his wife a new radio as a present. She discovers that the radio is so sensitive that it picks up various forms of interference from the apartment building; after several repairs, Jim and Irene find that by changing the station, they can listen in on conversations from other apartments in their building:

The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running commentary on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.   (42)

The idea of Canada as a salmon fishing destination has come up before. Here, along with Sea Island, it seems to suggest the sort of vacations that were considered desirable by upper middle class, mid-century Americans, and perhaps the sort of vacation the Westcotts aspire to but can’t afford. (Later in the story Irene looks at the occupants of the building elevator and wonders which one had been to Sea Island.) We might read salmon fishing in Canada as a marker of class or success: the better-off can afford the cost of a getaway to another country to fish, while the rest have to make to with whatever is closer to hand. And perhaps we can assume that the salmon fishing is better in Canada (why else take the trouble to go there?), which indicates that Canada is still seen as a more unspoiled, wilderness nation where the incursions of suburbia have not destroyed the opportunities for sport fishing.

“The Children”

This story follows Victor and Theresa Mackenzie, a couple who work in the homes of the rich, as they move from house to house, seeking a place that will make them happy. In this scene, Victor comes in and finds Theresa in tears, saying she is “homesick.”

It was, even for Victor, a difficult remark to interpret. Their only home then was a one-room apartment in the city, which, with its kitchenette and studio couch, seemed oddly youthful and transitory for these grandparents. If Theresa was homesick, it could only be for a collection of parts of houses. She must have meant something else.
“Then we’ll go,” he said. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” And then, seeing how happy his words had made her, he went on. “We’ll get into the car and we’ll drive and we’ll drive and we’ll drive. We’ll go to Canada.”  (227-8)

Canada’s placement as the culmination of the phrase “drive and drive and drive” suggests its distance, and also that going there is the culmination of some sort of almost-crazy scheme or near-desperate act. Victor seems to arrive at the suggestion of Canada through his wife’s happiness at the thought of getting away from where they are, and Canada is simply the end point of his imagination, the furthest place he can think of going.

For the Mackenzies, our country carries associations that are familiar to us: it is a place to escape to, and a place where the couple can make a fresh start on their lives. There may also be a hint of escaping from the trap of social stratification, as the story portrays the Mackenzies as the sort of people who go through life somewhat helplessly, buffeted by the whims of the rich.

So as far as these two stories are concerned, at least, we can say that Cheever presents a fairly conventional view of Canada: a country where one can get away for some fishing, wilder and more unspoiled than the U.S., and a place that offers a chance at a new beginning for those who feel trapped by their position in U.S. society.

I should perhaps add that the Mackenzies never actually make it to Canada, stopping and settling in at the home of another wealthy American before they reach the Quebec border. You can make of that what you will.

The Peregrinations of a Book: A Reflection of Literary Reputation? (Personal/Familial, Highly Subjective, Unrelated to Canada)

As I mentioned above, I feel as if I have been seeing this book for most of my life. It’s really my parents’ book, not mine, and this picture may give you some sense of its age:

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This Ballantine paperback was first published in 1980, and as you can see, it has one of those marvellously ingrown spines that paperbacks of a certain thickness get as they age. At the time it was published, it must have been considered an “important” book that members of the middle class who aspired to cultural literacy ought to read.  The puff quotes support this view: among the expected “magical” and “dazzling” and “profound and daring,” no less an authority than The New York Times said:

Not merely the publishing event of the “season” but a grand occasion in English literature.

That, to me, is a fascinating quote: it must have been written at essentially the time the book was first published, when Cheever was at the height of his fame, but look at the way the word “season” has been put in quotation marks. The word, and the phrase “event of the season,” both drip with insider consciousness and carry associations of what is fashionable at the moment but unlikely to endure. This is just a puff quote, presumably lifted from a contemporary review, and yet it already rings with defensiveness, and seems to be trying to refute an implied argument that Cheever is the darling of literary society types, but not someone that anyone outside the New York cocktail circuit would bother to read, and certainly not someone who will be read by future generations.

When I looked at the book a little more closely, I found much of the puffery (which was plentiful) had a defensive tone. Consider this, from the back cover:

Like radiant, graceful chapters of the novel that is the American heart, THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER live in the community of emotions and dreams.

High praise, certainly — but in claiming that, collected together, Cheever’s stories form a “novel that is the American heart,” it also feels calculated to refute the (again implied) argument that a collection of short stories is somehow less significant or worthy of attention than a novel.

My personal history with this book stretches back almost as far as I can remember. I first started seeing it in my parents’ living room, where it seemed to be inevitably accompanied by Chesapeake by James Michener, two enormous paperbacks that, at that time, represented to me the mysterious world of books read by grown-ups.

At some point the Cheever, along with Chesapeake, migrated to the basement; apparently it was no longer a book that people displayed in their living rooms, as if to say, “Check.” Or perhaps my parents, not having made their way through it, stashed it down there, telling themselves they would get to it later. At some point it made its way to the cottage — I think it’s been there for the last fifteen or twenty years — but I doubt it was ever read there because, while I have a very clear memory of its chubby red presence on the shelf, I can’t recall ever having seen it off the shelf. There are also a couple of ancient bookmarks — one an Air Canada boarding pass from 1985 — stranded in the first 150 pages, suggesting the abandonment of the book rather than engagement with it. In my family, at least, The Stories of John Cheever is good enough to while away an hour on the dock if you’re stranded there with nothing better to read (nobody’s fault but mine, as they say), but not something anyone actually plans to read. (The books you actively intend to read are the ones you bring with you to the cottage, while the books you leave there are the ones that no longer hold any interest.)

But what I wonder is, does my family’s gradual neglect of this book, as it passed from living room (“Everyone’s reading it”) to basement (“We’ll get around to it soon”) to cottage (“Maybe someone will pick it up some rainy day”), run parallel with a similar process regarding Cheever’s reputation? Or does it merely indicate that my family, at least, weren’t the serious readers of literature they wanted to be — that they weren’t quite “up to” Cheever?

I don’t know a lot about the state of Cheever’s reputation; his books are still in print (including a recent Library of America edition), which is more than can be said for a lot of writers. And yet, in the course of all the literary conversations I can recall (admittedly a highly subjective criterion, but still, it’s something), I’ve never heard Cheever’s name mentioned. Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Pynchon (well, maybe I was the one bringing him up), Elkin, Malamud, Gaddis, Gass — they’ve all been mentioned to me by various people, at various times, as “must reads”. But never Cheever.

So were the authors of the puff quotes right to defend Cheever against the implied criticism of his detractors? Or have the detractors been proven correct, and Cheever’s work revealed itself as “of his time, but not for all time”? Does anyone read Cheever anymore?

 

Glenn Gould, Robbie Robertson and Cottage Country

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Lucy Brock-Broido, Stay, Illusion (2013)

What originally drew me to this book was its large, almost square shape, which made it stand out amid the other poetry books on the shelf in the bookstore. (There’s a tip for you aspiring poets – eccentricity, at least when it comes to the size of a book, can sometimes pay off.) When I flipped it open, the word “Canada” swam up out of the rest of the type on the page, and so I had to buy it.

This is the poem containing the reference that first caught my attention:

PAX ARCANA

The Amish housemaid lived in one small room inside the lemon cookie jar

Of our mother’s mother’s pantry at the lake in Canada.

Her linens were chenille and bumpy, worn. Her only jewels were bobby pins.

After supper, after covering the crust of the rhubarb pie with a tea towel,

She retired early to her room. She took off her cotton cap.

She undid the hooks and eyes of her stiff black apron-dress,

Stood reading the chapter from the longsome blue-bound book.

Just as the light on the lake was dimming, at the end of days,

She snuffed out her one late wicker-shaded lamp, and lit (with a curiously

Long-reaching safety match) the waxing crescent-moon above the provinces.

She folded her floury hands beneath her head

And went to her knees by the doll-sized bed.  (21)

The phrase “at the lake in Canada” indicates that we have here another example of a trope we have come across before: Canada as a place where Americans have cottages. It’s interesting that there is no specificity to the reference; is the lake in Muskoka? In Ontario? In the Eastern Townships? In Quebec? We don’t know – we are told simply that it is in Canada, as though Canada were nothing but one large, undifferentiated land of lakes surrounded by cottages owned by Americans (which is perhaps, for Brock-Broido, exactly what it is). And so Canada is again that obscure wilderness escape for Americans trying to get away from their “real” lives in the U.S.

Incidentally, I recall the sort of matches described here: extremely long ones that were designed for lighting barbecues and fireplaces. I wonder if the speaker’s apparent puzzlement at them indicates that they are a Canadian invention? Although since the Amish housemaid in question is apparently the size of a small doll, perhaps it’s just a normal match, and only looks long when held by a doll-sized woman?

Glenn Gould Times Two

Upon reading the rest of the book, I discovered several other references to Canada – or really, to Canadians – which I  might as well catalogue while I’m at it.

EXTREME WISTERIA

On abandon, uncalled for but called forth.

The hydrangea of her crushed each year a little more into the attar of herself.

Pallid. Injured. Wild in ecstasy. A throat to come home to, tupelo.

Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable.

Parlors of burgundy and sleigh. Unseverable fear.

Case history: wistful, woke most every afternoon.

In the green rooms of the Abandonarium.

Beautiful cage, asylum in.

Reckless urges to climb celestial trellises that may or may not have been there.

So few wild raspberries, they were countable and triaged out by hand.

Ten-thousand-count Egyptian cotton sheets. Intimacy with others, sateen.

Extreme hyacinth as evidence.

Her single subject the idea that every single thing she loves

Will (perhaps tomorrow) die.

High editorial illusion of “control”. Early childhood: measles, scarlet fevers.

Cleopatra for most masquerades, gold sandals, broken home;

Convinced Gould’s late last recording of the Goldberg Variations was for her.

Unusual coalition of early deaths.

Early middle deaths as well. Believed, despite all evidence,

In afterlife, looked hopelessly for corroborating evidence of such.

Wisteria, extreme.

There was always the murmur, you remember, about going home. (29-30)

The poem seems to be about an old woman approaching death, which perhaps accounts for its fragmented quality. The reference, of course, is to Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice, once at the beginning of his career, and once at the end. The late recording (the one referred to here) is remarkable for almost unbelievably slow tempos in some of the variations; the opening aria is taken with such aching slowness in the opening bars that there are moments when it feels like the next note will never arrive.

This seems fitting, given the state of the woman at the centre of the poem, who seems to be experiencing death as an unbearably slow breaking up of her consciousness. As for Gould, he is a Canadian with a genuinely international reputation, and it’s nice to see his work picked up by an American poet as a touchstone for a particular type of experience.

Gould himself is the subject of another poem:

GOULDIAN KIT

What makes you think I’m an eccentric, he said, in London
To the brood of the reporters who had gathered to report

On his eccentricities – the tin sink light enough for traveling
But deep enough to swallow his exquisite hands in water filled with ice.

A budgerigar accompanies, perched atop the fugue of Hindemith.

You are quivering now like the librarian reading
to herself out loud in her Arctic room

Composed entirely of snow.

A broadcast (high fidelity) bound by the quiet of the land and
The Mennonite who told him

We are in this world but not of this world,

You see. From the notebook of your partial list of symptoms, phobias:

Fever, paranoia, polio (subclinical), ankle-foot phenomenon,
The possibility of bluish spots. Everything one does is fear

Not being of this world or in this world enough.

There is no world I know, without some word of it.  (49)

The poem is largely a catalogue of impressions or ideas that are associated with Glenn Gould. Gould was a noted eccentric, as suggested by the opening; also a noted hypochondriac, which explains the lines near the end. The lines in the middle about snow and a high-fidelity broadcast perhaps contain the hint of a reference to or a reminiscence of his famous documentary, “The Idea of North,” which he created for the CBC. But even if the poet is not referring to that, we can’t really be surprised to find references to snow in a poem about a prominent Canadian; Canada is cold, after all, remember?

But that budgerigar – what in the world is going on there? I will confess that I had come to the conclusion that it was nothing more than a pointless flourish, another example of contemporary mainstream poetry’s seemingly incessant drive towards the ornately incomprehensible (more on that below). Then, however, one of our junior researchers here at Wow Canada pointed me to this:

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Yes, that’s a photo of Glenn himself as a child; and, if you look closely at the top of the music on the piano you will see, perched there, clear as day, a budgerigar – no doubt the very budgerigar in question in “Gouldian Kit.”

What can I say? My hat is off to Lucie Brock-Broido. Whether the music is in fact a fugue of Hindemith is beyond me to say; if Brock-Broido can tell from that photo that it is, then hats off to her again.

A Long Way from Big Pink

We move from Glenn Gould to another Canadian musician:

MOON RIVER

What is it exactly that you mean when you call me
Your “huckleberry friend”?

What if soon you, too, will go down
Like a sheepdog who has tasted blood on a gentleman’s farm

Far outside the coal belt, and I do not get to see your
Inflorescence one more time what then?

Like a lantern-boat half on fire somewhere down
The crazy river of your mind,
Framed by endless strings of small whortleberry lights, ablaze,

Still, I go on crossing you in style. My affection has always
had its girdled caveats –
A mushroom-colored cummerbund sashing

The waist of another man, or my feeling formal knowing
When to take the fork out of the toaster, at the very moment of

The metaled tines contacting the one electric outlet in the barn.

Even though you will not speak to me again, not in this life,

Where fear accompanies you like a yellow buggy or a carnivore
With dark spots and a long-ringed tail

Unhitched to anything,
I forgive you – everything.

Besides,
You’ve always been such an odd uncanny half-genet of man.  (57)

Yes, I am not mistaken – that is a clear reference to the Robbie Robertson song “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.” It’s a long way from Glenn Gould to Robbie Robertson, and we might ask ourselves, what do they have in common? What could have brought these two together in this poetry collection?

It can only be that both are Canadian.

High Fakery as a Poetic Style (Literary-Critical, Unrelated to Canada)

“It was always autumn in the paraphernalia of my laudanums.”

That’s the opening line of the poem “We Have Always Lived In The Castle,” from Stay, Illusion, and if I had to pick a single line to sum up Brock-Broido’s style, I might pick that one. It’s not that the line is obscure; obscurity happens at times in poetry, and it’s our job as readers to try to make what we can of it. And we can try: I know what laudanum is; but what are laudanums? Paraphernalia could be objects used to take the drug (like a junkie’s kit); but how is autumn in these objects? And why autumn? Just for its poetic sheen of a slow sinking into death (one of the concerns of this collection)? For the jingle the “um” ending makes with the end of “laudanum”? And why always? The effects of the laudanum make her feel like it is always autumn? This is a possible interpretation; but if that’s what you mean, there are better ways to say it.

But in trying to make sense of the line, we are following a false path, because in fact this line has been carefully constructed to have no sense. This is not a line that is trying to say something and failing, or that is saying a complex thing in a difficult way; this is a line that is trying very hard not to say anything in a very specific manner – namely, a manner that one might deem “poetic.”

This is the essence of a poetic style that I think of as High Fakery: poetry that is very self-consciously “poetic” in terms of its diction, its use of imagery and metaphor, and the way it seeks out high-sounding obscurity that could be taken for profundity but is generally just an ornate casing for vacuity. Each poem has a well-worked surface of apparent poeticism, but if you fix it with a steady critical gaze, it will crumble to dust and blow away because there is nothing inside it – no meaning, no passion, no vitality to animate the words – the language is dead and embalmed, each poem an exhibit in a silent, sepulchral museum consecrated to the poet’s idea of herself as “a poet.”

I recognize that it is poor form to make generalizations like this without quoting lines to back them up. At the same time, I have quoted four of Brock-Broido’s poems in their entirety already – do I really need to quote more?

As an example of what I’m talking about, scroll back up and re-read the first six or eight lines of “Extreme Wisteria.” You can see, right there, the essence of High Fakery. There is a will to obscurity, an insistent refusal to speak clearly; instead we are given little bursts of words (“wild in ecstasy”), seemingly meaningless metaphors (“attar of herself”), a focus on “colourful” or “unexpected” verbs at the expense of sense (“triaged out”), and moments of (presumably unintentional) hilarity (“Lemurs in parlors, inconsolable”). This is not language being used to convey meaning to the reader; rather, it is language being used to create something more like an atmosphere, a hazy, vague feeling that something “poetic” is going on – a kind of impasto with words.

To be fair, the poem does become clearer as it goes on (beginning at the words “Case history”), and it is quite possible that there is a perfectly comprehensible experience or idea behind “Extreme Wisteria.” Perhaps the dying woman who seems to be the centre of the poem kept lemurs as pets; perhaps she wore rose-petal perfume; but there is no attempt to communicate these ideas clearly. Rather, the poet’s goal seems to be to obscure what she is talking about as much as possible, apparently on the principle that great poetry is always obscure. And that, I think, is the essence of my quarrel with this kind of writing.

Truly great, difficult poetry is always the result of a writer trying to communicate clearly (with perhaps a few exceptions – Lycophron?); the difficult surface is the knotty result of the writer’s struggle to convey a complex idea or emotion. Obscurity such as Brock-Broido’s is the opposite: it is an obscure surface that is applied over the top of an absence, to try to conceal that absence. Great poets write obscurely when they are trying to communicate clearly; bad poets write obscurely when they are trying to cover up the fact that they have nothing to communicate.

This is not poetry written for readers who actually love genuinely good poetry; rather it is written for readers who affect an interest in poetry without really knowing anything about it or having any desire to find out. It’s the sort of thing you can read on your couch in an afternoon without really paying it much attention, and then later, when you go out to a dinner party, you can mention that you read it, and your friends will be impressed that you are “interested in poetry”. It is all about the language on the surface, designed for those who read poetry as if they were bathing in – I was going to say an ocean of incomprehensibility, but it’s really more like a mucky little pond of confusion.

At Last, Some Music (If you read the above, you’ve more than earned it)

Since the specific quality of Gould’s later (1981) recording of the Goldberg Variations is at issue in “Extreme Wisteria,” this video seems appropriate. It’s a comparison of the opening Aria from his two recordings, as part of a conversation with Tim Page about his approach to the later re-recording:

And here is Gould talking a bit about Hindemith, and then playing the fugue from Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3:

I’m trying to imagine how that would sound with budgerigar accompaniment.

And here, if you can stand it, is the video for “Somewhere Down the Crazy River”:

Although personally, I would recommend seeking out the audio-only version.

A Refuge to the North … or an Enemy?

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Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

Although it’s at a notably higher literary level, this novel, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is an “alternate history.” The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened in the U.S. had Charles Lindbergh run against and beaten Roosevelt in the 1940 election and not only held the U.S. out of the Second World War, but tacitly supported Hitler and begun to introduce anti-Semitic measures in the U.S. The story centres on “Philip Roth,” a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the Second World War, and his parents, his brother Sandy (who briefly becomes a Lindbergh supporter) and his cousin Alvin.

There are countless references to Canada throughout the novel – far too many for me to catalogue them all – but they divide neatly into three larger categories.

1. A Centre of Resistance

In the novel, Lindbergh’s election platform essentially boils down to “A vote for Roosevelt is a vote for war”; Lindbergh himself is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who campaigns by flying across the country in his plane and repeating this one essential campaign idea in three-minute “speeches” wherever he lands (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the novel was published in the middle of the George W. Bush era). This conversation is between Philip and his brother Sandy:

“He’s going to be president,” Sandy told me. “Alvin says Lindbergh’s going to win.”
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
“Alvin’s going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army,” he said. “He’s going to fight for the British against Hitler.”
“But nobody can beat Roosevelt,” I said.
“Lindbergh’s going to. America’s going to go fascist.”  (25-26)

When Lindbergh wins the election and keeps the U.S. out of the “European war,” Alvin goes to Canada, joins the army, loses a leg fighting, spends months in a Canadian army hospital in Montreal, and eventually returns to Newark to live with Philip’s family.

There is an interesting commentary on the idea of America as the “land of the free” in this part of the novel, given that Americans who want to fight against Hitler have to go to Canada to do so. Since Canada never rebelled, it is still tied to Great Britain in a way the U.S. no longer is, meaning there is no question whether Canada will enter the war on the British side. The U.S., being “free,” has more autonomy to stay out of European conflicts, and yet in the novel this apparent freedom is inverted, with the U.S. supporting a dictator and ultimately moving towards dictatorship itself, while Canada, though technically under the colonial yoke, so to speak, is fighting for freedom.

This leads to a further inversion of expected tropes about Canada: in general, we are portrayed as a less war-like nation than the U.S. In this case, it is Canada that is going to war and the U.S. that is remaining out of it, and yet because the war is seen as a just one, and the reason for U.S. neutrality is not principled pacifism but rather support for fascism, Canada’s willingness to fight appears like a virtue within the context of the novel.

There are a number of other references to Canada when Alvin comes up in the story, but none really expand on the essential idea in this passage; they simply reiterate it. There is one other moment about Alvin that might be worthy of note, however:

As a handicapped veteran he was eligible for further benefits should he choose to remain in Canada, where foreign volunteers into the Canadian armed forces, if they wished, were granted citizenship immediately upon discharge. And why didn’t he become a Canuck? asked Uncle Monty. Since he couldn’t stand America anyway, why didn’t he just stay up there and cash in?  (122)

I believe this is the first time we’ve come across the term “Canuck” to refer to Canadians. It seems, in this instance, to have an edge of disdain to it, as if it were almost a slur. A couple of other conventional ideas of Canada are also present in this brief passage: the words “up there” convey again the obvious fact that Canada is to the north of the U.S., and in the mention of “further benefits” we might see a hint at Canada’s vastly superior health care system.

2. A Place of Refuge

By far the most common representation of Canada in the novel is as a “haven” for American Jews to escape to as the situation in the U.S. under Lindbergh becomes increasingly intolerable. The theme is sounded very early in the novel, and recurs pretty well all the way through; I will only focus on a few characteristic examples.

This passage relates to the Roth family taking a vacation in Washington D.C.:

The trip had been planned back when FDR was a second-term president and the Democrats controlled both Houses, but now with the Republicans in power and the new man in the White House considered a treacherous enemy, there was a brief discussion about our driving north instead to see Niagara Falls and to take a boat cruise in rain slickers through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands and then to cross over in our car into Canada to visit Ottawa. Some among our friends and neighbors had already begun talking about leaving the country and migrating to Canada should the Lindbergh administration openly turn against the Jews, and so a trip to Canada would also familiarize us with a potential haven from persecution.  (44)

That encapsulates the essential idea; there is an interesting moment that somewhat complicates this image of Canada as a safe haven, however. In the course of their vacation in Washington (in which the Roth family is turned out of a hotel and suffers various other forms of discrimination), Philip’s father gets into an argument by loudly praising Roosevelt in front of some Lindbergh supporters, one of whom calls him “a loudmouth Jew.” This is the father’s attempt to calm down Philip’s mother after the incident:

“Honey,” my father told her, “we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad.”  (66)

This is, I believe, the only moment in the novel that hints at Canadian anti-Semitism; the rest of the time, an uncomplicated image of Canada as a “haven from persecution” is maintained, though at this time anti-Semitism would likely have been as prevalent here as in the U.S.; without the Lindbergh administration’s tacit approval, however, it might not have been expressed as readily, and that seems to be the key idea in Roth’s conception of our country.

As the novel proceeds, escaping to Canada recurs as an increasingly likely possibility:

[My mother] explained to Sandy and me that her paycheck would contribute toward meeting the larger household bills occasioned by Alvin’s return while her real intention (known to no one other than her husband) was to deposit her paychecks by mail into a Montreal bank account in case we had to flee and start from scratch in Canada.  (112)

So there we see flight to Canada as a prospect the Roths are seriously considering, and even beginning to prepare for. Things go a step further when some friends of the Roths’, the Tirschwells, actually make the move:

It was then that [my father] learned from Shepsie Tirschwell, whom he visited up in his booth after the show, that on the first of June his old boyhood friend was leaving for Winnipeg with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his wife’s elderly parents. Representatives of Winnipeg’s small Jewish community had helped Mr. Tirschwell find work as a projectionist at a neighborhood movie house there and had located apartments for the entire family in a modest Jewish neighborhood much like our own. The Canadians had also arranged a low-interest loan to pay for the Tirschwells’ move from America….  (194)

What strikes us here is the generosity of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, which is willing to do so much to help an American family move there. This suggests a strong community spirit, which indicates that Canada is a more communal, less individualistic nation than the U.S. It also reveals that Canadian Jews are aware of how dire things are becoming for Jews in America under Lindbergh. And in the passing mention that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is “small,” there is a suggestion that Canada is a less cosmopolitan and diverse nation than the U.S., but at the same time, almost counterintuitively, a more tolerant and welcoming one.

Tension over the question of moving to Canada eventually erupts in the Roth marriage:

“You don’t see Shepsie sitting around writing letters and waiting for the worst to happen,” [my mother] said. “No,” he replied, “not Canada again!” as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. “I don’t want to hear it. Canada,” he told her firmly, “is not a solution.” “It’s the only solution,” she pleaded. “I am not running away!” he shouted, startling everyone. “This is our country!” “No,” my mother said sadly, “not anymore. It’s Lindbergh’s. It’s the goyim’s. It’s their country….”  (226)

The linking of Canada, which has always been presented as a haven, to a type of disease, is meant to demonstrate the anger in the father’s tone, I think, rather than to be a reflection on the nature of the country itself. But the question of whether to flee the U.S. or to remain and struggle to “save” it is central to the book, and we might draw parallels between that question and the idea of moving to Canada that was sometimes raised, albeit jokingly, by some Americans after George W. Bush won a second term, and again when Mitt Romney was running against Obama.

In Roth’s vision of the U.S. under Lindbergh, things become increasingly dire, ultimately leading to the outbreak of racially motivated riots in American cities. In a passage about riots in Detroit we come across the final reference to Canada as a safe haven:

By nightfall, several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, and American history had recorded its first large-scale pogrom, one clearly modeled on the “spontaneous demonstrations” against Germany’s Jews known as Kristallnacht….  (266)

This shows how ugly the situation has become in the U.S., but doesn’t in any way change or advance the impression of Canada, which is still seen as an escape from the American anti-Semitism that is now running rampant. And so, with the exception of the one mention of possible anti-Semitism in Canada by Philip’s father (which is purely speculative), these parts of Roth’s novel actually present a very sustained and consistent view of Canada as an open, tolerant nation which is eager to welcome Jewish families fleeing persecution in the U.S.

3. A Stealthy Enemy (Contains Spoilers)

I generally think “spoiler alerts” are a bit absurd – Romeo and Juliet gives away the ending in the first 14 lines, after all – but since they seem to be part of online writing protocol, I will warn you that in this section, it’s not possible for me to discuss the references to Canada without “giving away” parts of the book’s ending, which, if you read exclusively to be surprised by plot twists, may spoil the novel for you. If a book doesn’t lose all interest for you as soon as you know what happens towards the end, you can safely read on.

The plot takes a major turn late in the novel when President Lindbergh, flying across the country on one of his speaking tours, simply disappears. No trace of him or of his plane is ever found. The Vice President, Burton Wheeler, becomes Acting President; Roth portrays him as even more of an anti-Semitic fascist than Lindbergh – or perhaps I should say as a more open anti-Semitic fascist. In any case, the situation becomes significantly worse for Jews in America.

For our purposes, the most interesting point is that Wheeler and his confederates in the American government immediately begin to hint that Canada is somehow involved in Lindbergh’s disappearance. The implication seems to be that the U.S., by opening hostilities with Canada, will create headaches for the British (we have already been told that “Canada had become virtually [Britain’s] only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery” (88)) and make it easier for the Nazis to win the war in Europe.

There are a number of passages in the closing chapters that link Canada to Lindbergh’s disappearance and cause escalating tensions between the U.S. and its northern neighbour. The following is a news item about a “German intelligence report” (I should note that this part of the novel is written in the form of archived news reports and not Philip’s first-person narration):

No sooner had the president taken off for Washington than he was unable to make contact with the ground or with other aircraft and had no choice but to capitulate when the Spirit of St. Louis was corralled by high-flying British fighter planes, which forced him to deviate from his course and to land, some hours later, at an airstrip secretly maintained by international Jewish interests across the Canadian border….  (309-10)

And in the next paragraph:

…Secretary of the Interior Ford is demanding that Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, conduct an intensive search on Canadian soil for President Lindbergh and his captors.  (310)

Things quickly escalate:

Second, House Republicans introduce a bill calling for a declaration of war against the Dominion of Canada should Prime Minister King fail to reveal the whereabouts of America’s missing president within forty-eight hours.  (315)

And then:

In Buffalo the mayor announces his intention to distribute gas masks to the city’s citizens, and the mayor of nearby Rochester initiates a bomb shelter program “to protect our residents in the event of a surprise Canadian attack.” An exchange of small-arms fire is reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, not far from Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy.  (317)

Canada’s continuing association with Great Britain (note “Dominion of Canada”) is here turned against it by the U.S. administration, which uses it to claim that Canada is, at best, being used by the British to stealthily attack the United States or, at worst, is actively working against U.S. interests. The quick escalation in these passages, and the way anti-Canadian sentiment catches fire, stirred up by American political leaders, seems to suggest that the U.S. is in the grip of some sort of mass hysteria. As well, it might again remind us of events during the George W. Bush administration when, shortly after 9/11, American politicians began to suggest (absent any apparent evidence) that terrorists were streaming across the undefended Canadian border into the U.S. to stage attacks against American targets.

The reference to Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island (a Canadian island, part of New Brunswick) is a fascinating one: though nothing is stated explicitly, the fact that he “summers” (love that verb) in what is technically part of Canada seems to be a way for the Wheeler administration to further link Roosevelt to the British and “Jewish interests” that are supposedly responsible for Lindbergh’s abduction.

All of this leads to the following exchange between Philip and his mother when she tells Philip he won’t be going to school because “the situation has further deteriorated”:

“I want to know why there’s no school, Ma.” “Must you know tonight?” “Yes. Why can’t I go to school?” “Well … it’s because there may be a war with Canada.” “With Canada? When?” “No one knows. But it’s best if you all stay home until we see what’s going on.” “But why are we going to war with Canada?”  (353)

This passage, when contrasted with the ones above, sets up the central dichotomy of Canada in this novel: the Jewish characters view it as a safe haven, while the pro-Nazi Americans see it as a threatening British puppet state looming immediately to the north.

Philip’s response to his mother seems designed to point up the absurdity of the view of Canada held by the Wheeler administration and its allies. When Philip says, “With Canada?” it’s important to note that the word “Canada” (bolded for emphasis above) appears in italics in the text. The italics convey Philip’s incredulity at the idea that the U.S. could possibly be going to war with Canada, their quiet, peaceful, polite neighbour to the north. (Similar markers of incredulity were used in Howard Jacobson’s treatment of Canadian anti-Semitism). The closeness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the tendency of Americans to view Canadians as essentially milder versions of themselves, may be part of the reason Roth chooses this particular development for the final phase of his novel. It’s as if he’s saying that Americans must truly be in the grip of some kind of collective insanity if they are willing to go to war with an inoffensive little nation like Canada.

The final line above, “Why are we going to war with Canada?” seems to beg the obvious question: why would anyone? And the idea that lies behind it – that it is impossible to imagine anyone going to war with Canada – offers a neat summary of the general idea of Canada that comes across in Roth’s novel: as a safe, orderly, tolerant nation, in sharp contrast with the U.S., which progressively descends into insanity over the course of the book.

4. Bonus: Canada’s Nazi Figure Skater

There is one other interesting reference to Canada, which doesn’t really fit in with the others but seems worthy of note simply for its oddity. Though most of the Jewish characters in the book are portrayed as strongly anti-Lindbergh, Philip’s Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, support Lindbergh and essentially become collaborators once he is in power. The following quote comes from Aunt Evelyn’s description of a party she attended at the White House where von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the honoured guest:

[von Ribbentrop’s] known to be an excellent dancer, and he is, it’s true – a perfectly magical ballroom dancer. And his English is faultless. He studied at the University of London and then lived for four years as a young man in Canada. His great youthful adventure, he calls it.  (213)

Ribbentrop did, in fact, live in Canada; here are the details, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Fluent in both French and English, young Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France and London, before travelling to Canada in 1910.

He worked for the Molsons Bank on Stanley Street in Montreal, and then for the engineering firm M. P. and J. T. Davis on the Quebec Bridge reconstruction. He was also employed by the National Transcontinental Railway, which constructed a line from Moncton to Winnipeg. He worked as a journalist in New York City and Boston, but returned to Germany to heal from tuberculosis. He returned to Canada and set up a small business in Ottawa importing German wine and champagne. In 1914, he competed for Ottawa’s famous Minto ice-skating team, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston in February.

It sounds like he actually had a significant life in Canada, even participating in a quintessentially Canadian sport, ice skating. In terms of the reference in Roth’s novel, it’s worth at least noting the use of the word “adventure,” as the idea that Europeans think of Canada as a romantic land of adventure is one that has come up before.

As for a high-ranking Nazi having lived in Canada (before he became a high-ranking Nazi, of course), I have to admit I had no idea. I suppose Ottawa and Montreal (understandably) don’t do anything to publicize the connection in their tourism materials.

Third World Places Like … Quebec?

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Chris Kraus, torpor (2006)

Having lived through early to mid-90s academia, I have to admit I could relate to much of torpor – not that I was one of these people, but I certainly encountered some of them. This novel takes place in 1991 and follows Sylvie Green, a filmmaker and sometime teacher, and Jerome Shafir, an academic and editor – both classic 90s academic types and presumably based on Kraus herself and her former husband – as they travel through Europe to Romania, purportedly to adopt a child. That, at least, is the bare bones of the narrative, but the story makes such extensive use of flashbacks and flash forwards that it encompasses all of Sylvie and Jerome’s personal histories and their relationship.

I suppose you could classify it as a black comedy, or perhaps a satire of the way a vapid culture of celebrity, akin to the one that governs Hollywood, took over universities in the 80s and 90s, putting the focus on “superstar” academics and leading to the “cultural studies” movement, which revealed much less about popular culture than it did about the desire of certain academics to appear “hip” and “relevant.” And yet beneath the sharply observed satire, this is a powerful and profoundly sad book, charting in minute detail the gradual break-up of a couple whose interests and desires were never really aligned to begin with, and conveying in particular the pain and emptiness Sylvie feels at her own childlessness.

I’m afraid this post will turn into a bit of a grab bag; there are a number of references to Canada, but they’re not connected by any overarching idea, so it’s difficult to organize them.

1. Canadian Intellectuals

a) Despite Predictions to the Contrary, The Revolution Is, In Fact, Televised

The first reference to Canada comes in a flashback, as Jerome and Sylvie watch TV coverage of the Romanian Revolution in the Paris loft of Jerome’s friend Félix:

As the Romanian Revolution unfolded on TV, Sylvie practiced her invisibility. She didn’t speak a word of French, and Jerome was too impatient with the conversation in the loft to translate. Francois Cusset, an anarchist from the École Normale, was taking a hard line about the myth of Eastern Europe’s “struggle for democracy.” Didn’t the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc just reinforce the triumph of American Empire? Félix responded with an approving nod. Because, of course, McLuhan’s pulsating rhapsody of images could never be entirely divorced from power.  (97)

This is not a reference to Canada itself, of course, but to a famous Canadian. We have picked up on references like this before, but you’ll notice a shift in register here. These 90s academics aren’t talking about Leonard Cohen or Keanu Reeves (not even with self-conscious irony) or Neil Young; we’ve moved up several intellectual levels and reached Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s revolutionary media theorist. So even though Kraus probably wasn’t thinking in these terms when she wrote the book, we could say that the specific Canadian these people refer to is a characterizing detail: the fact that they’re talking about McLuhan tells us something about them. And thus McLuhan is, to put it in terms these characters would understand, a “cultural signifier.”

The “Félix” in whose loft this scene takes place, by the way, is Félix Guattari. Now there is a name that conjures up 90s academia.

b) The Krokers

This passage relates an encounter with an academic named Peichl who wants Jerome’s help putting a book together:

Peichl … [is] just back from Tokyo, where he organized a conference on Romania – The World’s First Media Revolution. Arthur, the America-Japan guy, gave a great analysis and the Krokers came from Canada.  (178)

Like many of the academic/intellectual figures mentioned in the novel, the Krokers are not fictional; Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are Canadian media theorists. The fact that they are Canadian doesn’t seem to have any significance in the book; the point is simply that the conference was such a big deal that the Krokers travelled all the way to Tokyo from Canada to be part of it.

For the curious, here is an (unintentionally hilarious) 1998 article by the Krokers about Kathy Acker – another name to conjure the 90s, and one who crops up in Kraus’ book as the one woman male academics think of whenever they’re told they need to invite a woman to speak at a conference.

2. Ideas of Escape

a) The Underground Railroad

This passage is part of a description of Enos and Sybil Putnam, who are celebrated in the small town of Thurman, in upstate New York, where Sylvie and Jerome have a house:

Passionately opposed to slavery, Enos and Sybil Putnam transformed their humble parsonage into an important station on the Underground Railroad that relayed fugitives from Georgia – or was it Mississippi? – to freedom, into Canada.  (125)

Nothing new there, but it’s nice to see Canada get some props as a refuge from slavery.

b) Getting Out of New York City

This passage is about Sylvie’s momentary desire to escape New York:

Once, after staying up all night in New York City, she’d felt an urge to go to Canada. A truck-driver she’d met at Munson’s Diner near the West Side Highway took her all the way up to Lake George. It was early November, she tried to hitch a ride but no one stopped, so she’d walked across the village to the beach. There, she’d seen a black man in a cowboy hat and a white woman in a fringed suede jacket locked in an embrace. Everything combined into this image, and it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. At that moment it seemed possible to both be them, and to be outside them, all the loneliness in the world, the mountains and the lake. It was around that time that she’d decided to make movies.  (127-8)

I assume this is the Lake George in upstate New York (why not vacation there?) and that Sylvie never made it to Canada, and so none of what follows can be taken as related to our country. But we see again the idea of Canada as an escape from whatever problems are pressing upon you in your homeland, whether the need for a fresh start, the loss of your farm, or a troubled marriage. The fact that Sylvie has been “up all night” seems to imply that Canada offers peace and serenity compared to the rush of life in New York City, as if Canada is a place where no one would ever stay up all night because there would be nothing going on (we might compare the idea of the Canadian cottage).

We could also draw a comparison between the two forms of escape in these two passages: in the second, Sylvie’s desire to escape to Canada is the product of ennui and a temporary desire for change (made possible by what would now be called her “privilege”); she has no need to go to Canada, she just decides on a whim that she wants to. In the end she doesn’t get there, and it doesn’t matter, as she has her filmmaking epiphany in upstate New York instead.

By contrast, those using the Underground Railroad have a genuine need to reach Canada; it’s not a matter of indifference to them whether they make it or not. I don’t know if Kraus is intentionally setting up this parallel (though the two passages are only a few pages apart), but when you look at the book through the lens of references to Canada, it comes out.

3. Wildlife

This reference is pretty self-explanatory:

The first summer they’d moved up to Thurman, there was an infestation of yellow butterflies along the road to Lake Minerva. It was like a butterfly’s Spring Break: as if every butterfly from Albany to Canada had agreed to meet and mate on one long stretch of gravel road.  (155)

Note, as so often, the shift in specificity from references to the U.S. (Albany, a city) to a very generalized idea when it comes to Canada (it’s just Canada – not even Ontario, which would probably be the most relevant part of our country to upstate New York, at least where butterfly migration is concerned). Canada’s placement (“from Albany to Canada”) seems to suggest our nation is an end-point of the known world, a wilderness teeming with butterflies and other wildlife waiting to swoop down and blanket the U.S.

4. Language Games

This reference comes in a passage about “Who’s Peaked?”, a game Jerome and his intellectual friends play in which they rank the fame of other academics:

Just as the Inuit had 33 words to describe different qualities of snow, Jerome and his friends enjoyed infinitely parsing different categories of fame.  (166)

The game is a good example of the way Kraus satirizes the shallowness of the academics in the book: it’s telling, for example, that they never discuss the quality of anyone’s ideas, but only their relative “star power” (within the academic community, of course, which is essentially a black hole as far as the wider world’s conception of celebrity goes).

As for the idea that the Inuit have multiple words for snow, it’s a very common cliché, and may even be true. And perhaps this is also characterizing as regards the academics in the book, in the sense that Kraus uses a linguistic metaphor to describe people working in a university system that, at the time she is writing about, was very influenced by structuralism and post-structuralism, both of which had roots in linguistics.

5. Quebec as Part of the Third World

This passage is about Sylvie’s taste in interior decorating:

She’s learned over years of traveling with Jerome and setting up their houses that it’s only in the hardware stores you still find truly local merchandise. Candy pink mosquito nets in Guatemala; plywood rat traps in Oaxaca; terracotta bean pots in the eastern villages of Quebec. It occurs to Sylvie that this kind of foraging for Third World decor accessories – for many years the sole domain of vacationing academics and their wives – has recently been professionalized by buyers from Pier Nine and Ikea. Vaguely, this thought depresses her.  (236)

Wait – Third World? Quebec is part of the Third World? Where did that come from? Guatemala and Oaxaca, okay, but Quebec?

And the strangest thing about this passage is that Quebec is the last place mentioned in the list. If the list started with Quebec, and then continued on to Guatemala and Oaxaca, you could almost say, well, by the time she gets through the list she’s thinking about Third World places, and she sort of forgets that she started with Quebec. But Quebec is actually the last place named before the generalizing term “Third World” is brought in.

Is Kraus just not really thinking about what she’s saying? Or is she aware of what she’s doing, and this is a very conscious dig at Quebec, suggesting that the province – or at least its eastern part – more properly belongs in the Third World?

6. Conclusions?

What fascinates me most about the references to Canada in torpor is that there are so many of them, and that they are so varied. Canada is not associated with any single idea here, like, for example, lumberjacks, or cleanliness, or wilderness. Rather it is a multi-faceted place associated with a number of things: freedom and escape (the Underground Railroad and Sylvie’s momentary desire to get away from New York City), wildlife (the butterflies), and cold and snow (the Inuit words), which are fairly common tropes; but also intellectuals and media theorists (McLuhan and the Krokers) and, most bizarrely of all, Third World handicrafts from Quebec. This variety gives Canada a realness or solidity and makes it seem not like a strange or mysterious land, but rather as simply another country, distinct from the U.S., but nevertheless on a level with it as a place in its own right.

Satirized Before We Even Existed

This last one has nothing to do with Canada, but is still pretty special to me; Florina is a Romanian academic Sylvie gets to know when she meets Jerome at a summer residency in Germany before they go to Romania:

Florina’s place was identical to Jerome’s, except that her books and papers had strayed considerably from the birch and laminate white Workbench desk, her clothes were not confined to the white closet, and her coffee cups had strayed from the white kitchen cupboards. She was working on a project that would be an encyclopedic compendium of references to her nation in “the German literature” from Teutonic fables to the present.  (164)

Wow – do you see what happened there? Substitute “Canada” for “her nation” and “world literature” for “German literature” and you have the idea of Wow – Canada! So Chris Kraus actually predicted the existence of this website, and (by my reading) was mildly satirizing it, before I had even thought of it.

Sigh. Perhaps it’s time to fold my tent and move on.

Music – Why Not?

Since I referred to the famous Gil Scott-Heron song, above, I might as well post it here. (This is the original version, as recorded on the “spoken word” album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, not the more “musical” version from Pieces of a Man.)

And here is Woody Allen’s classic Marshall McLuhan sight gag, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that 70s academics could be just as irritating as the 90s variety:

That is still so funny to me.

Let’s Get Away From It All

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Siobhan Wall, Quiet Paris (2013)

Imagine, for a moment, that you find yourself in Paris and, for some reason, rather than enjoying the constant stimulation provided by that fantastic city, you are feeling overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps this is something like Stendhal Syndrome?) You need to get away from it all.

Siobhan Wall’s book, Quiet Paris, is dedicated to solving this unexpected dilemma: it’s a catalogue of places you can go in Paris when you need to get away from the fact that you are in Paris – quiet places where you can avoid the crowds that throng the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and all the other “must-sees” on the average tourist’s list. (There’s also a Quiet New York and a Quiet London, but no Quiet Toronto as far as I can see – no need, I suppose.)

Can you guess what’s included among those quiet, unfrequented locations that offer a respite from the non-stop Parisian action?

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That’s right: the Canadian Cultural Centre. Shockingly, no one ever seems to go there.

Here’s the write-up:

This often overlooked cultural centre has a very inviting first floor exhibition space where stimulating exhibitions of Canadian art are shown. Twice a year, elegant 18th-century rooms are filled with two- and three-dimensional images by contemporary artists who work in a variety of different media.  (132)

Lovely, charming, sounds wonderful. Where else in Paris are you going to find two-dimensional images?

Wall does what she can to sell the Canadian Cultural Centre to her readers – and if you really were looking for a place to get away, it’s probably perfect – but for anyone who wants to boost Canadian culture overseas, it’s hard to ignore the subtext.

All this apparent praise comes in a book that is specifically devoted to guiding people to places where they can avoid crowds. (This isn’t Must Sees Paris after all.) Put simply: the only reason the Canadian Cultural Centre is in this book is that no one in Paris (whether a Parisian or a tourist) would ever dream of going there. Wall doesn’t give a reason, but I think it’s fairly simple to infer: in a city with as many cultural attractions as Paris, no one has any reason to visit the Canadian Cultural Centre; there’s too much other culture going on for Canadian culture to even be worthy of note. (If the art exhibitions were really so “stimulating,” they would attract crowds, and the Canadian Cultural Centre wouldn’t be in this book at all.)

And those opening words, “This often overlooked cultural centre….” As a Canadian, it’s hard not to feel that our entire culture – perhaps even our entire nation – is somehow summed up in those two words: “often overlooked.”

Special Bonus: Rank Self-Promotion

I do occasionally write about things other than references to Canada in books by non-Canadians. In case anyone is curious, here’s an article I wrote about the Canadian poet Daryl Hine:

http://www.partisanmagazine.com/reviews/2015/4/26/what-about-daryl-hine

Extra Special Bonus: Music

To make up for that, some Paris-related music. Here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”:

Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” (supposedly written before he had ever been to Paris):

I’m not sure why that one has been labelled “incomplete”: I think that’s the standard studio recording. You can hear Powell say “Okay cut it” right at the end, which seems to indicate he felt the piece was complete.

And there’s just time to squeeze this one in before the end of April:

Lovely version with a great band, including Paul Quinichette and Clifford Brown.

Bob Hope Has Escaped to Canada

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Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle (1962)

Philip K. Dick is generally classified as a “sic-fi” writer, but this book, beyond a few references to Mars rockets, doesn’t have a lot of the conventional trappings of science fiction. It’s really an “alternate history” – a novel that imagines the United States of the 1960s as it might have been if the Allies had lost the Second World War. In Dick’s vision, Nazi Germany and Japan divided the defeated United States between them: the Nazis control the eastern U.S., while the Japanese control the west coast. In between are the so-called “Rocky Mountain States,” controlled by neither Japan nor Germany, where some approximation of pre-War American life is able to continue.

This set-up, of course, leaves one burning question in the mind of every reader of Dick’s novel…

What About Canada?

There are three references to Canada spread over the course of the novel, and each one, to my reading at least, gives a slightly different view of the fate of our country in Dick’s alternate future.

As background to this reference: since winning the war and taking over the west coast, the Japanese have become obsessed with “Americana,” especially objects of American culture from before the war, such as Civil-War-era pistols, Mickey Mouse watches, and so on. In response, a large counterfeiting industry has sprung up, which mass-produces replicas of genuine Americana to sell to wealthy Japanese collectors. Wyndam-Matson owns one such counterfeit factory, and in this scene he is attempting to seduce a young woman, before getting sidetracked into a conversation about the meaning of a “genuine” artifact versus a fake. He has just presented her with two seemingly identical cigarette lighters and told her one of them is the one FDR had in his pocket when he was assassinated:

“Gee,” said the girl, awed. “Is that really true? That he had one of these on him that day?”
“Sure. And I know which it is. You see my point. It’s all a big racket; they’re playing it on themselves. I mean, a gun goes through a famous battle, like the Meuse-Argonne, and it’s the same as if it hadn’t, unless you know. It’s in here.” He tapped his head. “In the mind, not the gun. I used to be a collector. In fact, that’s how I got into this business. I collected stamps. Early British colonies.”
The girl now stood at the window, her arms folded, gazing out at the lights of downtown San Francisco. “My mother and dad used to say we wouldn’t have lost the war if he had lived,” she said.
“Okay,” Wyndam-Matson went on. “Now suppose say last year the Canadian Government or somebody, anybody, finds the plates from which some old stamp was printed. And the ink. And a supply of -”
“I don’t believe either of those two lighters belonged to Franklin Roosevelt,” the girl said.
Wyndam-Matson giggled. “That’s my point! I’d have to prove it to you with some sort of document. A paper of authenticity. And so it’s all a fake, a mass delusion. The paper proves its worth, not the object itself!”  (66)

As you can see, the characters are speaking at cross-purposes: he wants to give his example about stamps, whereas she is more interested in the authenticity of Roosevelt’s lighter. As a result, the thought regarding the Canadian stamps is never completed, though you can see more or less where it was going.

The first thing we notice is that the reference to “the Canadian Government” comes up in the context of stamps from the “early British colonies.” This ties Canada back to the more distant past: not just before the Second World War, but to the colonial period, when Canada was simply a foreign possession controlled by Great Britain. (We might, if we tried, convince ourselves that we detected an almost wistful note here, as if Wyndam-Matson missed the days when Britain was a colonial power rather than Nazi Germany – though that would be an odd thought for an American, given their revolutionary history.)

And then come the words “last year.” If the Canadian government could have found the plates for an old stamp last year, that indicates that in the world of the novel, the Canadian government still exists in some form. This could, admittedly, be some sort of Nazi puppet state, but the reference at least raises the possibility that Canada has somehow managed to remain an independent nation – either through resistance to Nazi Germany, or by virtue of simply being too insignificant for the Germans or the Japanese to bother about.

The passage is too vague to reach a definite conclusion, but Canada appears in a similar light again.

A Haven for Hope

The second reference comes in the thoughts of Juliana, a character who lives in the Rocky Mountain States, on the periphery of German and Japanese influence; “Hope” means, not the thing with feathers, but the comedian Bob Hope:

Maybe that’s it, she thought as she put the magazine back on the rack. The Nazis have no sense of humor, so why should they want television? Anyhow, they killed most of the really great comedians. Because most of them were Jewish. In fact, she realized, they killed off most of the entertainment field. I wonder how Hope gets away with what he says. Of course, he has to broadcast from Canada. And it’s a little freer up there. But Hope really says things. Like the joke about Goring…the one where Goring buys Rome and has it shipped to his mountain retreat and then set up again. And revives Christianity so his pet lions will have something to –  (80)

The phrase “a little freer up there” develops even further what seemed to be the implication of the Wyndam-Matson passage: that Canada remains an independent nation that has somehow kept itself outside the realm of Nazi influence, at least to the extent that Bob Hope can get away with saying things there that he could not say in the U.S. (“has to” makes clear that what he is saying from Canada would not be tolerated in the U.S.). In a sense, then, Canada plays a role in whatever resistance continues in the U.S.: by providing a safe place for Hope to broadcast, Canada ensures that at least some information critical of the Nazis makes its way into the U.S. to be heard by American citizens.

Goebbels Calling

And yet the third reference to Canada undermines this; in this scene, Reiss, a German consul in San Francisco, receives a phone call from the new Reichschancellor:

“Reiss here.”
An unfamiliar voice said, “Consul, this is the Ausland Fernsprechamt at Nova Scotia. Transatlantic telephone call for you from Berlin, urgent.”
“All right,” Reiss said.
“Just a moment, Consul.” Faint static, crackles. Then another voice, a woman operator. “Kanzlei.”
“Yes, this is Ausland Fernsprechamt at Nova Scotia. Call for the Reichs Consul H. Reiss, San Francisco; I have the consul on the line.”
“Hold on.” A long pause, during which Reiss continued, with one hand, to inspect his mail. Kreuz vom Meere watched slackly. “Herr Konsul, sorry to take your time.” A man’s voice. The blood in Reiss’s veins instantly stopped its motion. Baritone, cultivated, rolling-out-smooth voice familiar to Reiss. “This is Doktor Goebbels.”
“Yes, Kanzler.”   (179-80)

Here we see that, when high-ranking Nazis need to make transatlantic phone calls, they do so through some sort of switchboard (“Ausland Fernsprechamt” means something along the lines of “foreign telephone exchange”) located in Nova Scotia, which indicates that that part of Canada, at least, is firmly under Nazi control. Goebbels would hardly be patching his phone calls through a country that was not controlled by Germany.

Maybe We Just Don’t Matter That Much

Overall, I think it’s fair to say the references to Canada in The Man in the High Castle present conflicting images of our country, particularly the second and third, where we appear first as a bastion of safety for anti-Nazi Americans like Bob Hope, and then as simply a convenient location through which the Nazis route their long distance phone calls. Perhaps we could try to convince ourselves that the eastern seaboard (Nova Scotia) is under Nazi control, but that the central part of Canada is still free (or “freer”), and that it is from here that Hope makes his broadcasts. But there’s no indication in the novel that that’s the case … and indeed, the sketchiness of the references to Canada raises another, slightly gloomier possibility, which I think we must confront: that the author just isn’t that interested in Canada.

Dick’s novel, after all, is not about how the Allied loss of World War Two affected Canada; it’s about what would have happened to the U.S. if the Allies had lost, and even then, it’s almost exclusively a vision of California under Japanese control – even the Nazis are largely peripheral. Given that, I think the most reasonable conclusion we could reach is that Dick’s portrayal of Canada changes to suit events at different points in his novel: when he needs somewhere for Bob Hope to be broadcasting his anti-Nazi jokes, he thinks of Canada; when he’s trying to imagine where a phone call from Germany would come in, he thinks of Nova Scotia; but there’s no reason to think that he expended any effort on trying to resolve the apparent contradiction between these two references, or even that he was aware of it.

Canada just wasn’t that important to him.

More Television!

Since “prestige television” seems to be the dominant cultural form of the moment – you can’t go online without being bombarded by recaps of last night’s episode of this or that – it’s not especially surprising that The Man in the High Castle (like another book we looked at recently) has been made into a television series. I couldn’t find a trailer for the show as a whole (I confess I didn’t look that hard), but here’s a scene:

Just doing my part to keep you up to date with the new novel, serialized television. (I wonder if the TV version mentions Canada?)

Mother Runs Off … to Canada

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James Lees-Milne, Another Self (1970)

Another Self is generally referred to as a “semi-autobiographical novel,” though today, no doubt, it would just be marketed as a “memoir”. Lees-Milne is best-known as a diarist – a number of volumes of his diaries have been published – and as a key figure in the early years of the National Trust, and was also a member of the Mitford circle. (There are similarities between his description of his father in this book and the father figure in the work of Nancy and Jessica Mitford.) Another Self gives an account of his childhood and youth, the idea behind the title apparently being that the person he was then is no longer the same as the person who wrote this book.

The reference to Canada comes at a point in the book when Lees-Milne is describing how his parents reacted to his lack of success at Eton:

My housemaster recommended that there was little point in my remaining at school beyond the summer half. Eton, he hinted, could do little further for me, and I might just as well make room for some other boy who would benefit from it. My father was naturally in a blazing temper. My mother who could not face up to the recriminations which, she explained, would only make her ill, kissed me fondly goodbye, and sailed away to Canada.  (45)

There is something about that scene – not romantic precisely – but melodramatic, I think. The threat of illness, the fond kiss, the abrupt departure for a distant location – these elements seem borrowed from the Victorian stage and make this moment feel not so much natural as constructed for effect – though whether constructed by the author or by his mother is hard to say.

Canada’s emphatic placement at the end of the paragraph makes our country the dramatic culmination of the whole passage – it is this departure to Canada that the narrative leads up to. And yet Canada itself remains mysterious. Why does she sail to Canada? What does she do there? We are never told. The name of our country simply sits on the page, unexplained and, perhaps, inexplicable.

Of course, as a (former) British colony, Canada would offer at least some of the comforts of familiarity to Lees-Milne’s mother: she would be able to speak the language and so on. We could almost imagine Canada as a sort of sanatorium, maintained by the Empire, where Englishwomen can go when they need a break from life at home. After a few months in the colonial wilderness, no doubt, whatever problems they had back in England will begin to look relatively minor.

And in fact, in the next chapter the narrator’s mother is back in England, and no reference to Canada is ever made again. We can speculate about the reasons behind the journey – did she have a lover there, or a lover who was going there? She had already run – or more accurately, flown – off with a balloonist before the abrupt departure to Canada, so something along those lines is possible – but we are never told.

Canada is the means by which the mother dramatically gives up on life and escapes from reality, but only temporarily. Sailing to Canada is not a real decision with irrevocable consequences; it is, rather, a gesture that conveys the mother’s mental and emotional state at that particular moment in time, but can always be retracted later. For her, living in Canada is a momentary aberration, not a permanent state.

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