Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “French Canada”

Not Even to Montreal?

salterlightyears

James Salter, Light Years (1975)

James Salter is one of those writers whose books I always start with a lot of excitement, expecting them to be among the best novels I’ve ever read; they start well, and then after about fifty pages I find myself irritated by what seems to me an increasingly mannered and precious style. (I talked a bit about this in the post on All That Is, which also mentions Canada.) Light Years, sadly, followed exactly that pattern. It’s about Nedra and Viri, a couple with two daughters who have what appears to be a perfect marriage and live a fabulous, cultured life in their gorgeous house just outside New York City, on the Hudson River. Salter’s goal here, I think, is to capture the key moments of life, in all their intense beauty or pain, but also to give a sense of how quickly those moments, and life itself, slip past. There are certainly some gorgeous passages, but the book becomes more trite as it goes on, and by the end it completely falls apart — I don’t know if there are words to describe the grating tedium of the last section of this novel.

But to come to the point…

A Reasonable Facsimile of Europe

The most interesting reference to Canada is part of a scene in which Nedra and Kate, the teenaged daughter of one of Nedra and Viri’s neighbours, are arranging to meet:

The elegance of the evening, the dishes remaining on the table, the ease with which Nedra and her husband treated each other, the understanding which seemed to stream from them, all of this filled Kate with a feverish happiness, that happiness which lies within the power of another to confer. She was drenched with love for these people who, though they had lived nearby all through her childhood, it seemed she was suddenly seeing for the first time, who were treating her as someone she longed at that moment to be: one of themselves.
“Can I come and see you while I’m here?” she asked.
“Of course.”
“I mean, I really like to talk to you.”
“I’d love to see you,” Nedra said.
One afternoon, then. They would walk together or have tea. She had never set foot beyond the borders, this woman Kate suddenly loved, this woman with a knowing face, not at all sentimental, who leaned on her elbows and smoked small cigars. She had never traveled, not even to Montreal, and yet she knew so well what life should be. It was true. In her heart she carried an instinct like that of a migrant species. She would find the tundra, the deeps, she would journey home.  (157-58)

Not even to Montreal! This is a marvellous detail, as it shows that Montreal, as a largely French-speaking city in North America, represents a sort of baseline of sophistication for cultured Americans, as if to say, if you can’t get to Europe, at least go to Montreal. The idea seems to be that Montreal will provide some facsimile of the experience of travelling to Europe, and while it obviously won’t be the same, at least it’s something.

As the novel proceeds, it turns out that far from being some rich girl brought up in luxury, Nedra actually grew up as the daughter of a relatively poor, chain-smoking travelling salesman in a small town in Pennsylvania. The reference to Montreal is an important element in the novel because it punctures the image we have of her and reveals one of the central contradictions of Nedra’s character: her appearance of sophistication despite her lack of any of the experiences or accomplishments that normally confer sophistication on a person.

Flying and Fishing, But Not Necessarily Fly-Fishing

There are a couple of minor references to Canada, which I’ll just note in passing. The first picks up on the reference above about travelling to Montreal, and comes as Danny, one of Viri and Nedra’s daughters, lies in bed with her boyfriend after losing her virginity:

She did not move. I have done it, she thought. The light that came through the windows was wintry. There was a bite to the air, as of coal. High up, faint, the sound of a jet crossing the city, en route to Canada, France.  (192)

The way Canada and France are placed together at the end of the sentence as possible destinations one might be flying to from New York seems an odd confirmation of the idea quoted above, that Canada is in some sense an alternate Europe. (In a weird way, the use of the comma rather than “or” almost makes it sound as if Canada is a place in France, like “Paris, France”. If only!)

The other reference is part of a description of a character named Peter Daro:

His great love was fishing. He had fished in Ireland, the Restigouche, he had fished the Frying Pan and the Esopus.  (248)

The Restigouche is a river in New Brunswick and is famous for its salmon fishing.

This reference, incidentally, is part of a growing pattern, which we have also seen in John Cheever and Frederick Exley, and suggests that mid-century male novelists primarily view Canada as a place to go fishing.

Neil Young, Of Course

It’s just very difficult to avoid references to Neil Young. In this scene, Viri gets drunk at a party and has an encounter with a much younger woman:

His attention was drawn back to Candis. She was sitting near him and was talking about the first thing men look at in a woman. Someone said it was the hands and feet.
“Not quite,” she said.
Together they found themselves going through the phonograph records.
“Is there any Neil Young?” she asked.
“I don’t know. Look at this.”
“Oh, God.”
It was a record of Maurice Chevalier. They put it on.
“Now there’s a life,” Viri said. “Menilmontant, Mistinguett…”
“What’s that?”
“The thirties. Both wars. He used to say that until he was fifty he lived from the waist down, and after fifty, from the waist up. I wish I could speak French.”
“Well, you can, can’t you?”
“Oh, just enough to understand these songs.”
There was a pause. “He’s singing in English,” she said.  (228)

I quoted a little more than necessary there, I suppose, just so I could include the joke at the end — Salter can be a very funny writer. The point here, obviously, is the generation gap between Viri and Candis — he’s into Maurice Chevalier, she’s looking for Neil Young — and we can just note that, as in Meg Wolitzer and Lorrie Moore, among others, it’s a Canadian who represents the idea of “singer the kids are listening to these days.”

Salter’s Style (Unrelated to Canada)

I was planning to write a long, involved consideration of Salter’s style here, but I find I don’t really have the time or the energy to tackle it, so instead, I’m just going to look at one example. Before I begin, though, I should say that Salter can write beautifully, and if you’ve never read him, he’s worth a look.

But as I noted above, I found his style increasingly grating as I went on, for a variety of reasons I suppose, but I want to talk about what I think we can learn from this passage:

Eve was tall. Her face had cheekbones.

Those two sentences appear at the beginning of one of the chapters in Light Years. Now, far be it from me to quibble with a great writer, but there is something going on here that I find troubling.

I’m not sure how to describe this — is it redundancy? is it obviousness?  is it tautologous? is it pleonastic? Of course her face had cheekbones; all faces have cheekbones. But the more interesting question to me is, how does a writer — and particularly a talented writer — write a sentence like “Her face had cheekbones”? My personal theory is that he doesn’t, really; he revises his way into it after first writing a somewhat different sentence, a sentence along the lines of “Her face was distinguished by prominent cheekbones,” but then deciding that that is a cliché, and revising it to something like, “She had prominent cheekbones” — but after a while that, too, seems to be a cliché, and finally the writer, searching for the taut, pared-down, lapidary style that authors of Salter’s generation, all following in the hallowed steps of Hemingway, were always seeking, settles on “Her face had cheekbones.” Clearly this sentence cannot have only its literal meaning, because if it did it would be simply stupid; it must stand in for some idea along the lines of, “She had prominent cheekbones,” but the writer, in his horror of cliché, has settled on this weirdly obvious statement as the best way to convey that — and so has come dangerously close to conveying nothing at all.

This kind of squeamishness is balanced by the other aspect of Salter’s style, which is a striving poeticism that, at its worst, turns into overwriting. (See the beginning of the first quoted passage, above, which reads like a breathless profile of a celebrity couple in a glossy magazine.) I’m all for writing that is beautiful, but when I can feel the author trying to make his writing beautiful, I think there’s a problem. Salter, as a stylist, sometimes feels like a model who can’t stop looking at himself in the mirror.

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How Quebec Was Won

nmitfordwigs

Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

gossegray

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

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

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

Music

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

Political Philosophy of a Libertine

History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, History of My Life (1794?)

If you really want to immerse yourself in the world of Casanova, then this is the edition to get (not the Penguin selection discussed earlier). Translated by Willard Trask, it has the full text of Casanova’s memoirs in a brisk, readable English translation (don’t I sound like the worst kind of newspaper book reviewer?). The notes are useful, and there are even illustrations, some of which are quite intriguing, in an Aretino sort of way. (I’ll leave the rest to your capable imaginations.)

You can check it out here.

It runs to twelve volumes, but if you have them all and line them up in order on your bookcase, the spines make the image of the reclining nude on the cover. It will lend your bookcase just the right touch of louche yet sophisiticated libertinism.

I own only this one volume, which, alas, merely features the curve of her knee:

Spine of History of My Life by Casanova ed. Trask

Any zone can be erogenous, I’m told, but still, not quite the same effect.

I bought it so that I could read about the threesome with the two nuns, which was referred to in an alluring yet unsatisfying way in the Penguin edition. Worth every penny. Alas, they never mention Canada in the course of their exhilarating and exhausting amours.

There is, however, this:

At the Duchess of Fulvy’s I made the acquaintance of Mademoiselle Gaussin, known as Lolotte, who was the mistress of Lord Albemarle, the English Ambassador, a man of brilliant and most noble parts and very generous, who, one night when he was out walking with Lolotte, chided her for praising the beauty of the stars she saw in the sky, since he could not give them to her. If His Lordhsip had been the English envoy to France at the time of the break between his nation and the French he would have patched things up, and the unhappy war which casued France to lose the whole of Canada would not have occurred. There is no doubt that the harmony between two nations most often depends upon the respective envoys whom they have at the courts which are on the verge or in danger of falling out. (pp. 171-72; Vol. III, Ch. 9)

This seems to be Casanova’s take on the “great man” theory of history, which holds that the force of a few significant individuals changes the course of life for all the rest of us who are simply dragged along by the mighty currents created by the passing of powerful personalities. If only Lord Albemarle had been ambassador at the right time, we’d all be speaking French. Perhaps, perhaps not.

Canada appears here not as a nation in its own right, but merely as a plaything of great empires, passing from one to the other as the spoils of war. Still, it’s touching that Casanova chooses Canada in paying this compliment to Lord Albemarle; this puts us on the grand stage of world affairs (if only as a possession) and shows how valuable the natural resources Canada offered were considered.

But how odd that Casanova thinks it would have been a great victory of statecraft if the English ambassador had preserved Canada as a colony of the French, when in fact it was the English who benefited from the war by gaining all of Canada’s natural resources for themselves. (Though of course the fortunes of war are uncertain and can’t be predicted in advance. Casanova’s memoir is written in French, so perhaps he sympathized more with the French point of view. Or perhaps he simply hated conflict.)

And how typical of Casanova to think that just because a man can charm his mistress under the stars, he could also change the course of world history – if only as it pertains to a minor nation like our own.

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