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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Newfoundland”

Newfoundland, a Distant Beacon

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Paul Beatty, The White Boy Shuffle (1996)

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

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

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

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

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

Music — In Memory of Nick Scoby

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

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

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

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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.)

16

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 3: David Lodge Insults Us

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David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)

I’ll warn you at the outset, this one may sting a little. I’ve included it as part of the “Romance” series because the book is subtitled “An Academic Romance,” but the idea of romance at issue in this novel is that of Chretien de Troyes or Ariosto, not the “romanticism” of Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.

Anyway…

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. It was recommended to me in graduate school by someone I didn’t have tremendous respect for, and so I didn’t read it out of suspicion of the source, so to speak. As always happens in these cases, all I managed to do was deprive myself of a reasonably enjoyable book.

Small World — the second in what is now called Lodge’s “campus trilogy” — is a satire of academic life in general and, in particular, of academic conferences. The main characters are almost all academics, and they spend all their time jetting around the world from one conference to the next, where they argue, drink and sleep with one another.

To give his narrative some shape, Lodge has superimposed on it several different quest narratives, the main one being Persse McGarrigle’s quest for Angelica, a beautiful girl he meets at a conference and whom he then pursues around the world for the rest of the book, always one step behind her. Lest anyone miss the point, many of the characters are provided with names that signal their function in the novel or their relationship to characters from romance: Sybil Maiden, for example, an elderly woman who has prophetic fits; or Arthur Kingfisher, past wunderkind of the field of literary theory who has withdrawn into himself due to impotence and writer’s block (the Fisher King with a hint of King Arthur) and who only recovers when Persse (Percival) asks an ambiguous (and “healing”) question at — where else? — the MLA conference.

All of that, of course, is beside the point for our purposes; what we really want to know is, what does it have to say about Canada?

As you would expect in a novel where most of the characters spend their time flying around the world, there are several passing references to Canada that don’t say anything about the country but are just place names. There are also a couple of mentions of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most famous literary critic, which give us a sense of what a significant intellectual presence Frye was among literary academics in the late 70s and early 80s: both The Anatomy of Criticism and his ideas about romance as a genre are referenced approvingly here.

And with that short paragraph, we’ve taken care of the neutral and positive side of Canada in this novel. There are several other passages which give a more focused picture of Canada and Canadians, and in those, I’m afraid, Lodge — or his characters — don’t have much good to say.

A Land of Windswept Exile

In this scene, Howard Ringbaum and his wife Thelma are flying from Canada (where he works) to England for a conference. Howard has been trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Thelma to have sex with him on the plane so that he can join the “Mile High Club,” which he has heard about from a younger colleague, and his bitter reflections following his failure lead to some thoughts on Canada and how he ended up there:

The same characteristic trait, displayed in a party game called Humiliation devised by Philip Swallow many years before, cost Howard Ringbaum dear — cost him his job, in fact, led to his exile to Canada, from which he has only recently been able to return by dint of writing a long succession of boring articles on English pastoral poetry amid the windswept prairies of Alberta….  (91)

Here we get an image of Canada as a windy, desolate wasteland, almost comically unsuited to the sort of sophisticated cultural life required by academics. Ringbaum explicitly thinks of his position in Canada as an “exile,” and so living in our country is construed as so bad it can serve as punishment for a misdeed.

A Cutting Put-Down

Things only get worse. Later in the novel, the subject of a trip to Vancouver comes up between Rudyard Parkinson (a professor) and Felix Skinner (an academic publisher):

“They’re giving me an honorary degree in Vancouver next week. It didn’t really sink in, when I accepted, that I’d actually have to go there to collect it.”
“I say, what a bore,” said Felix Skinner sympathetically.  (156)

The phrase “What a bore” could be taken to refer to Vancouver — indeed, ideas of boredom do seem to track fairly closely with references to Vancouver in world literature — but it could also simply refer to the tedium of flying to distant places to receive honorary degrees, and we need not take it as a direct insult to Canada. A few pages later, however, Rudyard Parkinson goes to Vancouver to get his degree, and we get this:

He began bitterly to repent of the vanity which had prompted him to accept this perfectly useless degree, flying ten thousand miles in three days just for the pleasure of dressing up in unfamiliar robes, hearing a short and probably inaccurate panegyric in his honour, and exchanging small talk afterwards with a crowd of boring Canadian nonentities at some ghastly reception or banquet where they would all no doubt drink iced rye whisky throughout the meal.  (162)

There really can’t be any doubt about that one: Canadians are conceived of as dull, unsophisticated bumpkins, and the idea of spending any time in their company is tantamount to torture. There is so much caught up in those three words, “boring Canadian nonentities,” that they almost seem to summarize the world’s idea of our country — not just the word “boring,” since we’ve grown moderately comfortable with the idea of our own dullness, and have even started to take a certain pride in it in some ways — just another word for “peace, order and good government” you might almost say. But “nonentities” — that word contains so much, because of course the Canadians in the novel — though we never get to know them as characters — are fighting against this very characterization. By giving an honorary degree to a well-known British academic, by having him come to their university to receive it, the Canadians are trying to raise their own profile in the academic world, trying to become something other than nonentities. And yet they can’t: even their guest of honour, who should be well-disposed towards them, sees the trip as a nuisance and the people he meets as precisely the nonentities they don’t want to be.

From Lodge’s perspective, and for most of his readers, this episode in Vancouver would be just another example of his satirizing of the academic world. As a Canadian, however, I find myself reading it “against the grain” (to borrow a term from literary theory): instead of snickering at the Canadian academics, I sympathize with them, and feel a sort of embarrassed pity at the way their desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (such a Canadian desire) is so casually dismissed.

The good news about Vancouver, however, is that, while being there may be torture, it is a torture that is easily forgotten, at least based on Parkinson’s thoughts two pages later:

Vancouver, of which he had in any case seen little except rainswept roads between the airport and the University, had already faded from his memory.  (164)

The association of rain with Vancouver is not surprising, and the conclusion of the sentence seems to say a lot about Canada: it may be dull, but at least it is eminently forgettable.

A Final Nod to Newfoundland

There’s one other reference to Canada, spoken by Philip Swallow to Joy, who becomes his lover for part of the novel:

Philip squeezed her knee. “You are my Euphoria, my Newfoundland,” he said.  (222)

This is obviously a reference to the Donne poem which was the subject of our first ever Wow Canada post; it is also, of course, a characterizing detail, since it makes sense that a university professor would quote Donne to his lover. Lodge has even modernized the spelling to match the name of our easternmost province.

Ireland Invades Canada! (Paul Muldoon Part I)

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Paul Muldoon, The Annals of Chile (1997)

The references to Canada in this book are all contained in the long poem, “Yarrow,” which makes up the bulk of the volume. And let me say at the outset that I’m not going to attempt to offer an analyis of the poem as a whole; I’m merely trying to tease out the ideas that lie behind what Muldoon says about our country.

“Yarrow” is divided into numerous short sections; where references to Canada appear, I’ll quote the whole section in order to provide some context. And, to avoid becoming too predictable, I’ll consider them out of order.

First reference:

For the moment, though, she thumbs through a seed-catalogue
she’s borrowed from Tohills’ of the Moy
while, quiet, almost craven,

he studies the grain in the shaft of a rake:
there are two palm-prints in blue stone
on the bib of his overalls

where he’s absentmindedly put his hands
to his heart; in a den in St John’s, Newfoundland, I browse
on a sprig of Achillea millefolium, as it’s classed.  (43)

Third reference:

Only yesterday I heard the cry go up, ‘Vene sancti Spiritu,’
as our old crate
overshot the runway at Halifax,

Nova Scotia: again I heard Oglalagalagool’s
cackackle-Kiowas
as blood gushed from every orifice;

an ampoule of Lustau’s port; a photograph of Godfrey Evans
who used to keep wicket – perhaps even went to bat –
for the noble and true-hearted Kent.  (181)

In both of these passages, the reference to Canada doesn’t seem to go very far beyond a simple statement of the place where an event occurs.

The first is mainly a description of the poet’s parents; there’s something vaguely American Gothic about it, with the rake and overalls. And is there a conscious reference to Canadian Robert Kroetsch’s long poem Seed Catalogue buried there? (Would Paul Muldoon even have heard of Robert Kroetsch?) And is there a pun in “browse” – it seems to echo his mother thumbing through the (leaves of) the catalogue, but can also mean grazing – though he’s surely not eating the Achillea millefolium.

Achillea millefolium is the Latin name for yarrow, the plant which gives the poem its title; Muldoon associates it with his childhood in Ireland, reminiscences of which make up much of the poem, and with his mother. Why he’s in St. John’s, Newfoundland when he “browses” on it is not made clear.

The third reference apparently relates to a mishap at the Halifax airport (I’ve landed there myself a few times); presumably the Latin phrase recalls the Catholicism of Muldoon’s childhood?

It may be worthy of note that both these references are to places in eastern Canada; Newfoundland, in particular, being closely associated with Ireland.

And now, the second reference, which I’m going to treat  separately because it has a little more to it:

The day S—– came back with the arrow
through a heart tattooed on her upper arm, it made me think
of the fleur-de-lys

on Milady’s shoulder (not Milady Clark, who helped the U.D.A.
run a shipment of Aramis
into Kilkeel

but Milady Clarik, whose great-great-grandfather led the I.R.B.
invasion of Canada, the one who helped foil
the plot in which the courier

was none other than herself, her): she shrugs off her taffeta
wither-band and begs me to, like, rim
her for Land’s sakes; instead of ‘Lord’, she says ‘Land’.  (85)

One of the techniques Muldoon uses in “Yarrow” is a kaleidoscopic treatment of time: references to events in his childhood, events from Irish mythology, and events from the books he was reading as a child blend into one another and into later time periods, and individuals from various points in his life are merged with, or laid over top of, one another and characters from literature. This section gives a glimpse of that technique in action.

The “I.R.B. / invasion of Canada” refers, presumably, to the Fenian raids from the U.S. into Canada during the 1860s. “Milady Clarik” is one of the pseudonyms used by Milady de Winter in The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas, already hinted at in the line about a “shipment of Aramis” (for “arms,” I suppose). Here – I may as well throw out a wild guess – it might refer to someone he knew in childhood, whose grandfather really was involved with the IRB, and who has been merged with the character of Milady de Winter, or perhaps played that role in childhood re-enactments of Dumas’ book. (Based on the evidence of “Yarrow,” Muldoon seems to have spent a good part of his childhood re-enacting books with his friends.)

The Fenian raids were brief and mainly unsuccessful attacks on Canada by Irish nationalists living in the U.S.; the idea, apparently, was to seize control of enough of Canada that they could then force an agreement with England whereby England would give up control of Ireland in exchange for the Fenians relinquishing Canada.

A bizarre idea, in retrospect, but one which at least reflects an impression of Canada as valuable. The main outcome of the Fenian raids was not freedom for Ireland, but rather the creation of enough fear of American invasion to convince some provinces – chiefly in the Maritimes – that it was worth joining Confederation in 1867 (the first Fenian raid occurred in 1866). So, through the law of unintended consequences, the Fenian raids actually helped form Canada as we know it.

This historical connection between Irish nationalism and Canada is also suggestive of a larger theme in Muldoon’s work: his interest in parallels between the colonial experience in North America, particularly Canada, and in Ireland.

Icebergs, Shipwrecks and Stock Whips

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Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love (1945)

The volume in the photo contains two Nancy Mitford novels, The Pursuit of Love and its sequel of sorts, Love in a Cold Climate. Both novels mention Canada, but as they were originally published separately – and as Love in a Cold Climate has numerous references to Canada – I’ll give each one its own post.

For Those Unacquainted with the Mitfords…

If you’re not familiar with the whole cult surrounding the Mitford family, then this Wikipedia entry is at least a starting point; Mary S. Lovell’s book The Sisters is essentially a combined biography of the whole family, though with the focus on the daughters. Or you could read The Pursuit of Love, which is one of the books that helped create the cult in the first place: the Radlett family in the book is based on the Mitford clan, with the characters of Aunt Sadie and Uncle Matthew representing Nancy Mitford’s parents. (Another key book in the creation of the family mythology is Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which we’ve already considered.)

The experiences of Linda Radlett, the main character in The Pursuit of Love, are modelled on Nancy Mitford’s own, though the book is actually narrated by Fanny, a cousin of the Radletts’, perhaps to give some slight authorial distance.

And Now, the Important Stuff: Canada

There are only two passing references to Canada in The Pursuit of Love, and both come in the early chapters that deal with the childhood experiences of Fanny and the Radlett children at Alconleigh, the Radletts’ country estate.

When a child I spent my Christmas holidays at Alconleigh, it was a regular feature of my life, and, while some of the them slipped by with nothing much to remember, others were distinguished by violent occurrences and had a definite character of their own…. There was the unforgettable holiday when Uncle Matthew and Aunt Sadie went to Canada. The Radlett children would rush for the newspapers every day hoping to see that their parents’ ship had gone down with all aboard; they yearned to be total orphans – especially Linda, who saw herself as Katy in What Katy Did, the reins of the household gathered into small but capable hands. The ship met with no iceberg and weathered the Atlantic storms, but meanwhile we had a wonderful holiday, free from rules.  (6)

Here Canada, or at least the journey to Canada, is clearly associated with great distance and considerable danger; enough danger, in fact, that the death of parents, and consequent freeing of their children from troublesome parental rules, is a real possibility. The reference to Atlantic storms suggests the approach to a wild, uncivilized place; the mention of an iceberg focuses our reputation as a cold, Northern land. 

The iceberg also recalls the Titanic, which famously ran into an iceberg south of Newfoundland and sank in 1912, when Nancy Mitford would have been around 8 years old. Perhaps she is recalling that here.

The obvious (unanswered) question that arises from the passage is, why were they going to Canada in the first place? Winter doesn’t seem the ideal time for a holiday in a place even colder than England. Did they just want to see another part of the world? Did they have relations in Canada? There’s no way to tell, but it seems like a bit of a compliment that these two English aristocrats braved the storms and icebergs to visit our humble land. 

A few pages later we get this:

Uncle Matthew was no respecter of other people’s early morning sleep, and after five o’clock one could not count on any, for he raged round the house, clanking cups of tea, shouting at his dogs, roaring at the housemaids, cracking the stock whips which he had brought back from Canada on the lawn with a noise greater than gunfire, and all to the accompaniment of Galli Curci on his gramophone, an abnormally loud one, with an enormous horn, through which would be shrieked ‘Una voce poco fa’ – ‘The Mad Song’ from Lucia – ‘Lo, here the gen-tel lar-ha-hark’ – and so on, played at top speed, thus rendering them even higher and more screeching than they ought to be.  (22)

In case you were wondering, a stock whip is not the same as a bull whip. Stock whips are used for mustering cattle, so the whip’s Canadian provenance suggests a place full of livestock and cowboys – though stock whips actually seem to have originated in Australia, not Canada, so why Uncle Matthew should have a stock whip from Canada is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps he acquired it on his trip there, when he didn’t drown in a shipwreck?

Uncle Matthew is portrayed in the novel as prone to wild rages, and here the Canadian whip is associated with the angry, out-of-control side of his character; the fact that the whip is from a country probably viewed as half-savage by the English aristocracy of the time perhaps adds an extra element of violent primitivism to the description of his behaviour (though one could read it more as quaint eccentricity).

So there’s not a lot new about Canada here: it’s a distant country, getting there can be dangerous, the livestock and wild animals probably outnumber the humans – and yet it’s worth visiting, though it’s not clear why. Interestingly, the Mitfords really had been to Canada: David Mitford (father of Nancy, Jessica et al.) even owned “a dear little gold mine” (Jessica’s phrase) here, which he thought would make him rich. Alas, it didn’t.

Some General Observations

As a writer, Mitford hovers somewhere between a novelist and a memoirist; most of her best-known works are fictionalizations of her own experiences or the experiences of her family members and friends, and you can see even in these brief passages her tendency to create run-on sentences by constantly adding further specific details to her descriptions, as if jotting down memories as they occur to her.

She does, however, make some notable alterations to the family history. I’ll mention just one: in The Pursuit of Love, Linda’s first marriage is to Tony Kroesig, the son of a rich banker of German descent. Much is made of Uncle Matthew’s disgust at his daughter marrying a German, and when the Second World War breaks out the Kroesigs are portrayed as sympathetic to Hitler and scheming to get their money out of England, while the Radletts would never think of leaving and are all ready to fight and die for their beloved homeland.

In reality, of course, two of Nancy Mitford’s sisters were staunch fascists and ardent supporters of Hitler – a fact she elides in the novel by removing those sentiments from her family, and by extension the English aristocracy as a whole (where they weren’t exactly unknown), and ascribing them instead to the nouveau-riche, recently arrived Kroesigs. Which seems a bit unfair, but there it is.

The Aromatic Sweat of the Beloved

The Story of My Life by Giacomo Casanova

Giacomo Casanova, The Story of My Life (1794?)

The publication history of this book is rather convoluted, so 1794 is a provisional date; Casanova was working on the book at that time. Those who want to investigate such things can start here.

On to the passage in question:

I have always loved highly savoury dishes, such as macaroni made by a good Neapolitan cook, olla podrida, the glutinous codfish of Newfoundland, aromatic game meats, and cheeses that attain perfection when the tiny creatures inhabiting them begin to become visible. As for women, I have always found that the one I loved smelled good, and the stronger her perspiration, the sweeter she smelled to me.  (p. 7; from the Preface)

Who would have guessed Newfoundland was so sexy? Donne compares his lover’s body to the province; for Casanova, its cod remind him of the smell of a lover’s sweat. Two libertines, two mentions of Newfoundland; what an honour for our easternmost province.

Given the extent to which this blog ponders the themes of insecurity, inferiority and so on, I think we should pause here and just revel in this moment: Casanova loved the taste of Newfoundland cod. “Glutinous” might sound like a put-down, but, here at least, it clearly isn’t.; in fact, it’s a compliment. And thoughts of the strong flavour of Newfoundland cod lead him into thoughts of the strong scent of a lover. Could this be as good as it gets for references to Canada? We shall see.

The idea of macaroni as a highly savoury dish must also surprise Canadians accustomed to Kraft Dinner or the President’s Choice variants. Obviously Neapolitans have their own way of doing it.

That bit about the cheese though – ugh.

Fake Canadian Reference Alert

Having first attempted to cure the patient with oppilative remedies, Doctor Zambelli sought to correct his mistake with castoreum, which brought on convulsions and finally death. The tumour burst through his ear one minute after he died. The doctor left after killing him, as if he had no more business in our house. My father died in his prime, at the age of thirty-six. (p. 18)

The note on “castoreum” is as follows:

An extract made from the dried perineal glands of the beaver.

I confess: When I first read that sentence, I thought I had found another reference to Canada. What’s more Canadian than beavers? One of the standard symbols of Canada, a beaver even appears on our nickel:

Canadian Nickel (Tails side)

I considered beavers a North American animal, but a little research (yes, I do some now and then) told me there was also a Eurasian variety, slightly different from the North American. It’s impossible to tell from the text, but it seems likely that the castoreum given to Casanova’s father came from a Eurasian beaver.

At least the Latin name of the North American variety, Castor Canadensis, is clearly a reference to Canada. And, while we’re on the subject of Latin, the description of the doctor leaving as soon as the patient was dead, as if he had nothing more to accomplish, could be straight out of Martial.

I can’t leave this book without commenting on the Penguin edition of Casanova pictured above. Normally I’m a fan of Penguin books, but this one is terrible. It’s a tie-in with the 2005 Casanova film directed by Lasse Hallstrom and starring Heath Ledger, which was an amusing little comedy but hardly a masterpiece; that led to the book cover being defaced by this depressing notice:

Penguin Casanova Cover Blurb

I can’t stand the faux come-on language of “take pleasure in the movie” and “let the real Casanova seduce you.” This isn’t just cheesy; it’s cheese in which the creatures inhabiting it have become visible.

But what’s really depressing about the book is that the excerpts break off just when things are getting good; to give you but one example, Casanova’s threesome with two nuns is simply summarized by the editor. What’s the point in reading Casanova if you’re going to miss the threesome with two nuns?

The answer is no point, no point at all.

Fortunately there’s a better edition, which we’ll take up one of these days.

Donne the Discoverer

John Donne, Elegy XIX – To His Mistress Going to Bed (pub. 1669)

License my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America, my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones, my empery,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!”

Ah, how many an undergraduate has sat semi-aroused in a drowsy fantasy while some desiccated professor droned on about this poem ….

The poem (full text here) is dated 1669 in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, which is the year it was added to Donne’s Poems — those who are curious about such things can consult Grierson’s edition for details on the publication history and manuscript tradition. It must have been written much earlier, perhaps in the late 1590s or early 1600s, which could well make it the first reference to Canada in literature. (Of course I’m aware Newfoundland wasn’t part of Canada in at the time Donne wrote, as Canada as we know it didn’t yet exist. This blog, however, will embrace a philosophy of inclusiveness: if it’s part of present-day Canada, then it counts.)

Already we can see certain themes that all Canadians will recognize coming into focus.

The first and most obvious is the idea of Canada as a just-discovered wilderness waiting to be plundered. This is implicit in the comparison of “new-found-land” to the body of the woman – as the poet wants to reveal and exploit her body for his pleasure, so Europeans wanted to map and exploit the New World for their profit (note “mine of precious stones”). And note the possessive: “my new-found-land”. She is his own personal New World, just as the “new-found-land” unquestionably belongs to England’s empire (note “empery”).

And then we notice “America” (with a capital A, unlike the lower-case “n” on “new-found-land,” as though the United States were already marked out for greatness and we for obscurity) and the questions begin. Is “new-found-land” a proper name equivalent to the modern “Newfoundland”? Or is it a generic term in apposition to “America,” essentially repeating the same idea? Perhaps Donne includes all of the New World under the term “America,” and “new-found-land” is just another way of saying the same thing – and introducing a rhyme for the punning “manned” in the next line.

How Canadian – even when confronted with a reference to Canada, we can’t quite believe it.

And yet Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed Newfoundland for England in 1583, and the Newfoundland Colony was established in 1610; the name could certainly have reached Donne’s ears. And considering that his poems originally circulated in manuscript, and that copy-editing was hardly standardized at that time, we shouldn’t read too much into (or out of) the vagaries of capitalization and punctuation.

In a way, it seems fitting that this early reference to Canada should be wreathed in a mist of uncertainty – did he really mean us? Or was he just aware of a New World in an unspecified way, and brought in the terms that suited the purposes of his own poem with little (or no?) thought for the concerns of future Canadians? Impossible, finally, to say.

But it remains – the name of our easternmost province, caught in the dense network of Donne’s verse, immortal there if nowhere else.

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