Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Fresh start”

A Canadian Interlude: Emily Carr on “Remittance Men”

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Emily Carr, Growing Pains: An Autobiography (1946)

I wouldn’t normally discuss a book written by a Canadian here, since that contravenes the essential principle of this site, but, being once again stranded at the cottage with nothing to read, I happened to pick up an old copy of Emily Carr’s autobiography that has been lying around there for years. I was struck by how neatly one particular passage picked up what I suppose could be called the “Canadian side” of ideas about immigrating to Canada that we have seen in works by Dickens and Basil Bunting:

The most particular sin for which we were whipped was called insubordination. Most always it arose from the same cause — remittance men, or remittance men’s wives. Canada was infested at that time by Old Country younger sons and ne’er-do-wells, people who had been shipped to Canada on a one-way ticket. These people lived on small remittances received from home. They were too lazy and too incompetent to work, stuck up, indolent, considering it beneath their dignity to earn but not beneath their dignity to take all Canada was willing to hand out.  (13)

This passage gives us a glimpse of how someone like Amy’s brother Tip, in Little Dorrit, would have been viewed in Canada in the last quarter of the 19th century. While Amy clearly sees Canada as a country that offers her brother an opportunity for a fresh start in life, those already in Canada have a markedly more negative view of new arrivals.

The word “infested” is particularly interesting. That’s the sort of word that is typically used when the writer wants to associate immigrants with some sort of vermin that are going to overrun the country and destroy its existing social fabric; in the contemporary world, we would probably associate it with diatribes against immigrants of a different race or religion. And yet Carr uses it here to refer to immigrants from England (the “Old Country”) — the country her own parents had immigrated to Canada from not that much earlier.

I suppose it shows that in the absence of racial, cultural or national differences, some reason will still be found to dislike newcomers.

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity

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David Foster, The Glade Within the Grove (1996)

I bought this book for two reasons: first, its seductively minimalist, Rothko-esque cover (see above), and second, because it bills itself as a “re-telling” of the myth of Attis, which I’m familiar with from Poem 63 by Catullus (available online in Latin and in English — essentially, Attis, swept up by the ritual of Cybele, emasculates himself, then regrets it. (Apologies to Catullus (and his fans) for that summary.))

The novel takes place mainly in 1968 and tells the story of a group of young people (more or less “hippies”) who move to the remote Erinungarah Valley to start a commune. It’s made up largely of unattributed dialogue and long-ish digressions on history, mythology and Australian botany, not all of which is as fascinating as it might be; in the end (SPOILER ALERT!) it turns out to be a bit of a shaggy dog story (à la Tristram Shandy, I suppose) since the main characters have only just arrived in the Valley and begun setting up the commune when the narrator announces that he is about to die and can’t finish the book.

Foster, however, has woven in enough hints and “flash-forwards” that we can figure out more or less what is coming: at some point in the relatively near future, Attis (a foundling who grew up in the Valley and becomes a leader of sorts to the communards) will decide that all the problems of the world are caused by men, and that the only way to bring peace and harmony to humanity is to eradicate the scourge of “maleness”, at which point he will castrate himself and be transformed into a tree. Most of the other men follow his lead and castrate themselves as well (but don’t turn into trees), and after that the Valley becomes a paradise where everyone gets along and no one ages–or maybe they just age more slowly than normal, it’s a little hard to be certain. But you get the idea: when male genitalia disappear, society’s problems vanish as well.

Note

Since writing the above summary, I have acquired (no mean feat) and read Foster’s The Ballad of Erinungarah (1997), a book-length poem purporting to be written by Timothy Papadimitriou, who appears in The Glade as a small child. It is in some sense a continuation of the story of the novel, describing how the goddess Brigid appeared in the Valley and seduced (in a purely intellectual/spiritual sense) Attis, which ultimately leads him to castrate himself. It is written in a rather fragmented style, though, and certainly doesn’t answer all the questions a reader will have after finishing the novel. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much you could get out of the poem if you hadn’t read the novel first. The Ballad, alas, fails to mention Canada and so can’t be treated more fully here.

The Canadian Dodge

The novel includes a (very minor) Canadian character, as well as a couple of other additional references to Canada and Canadians. We’ll start with the Canadian, who first appears in the list of characters at the beginning of the book — a list that Foster uses throughout the novel to further the plot, which is helpful given the book’s “unfinished” state. It’s also a handy way to keep track of who’s who in a novel full of unattributed dialogue spoken by a huge and shifting cast of (largely indistinguishable spaced-out hippie) characters:

Johnny Dakota. Late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian vocalist. Guest at the Latin Quarter nightclub in Sydney. Used Michael Ginnsy on one of his albums (appeared recently at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, according to the Herald Metro).  (xxiv)

We can’t glean much about what Foster thinks of Canada from that brief description. He’s clearly aware that we have a First Nations population, and perhaps he adds that element to Johnny Dakota’s background to give him a little more interest. (As a side note, the novel also mentions “Eskimos in igloos” (351), which at least has the advantage of bringing up the common idea that Canada is cold.)

When Johnny Dakota actually appears in the novel, he is described as “a plump man with the Oriental eyes of a native Indian” (110). He then engages in a brief conversation with Diane Zoshka, a teenaged protester who will become the lover of Attis and one of the founders of the commune in the Erinungarah Valley:

‘I’ll have a large Scotch.’
‘You will not!’
‘Come on, let her have one. Don’t be a party poopa.’
‘She is just fifteen, Johnny.’
‘I’m jailbait, Johnny. Better watch out for me. So what do you think about Vietnam?’
‘I dunno. I’m Canadian.’
‘But are you happy with the situation in Vietnam?’
‘I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.’  (110)

Fascinating, no? Diane, a professional protester with communist leanings, is obviously against the war in Vietnam. Whether she assumes that Johnny is American and wants to confront him about the war, or whether demanding what people think about Vietnam is simply her way of making conversation, is a bit hard to tell. Johnny’s response, however, is the classic move of Canadians when they are mistaken for Americans by people from other countries — essentially, “Hey, don’t blame me for that whole Vietnam thing, I’m Canadian, I had nothing to do with it.” (We might compare this with the idea of Canada as a haven for draft dodgers, which came up in a Lorrie Moore novel.)

The dodge doesn’t work, though. Diane follows up by asking what he thinks of the situation in Vietnam (a Canadian can have an opinion, after all), and Johnny responds with “I think we opened a whole can o’ worms.” This also strikes me as characteristically Canadian: he doesn’t come out strongly for or against the war, instead trying to stake out a middle ground while leaning a bit towards the perceived opinion of his interlocutor. But where did that “we” come from? In answer to her first question, he distanced himself from Vietnam by saying he was Canadian, implying that it was an American war that he had no part in. The next time he speaks, however, he is suddenly saying “we” opened a can of worms, as if admitting some sort of Canadian complicity in the war.

This tiny scene contains a very astute portrayal of the position of the Canadian in the world: on the one hand, we don’t want to be associated with Americans and we insist on distinguishing ourselves from them; on the other, if we aren’t careful we slip into identifying with them because, at some level, we recognize that we really are very similar and that we have tended to be on the same side in major conflicts. Johnny Dakota, with his insistence that he’s Canadian and his slipping into “we” when talking about Vietnam, is emblematic of our country’s ambiguous position with regards to the U.S., and our own frequently conflicted feelings about it.

This appearance is then followed by a modified bio:

Johnny Dakota: late thirties. Part-Indian Canadian. Had a hit with that Crash Craddock cover, what was the name of it again? Appeared at the Three Weeds Hotel, Rozelle, in the nineties. Needs a new agent.  (112)

That gives you a sense, at least, of how Foster uses the repetition of his character descriptions to further the plot of the novel and hint at the outcome, though it’s not the best example because Johnny is such a minor character that he doesn’t come in for much development. I don’t think he appears again after this, which might be suggestive in itself: Canada, a place you think of once or twice, and then promptly forget about.

(As a side note, my research indicates that a character named Johnny Dakota appeared in a 1991 episode of the American TV series Saved by the Bell. I have no idea whether Foster was referring to this.)

The Potato Makes Its Way to Canada

There is also a brief mention of Canada in a passage dealing with the spread of the potato around the globe:

It was the potato blight caused the famine of 1845 and led to the Great Emigration of Celts to northern Tasmania, northern California, to Gippsland, Canada, the State of Idaho — to anywhere, in short, where conditions were found to comport with the propagation of the ancestral aliment.  (xxxviii-xxxix)

This is just a passing reference, obviously, with Canada lumped in with several other places, but it does represent another example of the theme of immigrants coming to Canada in search of a better life.

A Canadian Expert

In an excursus on the disappearance of cedar trees large enough to provide fine cabinetwood, we come upon a reference to another Canadian, this one not fictional but real:

World population, about 500 million in the time of Juvenal — David Suzuki says one billion, Paul Ehrlich about a third of that: I’d say they were guessing — was only one or two billion by the time of the Industrial Revolution. By 1990, it was five billion.  (361)

Now David Suzuki is a name well known to me — as a child, his CBC show The Nature of Things was one of the few television programs I was allowed to watch (because it was judged “educational,” I suppose). I haven’t been able to track down the source of the idea attributed to Suzuki here, but he’s a Canadian being mentioned as an expert on the issue of world population (something he has commented on).

The Video Evidence

Since our Canadian, Johnny Dakota, apparently had a big hit with a Crash Craddock cover, I thought we might as well put up some Crash Craddock. He’s so utterly original — never heard a voice or a sound like that before — that I can’t understand why he isn’t better known, although this song was apparently a big hit in Australia. Maybe it’s the song Johnny Dakota covered?

And here’s one from his later, “country” phase — ahead of its time, as it’s all about the importance of applying sunscreen:

And here are the opening credits of The Nature of Things:

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?

 

Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!

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Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.

 

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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