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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Failure”

Exiled to the CFL

exley

Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes (1968)

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

Football on the Glacier

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

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

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

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

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

The Upstate New York Connection

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

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

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

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

Fishing in Canada (Again)

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

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

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

The Fraudulent Surgeons of Montreal

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

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

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

In Conclusion (Almost)

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

And Finally…

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

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

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

Animated version:

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

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

I guess it seemed cool at the time.

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Of Lion Tamers and Tents

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

This novel is divided into five parts, four of which contain references to Canada. This isn’t too surprising, as 2666 seems to have ambitions to be an “encyclopedic” novel, and what encyclopedia would be complete without Canada?

To prevent the post from becoming unwieldy, I’ve divided it into three.

From “1: The Part About the Critics”:

The owner was a Chicano in his fifties who had worked a long time in European circuses that crossed the continent from Copenhagen to Malaga, performing in small towns with middling success, until he decided to go back to Earlimart, California, where he was from, and start a circus of his own. He called it Circo Internacional because one of his original ideas was to have performers from all over the world, although in the end they were mostly Mexican and American, except that every so often some Central American came looking for work and once he had a Canadian lion tamer in his seventies whom no other circus in the United States would employ.  (132)

I think it’s meant to appear rather pathetic that, in hoping to be truly international, all the circus owner can get are a few Central Americans and one Canadian – not even a European. And why will no other circus (in the United States) employ the Canadian lion tamer? Is this a slight on our (notional?) national ability to tame large carnivores? Or is it because, being in his seventies, the Canadian lion tamer is considered too old to be reliable?

Certainly the overall impression is that the “Chicano” who owns the circus is the only one desperate enough to employ this (presumably incompetent or semi-senile) Canadian lion tamer. And then there is the word “once” – no details are given, but it seems to suggest that the Canadian’s time at the Circo Internacional was brief and not altogether successful. One imagines the owner going through a stack of résumés and muttering, “A Canadian lion tamer? I’m not making that mistake again.”

And why does the narrative specify that he can’t be employed anywhere else in the United States? Are we to assume that in some other country with less stringent standards (Canada, perhaps?) he could find work? If so, why is a Canadian lion tamer so desperate to work in the United States that he will take a job at the Circo Internacional if he has options in his homeland?

More questions than answers. Perhaps this is Bolano’s comment on the frequently noted fact that no Canadian is considered a success by other Canadians until they succeed in the United States.

From “2: The Part About Amalfitano”:

For two days, said Lola, we were working at a roadside restaurant in Lerida, for a man who also owned an apple orchard. It was a big orchard and there were already green apples on the trees. In a little while the apple harvest would begin, and the owner had asked them to stay till then. Imma had gone to talk to him while Lola read a book by the Mondragon poet (she had all the books he’d published so far in her backpack), sitting by the Canadian tent where the two of them slept.  (166-7)

A Canadian tent – not exactly paradigm-breaking. Being (apparently) nothing more than a vast wilderness with a few widely spaced population centres huddled along our southern border, as if cuddling up to the hectic machine of the United States in search of warmth, Canada is associated with nature, the outdoors, hiking and camping – we Canadians know all about that sort of thing, so no doubt we make good tents.

Camping was also central to the experience of Canada portrayed in the Sylvia Plath poem that we considered recently, and the idea that we are essentially a wilderness nation crops up again and again – in fact, it was there at our literary inception.

This Canadian tent sits in Bolano’s novel like a two-word symbol crystallizing everything our country means to the world. We’ll just have to learn to accept it.

Literature Gives No Man a Sinecure

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell

George Orwell, Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936)

The plot of this novel centres on Gordon Comstock, who gives up a decent job as an advertising copywriter in order to concentrate on poetry and sinks gradually into poverty. He sees himself as a rebel against middle-class propriety (represented by aspidistra plants), but in the end circumstances (through the medium of his girlfriend, Rosemary) drag him back towards a happy mediocrity, where he probably belongs anyway. I liked this one, despite the somewhat disconcerting sense that, at times, I could almost have been reading my own autobiography.

It was also made into a decent film starring Richard E. Grant and Helena Bonham Carter. The film doesn’t get down into the gritty texture of poverty to the extent that the book does, but it’s entertaining. Bizarrely, I think it was released in North America under the title “A Merry War”. Perhaps the word “aspidistra” was considered too long or too obscure for North American viewers; still, when you have a title as fantastic as “Keep the Aspidistra Flying,” it seems a shame to waste it.

Best of all, though, there are three – that’s right, three – references to Canada. We’ll take them in the order they occur. First:

Gordon’s supper was set out, waiting for him, in the circle of white light that the cracked gas-jet cast upon the table cloth. He sat down with his back to the fireplace (there was an aspidistra in the grate instead of a fire) and ate his plate of cold beef and his two slices of crumbly white bread, with Canadian butter, mousetrap cheese and Pan Yan pickle, and drank a glass of cold but musty water.  (p. 30)

It would be nice to think that this reference to Canadian butter suggests a cool, delicious dairy product that comes from the wide-open spaces of the new world, where proud farmers milk their cows and their daughters, faces cream-spackled, churn it into delicious fresh butter to be shipped back to England – in short, that the reference to Canadian butter is meant to provide a contrast with the dirty and poverty-stricken conditions in which Gordon consumes it.

Alas, the sentence resists such interpretation.

The general tenor of the description of Gordon’s life in the boarding house is that it is mean and filthy; the dinner he eats seems to be of a piece with that (the bread is crumbly, the water musty – how lovely that “but” there, as if it required some sort of mysterious, almost alchemical cruelty to take cold water and still render it musty, thus draining it of pleasure). It seems more likely that Canadian butter represents something cheap and low-quality rather than something grand and delicious. Given the characterization of his landlady, if Canadian butter were good, it’s impossible to imagine that she would give it to Gordon.

We also have the phrase “mousetrap cheese,” which immediately follows “Canadian butter.” I’m not sure what this means, but I suspect it refers to cheese that is so bad that it’s appropriate for use in a mousetrap, but not for human consumption.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I’m not the first to have taken up this question; the Internet provides some further speculations.

Second:

She [Rosemary] was the youngest child of one of those huge hungry families which still exist here and there in the middle classes. There had been fourteen children all told – the father was a country solicitor. Some of Rosemary’s sisters were married, some of them were schoolmistresses or running typing bureaux; the brothers were farming in Canada, on tea plantations in Ceylon, in obscure regiments in the Indian army.   (p. 124)

This second reference ties in with the first in linking Canada and farming. Here Canada, along with Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India, represents a colony that offers opportunity to Englishmen who have little chance of getting ahead at home. Rosemary’s brothers are clearly enterprising types (unlike Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit) who have headed out to the corners of the Empire to make their fortunes through hard work and determination.

And finally:

Mr. Clew had left the New Albion a year ago, and his place had been taken by Mr. Warner, a Canadian who had been five years with a New York publicity firm. Mr. Warner was a live wire but quite a likeable person.    (p. 271)

Now that’s remarkable: a reference to Canada that has nothing to do with farming, but instead focuses on a member of what would today be called the “creative class”. The New Albion is the publicity (i.e. advertising) firm where Gordon works in London; Mr. Clew was his boss when he quit.

At first this seems rather exciting: a Canadian live wire (one doesn’t often see those terms in close proximity) who is a big wheel in a London advertising firm. But if we pause over the sentence a moment, we realize that Mr. Warner has become successful by leaving Canada. In fact, it seems likely that, as a “live wire”, he was too bright, too creative, for dour Canada, and had to leave in order to find success on the grand stages of New York and London, where people with vision are appreciated.  And isn’t that one of the commonest tropes about Canadians – that the really great ones are the ones who succeed outside Canada?

And so, to summarize … what do we learn about Canada from Orwell? It’s a country of farms that produce cheap but inferior butter; and it’s a great place for Englishmen of modest dreams (i.e. those who want to be farmers) to go in search of opportunity, but any Canadian with a real spark of intelligence or creativity will inevitably leave for the U.S. or England. In a nutshell, we import England’s extraneous people and export anyone with genuine talent. This is, I suppose, typical of the way empires regard their colonies, but it still doesn’t feel like a vision one wants to rally around.

A Fresh Hope Squandered

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)

Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on her brother’s rescue, that while he was ringing out these doleful changes, she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for Canada. When he was tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its turn to cut even that, he graciously consented to go to Canada. And there was grief in her bosom over parting with him, and joy in the hope of his being put in a straight course at last.

‘God bless you, dear Tip. Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune.’

‘All right!’ said Tip, and went.

But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool. After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himself so strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk back again. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself before her at the expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes, and much more tired than ever. (pp. 79-80)

This was the novel that finally changed my mind about Dickens. In my foolish (and, alas, largely wasted) youth I thought of him as a sentimental populist who had churned out massive, painfully dull novels with an eye on feeding his legion of children (he got paid by the page, I was eager to point out) rather than literary merit. I had always liked Great Expectations, but I thought of it as a bit of an outlier.

My wanderings through the world of picaresque novels, however, eventually brought me to Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, and I began to appreciate that side of Dickens. I made one or two unfortunate detours that seemed to confirm my earlier opinion (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield) but then I came to Little Dorrit and I was, as they say, changed.

Little Dorrit has the gallery of Dickensian characters, running the gamut from high to low, that you would expect, and the combination of pathos and humour that Dickens does so well. But the commentary on high finance and politics (and the connections between the two) remain incisive in the age of Bernie Madoff and bank bailouts (see the chapter “In which a Great Patriotic Conference is holden”), and the scenes in the Circumlocution Office would do Pirandello or Ionesco proud.

But returning to the passage quoted above.

The “brave little creature” is Amy Dorrit, the heroine of the novel and the “Little Dorrit” of the title. Tip is her brother, a ne’er-do-well for whom she can’t quite bring herself to relinquish hope.

Here Canada represents a land of opportunity where those who have failed to succeed in England can get a second chance, outside the rigid social and class system that controls so much of English society and makes upward mobility difficult. Of course the implication is that getting ahead in the New World will still require hard work – anathema to Amy’s brother Tip.

And Dickens, it’s worth noting, actually knew something of Canada, having visited it on his North American trip in 1842. (This doesn’t make him a “Canadian writer;” I’m always irritated by the slightly desperate way we Canadians claim as our own any famous person who happens to live here for a while. I think of Malcolm Lowry as the classic example: essentially a nomadic Englishman, but we try to possess him by virtue of his having lived in Vancouver for a few years.)

The following quotes are from Dickens’ book American Notes:

In the spring of the year, vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or from Ireland, pass between Quebec and Montreal on their way to the backwoods and new settlements of Canada. If it be an entertaining lounge (as I very often found it) to take a morning stroll upon the quay at Montreal, and see them grouped in hundreds on the public wharfs about their chests and boxes, it is matter of deep interest to be their fellow-passenger on one of these steamboats, and mingling with the concourse, see and hear them unobserved.

The vessel in which we returned from Quebec to Montreal was crowded with them, and at night they spread their beds between decks (those who had beds, at least), and slept so close and thick about our cabin door, that the passage to and fro was quite blocked up. They were nearly all English; from Gloucestershire the greater part; and had had a long winter-passage out; but it was wonderful to see how clean the children had been kept, and how untiring in their love and self-denial all the poor parents were. (Chapter XV)

Dickens had witnessed first-hand the journey Amy hopes Tip will take. Note particularly the reference to the “backwoods and new settlements of Canada” – clearly nothing is going to be easy. Dickens conceived of Canada as Montreal and Quebec precariously perched in a sea of wilderness – which at the time was probably a fairly accurate impression.

Here are his parting words on Canada:

But Canada has held, and always will retain, a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down, and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise alike in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system, but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the busy quays of Montreal; the vessels taking in their cargoes, and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, roads, and public works, all made TO LAST; the respectability and character of the public journals; and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn: were very great surprises. The steamboats on the lakes, in their conveniences, cleanliness, and safety; in the gentlemanly character and bearing of their captains; and in the politeness and perfect comfort of their social regulations; are unsurpassed even by the famous Scotch vessels, deservedly so much esteemed at home. The inns are usually bad; because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States, and the British officers, who form a large portion of the society of every town, live chiefly at the regimental messes: but in every other respect, the traveller in Canada will find as good provision for his comfort as in any place I know. (Chapter XV)

The phrase here that seems most relevant to the mention of Canada in Little Dorrit is “full of hope and promise” – Dickens saw Canada as a land of new beginnings, especially for the poor.

But let’s note, in passing, some of the other words and phrases that come up:

“advancing quietly”

“nothing of flush or fever in its system”

“steady pulse”

“respectability”

“rational comfort and happiness”

“cleanliness”

“safety”

“politeness”

How many common ideas of Canada are already here! We’re polite, we’re steady, we’re respectable, we’re not fiery – at the end of this paragraph one already has a strong sense of Canada as very nice, really, but a little … well … dull, no?

Still, it’s what you would call an “overall positive review,” which is about the most one can hope for.

Too bad about the inns.

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