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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Quebec”

Canadian French, Stranded in the Barbaric Anglophone Sea

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J.-K. Huysmans, Against Nature (1884, trans. Robert Baldick)

Huysmans’ À Rebours is perhaps best known to English readers as the mysterious “yellow book” that has such an impact on the title character in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. It concerns des Esseintes, the last surviving member of an aristocratic family who, having devoted himself to society and debauchery in his youth, withdraws to a small house outside Paris. There isn’t much of a plot; for long stretches, the book devolves into little more than a catalogue of des Esseintes’ tastes in literature, art and interior decorating, the latter being particularly trying for anyone not fascinated by curtains and wallpaper.

In writing, he prefers the ornate style of “Silver Latin” and obscure religious authors, which are usually dismissed as decadent, and Canada is mentioned in the context of des Esseintes’ literary taste:

The very opposite had been the case with the ecclesiastical writers; confined to their own territory, imprisoned within an identical, traditional range of reading, knowing nothing of the literary evolution of more recent times and absolutely determined, if need be, to pluck their eyes out rather than recognize it, they necessarily employed an unaltered and unalterable language, like that eighteenth-century language which the descendants of the French settlers in Canada normally speak and write to this day, no variation in vocabulary or phraseology having ever been possible in their idiom, cut off as it is from the old country and surrounded on all sides by the English tongue.  (164-5)

The obscure, involuted style that results when a language is cut off from the possibility of development is at the heart of des Esseintes’ decadent aesthetic, and it’s interesting to see French Canada brought in here as an emblem of this form of isolation. And the image of Canadian French separated from the forward currents of French spoken in France and trapped on its own as an island amid the sea of anglophone North America echoes the structure of the novel itself, where des Esseintes isolates himself from society and spends his days in a strange stasis that he cannot escape.

Huysmans and Proust

This paragraph in Huysmans’ novel recalls one of our earliest posts, which dealt with a reference to Canada in Proust. In that passage, from Time Regained, Proust claims that French men at the end of the First World War would pay for sex with French-Canadian soldiers because their accents recalled an older form of French speech. So, apparently, Huysmans and Proust both thought of French Canada in an analogous way, as a place where an older form of the French language had been preserved unchanged. (I can’t personally attest to the accuracy or inaccuracy of this impression.)

Would Proust have known that his reference to the French spoken in Canada echoed one made by Huysmans? Was he even familiar with Huysmans’ book? Jean-Yves Tadié, in Marcel Proust: A Life, raises the question, “Had Proust read À Rebours?” ( p. 158),  but leaves it frustratingly unanswered. Proust, according to Tadié, did refer to des Esseintes once, in a letter, so clearly he was at least aware of the character — but the character’s name, in Parisian society, was used as a byword for decadence, so it’s possible Proust was referring to des Esseintes as a “type” without having actually read the book.

Besides their shared view of Canada, there is another significant connection between Huysmans and Proust: the French aristocrat Robert de Montesquiou served as the model for both des Esseintes and for the Baron de Charlus in In Search of Lost Time. Of course there are tremendous differences as well, scale being only the most obvious. But something of the reflectiveness and interiority of Huysmans’ essentially plotless novel is also present in Proust’s masterwork.

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Counting the Troops Heading to Canada

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Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

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

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

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

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

Still, it’s nice to be mentioned.

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

How Quebec Was Won

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Nancy Mitford, Wigs on the Green (1935)

Ah, the Mitfords — so far, they’ve never let me down. We’ve already considered Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, as well as Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, and now Nancy has come through with another reference to Canada.

Wigs on the Green is  Nancy Mitford’s first novel, and a good part of it is given over to a parody of British Fascism in the form of the “Union Jackshirts,” who are a joke on Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. (P.G. Wodehouse also parodied Oswald Mosley in the form of Roderick Spode, leader of the “Black Shorts,” in The Code of the Woosters, published three years after Wigs on the Green — overall a funnier book, I would say, but Mitford did get there first.) The main exponent of Union Jackshirtism is Eugenia Malmains, a young, out-of-touch heiress who lives on a country estate with her even more out-of-touch grandparents.

The reference to Canada comes as part of a pageant of English history that is put on at the end of the novel to raise money for the Union Jackshirt cause; here, Jasper Aspect is reading out the list of the scenes that will make up the pageant:

First messenger arrives announcing the victory of Wolfe over French Pacifists in Quebec.
First Episode: Wolfe, while reading Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” to his troops, is hit by a stray bullet and dies on a heap of straw. Rackenbridge brass band plays the “Dead March in Saul”.  (151-2)

The script for the pageant has been written under the guidance of Eugenia, who despises all enemies, real and perceived, of the Jackshirt cause as “Pacifists,” which is why the French army under Montcalm are designated “French Pacifists.” Other pacifist enemies range from a group of local artists (who do indeed attempt to disrupt the pageant) to Eugenia’s nanny, whose main crime in the service of pacifism seems to be trying to prevent Eugenia from leaving the house.

The events in the pageant are a garbled version of actual history: Wolfe died the day of the battle on the Plains of Abraham, having been hit by three musket balls. He did not die reciting Gray’s “Elegy,” but according to Edmund Gosse’s biography Gray, he did recite (most of) it (from memory!) to one of his soldiers the night before the battle, saying he would rather have written that poem than take Quebec. Here is the passage from Gosse:

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Gray’s full “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” can be read here.

I assume some version of the story of Wolfe’s victory and death was current in England in the Mitfords’ time; I have no idea whether Nancy had actually read Gosse’s book. I suppose we could take offence at the fact that Wolfe so underrates the possession of Canada that he would rather have written a single poem (albeit a very famous one) than win our entire nation for the British Empire. We could also be offended that the version of events presented here is so confused, reducing a key moment in Canadian history to a farce — but of course the entire pageant is meant to be a farce, and we would have to be rather dull not to laugh along with every other reader.

On the positive side, the winning of Canada was considered an important enough event to be included in a pageant of British history — I think that definitely rates as a compliment.

Music

Here is a rendition of the Dead March from Handel’s Saul:

The Romance of Canada 5: The Difficulties of Trans-Border Romance

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James Salter, All That Is (2013)

According to Richard Ford, “James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” The slight preciousness of the term “American sentences” alerts you to the fact that the purpose of that particular (American) sentence is not to communicate a thought, but to impress upon you how intelligent and finely attuned the speaker is.

Which isn’t to say Salter is a bad writer; he is, in fact, a very good one. All That Is was his last novel and, given its portentous (not to say pretentious) title, it was perhaps intended to be a sort of summing up of his view of life. It’s the story of Philip Bowman, who serves in World War II, becomes an editor at a mid-sized literary publishing house, gets married and divorced, travels, has affairs, and … well, that’s about it, to be honest. The story is told in a sort of floating third person voice, which allows Salter to move among his characters, telling parts of the story from different points of view (though he never drifts far from Bowman), or pausing the narrative to give portraits of the minor characters Bowman encounters.

To the extent that the novel has a plot, it is provided by Bowman’s sex life. Salter has said that he thinks “the major axis of life is a sexual one,” and that is apparent here, as sex for Bowman (and for the other male characters) offers not just momentary bliss, but the opening up of new possibilities of existence. There are some remarkably beautiful passages in the book (not all of them — or even most of them — about sex), and Salter’s floating narrative voice allows him to achieve some stunning effects — the chapter titled “Christmas In Virginia” is a clinic (as they say), and worth reading for anyone interested in writing prose.

After a while, however, the repetitively epiphanic treatment of the male orgasm becomes a bit tiresome. Even worse, it leads Salter to write sentences like this: “The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse.”

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

There are a couple of references to Canada in the novel; I’ll deal with the more substantial one first.  This comes towards the end of the book, in a chapter dealing with a character named Eddins, who is struggling to cope with the death of his wife and adopted child. The passage refers to several younger women he knows, though I wasn’t able to decide whether we’re meant to think he’s slept with them or not:

There was also Joanna, the fat girl, enormously fat with a wonderful personality who was a teller at the bank. She was good-natured, forthcoming, with a beautiful voice, but unmarried. No one would think of marrying her. She could speak French. She’d spent a year and a half in Quebec, studying. She impulsively joined a choir there the first week and he, this man, was in it. His name was Georges. He was older and had a girlfriend, but before long he dropped the girlfriend and took up with Joanna. She came back to the States, but he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave. He would come to New York on the weekend, two or three times a month. It went on for nine years. She was terribly happy and knew it would end, but she wanted it to last as long as it could and didn’t say anything. In the tenth year they got married. Someone told Eddins she was going to have a child.  (272)

That paragraph isn’t representative of Salter’s best writing, unfortunately, but it does give a sense of the casual, straightforward, and seemingly unstudied style that characterizes much of the book — I say “seemingly” because, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, the illusion of ease in writing is the most difficult thing to achieve. It’s also a good example of his way of dropping in little portraits, sometimes covering years or even decades, of characters who will never appear in the book again. (It reminds me a bit of the voiceover narration in the film Y Tu Mama Tambien, which breaks in periodically to remind us that while we are following the story of the three main characters, countless other stories are going on around them simultaneously.)

And what about Canada? Eddins lives in upstate New York, and, as we have already seen in novels by Chris Kraus and Lorrie Moore, proximity can make Canada a presence for characters who live in that region. But Salter’s attitude to Canada here is very different from what we have seen before: in torpor, the idea of crossing the border into Canada is a simple and possible one, while in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?, Canadian tourists make up most of the customers at an upstate New York theme park.

By contrast, Salter’s narrative puts the emphasis on the difficulties faced by the couple in this cross-border romance: “he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave.” This makes Canadian identity sound like a prison from which one can’t escape. Given the distances people immigrate in the contemporary world, it’s hard to understand how getting from Quebec to upstate New York could be such a problem, but Salter doesn’t elaborate, he simply states these things as facts. Are we, perhaps, to understand that these words are not really Salter’s, but those of Georges, and that he is making excuses to Joanna for not moving to New York with her? And yet they get married and have a child together, so clearly Georges is committed to her, and ultimately able to overcome the obstacle of the Canada-U.S. border — which is, after all, famously “undefended”.

Whatever his reasons, Salter emphasizes Canada’s status as a separate country, which sets him in contrast to many American writers, who often seem to see Canada as nothing more than an extension of the U.S. And perhaps this idea of difference is significant from the romantic point of view: we can’t say for certain from the passage above, but maybe the differences between them are part of the attraction between Joanna and Georges. “Vive la différence,” as they say.

Canadian Club

No, this is not some club, along the lines of the Mile High Club, for people who have had sex with Canadians, but rather the whisky, which comes up in a description of Kimmel, who serves in the Navy with Bowman during the Second World War:

He was dark-haired and skinny and walked with a loose gait that made him seem long-legged. His uniform always looked somehow slept in. His neck was too thin for his collar. The crew, among themselves, called him the Camel, but he had a playboy’s aplomb and women liked him. In San Diego he had taken up with a lively girl named Vicky whose father owned a car dealership, Palmetto Ford. She had blond hair, pulled back, and a touch of daring. She was drawn to Kimmel immediately, his indolent glamour. In the hotel room that he had gotten with two other officers and where, he explained, they would be away from the noise of the bar, they sat drinking Canadian Club and Coke.  (6-7)

I was left uncertain as to what sort of atmosphere Salter was trying to conjure here. Are we to think of this as a classy seduction scene, with the Canadian Club the perfect choice of the sophisticated man-about-town? Or is there supposed to be something a bit tawdry about it, with Canadian Club representing the sort of cheap liquor a man uses to get a woman drunk enough for sex? I’m not sure, but the fact that they’re mixing their Canadian Club with Coke makes me lean towards the declassé interpretation.

Salmon Fishing in Canada

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John Cheever, The Stories of John Cheever (1978)

Through poor planning on my part , I found myself at the cottage with nothing to read over the long weekend. This book has been on the shelf there for years, and, seeing from the cover that it was a “majestic” nationwide bestseller (what makes a bestseller majestic? I wondered. I must know!), I gave it a try.

Cheever is one of those mid-century American fiction writers that I’ve heard of but never actually read, although I feel like I’ve been confronted with this particular copy of his stories for as long as I can remember (more on that below). I knew of “The Swimmer” (it was even made into a Burt Lancaster movie), and with nothing else to read I started there. After that I skipped around, reading stories based on their titles (Best Title Winner: “A Miscellany of Characters That Will Not Appear”). I should say that I have no idea how many references to Canada there are in this book, since I haven’t read anywhere near all of it, but in the eight or ten stories I read, I found two.

“The Enormous Radio”

This story is about Jim and Irene Westcott, a couple who live in a New York apartment. Their tastes run to classical music, and Jim buys his wife a new radio as a present. She discovers that the radio is so sensitive that it picks up various forms of interference from the apartment building; after several repairs, Jim and Irene find that by changing the station, they can listen in on conversations from other apartments in their building:

The Westcotts overheard that evening a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running commentary on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.   (42)

The idea of Canada as a salmon fishing destination has come up before. Here, along with Sea Island, it seems to suggest the sort of vacations that were considered desirable by upper middle class, mid-century Americans, and perhaps the sort of vacation the Westcotts aspire to but can’t afford. (Later in the story Irene looks at the occupants of the building elevator and wonders which one had been to Sea Island.) We might read salmon fishing in Canada as a marker of class or success: the better-off can afford the cost of a getaway to another country to fish, while the rest have to make to with whatever is closer to hand. And perhaps we can assume that the salmon fishing is better in Canada (why else take the trouble to go there?), which indicates that Canada is still seen as a more unspoiled, wilderness nation where the incursions of suburbia have not destroyed the opportunities for sport fishing.

“The Children”

This story follows Victor and Theresa Mackenzie, a couple who work in the homes of the rich, as they move from house to house, seeking a place that will make them happy. In this scene, Victor comes in and finds Theresa in tears, saying she is “homesick.”

It was, even for Victor, a difficult remark to interpret. Their only home then was a one-room apartment in the city, which, with its kitchenette and studio couch, seemed oddly youthful and transitory for these grandparents. If Theresa was homesick, it could only be for a collection of parts of houses. She must have meant something else.
“Then we’ll go,” he said. “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” And then, seeing how happy his words had made her, he went on. “We’ll get into the car and we’ll drive and we’ll drive and we’ll drive. We’ll go to Canada.”  (227-8)

Canada’s placement as the culmination of the phrase “drive and drive and drive” suggests its distance, and also that going there is the culmination of some sort of almost-crazy scheme or near-desperate act. Victor seems to arrive at the suggestion of Canada through his wife’s happiness at the thought of getting away from where they are, and Canada is simply the end point of his imagination, the furthest place he can think of going.

For the Mackenzies, our country carries associations that are familiar to us: it is a place to escape to, and a place where the couple can make a fresh start on their lives. There may also be a hint of escaping from the trap of social stratification, as the story portrays the Mackenzies as the sort of people who go through life somewhat helplessly, buffeted by the whims of the rich.

So as far as these two stories are concerned, at least, we can say that Cheever presents a fairly conventional view of Canada: a country where one can get away for some fishing, wilder and more unspoiled than the U.S., and a place that offers a chance at a new beginning for those who feel trapped by their position in U.S. society.

I should perhaps add that the Mackenzies never actually make it to Canada, stopping and settling in at the home of another wealthy American before they reach the Quebec border. You can make of that what you will.

The Peregrinations of a Book: A Reflection of Literary Reputation? (Personal/Familial, Highly Subjective, Unrelated to Canada)

As I mentioned above, I feel as if I have been seeing this book for most of my life. It’s really my parents’ book, not mine, and this picture may give you some sense of its age:

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This Ballantine paperback was first published in 1980, and as you can see, it has one of those marvellously ingrown spines that paperbacks of a certain thickness get as they age. At the time it was published, it must have been considered an “important” book that members of the middle class who aspired to cultural literacy ought to read.  The puff quotes support this view: among the expected “magical” and “dazzling” and “profound and daring,” no less an authority than The New York Times said:

Not merely the publishing event of the “season” but a grand occasion in English literature.

That, to me, is a fascinating quote: it must have been written at essentially the time the book was first published, when Cheever was at the height of his fame, but look at the way the word “season” has been put in quotation marks. The word, and the phrase “event of the season,” both drip with insider consciousness and carry associations of what is fashionable at the moment but unlikely to endure. This is just a puff quote, presumably lifted from a contemporary review, and yet it already rings with defensiveness, and seems to be trying to refute an implied argument that Cheever is the darling of literary society types, but not someone that anyone outside the New York cocktail circuit would bother to read, and certainly not someone who will be read by future generations.

When I looked at the book a little more closely, I found much of the puffery (which was plentiful) had a defensive tone. Consider this, from the back cover:

Like radiant, graceful chapters of the novel that is the American heart, THE STORIES OF JOHN CHEEVER live in the community of emotions and dreams.

High praise, certainly — but in claiming that, collected together, Cheever’s stories form a “novel that is the American heart,” it also feels calculated to refute the (again implied) argument that a collection of short stories is somehow less significant or worthy of attention than a novel.

My personal history with this book stretches back almost as far as I can remember. I first started seeing it in my parents’ living room, where it seemed to be inevitably accompanied by Chesapeake by James Michener, two enormous paperbacks that, at that time, represented to me the mysterious world of books read by grown-ups.

At some point the Cheever, along with Chesapeake, migrated to the basement; apparently it was no longer a book that people displayed in their living rooms, as if to say, “Check.” Or perhaps my parents, not having made their way through it, stashed it down there, telling themselves they would get to it later. At some point it made its way to the cottage — I think it’s been there for the last fifteen or twenty years — but I doubt it was ever read there because, while I have a very clear memory of its chubby red presence on the shelf, I can’t recall ever having seen it off the shelf. There are also a couple of ancient bookmarks — one an Air Canada boarding pass from 1985 — stranded in the first 150 pages, suggesting the abandonment of the book rather than engagement with it. In my family, at least, The Stories of John Cheever is good enough to while away an hour on the dock if you’re stranded there with nothing better to read (nobody’s fault but mine, as they say), but not something anyone actually plans to read. (The books you actively intend to read are the ones you bring with you to the cottage, while the books you leave there are the ones that no longer hold any interest.)

But what I wonder is, does my family’s gradual neglect of this book, as it passed from living room (“Everyone’s reading it”) to basement (“We’ll get around to it soon”) to cottage (“Maybe someone will pick it up some rainy day”), run parallel with a similar process regarding Cheever’s reputation? Or does it merely indicate that my family, at least, weren’t the serious readers of literature they wanted to be — that they weren’t quite “up to” Cheever?

I don’t know a lot about the state of Cheever’s reputation; his books are still in print (including a recent Library of America edition), which is more than can be said for a lot of writers. And yet, in the course of all the literary conversations I can recall (admittedly a highly subjective criterion, but still, it’s something), I’ve never heard Cheever’s name mentioned. Bellow, Updike, Mailer, Pynchon (well, maybe I was the one bringing him up), Elkin, Malamud, Gaddis, Gass — they’ve all been mentioned to me by various people, at various times, as “must reads”. But never Cheever.

So were the authors of the puff quotes right to defend Cheever against the implied criticism of his detractors? Or have the detractors been proven correct, and Cheever’s work revealed itself as “of his time, but not for all time”? Does anyone read Cheever anymore?

 

Third World Places Like … Quebec?

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Chris Kraus, torpor (2006)

Having lived through early to mid-90s academia, I have to admit I could relate to much of torpor – not that I was one of these people, but I certainly encountered some of them. This novel takes place in 1991 and follows Sylvie Green, a filmmaker and sometime teacher, and Jerome Shafir, an academic and editor – both classic 90s academic types and presumably based on Kraus herself and her former husband – as they travel through Europe to Romania, purportedly to adopt a child. That, at least, is the bare bones of the narrative, but the story makes such extensive use of flashbacks and flash forwards that it encompasses all of Sylvie and Jerome’s personal histories and their relationship.

I suppose you could classify it as a black comedy, or perhaps a satire of the way a vapid culture of celebrity, akin to the one that governs Hollywood, took over universities in the 80s and 90s, putting the focus on “superstar” academics and leading to the “cultural studies” movement, which revealed much less about popular culture than it did about the desire of certain academics to appear “hip” and “relevant.” And yet beneath the sharply observed satire, this is a powerful and profoundly sad book, charting in minute detail the gradual break-up of a couple whose interests and desires were never really aligned to begin with, and conveying in particular the pain and emptiness Sylvie feels at her own childlessness.

I’m afraid this post will turn into a bit of a grab bag; there are a number of references to Canada, but they’re not connected by any overarching idea, so it’s difficult to organize them.

1. Canadian Intellectuals

a) Despite Predictions to the Contrary, The Revolution Is, In Fact, Televised

The first reference to Canada comes in a flashback, as Jerome and Sylvie watch TV coverage of the Romanian Revolution in the Paris loft of Jerome’s friend Félix:

As the Romanian Revolution unfolded on TV, Sylvie practiced her invisibility. She didn’t speak a word of French, and Jerome was too impatient with the conversation in the loft to translate. Francois Cusset, an anarchist from the École Normale, was taking a hard line about the myth of Eastern Europe’s “struggle for democracy.” Didn’t the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc just reinforce the triumph of American Empire? Félix responded with an approving nod. Because, of course, McLuhan’s pulsating rhapsody of images could never be entirely divorced from power.  (97)

This is not a reference to Canada itself, of course, but to a famous Canadian. We have picked up on references like this before, but you’ll notice a shift in register here. These 90s academics aren’t talking about Leonard Cohen or Keanu Reeves (not even with self-conscious irony) or Neil Young; we’ve moved up several intellectual levels and reached Marshall McLuhan, Canada’s revolutionary media theorist. So even though Kraus probably wasn’t thinking in these terms when she wrote the book, we could say that the specific Canadian these people refer to is a characterizing detail: the fact that they’re talking about McLuhan tells us something about them. And thus McLuhan is, to put it in terms these characters would understand, a “cultural signifier.”

The “Félix” in whose loft this scene takes place, by the way, is Félix Guattari. Now there is a name that conjures up 90s academia.

b) The Krokers

This passage relates an encounter with an academic named Peichl who wants Jerome’s help putting a book together:

Peichl … [is] just back from Tokyo, where he organized a conference on Romania – The World’s First Media Revolution. Arthur, the America-Japan guy, gave a great analysis and the Krokers came from Canada.  (178)

Like many of the academic/intellectual figures mentioned in the novel, the Krokers are not fictional; Arthur and Marilouise Kroker are Canadian media theorists. The fact that they are Canadian doesn’t seem to have any significance in the book; the point is simply that the conference was such a big deal that the Krokers travelled all the way to Tokyo from Canada to be part of it.

For the curious, here is an (unintentionally hilarious) 1998 article by the Krokers about Kathy Acker – another name to conjure the 90s, and one who crops up in Kraus’ book as the one woman male academics think of whenever they’re told they need to invite a woman to speak at a conference.

2. Ideas of Escape

a) The Underground Railroad

This passage is part of a description of Enos and Sybil Putnam, who are celebrated in the small town of Thurman, in upstate New York, where Sylvie and Jerome have a house:

Passionately opposed to slavery, Enos and Sybil Putnam transformed their humble parsonage into an important station on the Underground Railroad that relayed fugitives from Georgia – or was it Mississippi? – to freedom, into Canada.  (125)

Nothing new there, but it’s nice to see Canada get some props as a refuge from slavery.

b) Getting Out of New York City

This passage is about Sylvie’s momentary desire to escape New York:

Once, after staying up all night in New York City, she’d felt an urge to go to Canada. A truck-driver she’d met at Munson’s Diner near the West Side Highway took her all the way up to Lake George. It was early November, she tried to hitch a ride but no one stopped, so she’d walked across the village to the beach. There, she’d seen a black man in a cowboy hat and a white woman in a fringed suede jacket locked in an embrace. Everything combined into this image, and it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. At that moment it seemed possible to both be them, and to be outside them, all the loneliness in the world, the mountains and the lake. It was around that time that she’d decided to make movies.  (127-8)

I assume this is the Lake George in upstate New York (why not vacation there?) and that Sylvie never made it to Canada, and so none of what follows can be taken as related to our country. But we see again the idea of Canada as an escape from whatever problems are pressing upon you in your homeland, whether the need for a fresh start, the loss of your farm, or a troubled marriage. The fact that Sylvie has been “up all night” seems to imply that Canada offers peace and serenity compared to the rush of life in New York City, as if Canada is a place where no one would ever stay up all night because there would be nothing going on (we might compare the idea of the Canadian cottage).

We could also draw a comparison between the two forms of escape in these two passages: in the second, Sylvie’s desire to escape to Canada is the product of ennui and a temporary desire for change (made possible by what would now be called her “privilege”); she has no need to go to Canada, she just decides on a whim that she wants to. In the end she doesn’t get there, and it doesn’t matter, as she has her filmmaking epiphany in upstate New York instead.

By contrast, those using the Underground Railroad have a genuine need to reach Canada; it’s not a matter of indifference to them whether they make it or not. I don’t know if Kraus is intentionally setting up this parallel (though the two passages are only a few pages apart), but when you look at the book through the lens of references to Canada, it comes out.

3. Wildlife

This reference is pretty self-explanatory:

The first summer they’d moved up to Thurman, there was an infestation of yellow butterflies along the road to Lake Minerva. It was like a butterfly’s Spring Break: as if every butterfly from Albany to Canada had agreed to meet and mate on one long stretch of gravel road.  (155)

Note, as so often, the shift in specificity from references to the U.S. (Albany, a city) to a very generalized idea when it comes to Canada (it’s just Canada – not even Ontario, which would probably be the most relevant part of our country to upstate New York, at least where butterfly migration is concerned). Canada’s placement (“from Albany to Canada”) seems to suggest our nation is an end-point of the known world, a wilderness teeming with butterflies and other wildlife waiting to swoop down and blanket the U.S.

4. Language Games

This reference comes in a passage about “Who’s Peaked?”, a game Jerome and his intellectual friends play in which they rank the fame of other academics:

Just as the Inuit had 33 words to describe different qualities of snow, Jerome and his friends enjoyed infinitely parsing different categories of fame.  (166)

The game is a good example of the way Kraus satirizes the shallowness of the academics in the book: it’s telling, for example, that they never discuss the quality of anyone’s ideas, but only their relative “star power” (within the academic community, of course, which is essentially a black hole as far as the wider world’s conception of celebrity goes).

As for the idea that the Inuit have multiple words for snow, it’s a very common cliché, and may even be true. And perhaps this is also characterizing as regards the academics in the book, in the sense that Kraus uses a linguistic metaphor to describe people working in a university system that, at the time she is writing about, was very influenced by structuralism and post-structuralism, both of which had roots in linguistics.

5. Quebec as Part of the Third World

This passage is about Sylvie’s taste in interior decorating:

She’s learned over years of traveling with Jerome and setting up their houses that it’s only in the hardware stores you still find truly local merchandise. Candy pink mosquito nets in Guatemala; plywood rat traps in Oaxaca; terracotta bean pots in the eastern villages of Quebec. It occurs to Sylvie that this kind of foraging for Third World decor accessories – for many years the sole domain of vacationing academics and their wives – has recently been professionalized by buyers from Pier Nine and Ikea. Vaguely, this thought depresses her.  (236)

Wait – Third World? Quebec is part of the Third World? Where did that come from? Guatemala and Oaxaca, okay, but Quebec?

And the strangest thing about this passage is that Quebec is the last place mentioned in the list. If the list started with Quebec, and then continued on to Guatemala and Oaxaca, you could almost say, well, by the time she gets through the list she’s thinking about Third World places, and she sort of forgets that she started with Quebec. But Quebec is actually the last place named before the generalizing term “Third World” is brought in.

Is Kraus just not really thinking about what she’s saying? Or is she aware of what she’s doing, and this is a very conscious dig at Quebec, suggesting that the province – or at least its eastern part – more properly belongs in the Third World?

6. Conclusions?

What fascinates me most about the references to Canada in torpor is that there are so many of them, and that they are so varied. Canada is not associated with any single idea here, like, for example, lumberjacks, or cleanliness, or wilderness. Rather it is a multi-faceted place associated with a number of things: freedom and escape (the Underground Railroad and Sylvie’s momentary desire to get away from New York City), wildlife (the butterflies), and cold and snow (the Inuit words), which are fairly common tropes; but also intellectuals and media theorists (McLuhan and the Krokers) and, most bizarrely of all, Third World handicrafts from Quebec. This variety gives Canada a realness or solidity and makes it seem not like a strange or mysterious land, but rather as simply another country, distinct from the U.S., but nevertheless on a level with it as a place in its own right.

Satirized Before We Even Existed

This last one has nothing to do with Canada, but is still pretty special to me; Florina is a Romanian academic Sylvie gets to know when she meets Jerome at a summer residency in Germany before they go to Romania:

Florina’s place was identical to Jerome’s, except that her books and papers had strayed considerably from the birch and laminate white Workbench desk, her clothes were not confined to the white closet, and her coffee cups had strayed from the white kitchen cupboards. She was working on a project that would be an encyclopedic compendium of references to her nation in “the German literature” from Teutonic fables to the present.  (164)

Wow – do you see what happened there? Substitute “Canada” for “her nation” and “world literature” for “German literature” and you have the idea of Wow – Canada! So Chris Kraus actually predicted the existence of this website, and (by my reading) was mildly satirizing it, before I had even thought of it.

Sigh. Perhaps it’s time to fold my tent and move on.

Music – Why Not?

Since I referred to the famous Gil Scott-Heron song, above, I might as well post it here. (This is the original version, as recorded on the “spoken word” album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, not the more “musical” version from Pieces of a Man.)

And here is Woody Allen’s classic Marshall McLuhan sight gag, which, if nothing else, demonstrates that 70s academics could be just as irritating as the 90s variety:

That is still so funny to me.

Sex, Drugs, Classical Music … and Canada, Of Course

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Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2004)

This is a strange book. I suppose you could categorize it as a memoir and not be too far off; it also seems to purport to be an “exposé” of the dark side of the classical music scene, though it really isn’t, or not to any great extent. There’s very little in the way of a narrative thread running through the book: much of it concerns Tindall’s own life, of course, but she often drops her story for long disquisitions on the history of classical music in the U.S., the lives of particular performers, and so on. As a result, the book ends up being a heterogeneous mix of personal anecdotes, social history, and op-ed type passages on “the state of classical music.” If I had to sum it up in a word, I would call it “lumpy”.

When I got to the end of the book and found out that Tindall had become a journalist, the book’s form – or maybe I should say, its lack of consistent form – made a little more sense to me: it’s more like a lot of articles on various topics related to classical music strung together without much of an organizing principle. And when I looked up a few of her articles online, there were definite parallels with the book, suggesting that perhaps some repurposing had gone on. That said, a lot of the personal anecdotes are interesting or amusing enough to be worth reading, and the portrait of the life of freelance classical musicians in New York, which hovers somewhere between subsistence and poverty, is sharply drawn and affecting.

And, of course, there are a few references to Canada to make it all worthwhile. The first comes in a description of one of Tindall’s fellow students at the North Carolina School of the Arts:

Next door to me was Kristin. She’d brought her French horn from a Montana town of 250, where, at best, girls returned home to a husband and farm after attending a local college. One snowy night, pianist Lili Kraus had played eighty miles away in Great Falls, the only big town between Billings and Calgary.   (22)

The passage on a general level speaks to the cultural desolation that exists outside major cities. Interestingly, however, Canada is not mentioned as an example of some kind of wasteland, as often happens with American authors; rather, Calgary represents one outpost of civlization at the far end of the musical desert in which Tindall’s roommate has grown up. I think we can take that as a compliment.

The next reference to Canada is simply a brief mention in a performance itinerary about Tindall’s friend (and sometime lover), the pianist Sam Sanders:

By April, Sam hit the road with Itzhak, traveling to Dallas, Quebec and across the Midwest.  (182)

There’s an interesting pattern of decreasing specificity there: Dallas is a city, Quebec a province, and the Midwest a region that encompasses several states. Ordinarily it’s Canada that is treated in the vaguest way in lists like this and U.S. locations that are named more specifically, but here the one Canadian location actually occupies the middle position, and it is “the Midwest” that is treated like a vast expanse of nothingness.

So that’s a nice step up for us. Of course it would be Quebec that the famous Itzhak Perlman includes on his tour.

And finally, there is this, which was definitely the most interesting Canadian reference in the book:

Schlepping back from a gig in Jersey, I held my instruments tightly while passing through Port Authority. The bus station had long been known as a magnet for crime. However, today it felt safe, even bucolic, as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray,” a term coined by Northwestern University professor Robert Gjerdingen. The technique was first used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. The trend spread as Pavarotti cleared out Denver parking lots, Chopin thwarted Toronto thugs, and an endless loop of Mozart blared across a Florida slum….
I thought about the message of the Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime.  (205)

Tindall doesn’t seem to think the trend towards using classical music to chase away loiterers is anything to be proud of, but at least in this somewhat questionable area, Canada can claim to be a leader. This passage also reflects an idea of Canadian cities that runs counter to their usual image of being much “safer” than American cities: even Toronto, it turns out, has thugs.

Personal Reminiscences

In an example of what Northrop Frye might have called the “pre-critical response,” I have to confess a particular fondness for that paragraph because I experienced what it describes first-hand. In the mid-90s, when I used to travel to the wilds of Scarborough to work, I had to take a bus from Kennedy station (apologies for the Toronto references for those who have no idea what I’m talking about), and during that time the TTC, in response to a couple of stabbings, instituted exactly the program Tindall is describing at Kennedy: in an attempt to make the station feel inhospitable to the sort of people who stab other people, they started piping in classical music (I think it was mostly Beethoven) all day. And so every morning, while I waited for my bus, I was treated to some music.

(Of course in the age of the iPod/iPhone, when anyone who wishes can walk around permanently cocooned in whatever music they choose, this “musical bug spray” idea would never work. But those were different times.)

What were the results? I don’t personally recall feeling any “safer” in the station, but then I was only waiting around there in the mornings, and the stabbings likely occurred at night. I don’t think anyone else got stabbed while the classical music was being played, so I suppose it “worked,” in some sense. The program didn’t last very long though – I think after a month or two at most the station was silent again. No doubt non-stop Beethoven was driving the TTC employees crazy and they complained about a “poisoned work environment” or something like that.

The Music

Since the book is about music, it seems a shame not to include a little. Here is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, just to give a sense of what Tindall’s instrument (did I mention she’s an oboist?) sounds like:

“An ill wind that no one blows good,” as a repeated joke in the book has it.

One of Tindall’s boyfriends has a particular fondness for Mahler’s Fifth; here’s a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who also features in the book:

Though I find this version by von Karajan more compelling, particularly the first movement:

Bonus Pop-Culture Tie-In

Mozart in the Jungle has recently been used as the basis for a TV series by Amazon. I haven’t watched it, but here’s the trailer:

My impression, based on that, is that the show bears little relation to the actual content of the book, but really just uses the subtitle as the jumping-off point for a largely fictionalized narrative. Still, it might be fun.

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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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:

Warren Harding Gets Lucky – in Montreal

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Jordan Michael Smith, “All the President’s Pen” (The New York Times Magazine), July 13, 2014

An interesting article in the The New York Times Magazine outlines future President Warren Harding’s extramarital affair with Carrie Phillips, and includes selections from letters he wrote to her over the course of the affair and afterwards. A few of them are quite steamy (or “NSFW,” if you prefer), including the following, in which the man who would one day be President is so overwhelmed by his feelings that he actually launches into verse:

Jan. 28, 1912

I love your poise
Of perfect thighs
When they hold me
in paradise…

I love the rose
Your garden grows
Love seashell pink
That over it glows

I love to suck
Your breath away
I love to cling –
There long to stay…

I love you garb’d
But naked more
Love your beauty
To thus adore…

I love you when
You open eyes
And mouth and arms
And cradling thighs…

If I had you today, I’d kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, ‘Warren, oh, Warren,’ in a benediction of blissful joy…. I rather like that encore discovered in Montreal. Did you?  (32)

Whoa! It’s a little difficult to discern exactly what went on in Montreal, but that’s a very suggestive reference. What was this “encore” they “discovered”? Based on the context, I think we have to assume it’s sexual. But was it a new position? A new technique?

Alas, the wording is just vague enough that knowledge of the specifics probably passed from the earth with the participants – though perhaps that’s as it should be. If nothing else, it leaves us free to speculate.

One of the chronological notes in the margin of the article offers some context for the reference to Montreal, at least, if not for exactly what went on there:

1911-13: In the fall of 1911, Carrie left her husband behind in Marion and traveled with her daughter to Berlin. She returned around Christmas and spent New Year’s Eve with her lover in Montreal, where they made love at the stroke of midnight; a moment Harding would revisit again and again in his letters.  (33)

So apparently Montreal played a key role in their relationship, and whatever sexual dynamite they discovered there lived on in Harding’s memory … forever? And of course, it would be Montreal – Warren Harding’s erotic discoveries are just one more addition to the accumulating legend of Montreal as Canada’s sexy, swinging, European-style city, while Toronto remains the staid banker’s paradise it has always been.

It occurs to me, re-reading the letter above, that “Warren” must be one of the least sexy names in the world. As for Harding’s poetic gifts, I simply quote the work; I will leave the reader to judge its value. I must say I think there’s a certain artistry – or perhaps I should say an attempt at artistry – in the way the final stanza carries the verb “open” from “eyes” (which is so banal it’s absurd – he loves her when she opens her eyes?) to “thighs”. This suggests that Harding at least had some understanding of the way poetry worked, even if his attempts to replicate it weren’t always completely successful.

The Fabulous Canadian Cottages of Rich Americans

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009)

The title story in this collection is about a young Nigerian woman who immigrates to America, moves into her uncle’s house, leaves her uncle’s house after he attempts to coerce her into sex, and then works as a waitress while trying to put herself through school. While waitressing, she meets and begins an affair with a handsome young American (his eyes are the colour of extra virgin olive oil) who comes from a wealthy family. The story is written in the second person singular, a technique that I find often struggles to shake the aura of the writing workshop assignment; so, in the following passage, “you” is the main character, “he” is the boyfriend, and “they/them” are the boyfriend’s parents:

You were angrier when he told you he had refused to go up to Canada with them for a week or two, to their summer cottage in the Quebec countryside. They had even asked him to bring you. He showed you pictures of the cottage and you wondered why it was called a cottage because the buildings that big around your neighbourhood back home were banks and churches. You dropped a glass and it shattered on the hardwood of his apartment floor and he asked what was wrong and you said nothing, although you thought a lot was wrong. Later, in the shower, you started to cry. You watched the water dilute your tears and you didn’t know why you were crying.  (126)

Maybe you were crying because you weren’t going to get to visit his fabulous cottage in Canada?

Cottaging is such a quintessentially Canadian activity that it’s a bit of a surprise we haven’t come across it before, though we have taken note of its close cousin, camping, through Sylvia Plath and Roberto Bolano. But here it is at last.

This is an intriguing passage because it contains two quite different views of Canada. The first to emerge is a very “American” way of looking at us: Canada as an idyllic land (“Quebec countryside”) where rich Americans can buy cottages that let them escape from the stress of their hectic lives. This idea of Canada seems to belong not so much to the narrator herself, but rather to be an expression of what Canada means to her boyfriend’s family.

But then he shows her a picture of the cottage, and the narrator’s own point of view comes through in her comparison of its size to that of churches and banks in Nigeria (“back home”). In quick succession, Canada has been contrasted with two very different countries, to different effect: first with the United States, which makes us seem like a wilderness playground; then with Nigeria, which makes us seem like an obscenely wealthy nation where the cottages are bigger than Nigerian banks.

The choice of a bank for the comparison is significant, as it tightens the focus on wealth, which is central to the story. We are reminded that, relative to most of the world, Canada is a wealthy country, where private cottages can be the size of public buildings in other places. We are also reminded that the family of the narrator’s boyfriend is rich enough to afford, not just a home, but a cottage, that would easily dwarf any home she might have known in Nigeria. The Canadian cottage becomes, not just a marker of wealth, like the hardwood floor, but a marker of a kind of excess – of having more than anyone really needs.

The reference to the cottage is a small moment in the story, but it plays a key role, sharpening the distinction between the life the narrator has left behind and the world of her boyfriend, which she is moving into. A cottage in Quebec – a cottage the size of a Nigerian bank – is just one of the many things rich Americans possess, and its presence reaffirms the financial and cultural gulf that separates the lovers.  

In case you were wondering how things turned out for you, in the end you went back to Nigeria, parting somewhat ambiguously from your rich American boyfriend after he drove you to the airport.

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