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Archive for the tag “Lumberjacks”

The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit

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François-René de Chateaubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb (1850)

Canada has an interesting presence in French literature. Based on my (admittedly limited) reading (further study is needed, as they say) our country seems to be much more in the minds of earlier writers (i.e. in the 17th and 18th centuries) than in the minds of 19th-century authors. I suppose this makes sense in that references to Canada dwindle in French literature after France loses its colonial interest in our country; still, it feels counterintuitive, somehow, that when, in the 19th century, we would expect Canada’s profile in Europe to be growing, in France, at least, it seems to be shrinking.

Chateaubriand’s Memoirs from Beyond the Tomb enacts this process in miniature: there are a number of references to Canada in the early parts of the book, which deal with the last couple of decades of the 18th century; as the book proceeds into the 19th century, however, Canada vanishes from the narrative and European matters take up Chateaubriand’s attention. (I should also mention that the Penguin edition I read (pictured above) contains  only selections from the book, so there may be later references to Canada that weren’t included.)

The “Father of French Romanticism” Considers a Career as a Lumberjack

This passage relates a discussion between Chateaubriand and his parents about what career path he should choose (it’s basically down to the army or the church):

I hit on an absurd idea: I declared that I would go to Canada to clear forests or to India to join the army of one of the princes of that country.

By one of those contrasts which are to be found in all men, my father, normally so reasonable, was never greatly shocked by an adventurous project. He grumbled to my mother about my changes of mind, but decided to despatch me to India. I was sent off to Saint-Malo, where a ship was being fitted out for Pondicherry.  (71)

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this suggestion of going to Canada “to clear forests”; the author himself calls it “absurd,” and it may be no more meaningful than a modern teenager’s threat to run away from home if they don’t get their way. Still, the idea of Canada as a wilderness of trees needing to be cut down is apparently already firmly established, and while Chateaubriand doesn’t use the word “lumberjack,” we can see the outline of that quintessentially Canadian figure hovering in the background.

This perceived lack of civilization is in marked contrast to the impression we get of India, where apparently there are princes with armies on the move — something much more aligned with the activities of European men in the late 18th century. It’s perhaps not surprising that Chateaubriand’s father in the end chooses the aristocratic pursuit of war-making for his son rather than the more laborious job of tree-cutting.

A Country that Keeps Getting In the Way

But Chateaubriand didn’t just fantasize about running away to Canada; after the French Revolution, he actually came here. (You can get a sense of his overall impression from two quick facts: the chapter of his book that includes the trip to Canada is called “Among the Savages,” and the phrase “the Canadian forests” comes up repeatedly.) His reasons for the trip were, first, to see the United States (not Canada), and second, to discover the Northwest Passage, which he seems to have thought would be a fairly simple matter.

Before he reaches North America, however, his ship encounters some difficulties due to wind and weather. Instead of arriving in the U.S., he finds himself off the coast of Canada, as if our country were somehow preventing him from reaching his destination. This is part of a description of the journey after a stop-off on the island of Graciosa:

The wind forced us to bear north, and we arrived at the Banks of Newfoundland. Some floating icebergs were drifting around in the midst of a pale, cold mist.  (123)

It’s pretty clear that Newfoundland is not where he wants to be, and the description has a compressed quality that shows a distinct lack of interest. This vision of Canada is probably more or less what a European of the period would imagine: a few icebergs and a cold mist — which isn’t so bad since there’s nothing to see anyway. What do these French sailors do now that they have arrived on the shores of Canada? They beat a hasty retreat to the nearest French possessions:

We steered for the islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, looking for a new port of call.  (124)

In fairness, Canada isn’t really his object, so perhaps we shouldn’t judge him too harshly.

What’s The Opposite of “Civilizing”?

They make it to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, and Chateaubriand strikes up a bit of an acquaintance with the Governor there:

I dined two or three times with the Governor, an extremely polite and obliging officer. He grew a few European vegetables on a slope outside. After dinner she showed me what he called his garden. A sweet, delicate smell of heliotrope came from a small patch of flowering beans; it was not wafted to us by a gentle breeze from home, but by a wild Newfoundland wind which had no connexion with the exiled plant, no attractive element of reminiscence or delight. In this perfume which was no longer breathed in by beauty, purified in its breast, or diffused in its wake, in this perfume of a changed dawn, a different culture, another world, there lingered all the melancholy of nostalgia, absence, and youth.  (125)

And in the next paragraph, still referring to the Governor:

My host inquired after the Revolution; I asked him for news of the North-West Passage. He was in the van of the wilderness, but he knew nothing of the Eskimos and received nothing from Canada but partridges.  (125)

The opposition between the “wild Newfoundland wind” and the flowering bean plants sets up the contrast one would expect between the wilderness of Canada and the civilization of Europe. We get the impression that Canada is a desolate country where fragile beauties are beaten down rather than cherished and enjoyed.

The statement that the Governor is “in the van” (i.e. the vanguard) of the wilderness is an interesting one. We should perhaps expect the opposite statement: that as the governor of these French islands right next to the wilds of Newfoundland, he is in the van of civilization, standing at the tip of the civilizing influence which Europe has pushed out towards the wilds of Canada. And yet Chateaubriand sees it the opposite way; if Saint-Pierre and Miquelon are the van of the wilderness, then that suggests that the process is moving in the other direction, and that the wilds of the New World are stretching their influence back towards the supposed colonizers, and perhaps will somehow uncivilize the civilizers, so to speak.

(I don’t want to place too much emphasis on the use of a specific word in a book I have only read in translation, but just for comparison, here is a passage where Chateaubriand uses “vanguard” in the more expected way:

It has been observed that the settlers are often preceded in the woods by bees: these are the vanguard of the farmers, the symbols of the industry and civilization whose coming they herald.  (143)

There we can see “vanguard” used in its more standard sense, which suggests that perhaps Chateaubriand was intentionally playing with its meaning in the earlier passage, suggesting that Canada had a kind of de-civilizing power that Europeans had not yet recognized, as it does in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Two Campers in Cloud Country.” Or perhaps it’s just an instance of carelessness, by either Chateaubriand or his translator.)

Melancholy Reflections on Past Defeats

Chateaubriand has some interesting observations on the failure of the French colonial project in Canada:

In the shameful years of Louis XV’s reign, the episode of the Canadian War consoles us as if it were a page of our ancient history discovered in the Tower of London.
Montcalm, given the task of defending Canada unaided, against forces which are regularly replenished and four times his own in number, fights successfully for two years, defeating Lord Loudon and General Abercromby. At last his luck deserts him; he falls wounded beneath the walls of Quebec, and two days later breathes his last: his grenadiers bury him in a hole made by a bombshell, a grave worthy of the honour of our arms! His noble enemy Wolfe dies facing him; he pays with his own life for Montcalm’s life and for the glory of expiring on a few French flags.  (142-43)

It seems odd, at first, that Chateaubriand would go to the trouble of describing a defeat, and yet it’s in character with the overall tone of much of the book, which could perhaps best be characterized by the world “melancholy”. His vision of life is one in which anything good is always in the past; the present is always slipping away; and the future holds only the promise of worse things to come. It is fitting, then, that he sees a tragic glory in Montcalm’s defeat, and awards him what would now be called a “moral victory” simply for having held out so long against such terrible odds. This kind of ringing, elegiac tone is the essence of Chateaubriand’s style and one of the key elements of his romanticism.

A Visit to the Falls

While in America Chateaubriand naturally wants to see for himself one of its greatest natural wonders, Niagara Falls. He makes his way there, travelling with “a troop of settlers and Indians”:

It was there that I first made the acquaintance of the rattlesnake, which allows itself to be bewitched by the sound of a flute. The Greeks would have turned my Canadian into Orpheus, the flute into a lyre, and the snake into Cerberus or perhaps Eurydice.  (144)

It’s hard to be certain what to make of this; the “Canadian” is presumably one of the natives, not one of the settlers. At first Chateaubriand seems to be saying that Canada does not lend itself to mythologizing, in the way the world of the ancient Greeks did; and yet, with his tales of rattlesnakes charmed by flutes, is he not himself actually mythologizing in much the same way?

In any case, he goes on to visit Niagara Falls:

The Niagara Falls savages in the English dependency were entrusted with the task of policing that side of the frontier. This weird constabulary, armed with bows and arrows, prevented us from passing. I had to send the Dutchman to the fort at Niagara for a permit in order to enter the territory of the British government. This saddened me a little, for I remembered that France had once ruled over both Upper and Lower Canada. My guide returned with the permit: I still have it; it is signed: Captain Gordon.  (145-46)

The phrase “English dependency” means Canada, as opposed to the United States, and makes clear that the Falls Chateaubriand went on to visit were what we now think of as the Canadian side. This passage offers a very different take on the French colonial experience than the earlier one: there, Montcalm’s loss was portrayed as being somehow honourable, even glorious; here, the loss of France’s possessions in Canada brings only sadness. (Sadness — at least in its literary form, “melancholy” — is, as I alluded to above, the keynote emotion of this book.)

It seems worthwhile, since we’ve come across references to Niagara Falls several times before, to quote at least a bit of Chateaubriand’s impressions:

Already, six miles away, a column of mist indicated the position of the waterfall to me. My heart beat with joy mingled with terror as I entered the wood which concealed from my view one of the most awe-inspiring sights that Nature has offered to mankind.
We dismounted, and leading our horses by the bridle, we made our way across heaths and copses until we reached the bank of the Niagara River, seven or eight hundred paces above the Falls. As I was moving forward, the guide caught me by the arm; he stopped me at the very edge of the water, which was going past with the swiftness of an arrow. It did not froth or foam, but glided in a solid mass over the sloping rock; its silence before its fall contrasted with the roar of the fall itself….
The guide continued to hold me back, for I felt so to speak drawn towards the river, and I had an involuntary longing to throw myself in….
Today, great highroads lead to the cataract; there are inns on both the American and English banks, and mills and factories beneath the chasm.
I have seen the cascades of the Alps with their chamois and those of the Pyrenees with their lizards; I have not been far enough up the Nile to see its cataracts, which are mere rapids; I make no mention of the waters of Terni and Tivoli, graceful adornments for ruins or subjects for the poet’s song: “Et praeceps Anio ac Tiburni lucus.”
Niagara eclipses everything.   (146-47)

That passage pretty much has it all, doesn’t it? What a concentration of romantic ideas: the joy mingled with terror as he is about to come face to face with Nature’s sublime; the strange, bewitching appeal of death as he yearns to throw himself into the current; the reference to the shallow consumerism that has now taken over and degraded the site, so different from its unspoiled state when he visited; and finally the implication of a wild and savage beauty in the Falls, utterly unlike the refined waters of Terni and Tivoli.

That last is, of course, a typical association with Canada, but in the view of the romantic mind, the idea of a wilderness ceases to be something menacing, or something that needs to be tamed or civilized, and becomes instead something that must be appreciated for its natural beauty. We are seeing here the idea, which would ultimately become a cliché, that the unspoiled wonders of nature are more beautiful than all the works of man, and that God is, in a sense, the first and ultimate artist.

Conclusions?

Chateaubriand inaugurates several strands of what we might think of as a “romantic” view of Canada. First, in his plan to run away here to become a lumberjack, we glimpse the petulant teenager strain of romanticism, always trying to shock or upset his parents. In his desire to find the Northwest Passage, we see the romantic image of the discoverer-hero, setting out to map the uncharted wilderness for the benefit of all mankind. His references to First Nations people seem to partake of the “noble savage” idea, while his discussion of Montcalm’s loss on the Plains of Abraham is replete with the melancholy sense of vanished glory and noble failure.

And finally, there is the discussion of Niagara Falls. Chateaubriand may not have had a huge impact on Canadian history — he never got around to locating that pesky Northwest Passage, after all — but he certainly had a major, if unwitting, impact on the Canadian tourist industry. His account of visiting Niagara Falls is the earliest one by a major European writer that I have come across, and in his visit he essentially set the pattern of Canadian tourism that still prevails today: when people come to Canada, if there’s one thing they know they want to see, that one thing will be Niagara Falls. In places around the world where Canada is known for absolutely nothing else, we are known for Niagara Falls.

And the reason Chateaubriand wanted to see the Falls — the desire to be confronted with what we might call “the natural sublime” — is the same reason people come today, and his description of the feelings aroused by the sight will be meaningful to anyone who has been there. Beyond that, in his description of the “great highroads” and the “inns” that have sprung up around the Falls since his visit, he took note of the beginnings of the tourist industry that dominates Niagara Falls today, and he probably wouldn’t be surprised by the hotels, gift shops, and casinos that have appeared since. Ripley’s Museum might shock him a little.

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Those Ghastly Colonials

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Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford’s sort-of sequel to The Pursuit of Love, doesn’t just mention Canada – it features a Canadian as a major character, and both raises and then undermines a number of common ideas about our country and its citizens. The novels share several features: like The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate is again narrated by Fanny; again has very little to do with Fanny’s life, but is rather the story of one of her acquaintances, Polly; and again makes ample use of the Mitford family in the guise of the Radletts. Many of the characters from the earlier novel recur, though seen from slightly different angles, as it were.

As for the evocative title, if it has led you to hope that the novel is all about how to get naked and stay warm in a snowbank, I’m afraid I must disappoint you: the “cold climate” of the title refers to England (which must make any Canadian laugh, but anyway).

On to the story: Polly is the beautiful but cold daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, and the first half of the novel concerns Lady Montdore’s attempts to marry her daughter off to a suitable bachelor. One of Lady Montdore’s great disappointments is that the family’s beautiful country house, Hampton, cannot be inherited by Polly, but instead will go to Cedric Hampton, a young relative the family has never met from – wait for it – Nova Scotia.

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Now, if only we were a French family, they seem to arrange things so very much better. To begin with, Polly would inherit all this, instead of those stupid people in Nova Scotia – so unsuitable – can you imagine Colonials living here?’  (271)

And similarly, a few pages later:

‘The young man from Nova Scotia simply gets Hampton and everything in it, but that is an Aladdin’s Cave, you know, the furniture, the silver, the library – treasures beyond value. Boy was saying they really ought to get him over and show him something of civilization before he becomes too transatlantic.’  (281)

And this:

‘Sad, isn’t it, the idea of some great lumping Colonial at Hampton!’  (367)

Here we can see the English aristocracy’s attitude to Canada: “stupid people … so unsuitable … Colonials.” The incredulity implied by the question at the end of the first passage makes it clear that Canadians are viewed as simply not good enough to live in a stylish English house.

The second passage continues in the same vein, with the reference to showing the Nova Scotian something of civilization indicating that no one thinks there’s any civilization to be found in Canada; no doubt it’s essentially a wilderness inhabited by people not much better than animals. Only Europe can provide civilization – and there we see the one ray of hope. The boy from Nova Scotia is not beyond recovery; if he could just be rescued from Canada and brought to Europe in time, perhaps the touch of civilization could smooth out his savage nature (“too transatlantic”) and make him someone who might not be welcomed, but could at least be tolerated, in the drawing rooms of society.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot here – too labyrinthine – but, for the sake of comprehension, I’ll hit the high points: Polly disappoints her parents by marrying her uncle, Boy Dougdale (who has also been her mother’s lover, apparently – let’s hope Park Chan-wook doesn’t make a film adaptation). In response to this inappropriate marriage, her father cuts her out of his will entirely:

‘Of course lots of people say Polly isn’t Lord Montdore’s child at all. King Edward, I’ve heard.’
‘It doesn’t seem to make much difference now, whose child she is, because he’s cut her out of his will and some American gets it all.’  (383)

This is one of the most remarkable references to Canada I’ve come across. Without even mentioning Canada, it says so much about us: even in fiction, we get taken for Americans.

In the second half of the novel we actually meet Cedric Hampton, the Nova Scotian who will inherit all of Lord Montdore’s estate, and this is where things get particularly interesting. Mitford sets us up with a few more references along the lines of what we’ve come to expect:

‘Now, fancy moving in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you?’  (397)

And this:

Words dimly associated with Canada kept on occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim…. How I wished to be present at Hampton when this lumberjack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.  (399)

So there he is again: our old, and seemingly inescapable, friend, the Canadian lumberjack. The passage is a miniature summary of how a well-off young Englishwoman of the time would think of Canada – ironically so, it turns out, because then we meet the “lumping colonial,” the “lumberjack,” Cedric Hampton himself, and things take a turn for the unexpected:

There was a glitter of blue and gold across the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended towards each. He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl…. He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection….  (401)

It turns out that this nominal Canadian has not been living in Canada for years; in fact, as he says himself:

‘…kindly Nature has allowed a great sea-fog of oblivion to rise between me and Nova Scotia, so that I hardly remember one single thing about it.’  (406)

He’s been living in Paris, depending on the kindness of Barons, involved with a “selfish” German “boy” named Klugge; he is “kind and thoughtful and affectionate, like a charming woman friend” (413); he turns out to be a member of quite a different tribe from what we were led to expect:

‘Aesthetes – you know – those awful effeminate creatures – pansies.’  (420)

For us as Canadians, Cedric’s actual appearance, when compared to what everyone expects of him before he arrives, marks a significant shift in the perception of Canadians in the English novel, and brings about an equally remarkable shift in the views of the English aristocrats in the book – for Cedric becomes like a son to the Montdores, especially Lady Montdore, who at the beginning of the novel loathes the very idea of his existence. He turns out to be a sophisticated aesthete with an extensive knowledge of art, architecture, poetry, fashion, furniture, personal grooming – pretty well any subject of interest to society ladies with more money and time than they know how to spend. He charms every member of high society he meets, usually by seeming to have an intimate knowledge of, and deep interest in, whatever subject the other person is most fascinated by. He is a glittering chameleon, always exactly what the other person wants him to be.

This seems to suggest that Mitford had a view of Canadians quite a bit more nuanced than many of her compatriots had – or even have today. In part the intention of the novel is satirical, of course; she builds up expectations of a coarse, unsophisticated Canadian, and then shifts the direction of the novel by introducing a completely different sort of character. And Cedric’s sophisitication is the product of his time in Europe, not in Nova Scotia – though really it’s the product of time in Europe combined with his innate nature, which suggests Canadians aren’t doomed to never be more than lumberjacks; we have at least the potential to understand and appreciate the finer things, so long as we are brought into contact with the improving influence of European civilization.

There is also the idea that “blood will out” to consider – Cedric’s mother was a Canadian woman, but his father was a member of the English aristocracy, and perhaps we are meant to understand that it is the aristocratic half of his background that makes the life he creates for himself possible.

Nevertheless, the story of Cedric Hampton represents a fascinating reversal of the view of Canada taken by Dickens, say, or Basil Bunting, as a land of new opportunity for Englishmen; in the case of Cedric, it is his leaving Canada and coming to Europe that opens up a social and cultural world where a person with his aesthetic and theatrical inclinations can succeed and become an adored figure of high society – something that surely never would have happened in Halifax or Dartmouth, where he might well have simply withered away.

Lumberjacks Again

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Herman Melville, Pierre or The Ambiguities (1852)

William C. Spengemann begins his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of this novel by stating, “If Pierre were not written by the author of Moby-Dick, it would probably not be in print today”. I can’t say I disagree. Ezra Pound once described later Henry James as “cobwebby,” and it’s a term that might apply here as well; Melville seems, at times, more interested in spinning out metaphors than in telling a story.

Now, if you love that sort of thing – if you read Moby-Dick and thought, “The writing was great, but I could have done without the whole chasing the whale storyline” – then this could be the book for you. It’s even been made into a film: POLA X (the trailer really doesn’t do it justice), directed by Leos Carax, who also made the exuberantly bizarre Holy Motors.

When I watched POLA X, just as I started reading the book, I was really put off by Guillaume Depardieu’s performance, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he starts limping and staring madly around for no apparent reason; having read the book, I now understand what he was trying to convey. But the first third of the film is exquisite; the buildings and scenery make it look like a period piece set in the late 1700s, and then Depardieu comes roaring through on his morotocycle – marvellous.

But to return to the novel.

I feel like I need to set up the quote with some sort of summary of the plot, but it’s difficult to know exactly where to begin. I’ll give it a go: Pierre is a youth living a charmed life in the idyllic surroundings of Saddle Meadows, his family estate. His father is dead, he lives with his mother, and he is engaged to marry the beautiful and perfect Lucy.

But then … a mysterious young woman named Isabel appears, and tells Pierre that she is his half-sister, conceived when their father had an affair with a Frenchwoman, who is now dead. For various reasons, Pierre accepts this information as true, and as the novel progresses, what he thought to be his life essentially falls to pieces around him. The following passage comes after he has learned (from a letter) that Isabel is his sister but before he has met with her and heard her full story; I’ll quote it at length to give a bit of the flavour of the prose:

It was long after midnight when Pierre returned to the house. He had rushed forth in that complete abandonment of soul, which, in so ardent a temperament, attends the first stages of any sudden and tremendous affliction, but now he returned in pallid composure, for the calm spirit of the night, and the then risen moon, and the late revealed stars, had all at last become as a strange subduing melody to him, which, though at first trampled and scorned, yet by degrees had stolen into the windings of his heart, and so shed abroad its own quietude in him. Now, from his height of composure, he firmly gazed abroad upon the charred landscape within him; as the timber man of Canada, forced to fly from the conflagration of his forests, comes back again when the fires have waned, and unblinkingly eyes the immeasurable fields of fire-brands that here and there glow beneath the wide canopy of smoke.  (86)

The metaphor here is fairly straightforward in its essence, if somewhat lengthily elaborated and filigreed, in accordance with Melville’s style at this point in his career: Isabel’s revelation has destroyed the things Pierre thought he knew about himself and his life as completely as fire destroys a forest. Naturally a lumberjack (“timber man”) would look on the ruined forest the way Pierre looks on his overthrown preconceptions; and when Melville thinks of lumberjacks, apparently, he thinks of Canada.

This is a little odd; the United States must have had its fair share of lumberjacks in the 1850s. But Melville seems to be imagining a land that is nothing but forests; not a country with some urban areas and some forests, as he no doubt thought of the U.S., but a country that contains nothing but trees and has no reason to exist other than to employ lumberjacks.

A country, in other words, like Canada. As the phrase “the immeasurable fields of fire-brands” clearly indicates, Melville thinks of Canada as little more than an endless, empty wilderness of trees, punctuated by the occasional lumberjack.

A Wounding Omission

Regardless of the precise nature of the reference – and yes, even if it includes lumberjacks – it’s always exciting to see Canada mentioned in a book by a non-Canadian. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a certain pain that comes from a moment in a book when one expects a reference to Canada, and then it doesn’t come. I’ll memorialize one such moment here, where Melville refers to the death of one of Pierre’s ancestors, also named Pierre:

Grand old Pierre is dead, and like a hero of old battles, he dies on the eve of another war; ere wheeling to fire on the foe, his platoons fire over their old commander’s grave; in A.D. 1812, died grand old Pierre. The drum that beat in brass his funeral march, was a British kettle-drum, that had once helped beat the vain-glorious march, for the thirty thousand predestined prisoners, led into sure captivity by that bragging boy, Burgoyne.  (31)

The year is 1812, a new war is beginning; as a Canadian, one naturally expects a reference to Canada here, as we think of the War of 1812 as a conflict between Canada and the U.S. But Melville sees it as another conflict – or a fresh eruption of an ongoing conflict – between the U.S. and Britain. And no doubt he’s right – the vast majority of the military assets deployed on “our” side must have been British.

Still, it comes as a bit of a shock, particularly given the extensive commemorative efforts (check out those costumes!) made by the Canadian government for the bicentenary of the war last year.

Poor Herman, he can’t win. When he talks about Canadian lumberjacks, we’re offended that he thinks we’re all lumberjacks; when he fails to mention us, we’re offended at the omission. This is why they say literature is a thankless profession.

Lumberjacks Ho!

Edward St Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, Never Mind (The Patrick Melrose Novels) (2003)

If you want to talk about books with great puff quotes, it’s pretty hard to ignore this new edition of the Patrick Melrose novels; here are a few samples:

“Rich, acerbic comedy … philosophical density” -Zadie Smith

“A masterwork for the twenty-first century, written by one of the great prose stylists in England” -Alice Sebold

“Acidic humour, stiletto-sharp” -Francine Prose

“The most brilliant English novelist of his generation” -Alan Hollinghurst

“Perversely funny” –People magazine

With accolades from everyone from Zadie Smith to People magazine, you know you’re in the presence of greatness, or at least a reasonable facsimile.

This edition of the first four novels in the series, released to coincide with the hardcover publication of the fifth book, At Last, seems to indicate St. Aubyn’s star is rising in North America – he’s certainly trendy, appearing in The Millions Hall of Fame (scroll down to December 2012) and in a recent NYT Book Review interview (his response to the “literary dinner party” question is hilariously pretentious). He was even interviewed recently by Eleanor Wachtel on Canada’s own CBC. (Alas, the subject of his attitude toward Canada is not raised, but it’s worth listening just to hear his drowsy, aristocratic drawl.)

Never Mind, the first novel in the original Patrick Melrose trilogy, takes place at a country house in Lacoste, France and covers a single day – the day 5-year-old Patrick is raped by his father for the first time, and his parents host a dinner party. The characters are drawn from the very upper reaches of English society, and they mainly fall into two categories: ciphers of cruelty (Patrick’s father David being the main example) or self-loathing victims (his mother, Eleanor, is the central type here). The others either follow David in attempting to humiliate people, or follow Eleanor in enduring the humiliations piled on them.

The writing is exquisite: richly metaphorical, and with subtle shifts in tone and diction as the omniscient third-person narration moves between characters. There is a particular flavour to the chapters dealing with Patrick that captures something of the nature of childhood perception without going to the extent of, say, the opening paragraphs of Joyce’s Portrait. (St. Aubyn uses a more extreme version of this technique again, to remarkable effect, in the opening pages of Mother’s Milk, told from the perspective of Patrick’s son Robert, also five at the beginning of that novel.)

So in the case of Never Mind, the accolades quoted above are certainly deserved. But why does all St. Aubyn’s subtlety, all his command of metaphor and psychological insight, desert him when it comes to the subject of Canada? Does our nation bring out the worst in even the best writers? Here is the relevant passage, dialogue between Anne, an American, and her lover, the English philosopher and academic Victor Eisen as they prepare to go to the dinner party at the Melrose’s house:

Anne came out of the house carrying two glasses of orange juice. She gave one to Victor.
“What were you thinking?” she asked.
“Whether you would be the same person in another body,” lied Victor.
“Well, ask yourself, would you be nibbling my toes if I looked like a Canadian lumberjack?”
“If I knew it was you inside,” said Victor loyally.
“Inside the steel-capped boots?”
“Exactly.”   (86)

I don’t know if one could come up with a more trite and clichéd view of Canada if one set out to do so. Lumberjacks – really? We aren’t all lumberjacks in (steel-toed, by the way, not steel-capped – that sounds so high fashion, somehow) boots.

And how Canadian are lumberjacks, anyway? Here’s the relevant entry from the Oxford Canadian Dictionary:

lumberjack n. N. Amer. esp. hist. = LOGGER.

The entry immediately following, however, is this:

lumberjack jacket n. Cdn (also lumberjacket) a jacket, usu. of warm, red and black checked material, originally worn by loggers.

So lumberjack is a North American word; there’s nothing intrinsically Canadian about it – though we can, apparently, take credit for lumberjack jackets, a.k.a. “lumberjackets”. (Just as an aside, here’s Canadian Ryan Gosling fulfilling his birthright by making the lumberjacket look good. Wow Canada!) But Anne takes the trouble to specify a “Canadian lumberjack” when teasing Victor about nibbling her toes. Why? Are Canadian lumberjacks considered particularly unattractive?

And how, finally, to interpret this rather pathetic slide into cultural obliviousness? The kindest view to take is that St. Aubyn is aware of the cliché, and uses it to characterize Anne as an American who trades in casual stereotypes about her fellow North Americans. (Perhaps she does think Canadian lumberjacks are less attractive than their American brethren.) And yet Anne is one of the few remotely likeable characters in the book, and it seems a shame to give up on her so easily.

The alternative is to attribute the cliché to St. Aubyn himself; as a member of the British aristocracy, perhaps this is how he thinks of Canada – good enough for an occasional lumberjack joke, but that’s about it.

He’s certainly not the only Englishman to view Canada this way:

From colonial times through Monty Python to Edward St. Aubyn, it appears the British view of Canada hasn’t changed much. Sad to think that, despite all our efforts, we’ve made so little progress in the minds of our former overlords. To them, we’re still – and perhaps will always be – literally the “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

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