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Whitman’s Kanadian Snow-shoes and the Future of Newfoundland


Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” (from Leaves of Grass, 1892)

I should begin by saying that I read the entire Library of America edition of Leaves of Grass (pictured above) many years ago. I picked it up recently and re-read a few poems here and there, and that’s when I actually noticed the references to Canada in “Song of Myself.” I did not, however, re-read the entire book, so there may be other references to Canada in other poems — something left to discover, perhaps.

“Song of Myself” is obviously much too long for me to re-type here; since the main reference to Canada that I want to discuss comes in section 16 of the poem, I am presenting that section. (If you care to re-read the whole poem — and why wouldn’t you? It’s Poetry Month, after all — it’s available via the Poetry Foundation here.)


I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff’d with the stuff that is coarse and stuff’d with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan ranch,
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their big proportions,)
Comrade of raftsmen and coalmen, comrade of all who shake hands and welcome to drink and meat,
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfullest,
A novice beginning yet experient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.

I resist any thing better than my own diversity,
Breathe the air but leave plenty after me,
And am not stuck up, and am in my place.

(The moth and the fish-eggs are in their place,
The bright suns I see and the dark suns I cannot see are in their place,
The palpable is in its place and the impalpable is in its place.)  (203-204)

Not a passage that requires much explanation in and of itself; it’s one of Whitman’s many expansions on the idea succinctly expressed in the oft-quoted “(I am large, I contain multitudes)” line (section 51), as he insists he is all different kinds of people in typical list-making, paradox-piling Whitmanian style.

The reference to Canada marks a shift: in the first nine lines, Whitman says “I am” these different types of people (a Yankee, a Georgian, a Hoosier and so on), but in line 10 he switches to “At home …” and the next three lines enumerate places where he feels at home. And so Whitman is not directly associating himself with Canadians — he does not say, “I am the Kanadian on his snow-shoes” — but rather that he is:

At home on Kanadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off Newfoundland,

That single line contains a remarkable little cluster of ideas associated with Canada: the snowshoes, obviously, carry the standard notion of Canada as cold and snowy; they are immediately followed by the phrase “up in the bush,” which shows again the way Americans conceive of us as “up” because we are to the north of them and also, in the word “bush,” the idea that Canada is an undeveloped wilderness; and then, with the fishermen off Newfoundland, we come to the image of Canada as a country rich in natural resources (here fish — perhaps even the “glutinous codfish of Newfoundland” so beloved by Casanova?) to be exploited.

We might even draw in the following line, with its “fleet of ice-boats”: they are not labelled as “Kanadian,” the way the snowshoes are, but given their proximity, and the fact that no other place is mentioned until Vermont in the following line, it is tempting to wonder if they also have a Canadian connection. If they do, they obviously further the association between Canada and the cold.

The more you consider them, though, the more elusive the references become. Does “At home on Kanadian snow-shoes” imply that Whitman has actually been to Canada, and that he went snowshoeing there? Does it mean that he is comfortable wearing snowshoes in winter, and that he thinks of snowshoes as somehow distinctively Canadian, or as coming from Canada? (Did he own snowshoes? Were they made in Canada? The unanswerable questions pile up.) “Up in the bush” might or might not refer to Canada, but it’s certainly suggestive coming right after the “Kanadian snow-shoes.” (The idea of Canada’s “northerliness” is definitively stated in section 31, where Whitman writes, “the razor-bill’d auk sails far north to Labrador.”) And even the mention of Newfoundland could be disputed, since Newfoundland was not actually part of Canada at the time Whitman was writing (I explained my attitude to this in a post on John Donne). Strangely, though, its placement in that line seems to associate it proleptically with the country it would ultimately join, almost as if Whitman, ever oracular, could see the future of our easternmost province.

Of course Whitman isn’t really talking about Canada here; we come in merely as one of the many regional identities he associates himself with, but this is not a record of personal experience — it’s a poetic stance and a philosophical statement of oneness with all humanity.

Or perhaps that requires a qualification: this is not a statement of oneness with all humanity, but with American humanity. It’s striking, is it not, that this one line, with its Canadian snowshoes and Newfoundland fishermen, is the only line in all of section 16 that refers to a place outside the United States?

In fact, in a quick re-reading of “Song of Myself” I found, in addition to the line above, a couple more references to Canadians and one mention of Labrador, but nothing about any other country or nationality except the English ship in section 35 (I may have missed something) — almost as if Whitman were aware of the U.S., and had some notion of the existence of Canada, and beyond that … nothing much. Whitman seems to be at great pains to associate himself with the representatives of every region of the U.S., but doesn’t show much interest at all in the people beyond its borders. And this absence of other nationalities makes the references to Canadians that much more striking: why are we alone represented here in “Song of Myself”? Did Whitman feel some sort of brotherhood with Canadians that he didn’t feel with other nationalities? Did he see Canada as a new nation, like the U.S., that was in the process of forging its identity — a process of which his own poetry was a part? Or does he simply think of Canada as an extension of the United States, and a “Kanadian” as a regional type on the same level as a Georgian or a Hoosier?

I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a reminder of how quintessentially American — or North American? — a poet Whitman is.

Finally, what to make of the fact that Whitman apparently spelled “Canada” as “Kanada”? (It’s not a one-time accident: he also mentions a “Kanuck” in section 6 and a “Kanadian” in section 39, both times in lists of different “types” of people). I think the “C” spelling must have been pretty much settled convention by the latter half of the 19th century (see Dickens’ 1857 novel Little Dorrit, for example), but Whitman is idiosyncratic in many ways, and if this is another of his idiosyncrasies, well, who am I to argue?

The Romance of Canada 1: Chateaubriand Pays Us a Visit


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.


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.

The Fur-Rich Forests of Canada


William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (2001)

I sometimes feel that a reference to Canada in a book like this doesn’t really “count,” in the sense that it’s not surprising that a book about the history and circumstances of the French Revolution would mention Canada. In this case, however, there is a certain, possibly suggestive, oddity to the way Doyle’s book treats Canada, and so I’m going to quote it.

This paragraph is about France’s struggle to maintain its prestige in the generations following the death of Louis XIV in 1715:

Rivalry with the British was fought out on the oceans of the world. At stake was dominance of the sources and supply of the tropical and oriental luxuries for which Europe was developing an insatiable appetite. Footholds in India, staging posts to China, fur-rich Canadian forests, tropical islands where sugar and coffee could be produced, access to supplies of slaves to work them: these were the prizes for which the British and French fought almost uninterruptedly throughout the 1740s and 1750s.  (19-20)

We have come across a passing reference to the fur trade before, and the fact that fur was a luxury item that Canada supplied to Europe isn’t really news. And the word “forests” is attached, seemingly automatically, to Canada, reminding us that at the time under discussion Canada was mainly wilderness.

There is an oddity about the passage as well, however, that comes out if you linger over it a bit. What Doyle is really talking about, it seems – or at least his own words when he generalizes the subject matter before listing the specifics – is “tropical and oriental luxuries.” Coffee and sugar are grown in the tropics; the “staging posts” to India and China presumably supply the “oriental” luxuries. But how does Canada fit into this? The “fur-rich Canadian forests” are, obviously, neither “oriental” nor “tropical,” and yet Doyle drops them into the middle of his list without appearing to notice the incongruity.

Now, granted, the book is subtitled “A Very Short Introduction,” and so it’s a bit mean-spirited to criticize the author for not explaining details more fully – particularly in regard to Canada, which, it must be admitted, is extremely tangential to the topic in hand. Still, it’s hard not to feel a bit slighted, as if Doyle’s very carelessness in referring to Canada suggests that he doesn’t think our country is important enough to warrant a category of its own, and so he has simply lumped it into a list of colonial possessions and products even though it doesn’t really fit. (This is in contrast to the French administrations he is writing about, incidentally, which clearly did think their colonial possessions in Canada (among other places) were important and valuable, and struggled to keep them.)

Doyle’s attitude here is consistent with that of other non-Canadian authors, who simply don’t seem to think Canada is worth much conscious attention.

Happy Canada Day.

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists


Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

Canada’s Image Turned Upside Down


Karl Ove Knausgaard, A Death in the Family (My Struggle: Book 1) (2008)

Knausgaard seems to be the current iteration of what Edward St Aubyn was a few years ago: the hot thing in “serious literary fiction” who is getting adoring puff quotes from everyone from Zadie Smith (yes, her again) to that bastion of literary sensibility, Marie Claire magazine. This picture, of a centre-spread ad from the New York Times Book Review a few weeks ago, gives a sense of how gracelessly he’s being pushed on American readers:


(The type looks very pink in that picture; I’m not sure it was really that pink.)

Comparisons to Proust are pretty much de rigueur – but more on that later.

According to the back cover copy – always a reliable source of information – this book is about Knausgaard, but also about everyone; I would narrow that slightly and say it’s about Knausgaard, and every other self-styled sensitive soul who sometimes feels baffled or overwhelmed by the complexity of the world. That may be more or less “everyone” who actually takes the time to read this book (myself included, I suppose), but it’s considerably less than literally everyone. The book probably appeals most strongly to people with personalities similar to Knausgaard’s – which doubtless includes most book reviewers, hence the glowing reviews.

Personally, I found the book riveting at first; I don’t know if what I began to feel as it went on was a sense of “sufficiency,” precisely, or of diminishing returns, but it was definitely a feeling that I didn’t need this much of this particular thing. That feeling increased as I made my way through the second part of the novel.

But to summarize….

A Death in the Family is centred on the relationship between the narrator, Karl Ove, and his father. Part I charts Karl Ove’s changing perception of his father as he goes through adolescence and his father leaves his mother and starts a new life separate from his family; Part II leaps ahead in time to the father’s death and Karl Ove’s reaction to it. The portrait of the father is very clearly drawn, and Karl Ove’s feelings about him are convincing; most of the other characters don’t seem much more than names (I don’t think listing a character’s favourite rock bands qualifies as characterization – perhaps that makes me old-fashioned?), and some of the events in the novel feel randomly selected and don’t contribute much (I could have lived without the excruciatingly detailed description of the machinations required to arrive at a New Year’s party with a few bottles of beer).

Amidst his agonized adolescence and shifting perception of his father, however, I was pleased to see that Knausgaard found time to mention Canada, not once but twice. And I was particularly gratified that both references, in some sense, run counter to the conventional ideas we’re used to seeing.

Canadians – So Mysterious!

This passage is from a description of the passing landmarks as the narrator, Karl Ove, is driven home after a New Year’s party by the father of his friend Jan Vidar (I’m not even going to attempt to replicate the Norwegian accents):

Onto the Kjevik road, past Hamresanden, along Ryensletta. Dark, peaceful, nice and warm. I could sit like this for the rest of my life, I thought. Past their house, into the bends up by Kragebo, down to the bridge on the other side, up the hill. It hadn’t been cleared and was covered with five centimetres of fresh snow. Jan Vidar’s father drove more slowly over the last stretch. Past the house where Susann and Elise lived, the two sisters who had moved here from Canada and no one could quite work out, past the bend where William lived, down the hill and up the last bit.   (124)

Knausgaard is not really focussing on Canada here; instead he is creating a sense of familiarity with specific places in the narrator’s mind as the car passes them. But the fact that the house of the two Canadian sisters is picked out as a landmark suggests that they have at least some stature (or notoriety?) among the surrounding inhabitants. Their names are known, and that they’re from Canada, but apparently that’s about it: “no one could quite work [them] out.” Thus an air of mystery, even a kind of exoticism, attaches to these Canadians; in an area where everyone else is presumably Norwegian, they are the oddballs, the outliers, the strange women from Canada.

This creates a sense of a “Canadian character” that is quite different from what we have come to expect: the brief description suggests that the sisters keep to themselves, and that they have not made any effort to integrate into the community they are now a part of. They come across as rather self-sufficient, individualistic, even antisocial – a departure from our usual image, where Canada is seen as a more communal society, in opposition to the “rugged individualism” associated with Americans. Perhaps this reflects a European or Scandinavian view of North Americans generally; in Canada, we tend to see ourselves as distinct from Americans, but from a greater distance there may be more similarities than differences.

Canadian Corporate Colonialism

Curiously, the second reference to Canada also comes during a car trip, this time in Part II, as Karl Ove and his brother Yngve are driving back to their home town to make arrangements for their father’s funeral. This isn’t a direct reference to Canada, but I think it’s close enough:

Soon the countryside began to merge into shapes I vaguely recognised, it became more and more familiar until what I saw through the window coalesced with the images I had in my mind’s eye. It felt as if we were driving into a memory. As if what we were moving through was just a kind of backdrop for my youth. Entering the suburbs, Vagsbyd, where Hanne had lived, the Henning Olsen factory, Falconbridge Nickel Works, dark and grimy, surrounded by the dead mountains, and then to the right, Kristiansand harbour, the bus station, the ferry terminal, Hotel Calidonien, the silos on the island of Odderoya. To the left, the part of town where dad’s uncle had lived until recently, before dementia had taken him to an old folks’ home somewhere.   (245)

The description of the places the car is passing gradually aligning themselves with the images in the narrator’s memory as he gets closer to the town where he grew up is neatly done. And then we come to Falconbridge Nickel Works – since taken over by a Swiss company, but at the time this part of the novel takes place it would still have been the original Falconbridge, based in Toronto.

If you read the Wikipedia entry on Falconbridge, you’ll see that the company was founded in 1928, and that its relationship to Norway started in 1929, when it bought out an existing nickel refinery in Kristiansand, Norway – the town where Karl Ove grows up in the novel. This fact, combined with the description of the “dead mountains” around the “dark and grimy” nickel works, presents a view of Canada we haven’t really seen before: as the menacing corporate version of a colonial power, which comes into a country, buys up its existing industries, exploits the natural resources and ships the profits back home. In that context, there seems to be a suggestion of causality behind the description of the mountains as “dead,” as if the mountains are dead because they have been stripped of the nickel they once contained. Falconbridge’s relationship to Norway appears not that different from the way one might look at the relationship of the Hudson’s Bay Company to Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; in this case, however, a Canadian corporation has taken the model of exploitative colonialism that Britain used in Canada and begun applying it to other parts of the world.

When we think of Canada in terms of colonialism, we tend to think of it as a victim, exploited by other countries for its natural resources; this passage reminds us that Canadian corporations enacted a similar process in other places as well, and that Canada can be found on both sides of the colonialist coin.

Addendum: Knausgaard vs. Proust (Unrelated to Canada)

I should begin by saying I’m probably not even qualified to talk about what I’m about to try to talk about. I don’t think you can ever really “know” a book that you haven’t read in its original language; at its most fundamental level, writing is a matter of word choice – an author chooses words and arranges them in a particular order – and word choice presupposes a vocabulary from which those words are chosen, and a vocabulary presupposes a language. Translation is a wonderful thing, and a good translator can convey a great deal of what is present in a work of literature, but no translation is a “true” or “complete” picture because by definition it does not – cannot – include the specific, individual words the author chose.

That said, I’m going to discuss the relationship between A Death in the Family and In Search of Lost Time – two novels I have read only in translation – and, more particularly, the question of why so many reviews compare the two works.

To get the obvious out of the way first: Knausgaard himself courts the comparison to Proust, even mentioning his own experience of reading A la recherche near the beginning of the book (26). And the fact that the main character shares the author’s name, as does the narrator of In Search of Lost Time, the fact that the novel is autobiographical and actually told in a series of books, as is Proust’s novel – there are certainly points of comparison. (Not to mention that Proust also refers to Canada – another (significant?) similarity.)

And of course comparing contemporary books with the literature of the past is one of the main tasks taken up by reviewers and critics, and always has been and always will be: a key way we situate and seek to understand a book is by looking for antecedents and trying to see how it relates to a “tradition”.

So to that extent all of this is fair and quite normal. But I can’t help feeling there is something else going on here.

My paperback edition of A Death In The Family (published by Vintage) opens with eight pages of puff quotes from around the world; let’s take a look at a few representative samples. Under the heading “Praise from Norway”:

Reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s life work A la Recherche du Temps Perdu… With My Struggle Knausgaard has laid the foundations of a literary cathedral.  (Moss Avis)

Only the foundation? A cycle of six novels covering more than 3,000 pages, and he’s only finished the foundation?

Under the heading “Praise from Spain”:

Proust now has a Nordic heir. The Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard.  (Marie Claire)

The Proustian style engages us from the very first pages, at the same time hinting at disaster of the most personal kind….  (Time Out)

Under the heading “Praise from Italy”:

Knausgaard has a Proustian ability to hypnotize his reader, and to induce a trance-like state.  (La Stampa)

The more I read that line, the less certain I am that it’s a compliment.

He has made a genuine saga of his own personal history. Knausgaard is a literary sensation to be compared with Proust.  (Corriere Nazionale)

Knausgaard, the Proust of the twenty-first century has arrived from Norway.  (Il Piccolo)

After Larsson, here’s a new Scandinavian literary sensation.  (TV Film)

Oops – clearly, the editors at TV Film didn’t get the memo that Knausgaard is a serious literary writer, not the author of film-ready genre blockbusters, and that comparisons to Proust, not Stieg Larsson, are the order of the day. But as the comparisons to Proust pile up, they begin to seem a little insistent – almost aggressive.

At the beginning of this section I listed some of the obvious similarities between this novel and Proust – the multiple volumes, the fact that it’s autobiographical – but those similarities are essentially superficial, by which I mean – and this is the key point – they are similarities that could be noticed by someone who hasn’t actually read Proust, but for whom “Proust” is simply an external idea, a cultural construct or talisman that represents something (“long autobiographical novel that I should probably get around to reading someday”) without being known from within.

In terms of style – and this is based on having read only the first novel in the My Struggle “cycle” – Knausgaard really isn’t that much like Proust at all. He has an astounding ability to convey the fine texture of everyday reality; the descriptions of cleaning his grandparents’ house after his father’s death show incredible attention to easily overlooked elements like the way the grain of the wood emerges as a banister is cleaned, or the way the dirty water swirls down the sink drain – as a reader, you feel you are seeing these things for the first time, as if you have looked at them before but never really absorbed them until you read them described by Knausgaard. And I think this idea of “attention,” of being present in the moment and noticing the details of quotidian reality, is a central part of what Knausgaard is trying to achieve as a writer.

But the accumulation of detail has a way of piling up without necessarily adding up; I have to confess that as the repetitive scenes of cleaning went on (and on), I could appreciate Knausgaard’s desire to focus on every moment and to make the reader feel present in every aspect of the experience he went through; at the same time, the tedium was, for me at least, inescapable. Most novels inevitably have their longueurs, I suppose, but in A Death in the Family the longueurs don’t feel like unnecessary fat that could have been removed with more careful editing; they are so present and so much the focus that they begin to seem like the essence of Knausgaard’s project. It feels at times like he’s attempting to valorize the quotidian through sheer length and force of style. But, at the end of the day, how much do I really care about the banisters in his grandparents’ house?

By way of (startling?) contrast, Proust is really never (well, hardly ever) tedious. In Search of Lost Time is obviously long, but it’s a length that grows out of a depth and richness that feel organic and necessary, not frivolous or self-indulgent or, worst of all, simply uninteresting. Proust has a way of drawing in history, literature, music, art – Knausgaard’s description of himself weeping while flipping through a book of Constable paintings (Constable!) doesn’t really measure up – that intensifies his reflections on his feelings and his experiences. But Proust can also write scenes that are shattering in their dramatic power – Marcel’s late-night meeting with the Baron de Charlus, when Charlus switches back and forth between something approaching tenderness and a towering, contemptuous rage, or the minute recording of the conversation at a single society party that goes on for several hundred pages without ever being less than riveting. Certainly The Captive and The Fugitive read in places as if they miss the ultima manus – and Proust was still working on the novel when he died, so it is “unfinished,” though I wonder whether he could ever have stopped revising it, whether it ever could be “finished” – and yet Time Regained feels complete and perfect as it is. And perhaps one could accuse Proust of repetition, in the sense that his characters all seem to act out the same behaviours over and over again. But this is more a matter of patterning than repetition – the obsessive love affair described in the “Swann in Love” section of Swann’s Way sets the template for all the other relationships in the novel, and the fact that all these relationships play out in much the same way is Proust’s commentary on the nature of desire and the inevitability of jealousy – it is an achievement, not a failure.

And so why the comparisons of Knausgaard to Proust? I think they grow out of the fact that, while Proust is great, he is also difficult (in the way that all great literature is difficult) – reading Proust is a pleasure, but it’s also work. Knausgaard is a facsimile, or a simulacrum, of Proust, perfect for our times – his work has the length, but not the depth of Proust; the constant comparisons to Proust are a way of telling readers, who may be a bit leery of tackling Proust, that they can just go ahead and read Knausgaard instead and get essentially the same result. Not true, but a comforting untruth.

My Personal Guide to Reading Proust

Having said that reading Proust is difficult, but nevertheless worthwhile, I might as well offer my own thoughts on how to approach reading In Search of Lost Time – which is, admittedly, a project – just in case you want to give it a try.

1. Obviously, begin with the first volume, Swann’s Way.

2. The first section is called “Combray”. You really need to get through the first 50-odd pages if at all possible – this is the part that leads up to the famous incident of the madeleine dipped in tea. It won’t be easy, but just plough ahead; the confusing parts are confusing because they relate to things that occur in the later novels, and you won’t understand them until you get there, so don’t be concerned.

3. Once you pass the madeleine in the tea, read as much more of “Combray” as you can stand; when you can’t take it anymore, skip ahead to the second part, called “Swann in Love.”

4. “Swann in Love” should come as a revelation; after the dense, introspective style of “Combray”, “Swann in Love”, despite the obsessive love affair at its centre, is much more “social,” so to speak, with entertaining characters, actual incidents (i.e. a “plot”) and a satirical edge. Most of the characters introduced here will reappear throughout the coming volumes.

5. By the end of “Swann in Love” you’ll be hooked – even the final, short section (“Place-Names: The Name”), which is more in the “Combray” style, won’t be enough to deter you, and you’ll move eagerly on to the second volume, “Within a Budding Grove”.

6. If you don’t like “Swann in Love,” then Proust is not for you. You’ll have to settle for Knausgaard.

The Abodes of Despair (Munchausen Part I)


Rudolf Erich Raspe, The Travels and Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1785)

This edition of Baron Munchausen, published in 2012 by Melville House as part of the Neversink Library, is based on an edition published in London in 1895. There is a lengthy “Afterword” by Thomas Seccombe, which I think served as an introduction to the 1895 edition; in it, Seccombe suggests that Raspe was the author of only a relatively small portion of the present book (Chapters II through VI of the first volume), and that what Raspe published in 1785 was little more than what we might think of as a “pamphlet,” as opposed to a full-length book. The stories told in Raspe’s chapters are all quite short, and mainly concern exploits in war and hunting, which could conceivably be exaggerrated versions of events from the life of the historical Baron Munchausen.

According to Seccombe, following the success of Raspe’s work, the publisher employed other writers to add to and expand the Baron’s adventures; by the seventh edition, in 1793, they had reached essentially the form in which we have them now.

But then there is this edition:


In his Introduction, John Carswell attributes more of the work to Raspe than Seccombe does, and argues….

But I find myself unwilling to venture too far into the thickets of these questions of authorship; for our purposes, the book was written near the close of the 18th century, and can be taken to represent some ideas that Europeans had about Canada at that time. Those who wish to know more about the history and authorship of the Baron’s adventures can follow those questions on their own.

The book is divided into two volumes, each containing references to Canada, and each slightly different stylistically. I’ve decided to treat the two volumes in two separate posts, mainly to keep the treatment of Raspe from becoming too unwieldy.

The First Volume

The Baron’s adventures are narrated in the first person, as if he were relating them to dinner guests. The events become more outlandish as the first volume proceeds, ranging  from the highly improbable (single-handedly killing thousands of polar bears with a knife) to the utterly impossible (making love to Venus (the goddess, not the planet) at the centre of a volcano) to the completely fantastical (his trip to the Moon).

Here’s one example, just for fun: while travelling in Ceylon, the Baron is suddenly confronted by a hungry lion about to spring at him; he turns to run away, only to find a crocodile right behind him with its jaws wide open, about to devour him. Seeing no hope for escape, when the lion springs at him, the Baron simply falls to the ground; to his great delight, the lion jumps headfirst into the crocodile’s mouth, and the Baron is saved.

But on to the references to Canada. This first one comes from a part of the book which Carswell attributes to Raspe, but Seccombe does not; I prefer to think it is by Raspe, just so that our country (or at least one of its major features) can be mentioned by the original author:

I embarked at Portsmouth in a first-rate English man-of-war, of one hundred guns, and fourteen hundred men, for North America. Nothing worth relating happened till we arrived within three hundred leagues of the river St. Laurence, when the ship struck with amazing force against (as we supposed) a rock….  (35)

Of course it’s not a rock – it’s the nose of a gigantic whale, which attacks the ship, then takes the anchor in its mouth and drags the ship off. There isn’t much about Canada here; the St. Lawrence river (note the alternate spelling)  is merely used as a marker of location, and one could argue that it is really just a generic feature of North America. However, the river played such an important role in Canada’s history that we Canadians tend to feel somewhat proprietary about it.

A more interesting reference comes after Munchausen has flown from Europe to South America on the back of one of two giant eagles. (To avoid any possible confusion, the “bladders” mentioned in the passage below are pods that grow on a certain South American tree and are filled with “the most delicious wine”.)

Each [i.e. each eagle] reassumed its former station; and directing their course to the northward, they crossed the Gulf of Mexico, entered North America, and steered directly for the Polar regions, which gave me the finest opportunity of viewing this vast continent that can possibly be imagined.
Before we entered the frigid zone the cold began to affect me; but piercing one of my bladdders, I took a draught [aren’t you glad I explained the “bladders” in advance?], and found that it could make no impression on me afterwards. Passing over Hudson’s Bay, I saw several of the Company’s ships lying at anchor, and many tribes of Indians marching with their furs to market….
In these cold climates I observed that the eagles flew with greater rapdity, in order, I suppose, to keep their blood in circulation. In passing Baffin’s Bay I saw several large Greenlandmen to the eastward, and many surprising mountains of ice in those seas.  (112-13)

What we have here are not the genuine impressions of a European traveller who had visited our country; rather, we are treated to a tour of what an educated European would have thought he knew about Canada in the absence of any direct knowledge.

First, a very familiar idea: ice, cold, Polar regions, frigid zones – in a couple of short paragraphs we have a catalogue of different ways of making essentially the same point: Canada is cold.

But then, a reference to something we haven’t come across before: “the Company,” which, coupled with the mention of Hudson’s Bay, can only refer to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Founded in 1670, the Company was more than just a trading concern; for a long time, it owned and essentially governed a large swath of what is now Canada, from the area around Hudson’s Bay west to Vancouver Island. The reference here is brief, but the description of the “tribes” bringing their furs to market offers a clear (though obviously oversimplified) picture of European colonialism exploiting the natural resources of the New World for profit.

An Aside

For those unfamiliar with the world of Canadian retail shopping, the Hudson’s Bay Company still exists, now in the form of a chain of department stores. My recollection is that for a long time it was known as “The Bay” and seemed, if anything, to want to elide its history and present itself simply as a one-stop destination for contemporary shoppers. Recently, however, “The Bay” has begun to incorporate historical elements into their branding, as you can see from the current version of the bag you get when you shop there:


Yes, that’s the official company coat of arms, including the company’s Latin motto, “Pro pelle cutem” (which translates roughly as “we have skin in the game“). Does Google have a coat of arms and a Latin motto? I think not.

Back to the Main Subject

At this point the Baron and his eagles are leaving what we would think of as Canada; unfortunately, his eagles crash into a frozen cloud (?) and fall to the ice below; the Baron does everything he can to resuscitate them,

fully sensible that was only by means of them that I could possibly be delivered from these abodes of despair.  (114)

Don’t worry – he survives. But not without first serving Canada one final insult, calling our land an “abode of despair.” We could make the case that the “abodes of despair” referred to here are not clearly in Canada, but it seems that our nation’s polar regions are more or less the location of these events, and on the whole the phrase seems a little too close for compliment.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part I – UPDATED


Michael Robbins, Alien vs. Predator (2012)

I feel I need to begin by apologizing for the Toronto Public Library: they clearly affix their stickers with no regard for how they affect the aesthetic appeal of a book’s cover. And this book really does have a striking cover design; it’s a shame to see it marred. On the other hand, I can’t afford to buy all the books I want to read, so I have to put up with these minor indignities.

Moving on…

Canada may or may not have immense cultural cachet, but it’s clear that one Canadian does: singer/songwriter-folkie/rocker Neil Young. We’ve discussed him before, but it’s never a bad time to talk Neil. Michael Robbins’ book contains at least one reference to him:

Second Helping

I dare not speak my name, it is so long
and unpronounceable. I enforce the thaw
here among the timbered few. We despise you
and whatever you rode in on – is that a swan?
I’m not really like this. I’m over the moon.

Still, we jar marmalade. We plow.
We don’t need Neil Young around anyhow.
Your tribe’s Doritos are infested with a stegosaur.
That Forever 21 used to be a Virgin Megastore.

Scott Baio in full feathered glory
was everything I’m not. I am everything I am
and then some. I’m coming along nicely.
Don’t stick your fork in me until I’m done.  (14)

It’s a bit difficult to tell how Neil Young relates to the rest of the poem – in fact, I find it a bit difficult to tell how the different parts of the poem relate to one another. No doubt this is the point: the poem makes it impossible for you to say what the poem is “about,” because talking about what poems are “about” is old-fashioned and tedious – as are poems that are “about” something to begin with.

Nevertheless, we’ll cling to our illusions, however old-fashioned they may be, and give it a try.

The word “anyhow,” at the end of the Neil Young line, might be some sort of clue; it’s a turn of phrase that seems to indicate Neil Young has been around, but has now left – but who cares, we didn’t need him anyway. This sounds like false bravado – compare Coriolanus and his “there is a world elsewhere.” Is the speaker secretly going to miss Neil’s folkie guitar strumming? Will Neil’s help be missed at plowing time? Does this association arise purely because he put out an album called Harvest, and then another called Harvest Moon?

I don’t think I’m going to reach any satisfactory conclusions.


This may be a first for us here at Wow – Canada! (perhaps because most of the authors I write about are dead) – what appears to be an author comment. Someone known as “MR” (Michael Robbins?) has stepped in in the Comments to inform me (or should I say gently chastise me for not noticing?) that the Neil Young line in “Second Helping,” above, is actually a quote from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Sweet Home Alabama”:

(Look out for the Confederate flag drop at around the 1:20 mark.)

I’m familiar with the song, but not familiar enough to pick up on references to it. Or perhaps I suppressed the memory, out of my eagerness to find a reference to Canada in the poem?

I suppose this means that “Second Helping” doesn’t really contain a Neil Young reference, or that it does so only at second hand, so to speak. Nevertheless, I’ll let the commentary above stand – and we still have Michael J. Fox (see below).

Finally, just to show I’m not toally off base in terms of Michael Robbins dropping Neil Young references, here’s a more recent poem of his, That’s Incredible, also linked to in the comments, and containing a direct Neil Young reference.

A Digressive Disclaimer

Does my commentary on “Second Helping” make me  sound like I’m down on Michael Robbins? I don’t mean to be. I actually enjoyed this book – it’s full of great lines: “I have eyes/in the sack of my dead” or  “Let’s get this seance started,” or “I wandered lonely as Jay-Z,” to pick out a few.

Just in the poem I quoted above, there’s the line about the swan, sharpened by the internal rhyme with “on”; the rhyme of “stegasaur” with “Megastore” practically jumps off the page. But can Robbins’ technique produce more than isolated great lines?

Without question, there are poems where Robbins manages to sustain his zany inventiveness throughout: the title poem, or the final poem in the collection. If I have a quibble, it’s that the poems in the book all feel like exercises in the same technique; a few work beautifully, but a lot of the rest just don’t seem to add up to much. Now, to produce a poem as good as “Alien vs. Predator” is more than most of us will accomplish in a lifetime, so I won’t sneer. Perhaps, for my palate, a couple of poems like that are enough. (I think someone said something similar about Eliot’s “Gerontion”: “One poem like that is enough. It purifies the language.” But I can’t remember who.)

In any case, my purpose here is to look at references to Canada, not to attempt to analyze the poem as a poem or the book as a book. If you want to read some intelligent commentary on Robbins’ poetry, I recommend Michael Lista’s review of this collection.

A Possible Neil Young Reference

My general practice is to quote poems in their entirety as much as possible, but in the case of Robbins, I’ve decided that relevant sections can be broken off from the whole without causing them undue damage. So here’s another possible Neil Young reference, from a poem called “Material Girl”:

You’re coated with salmonella. Or am I
confusing you with the kitchen sponge again?
A beautiful phrase, cellar door,
but I prefer You win. Prefer to sit and spin.  (22)

I say “possible” because when I see the phrase “cellar door,” I immediately think of the  Neil Young song “The Needle and the Damage Done,” which begins, “Caught you knockin’ at my cellar door.”

(For reference, here’s an acoustic performance from Toronto in the fall of 2012:

I think that might be the Hank Williams D-28 (subject of the song “This Old Guitar”) that he’s playing.)

Robbins, however, seems to be thinking of the fact that “cellar door,” particularly as it would be pronounced with an English accent, is considered, in the field of phonaesthetics (did you know there was a field of phonaesthetics? I didn’t), to be one of the most beautiful phrases in the English language, so this might not actually be a reference to Canada.

Another Digression

Just to close the circle on “cellar door,” there was a club in Washington DC called The Cellar Door. There’s a live Miles Davis set from 1970 that was recorded there (here’s a sample), and guess who else is coming out with a live album, also recorded at the Cellar Door, and also in 1970? That’s right: Neil Young. (Sometimes the connections are almost too much for me – I feel overwhelmed – “What splendor, it all coheres!”)

This, I believe, marks the second Neil Young live release from a venue where Miles Davis also played at around the same time, the first being the Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 album. In fact, as you can see from the cover photo, Neil’s and Miles’ names appeared together on the marquee:


So clearly there is some sort of harmonic convergence taking place in the universe; or at least there was in 1970, when Neil and Miles played the same venue at least twice, on both occasions recording material that would later be released.

That felt like an exhausting aside.

Wait – Another Canadian Celebrity!

Returning to Alien vs. Predator, there’s one further reference, not to Canada but to a Canadian celebrity, that I might as well quote while I’m at it. This is the final stanza of the poem “The Dark Clicks On”:

Michael J. Fox talks Parkinson’s
with the former Miss Arkansas.
The clouds are there for them
to be sick on. Those European
stairwells with the lights on a timer?
You get halfway up and the dark clicks on.  (26)

The near-rhyme of “Parkinson’s” with “Arkansas” gives an idea of the slightly unconventional music that Robbins creates in his poems. Does Miss Arkansas come in for any reason other than to provide that gorgeous near-rhyme?  Is any other reason required?

So…What Does it All Mean?

As a collection, Alien vs. Predator is riddled with references to celebrities, actors, musicians and pop culture generally, and it’s hard to say that Neil Young or Michael J. Fox are brought in for their “Canadian-ness,” or even that Robbins is particularly aware that they are Canadian. Perhaps they are famous enough that they transcend being Canadian, and are simply celebrities that Americans have more or less adopted as their own. And this tells us something about the attitude of Americans towards Canadians: they see us as similar enough to themselves that they can absorb us into their culture so completely that we cease to be different at all.

Lumberjacks Again


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.

A Plaything for Aristocrats

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sevigne, Selected Letters

Madame de Sévigné, Selected Letters (1648-1696)

My interest in Madame de Sévigné grew out of my interest in Proust; those familiar with In Search of Lost Time/Remembrance of Things Past/A la recherche du temps perdu (whatever title you prefer) will recall that the narrator’s grandmother is one of the most affecting characters in the first couple of books; Madame de Sévigné is her favourite author, and she carries a book of her letters around with her and continuously re-reads it. The Penguin edition (pictured above) is a useful introduction, though I would have appreciated a few more explanatory notes.

This passage is from a letter, dealing with issues of household economy, from Madame de Sévigné to her daughter (the majority of her letters are to her daughter):

M. de Grignan [Mme de Sévigné’s son-in-law] is asking for a very good jerkin. This is a matter of seven or eight hundred francs. What has become of a very fine one he had? Do let me remind you, my love, that one doesn’t exactly give away rags of this kind and that even the pieces are good. For God’s sake do save at least some of the excessive expense. Without knowing exactly what effect it will have, do keep a general eye so as not to let anything be lost and not to relax your efforts about anything. Don’t, as they say, throw away the handle after the axe. Look at Canada as a good thing no longer available. M. de Frontenac possesses it, and others don’t always have the same resources. (134; letter dated April 6, 1672)

The basic meaning of the letter is clear: Madame de Sévigné is instructing her daughter not to be wasteful or careless with money, and reminding her that once something is gone, you can’t always recover it. First she quotes a cliché (marked by “as they say”) about not throwing away the handle with the axe; this leads directly into Canada as an example of a “good thing no longer available.”

But in what sense is Canada “no longer available”? Unlike the reference to Canada in Casanova, which occurs after France lost Canada to England in 1759, this mention of Canada occurs when it was still solidly in French possession. In fact Frontenac had just been made Governor General of New France at the time of the letter – Madame de Sévigné observes that he now “possesses” its “resources.”

This is a classically colonialist view of Canada as a treasure trove of natural resources to be exploited by a European country. But Madame de Sévigné seems to see it in very personal terms, as though it is not really France that possesses Canada, but only Frontenac. Why?

I found the answer here:


Francis Parkman’s 1877 book Count Frontenac and New France Under Louis XIV, which includes the following:

The Comte de Grignan, son-in-law of Madame de Sévigné, was an unsuccessful competitor with Frontenac for the government of Canada. (20; footnote in Chapter 1)

So there it is: Madame de Sévigné seems to take Frontenac’s possession of Canada personally because, for her, it was personal. She is essentially telling her daughter, “If your husband had been made governor of Canada, he could have all the new jerkins he wanted. But since he wasn’t, you have to be more frugal.”

This reveals another way Canada was viewed by Europeans: as a career opportunity which would, no doubt, offer plenty of chances for self-enrichment; and also as a kind of bauble that could be passed by the King to a favourite courtier as a reward for some service or as a sign of favour – or to get him out of the way so that the King could court his mistress, as Parkman suggests may have been the case with Frontenac.

It’s fascinating to see how large-scale political decisions about who would govern our country could be made on the basis of nothing more than royal whim, and then reverberate all the way down to such a personal level that they would become part of a domestic discussion about spending money on a jerkin.

And would our history be different if Grignan, rather than Frontenac, had been made Governor? Who knows; certainly some details would have changed. Quebec City’s most famous hotel, for example, might be called the Chateau Grignan.

Canadian Bacon?

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, The Patrick Melrose Novels

Edward St. Aubyn, Bad News (The Patrick Melrose Novels) (2003)

Bad News, the second novel in the original Patrick Melrose trilogy, picks up the story of Patrick, now 22, over the course of a week-end in New York, where he has gone to collect the ashes of his father and spends most of his time searching for and taking a harrowing smorgasbord of drugs. At this point in the trilogy I began to experience the sad sensation of diminishing returns: extended, simile-laden descriptions of drug injection become tedious pretty quickly, and there’s really not a lot else here. The devices by which Patrick encounters several of the characters from the first novel (all, coincidentally, in New York at the same time he is) become a little creaky; this problem grows even more pronounced in the third novel, Some Hope, which, like Never Mind, centres around a single day and a single party, at which almost every character from the first two novels is present, as well as some new ones.

Bad News does, however, contain a second reference to Canada:

Patrick hung up the phone and glanced at the clock. Six-thirty-five. He ordered Canadian bacon, fried eggs, toast, porridge, stewed fruit, orange juice, coffee, and tea. (225)

Canadian bacon (which can mean either peameal or back bacon) is apparently regarded quite highly by some Americans: check out the Real Canadian Bacon Co., which specializes in importing Canadian bacon (peameal in this case), “the finest gourmet meat available from Canada.” (It’s a bit sad to think the finest gourmet meat we offer is bacon. Not our Alberta steaks? Our Ontario lamb? Our wild Pacific salmon? (Does salmon count as meat?))

And on the next page:

Patrick’s breakfast was devastated without being eaten … rashers of bacon hung on the edge of a plate smeared with egg yolk…. (226)

So what exactly has Patrick ordered? In the U.S., “Canadian bacon” can mean either peameal or back bacon; but the word “rasher” in the second quote strikes me as more suggestive of back than peameal, though I’m not sure why. In the end it may not be possible, based on the references in the book, to determine a) what St. Aubyn himself means by Canadian bacon, or b) what the New York hotel at which Patrick orders the meal would mean by Canadian bacon. St. Aubyn himself is British, so the curious can peruse this rather exhaustive (not to say exhausting) survey of what exactly bacon means to the British.

To return to the point: what does this say about St. Aubyn’s views on Canada and Canadians? It seems we’ve gone from lumberjacks to producers of bacon; not what I would call making massive strides in the imagination of the world. Canada remains, in the mind of St. Aubyn, a nation devoted to providing products for the consumption of others.

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