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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Salmon”

Salmon Fishing in Canada


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:


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?



Auden, Spinoza, Salmon and Snow (Paul Muldoon Part II)


Paul Muldoon, Meeting the British (1987)

All page references are to the Poems 1968-1998 edition pictured above, and not to the individual volume.

The Opening Poem

The first poem in this book is actually titled “Ontario,” which makes this sort of thing fairly easy – although the first line of the poem is “I spent last night in the nursery of a house in Pennsylvania.” That gave me pause – did Muldoon mean our Ontario, or some other Ontario? He gets to Ontario (and Guelph, and Toronto, just so there’s no doubt) eventually, but there’s a curious distancing of himself from his Canadian subject matter in the way he titles the poem “Ontario” and then immediately makes clear that he’s not actually in Ontario – he’s in Pennsylvania (much more cosmopolitan) and only thinking of Canada.

I ordinarily like to present poems in their entirety, but this is a long prose poem and I really don’t feel like typing that much, so I’m only going to quote the relevant portion.

…I remembered how I was meant to fly to Toronto this morning, to visit my younger brother. He used to be a research assistant at the University of Guelph, where he wrote a thesis on nitrogen-fixing in soya beans, or symbiosis, or some such mystery. He now works for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario. On my last trip we went to a disco in the Park Plaza, where I helped a girl in a bin-liner dress to find her contact lens.
-Did you know that Spinoza was a lens-grinder?
-Are you for real?
Joe was somewhere in the background, sniggering, flicking cosmic dandruff from his shoulders.
-A lens, I went on, is really a lentil. A pulse.
Her back was an imponderable green furrow in the ultraviolet strobe.
-Did you know that Yonge Street’s the longest street in the world?
-I can’t say that I did.
-Well, it starts a thousand miles to the north, and it ends right here.  (151)

I love this because I feel like everyone in Toronto knows this fact about Yonge Street – I can’t think how many times I’ve both heard and quoted it over the years – and yet the poet seems so taken aback by the question, as if stunned that there could be anything special about anything in Toronto. We expect he’s going to get a little lesson in Canadian geography – but no, the Torontonian girl (let’s assume she’s Torontonian) has no more interest in places north of the 401 than her foreign interlocutor. Her explanation is completely lacking in specificity: all she can say is that it starts somewhere a thousand miles to the north (and shouldn’t she be speaking in kilometres?), in some wilderness apparently unknown to her.

Beyond the (possibly failed) pick-up in the Park Plaza disco, we also catch a glimpse of two other sides of Canada, one familiar, one not: a land of new opportunity, and a centre of scientific research. The author’s brother has taken the trouble to travel from Ireland to Guelph to study – something, it’s not clear exactly what – and to write a thesis on it. We aren’t told why he chose Canada, but the possibility that it offered more opportunity than he could find in Ireland might be inferred, especially as this is an idea at least as old as Dickens.

Or could it be that Canada is more advanced in his field than any of the universities in Ireland? This presents a view of Canada that we haven’t really seen before: our country as a centre for advanced scientific research, which is certainly a departure from our more usual image as a frozen wilderness. The fact that he has ended up working for the Corn Producers’ Association of Ontario, combined with his thesis possibly being about soybeans, suggests a rural nation where science is used mainly as a way of improving farming – but still, science is science, and I think we can file this under “Progress”.

The Mystery of the Landlocked Chinook

The poem “The Wishbone” also refers to the author’s brother being in Guelph, but doesn’t go beyond that, so it doesn’t really seem worth the trouble of quoting. But another poem has a little more to it:


I was micro-tagging Chinook salmon
on the Qu’Appelle

I surged through the melt-water
in my crocus

I would give each brash,
face its number.

Melt-water? These were sultry
fish hang-gliding downstream.

Chinook. Their very name
a semantic

The autumn, then, of Solidarity,
your last in Cracow.
Your father

rising between borsch
and carp,
relinquishing the table to Pompeii.  (155-6)

There’s not a lot about the Qu’Appelle River, which is in Saskatchewan (and a tiny bit of Manitoba); what there is, however, is a little strange. Here, courtesy of the river’s Wikipedia entry, is a list of the fish species to be found in the river:

Fish species include: walleye, sauger, yellow perch, northern pike, lake whitefish, cisco, mooneye, white sucker, shorthead redhorse, bigmouth buffalo, common carp, channel catfish, black bullhead, brown bullhead, burbot and rock bass. Rock bass are Saskatchewan’s only native bass.

This doesn’t purport to be an exhaustive list, of course, and there are some great-sounding names there (bigmouth buffalo!), but still: Chinook salmon are one of the most prized sport fish to be found in Canada; if they lived in the Qu’Appelle River, they would certainly rate a mention ahead of white sucker and shorthead redhorse, to pick just two examples (no disrespect to those noble species intended). And, as a look at a map will show, the Qu’Appelle River is located right in the middle of the Canadian Prairies, with no connection to the ocean, or any body of water large enough to satisfy the needs of a migratory species like the chinook. (The same point is made by Dr. Ronald Marken in his article, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”*, which is about – of all things – references to Canada in Irish poetry. You can read at least some of it here.)

So … what’s going on? I recognize it’s a bit naive to assume that just because a poem is written in the first person, all the events it mentions actually happened in the author’s life – but what could be the reason for describing an event that can’t possibly be true? Is Muldoon confusing his Canadian river names? Has he tagged so many different kinds of fish on so many different rivers that they all blur together? Is this kind of counter-factuality an intentional strategy for constructing a mythic aura around Canada?

And then, as we hope for answers, the poem turns away from Canada entirely and towards Europe, the Qu’Appelle River and its fish species forgotten – or, more precisely perhaps, unknown – in Cracow.

Auden, Isherwood and the Picturesque Snows of Newfoundland

Meeting the British concludes with a long poem, in sections, called “7, Middagh Street.” For those who don’t immediately recognize the reference in the title (I’m afraid I didn’t), it’s the address of February House in Brooklyn, where Auden, Britten, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and other bohemian artist types all briefly lived together – it’s so famous that not only is there a book about it, but it’s also the subject of a musical by Gabriel Kahane. The reference to Canada comes at the opening of the first section, which is in Auden’s voice (each section has a different speaker).


Quinquereme of Nineveh from distant Ophir;
a blizzard off the Newfoundland coast
had, as we slept, metamorphosed

the Champlain‘s decks
to a wedding cake,
on whose uppermost tier stood Christopher

and I like a diminutive bride and groom.
A heavy-skirted Liberty would lunge
with her ice-cream
at two small, anxious

boys, and Erika so grimly wave
from the quarantine-launch
she might as truly have been my wife
as, later that day, Barcelona was Franco’s.  (175)

Hey, guess what? Canada’s cold!

Alas, we don’t have much of a role here beyond providing some (admittedly picturesque) snow, and readers will recognize a familiar trope: people sailing on a (presumably) Canadian ship (the Champlain!), but going not to Canada, but rather to New York (as the reference to the Statue of Liberty makes clear – shades of Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly). Auden and Isherwood, apparently, are giving us a pass, though Newfoundland has taken the trouble to blow some snow at them on their way by, as a gentle Canadian hello.

And, echoing “Chinook,” we might also note the (characteristic?) turn away from North  America and towards the larger events of history, which seem to occur mainly in Europe.

Another Kindred Spirit

I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Ronald Marken for providing me with a copy of his essay, “‘Micro-Tagging Chinook Salmon on the Qu’Appelle River’: Reflections on Canada in the Migrant Lines of Irish Poetry”. You can read at least some of it through the Google Books link provided above; unfortunately, the full text isn’t available online. As well as providing insights into Muldoon’s poem “Chinook,” Professor Marken’s essay also offered the comfort of knowing I’m not alone in my curiosity about how writers from other countries portray Canada in their work. His description of the Canadian mindset with regard to our position in the foreign imagination nicely summarizes some of the background to this project, which I attempted to explain in the “About” section:

Canadians have a considerable anxiety about their national singularity, about how others perceive them. Our quest for a “National Identity” so pervades our thinking and our own literature as to be almost a public diversion, even a national joke…. Canadians would not be surprised if you were to say, “No one in Irish poetry has a thing to say about Canada. There are plenty of references to Brazil, Berlin, and Bilbao, but none to British Columbia.” That kind of news would not startle Canadians.

We are used to being ignored. Despite our enormous size, we are a country accustomed to invisibility.*

Canadians are fascinated with the question of how people from other countries perceive us, and at the same time we have a fatalistic sense that they don’t perceive us at all. And sometimes the most interesting or revealing references to Canada are the throwaways, the careless, passing references that show what writers think about us when they’re not really thinking about what they think. Usually, it turns out to be lumberjacks.

*From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.


Stocked Salmon Smackdown

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday

Paul Torday, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2007)

“Well,” she said thoughtfully, “that’s one of the problems you would have to solve, of course. But if it was me, and of course I’m a completely non-technical person, I’d think along the lines of constructing holding ponds at the bottom of the wadis seeded with salmon, keeping the water cool, injecting it with oxygen if necessary, and confining the salmon there for three or four years. I read somewhere that in Canada salmon stay in the lake systems for that amount of time.”   (p. 27)

Just to provide a little context, Harriet, an estate manager, is talking to Alfred, a fisheries scientist. She represents a fabulously wealthy sheikh who wants to introduce salmon fishing to the Yemen, and Harriet is trying to convince Alfred to take the idea seriously.

The reference to “lakes” makes it clear that she is not referring to Atlantic salmon on the east coast or Pacific salmon in British Columbia, which are natural populations of fish that have been running to the ocean and back upriver to spawn since time immemorial. Rather, she is talking about fish that were introduced, most likely into the Great Lakes.

I was, in my (largely misspent) youth, a keen fly fisherman and, even more so, a keen reader of fishing magazines, and I seem to recall there being a general prejudice in the fly-fishing community against fishing for introduced fish stocks. So going after Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland would be a fisherman’s dream, whereas catching a Chinook in Lake Ontario would be only a small step up from hauling them out of a pond at a fish farm.

By mentioning Canadian salmon in lakes, then, Harriet is showing that she doesn’t understand a distinction that is fundamental to any true fisherman. Indeed, one of the turning points in the novel comes when the sheikh learns he won’t be able to take wild salmon from the rivers of Scotland, and instead will have to stock his Yemeni river with farmed salmon. Both he and Alfred are crushed by the thought of having to use these inferior animals.

If we were inclined to overinterpret a bit (and, as should be evident by now, we are), we could argue that the passage reflects an unfairly negative view of salmon fishing in Canada. In fact our coastal fisheries are every bit as “wild” as the salmon fishery in Scotland; it’s only the salmon that were introduced to the Great Lakes that are in some sense “inferior,” but that is all that is mentioned here.

I’ll avenge the affront to my country by noting that I didn’t think much of this book; in fact, I’ll pay it the ultimate insult and say the movie, though cheesy, was better. It stars Ewan McGregor and the (currently ubiquitous) Emily Blunt, has a great small role by Kristen Scott-Thomas, and though it turns the book into a typical “opposites loathing and then attracting” romantic comedy (which the book really isn’t), it at least succeeds in being well-constructed and moderately enjoyable.

A Canadian Footnote

Since I’m on the subject of this novel, I can’t resist mentioning one other reference, which is not directly to Canada but implies Canada:

Eventually Peter took himself off – to go and play with his Blackberry, I expect.   (p. 154)

Peter is the Prime Minister’s press secretary – it’s not worth the effort of explaining how he fits into the plot, but what’s interesting here is that Blackberrys, manufactured by the Canadian company RIM, were so prevalent in 2007 that the British Prime Minister’s press secretary would have one, and that a British author would take the trouble to refer to it by name. This indicates how far Blackberrys had penetrated the public consciousness in the pre-iPhone years.

Since Harriet (who narrates the quoted line) despises Peter, it seems likely that the sentence purposely alludes to two common expressions for masturbation: “get himself off” and “play with himself”. But the Blackberry is such a bewitching piece of technology (or he is such a loser) that Peter would rather play with it than with himself. Whether RIM should be honoured by the reference I will leave to more seroious heads to decide.

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