Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Insignificance”

A Canadian Reader Takes Offence


Tom Mangold, Cold Warrior: James Jesus Angleton: The CIA’s Master Spy Hunter (1991)

I haven’t actually read all of this book, so I have no idea how many references to Canada it may (or may not) contain; I read a few parts, in connection with Ben Macintyre’s A Spy Among Friends, the Kim Philby book that I recently posted about.

In the course of reading it, however, I came across this page, annotated by some previous Toronto Public Library reader:


Now, I’m not the one who wrote in the book — I swear! — but this anonymous reader is quite correct: Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is spelled “Ottawa,” not “Ottowa” as it appears in Mangold’s book. As you can see from the indignant (perhaps even aggressive?) style of the handwriting and the multiple exclamation marks, the comment inked in the margin is a sort of Canadian cri de cœur, a protest against the continuing insignificance of our country in the eyes of the world. This book is, obviously, an extensively researched treatment of a complex subject, and one that the reader would expect has been thoroughly edited, fact-checked and so on — and no doubt it was. And yet when it came to the spelling of a Canadian location — our capital city, no less — an error that would embarrass a Canadian schoolchild was allowed to creep in.

Why? The only explanation — or at least, the only explanation likely to present itself to a Canadian — is that no one involved in the publication of the book knew the spelling was wrong, and no one cared enough to check. And this sort of error is precisely the source of so much Canadian insecurity about our place in the world (of which this website is, I suppose, one expression), and scribbling corrections in the margins of library books is just the sort of impotent, vaguely pointless outlet we find for our rage — because we have no other.

The Cold War Begins… In Canada


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Video Evidence

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

Counting the Troops Heading to Canada


Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

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

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

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

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

Still, it’s nice to be mentioned.

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

The Vanishing Business Men of Canada


Marianne Moore, Observations (1925/2016)

This is a re-issue of the 1925 edition of Observations, published after Moore had made minor revisions to the original 1924 edition, but before the drastic revisions she made later (such as cutting “Poetry” (“I too dislike it”) from a couple of pages to three lines). I’m biting my tongue a bit here, on the principle that one doesn’t argue with genius — I’ll just say that I’m happy this book is now easily available in essentially the form that established Moore as one of the foremost voices of modern poetry. (And, while I’m generally pro-epigram, I just don’t like the three-line version of “Poetry” that much. There, I said it.)

Of course the best thing about this book (as you may have guessed by now) is that it mentions Canada. The reference comes in the poem “An Octopus,” which John Ashbery (for whatever you think his opinion’s worth) calls “one of the truly great poems of the twentieth century” on the back cover. The poem is much too long for me to re-type in its entirety, but here are the relevant lines:

No “deliberate wide-eyed wistfulness” is here
among the boulders sunk in ripples and white water
where “when you hear the best wild music of the mountains
it is sure to be a marmot,”
the victim on some slight observatory,
of “a struggle between curiosity and caution,”
inquiring what has scared it:
a stone from the moraine descending in leaps,
another marmot, or the spotted ponies with “glass eyes,”
brought up on frosty grass and flowers
and rapid draughts of ice water.
Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by “business men who as totemic scenery of Canada,
require for recreation,
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year,
these conspicuously spotted little horses are peculiar;
hard to discern among the birch trees, ferns, and lily pads,
avalanche lilies, Indian paintbrushes,
bears’ ears and kittentails,
and miniature cavalcades of chlorophylless fungi
magnified in profile on the mossbeds like moonstones in the water;
the cavalcade of calico competing
with the original American “menagerie of styles”
among the white flowers of the rhododendron surmounting rigid leaves
upon which moisture works its alchemy,
transmuting verdure into onyx.  (88-89)

The quoted passages are annotated in the back of the book; here is the note for the reference to Canada:

“business men”: W.D. Wilcox. “A crowd of the business men of Banff, who usually take about 365 holidays every year, stands around to offer advice.”  (108)

This is a quote from The Rockies of Canada, by W.D. Wilcox, published in 1903, and appears on page 116.

What to make of all this? In her introduction to this edition, Linda Leavell says, “‘An Octopus’ similarly celebrates the biodiversity of Mount Rainier National Park as a model for democracy,” which may offer some hints on interpreting the whole poem, but doesn’t help us much with Canada.

So what can we say? The reference to Canadian business men is obviously drawn from Wilcox, and demonstrates Moore’s technique of weaving fragments from other written works into the fabric of her poems. It’s interesting that she has changed “Banff” to “Canada”; Banff is, of course, in Canada, but maybe she thought readers were less likely to recognize the name of a specific place, and so she changed it to the whole country — which we could argue is symptomatic of a typically American lack of interest in specificity when referring to our country. (In a nutshell, “If it’s not Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver, then it’s just Canada.”)

But how are these business men “totemic scenery of Canada”? And how is that status connected to the fact that they “require” 365 holidays a year? I would think a Mountie might be considered totemic scenery of Canada — Niagara Falls could maybe be called totemic scenery of Canada — perhaps even totem poles could be called totemic scenery of Canada — but business men? And yet Moore seems to feel that these Canadian business men are somehow the quintessential representatives of our country. And what does the joke about being on holiday 365 days a year mean? Are Canadian business men considered lazy? Is the idea that Canada is such an undeveloped country that while we do have business men, they have no actual business to transact, and so are on holiday all year?

Wilcox seems to mean that the Banff business men have nothing better to do than stand around and offer advice, while having no intention of actually doing anything themselves — they are, in short, the most irritating type of onlookers. But in Moore’s poem, the syntax of the whole sentence suggests that the “little horses” are “instructed … to climb the mountain by” these business men, though “none knows how.” This is a much more active role than they seem to play in Wilcox, though it’s not clear (to me) why they would be instructing horses to climb a mountain.

Wait, What Happened?

Fair warning: things only get worse from here.

While I will admit I’m a little baffled by the question of what to make of these Canadian business men, I was, nevertheless, glad to find them in “An Octopus.” Imagine my horror, then, when I consulted Moore’s Complete Poems (Penguin, 1994) and found these lines:

Instructed none knows how, to climb the mountain,
by business men who require for recreation
three hundred and sixty-five holidays in the year….

(Un)Fortunately, my reaction was captured on video:

How could you, Marianne? How could you?

The reference to Canada has gone — and, what’s worse, this version of the poem is Moore’s final revised version, representing her ultimate thoughts on how the poem should appear to posterity. In the end, she decided the whole thing would be just fine — and, dare I say it, perhaps better? — without the reference to Canada. This seems, somehow, typical of the American attitude to Canada — we’re so insignificant that it doesn’t really matter whether we get mentioned or not. I doubt Moore agonized over the removal of the lines — she probably didn’t even stop to consider that she was cutting out the only reference to Canada in all of Observations. Why would she?

I hate to argue against my own interests (who doesn’t?), but it does seem, in this case at least, as though Moore’s later instincts may be correct. As my struggles (above) to untangle the plain prose sense of the lines show, things get a little oblique (not to say opaque) at the point in the poem where the reference to Canada appears; and does it matter that the business men are Canadian? Do we miss the description of them as “totemic scenery”? Is the poem somehow less (for purposes other than those of this website) for lacking the reference to Canada? It’s hard to say that it is; in fact, the lines feel a little cleaner and less cluttered as they are in the Complete Poems.

I’m still not sure how the business men instruct the horses to climb, but then the poem says no one knows, so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.

A Novel Cure for the Problem of Toxic Masculinity


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.


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:

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon


Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)

The White Boy Shuffle isn’t an easy book to summarize; I suppose you could call it a satirical coming-of-age novel. It follows Gunnar Kaufman as he grows up in Los Angeles, becoming a high school basketball star and poet, and on to Boston University, where he publishes his first collection of poetry, Watermelanin, which sells “126 million copies” and causes him to be seen as a “saviour” to African-Americans. You can tell Beatty himself started out as a poet — the novel is written in the dense, allusive, metaphorical style characteristic of much contemporary poetry.

The only reference to Canada comes near the end of the novel, when Gunnar and his best friend, Nick Scoby, are students at BU. At this point, Gunnar has made a speech saying that African-Americans “need some new leaders … who are ready to die.” Inspired by this speech, Gunnar’s “followers” begin killing themselves after writing “death poems,” which they send to Gunnar. Here Scoby is planning his own suicide — he will later jump from the roof of the BU law school — though I don’t think Gunnar realizes it:

Nick stared past the coastline, and my eyes followed his. The only thing barely visible in the foggy night was Boston’s pathetic skyline. The top of the glassy Hancock Building poked through a cloudbank that covered its lower floors in a vapory trenchcoat.
“Tallest building in Boston, right?”
“Fifty some-odd stories, the Sunday afternoon brunch from the top supposed to be the move. You can see to Newfoundland or some shit.”
“They don’t have no nighttime dinner thing?”
“Nope. Closed up.”
“What’s the second tallest building?”
“The Prudential Building, but I think BU’s law school is the third.”
“Can you get in there at night?”  (204)

Newfoundland again! The reference is rather indefinite, though: “You can see to Newfoundland or some shit” means, essentially, “You can see to Newfoundland or some other place that’s far enough away that it’s impressive you can see it from Boston” — the focus is on the quality of the view provided by the Hancock Building, and Newfoundland is brought in merely to mark the distance. This seems like a typically American view, with a point in Canada being used as a way of measuring the greatness of something American (in this case, the view); there is no interest in the distinct qualities of Newfoundland, and it has no identity of its own.

The idea of distance also seems to imply a certain kind of obscurity, in that the view is only remarkable if the place you can see is a long way away. And Newfoundland, way off in another country, is just the kind of far-off, unvisited, almost mythical place that would make the view seem impressive.

Music — In Memory of Nick Scoby

Since Sarah Vaughan is one of Nick Scoby’s favourite jazz musicians (and one of mine too), here she is singing “Misty” (which seems appropriate to the foggy scene above — though I suppose I could have used “A Foggy Day”):

This is my favourite version of “Misty” — no video though:

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?


Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.


Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From


Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.



But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

Exiled to the CFL


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.

The Perfect Place for a Safe Adventure


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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