Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Nova Scotia”

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.

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Those Ghastly Colonials

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Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

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

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

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

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

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

And similarly, a few pages later:

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the High Seas with Doc and Sauncho

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)

Do you have a book sitting on your shelf that you read a long time ago and thought was one of the most amazing books ever written, and that you’re always meaning to reread, but every time you pick it up and flip it open, perhaps ruffling through the pages and watching your lovingly penciled marginalia flash by (you don’t use ink, do you? Or worse, a highlighter?), perhaps spreading it open at that familiar first page and beginning to read the first words of the first sentence of the first paragraph – and a jolt of something like fear stops you? You’re afraid that after all these years the book won’t measure up to your memories of it and, worse, that the rereading will serve as an indictment of the younger you who fell in love with it. “How could I have liked all this callow, juvenile claptrap?” you will wonder. “Could it be I was just a callow juvenile myself, and not the preternaturally sophisticated youth I thought I was?”

Or perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, for me, that book is Thomas Pynchon’s V. I read it in my early twenties and was immediately convinced that it represented everything that was cool and exciting about literature – the writing felt free and relaxed, the sentences rushed and tumbled effortlessly forward, there was humour on every page, it included a broad range of ideas without ever feeling like it was forcing or faking…. It was, I was convinced, a great book.

Needless (perhaps?) to say, I’ve never reread it.

Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, is not a great book. It feels like a paint-by-numbers Pynchon book, as though the author were consciously imitating his own earlier work. (For the obsessed, it has a video promo supposedly voiced by Pynchon himself; if it is him, he sounds somewhat like Sam Elliott.) And, even more significantly, it mentions Canada.

(Is it inevitable that only the lesser works of a great author should mention this country? We shall see.)

No, her original name was Preserved, after her miraculous escape in 1917 from a tremendous nitroglycerin explosion in Halifax Harbor which blew away most everything else in it, shipping and souls. Preserved was a Canadian fishing schooner, which later during the 1920s and ‘30s also picked up a reputation as a racer, competing regularly with others in her class, including, at least twice, the legendary Bluenose. (p. 92)

Not to nit-pick, but shouldn’t “Halifax Harbor” be spelled “Halifax Harbour,” in deference to our northern habits, more closely allied with the British way of doing things? But let that pass. What does it mean?

Not a lot, I’m afraid. Two characters, Doc and Sauncho (each separated by a mere letter from those famous wanderers Don and Sancho, for those who get excited about such things) are discussing a boat, now known as the Golden Fang, once known as the Preserved, which may be involved in some sort of nefarious goings-on. I would read this as something of a compliment to Canada: how many Canadian fishing schooners have been involved in nefarious goings-on?

And yet the use of Canadian history feels a bit casual, almost dismissive. Pynchon uses the explosion in Halifax as a factual jumping-off point to the backstory of the ship in his novel, but it’s a mere narrative convenience. I can’t help but feel that a reference to a major event in American history would have received a slightly fuller description; but is this just typical Canadian insecurity, that old feeling that our history is somehow tame and uninteresting?

And what does it mean that, in Canada, whole books have been written about the explosion in Halifax Harbour, while Pynchon dispenses with it in a sentence? Whose perspective is skewed? In asking these questions we begin to glimpse in outline the form that Canada takes in the minds of writers from other countries. It seems to be a rather small, shadowy form.

But then a flash of light as we come to “the legendary Bluenose,” familiar to every Canadian who has ever flipped a dime:

Canadian Dime (Tails side)

Here we are confronted with something approaching Canadian greatness. The Bluenose was indeed a famous fishing and racing schooner, launched in Nova Scotia in 1921 and lost off Haiti in 1946 while carrying, of all things, bananas. Before being sold off as a freighter and lost, she was virtually undefeated as a racer and held the International Fisherman’s Trophy for 17 years.

And yet … “virtually undefeated”. There again we run up against the “not quite” that is so characteristically Canadian. To have been completely undefeated would be a bit arrogant, a bit too much; having a couple of losses along the way is so much more … polite.

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