A Critic Stripped Bare, Even (Thinking Outside the Green Box)

By T.F. Rigelhof | July 12, 2004

It takes, among other things, an enormous act of will to write as Bruce Serafin does in “Vermeer’s Patch.” Serafin, an advocate of science fiction who is much comforted by Northrop Frye and Marcel Proust, asserts that Robertson Davies’ novel What’s Bred in the Bone is “the best novel English Canada has produced.” This is as pure an act of Nietzschean willfulness, of transvaluation of values, as any encountered in literary circles. Or is it merely a philistine’s bravado?

There’s certainly something hostile and indifferent to literary culture, something terribly commonplace, prosaic and weary (allegedly in service to the poetic, rare and fresh) in Serafin’s attack on Philip Marchand for criticizing Frye in his essay collection Ripostes: Reflections on Canadian Literature. Like Stephen Henighan and David Solway, with whom Serafin flippantly and off-handedly identifies him, Marchand is “prissy,” “rigid with dismay,” a practitioner of “linguistic neo-conservatism,” — an “awkward boy who has made it to the big desk and now sits impassive behind it, exerting his authority by making sure that feelings of exuberance, outrage or delight never appear.” And, crushingly, “a disciple of John Metcalf,” Marchand “expresses the Canadian literary scene’s default position. The default position – here, as in other times and places – always dislikes what goes beyond the popular norm. Like every book reviewer who has expressed his period’s default attitude, Marchand shows no feeling for literature’s need to be marvelous and new; in particular (and in common with the herd now in ascendance), he assumes that journalistic realism is the summit of literary creation.” Philip Marchand?

It’s true that Henighan, Solway, and Marchand along with W.J. Keith, Eric Ormsby, Carmine Starnino, and me are all contributors to a series of critical works edited by John Metcalf and published by Porcupine’s Quill. But that’s pretty much where resemblance ends. As an editor, Metcalf demands many things (fresh perceptions, vital language, detailed knowledge, and so forth) but never “discipleship” – even if it is on offer. Marchand did begin literary life as a “disciple”, but of Marshall McLuhan and as one of the pack of New Journalists, all agog at the marvelous and new, who were exuberantly, delightedly and outrageously chasing the bespoke pantcuffs and handlasted soles of Tom Wolfe. Thirty years on, there’s little Wolfean hyperbole left in Marchand’s prose but a great deal of the spirit and distinctly Roman Catholic spirituality of McLuhan remains. There is such a thing as an English-Canadian Catholic literary tradition and Philip Marchand, despite his American birth and Francophone heritage, is a member in very good standing. That tradition, as Hugh Hood argues in “The Intuition of Being: Morley, Marshall and Me” (Unsupported Assertions, Anansi, 1991), has nothing to do with “making propaganda for the minutiae of Catholic belief” and everything to do with the perception that contemplation of the world-as-it-is is endlessly fascinating because everything is sustained in existence by Being – “everything is full of God.” The unifying element in this tradition is the insight that there is a sliding scale of analogical relationships that unite all things — “the good man loves his bride in a certain way, but he may also love his new car in another way: the loves are not exactly alike or of similar value, but they have a certain proportion to one another” — and that “ideas can live only in the flesh” and only ever approximate to the ideal. Marchand’s literary criticism is as solidly based on analogies of proportion as McLuhan’s wit and humour in The Mechanical Bride and elsewhere.

Hood never disguised his higher learning (and leanings) with secular garb, but it’s unlikely that Marchand will ever express his critical principles in the kind of language Hood draws from Armand Maurer’s classic commentary on Aquinas’s treatise De Analogia. And there’s really no need to do so since the neo-Thomist Jacques Maritain’s conversations with Allen Tate (a then-recent convert to Catholicism) resulted in Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry (1953), the book that fuses the key insights of analogical reasoning (everything is full of God, ideas can live only in the flesh) with the conceptual framework of the New Critics – T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren ,W.K. Wimsatt, Cleanth Brooks, Francis Ferguson, R. P. Blackmur, and Allen Tate — several of whom had been absorbed in Marshall McLuhan’s rereading of Teilhard de Chardin’s rereading of Aquinas. What’s truly important in this thicket of academic history is its result: the bracing conviction (still pre-eminent in literary studies wherever theory hasn’t outstripped practice), reshaped and reiterated in twentieth century terms, that Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dante and Hopkins, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Aristotle and Aquinas, Homer and Joyce are unanimous in their assertion that imagination is reason in her most exalted mode. Imagination, they assert, is revelatory and the best vehicle available to us for poetic penetration into the nature of reality. Since this is the case, then it’s the principal task of criticism to evaluate the imaginative successes and failures in any work of art in terms that are rational (This is what the work is saying, isn’t it?) and revelatory (This is the way life can be, isn’t it?). Such literary criticism shares common ground with journalistic realism but goes beyond it.

Because Serafin thinks literary substance has to do with Atwood’s “satirical inventions,” Ondaatje’s “rich prose and unique vision,” Margaret Laurence’s “sexually daring books,” and the unspecified delights of Robertson Davies’ What’s Bred in the Bone rather than with imagination as creative intuition, he consistently mistakes literary means as ends. It’s no wonder that he can’t see the genuine critical apercus that are embedded within Marchand’s journalism. Marchand doesn’t need me to point, point, and point again to the profound depths of his insights into what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t in Atwood, Ondaatje, and Laurence (especially since I’m no longer comfortable with the tradition he espouses and we do quarrel frequently in specific judgments). Ripostes is readily available, clearly written, and its author is alive, well, and capable of defending himself. All that really needs to be said is that anyone who is as favourably disposed to the works of Mordecai Richler, Douglas Coupland, and Russell Smith as Marchand isn’t going to be an enemy of satire, invention, sexual daring, exuberance, outrage, delight, the marvelous, the new, and makes a very odd upholder of prissiness, linguistic neo-conservatism, impassivity, authoritarianism, and popular sentiment. That, of course, assumes that readers recognize in Richler, Coupland, and Smith something other than Serafin makes them out to be: “Marchand likes Richler because he writes like a journalist. He’s ‘real’, like a journalist. Neither his prose nor his vision of life gets genuinely complicated. Marchand enjoys that: he understands it; it contents him, which is why he praises Smith and Coupland, two other authors who also essentially write as journalists. In Marchand’s universe, journalistic realism rules.” How insensitive can any reader be?

This insensitive. Serafin also writes: “As it happens, I recently read Richler’s Barney’s Version, one of his better books. I like some of it. I like the sex, the blunt depiction of getting old. I especially like Richler’s embrace of public life, his willingness to write about Canada as a real country in the real world. He doesn’t offer a romantic or “personal” Canada (which is so often a timid, small Canada), but the country you and I live in, faced head on. And I like his use of invective, that voice which appears in all his books – colloquial, breezy and with a whiff of belligerence always behind the breeziness.

“But Barney’s not a character. He’s Richler. He loves his kids and they love him. And he adores his wife Miriam, who has hair like a raven’s wing and is perfect in every way. Miriam is a big lacy valentine to Richler’s actual wife. She hardly exists except as a vehicle for Richler’s emotion. And it’s the same with the kids. They’re too good to be true.

“And the oafs that speckle the book like dandruff – the stupid Quebec separatists, vengeful feminists, shallow Torontonians, academic hacks, ugly women and weepy men – these oafs and idiots are too bad to be true. Like the spasmodic alternation of sentimentality and sarcasm which muddies the tone of the book and finally detaches the reader from it, the characters in Barney’s Version – and with a very few exceptions this could be said of all of Richler’s characters, except for the one Duddy Kravitz “character” who is Richler himself – the characters end up seeming unreal. They dance around like those puppets in the TV ad about back pain. They seem animated only because the author is visibly twitching their strings. No internal impetus pushes them, no motivation that comes from their circumstances.

“Worse, the book lacks a shape. Architecturally, as a novel, as a long story, it is a mess; it doesn’t point to something beyond itself, the way a really fine story does. It relies on news, on jokes, on set tidbits of writing; it relies on cheap pathos; apart from the section set in Paris, it lacks narrative momentum and emotional force.”

Mordecai Richler wrote a great deal of journalism — some of it good and lasting, much of it ephemeral, all of it animated by a voice that was “colloquial, breezy and with a whiff of belligerence always behind the breeziness” — and produced ten novels (between The Acrobats in 1954 and 1997’s Barney’s Version), a book of short stories, three children’s books, five books of essays, three works of non-fiction, and edited two anthologies. He also wrote teleplays, screenplays (two of his best were Room at the Top and No Love for Johnnie). Whenever Richler wrote for more than the cigar and cognac money he finagled out of Conrad Black, he wrote ever so well and wanted to be read by people who understood what he was doing. He knew this happened all too rarely with most of his books. He knew a lot of people bought his books and never read them through to the end. He said, “All that can be asked of a writer, the best he can offer you, is his own special window on reality. I try my best to do that. But the view from my particular window does not appeal to everyone.” He said this in 1961: it was a characteristic understatement and a prophecy. And added, “In a time when there really is no agreement on values. . . you are obliged to work out your own code of honour and system of beliefs and to lead as honourable a life as possible.” Later, he said of his work, “I’m much more interested in criticizing, always, the things I believe in or I’m attached to, which may be a very perverse kind of love, but it’s the only kind I’m capable of.” And, “What I have to say is in my novels. The rest is gossip.” Richler generated an awful lot of great gossip and too many people read it more closely than they ever read the novels. That’s one reason why Barney’s Versiongot so much acclaim and sold so well in Canada. But there’s far more to that novel than Serafin and gossip-mongers find in it. Barney isn’t Richler, Miriam isn’t Florence, the kids aren’t Richler’s kids. Miriam and the Panofsky children are perfect, too good to be true because Barney not Richler idealizes them. It’s a first person fictional narrative and neither Barney nor Richler vilify “the oafs that speckle the book like dandruff – the stupid Quebec separatists, vengeful feminists, shallow Torontonians, academic hacks, ugly women and weepy men” who are all “too bad to be true” anywhere outside Barney’s flawed and decaying neuro-system. Again, it’s Barney not Richler who is alternately sentimental and sarcastic. That said, the book does lack shape and, on early readings, seemed to me as it still seems to Serafin to be more novella than novel, too long by half, and lacking in narrative momentum but not emotional force. It took Mavis Gallant and her reaction to Barney’s Version to open my eyes to another way of reading it: “When I got to the end of the novel, I just burst into tears. And I realized it was an existentialist novel,” Gallant said.

The more I reconsider Barney’s Version, the more I see the value and validity of Gallant’s response. It’s not only an existentialist novel but is permeated with French and Hasidic literary DNA – little wonder that it has had so great a success in continental Europe. To get to the heart of its enormous popular and critical achievements among Gentiles and Jews, its ability to speak so deeply to so many of such diverse backgrounds about what is and isn’t the case in life and in death, I think a critic has to turn to Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Proust and The Book of Zohar for understanding much as one has to turn to Samuel Johnson and Kafka to get what’s going on inside St. Urbain’s Horseman, a work that magnificently asserts that the world might not make much sense but words can establish the sense of its nonsense, that humans need words to be moral — words that formulate judgments that are so balanced, paralleled, antithetical that they incarnate beauty, truth and goodness in as much measure as we can find. Richler as a novelist is complex and subtle in ways that pass right over Serafin’s head and heart. His greatest strength is his ability to shift on the fly from dialogue to interior monologue with a very short throw of words and no double-clutching. Here’s a confrontation between Jake Hersh’s Gentile wife Nancy and her Jewish mother-in-law:
“‘If you can’t eat butter on your salami sandwich,’ Nancy charged, unable to contain her tears any more, “how come you can have eggs with your hot dogs!”
“Eggs are parve” Mrs Hersh returned haughtily.
“Oh! Oh! Oh!” Nancy stamped her foot. She stamped it again. “Sometimes all your Jewish hocus-pocus–”
Six million isn’t enough for them.

Richler uses all of six words spoken silently by Mrs Hersh to capture the sheer terror and the defense mechanism that surfaces in her at the merest of foot-stampings. Yes, it’s ludicrous for Mrs Hersh to feel a threat of persecution in such a situation but, for any Jewish woman of a certain age, one of the great lessons of the Holocaust is that no act is too trivial to be the basis of damnation by anti-Semites. It’s the morality of the distressed survivor in every age of acute anxiety. How anyone raised within earshot of a New Testament and the brief dialogues and even briefer interior reflections of the Gospels could ever attach greater moral and literary weight to the bloated, orotund language of Robertson Davies simply baffles me. Willfulness? Bravado?

In a comic case of the pot calling the kettle schwartz, Serafin accuses Marchand of being offensive and patronizing towards a great writer for writing this of Words with Power, the second of Northrop Frye’s two studies of the Bible. He quotes Marchand at length: “So, to get to the nub of the matter, the question of whether the God of the Bible really exists – or, as Frye might put it, “really exists” – is silly. Of course, He exists. You can imagine Him, can’t you? The whole of Words with Power is an argument that a reader’s imaginative absorption into the myth and metaphors of the Bible leads to the dissolving of the “antithesis between a human subject and a divine object.”. . .

“The argument….will not be convincing to those who believe that reality is even richer than the human imagination. This may seem a bizarre or trivial example, but at one point, while reading Words with Power, I thought of the case of Elvis Presley – a mythical, almost godlike figure in the making, if one can judge by his omnipresent icons. If a chronicle of Presley’s life were preserved for generations hence, what would the Northrop Frye critic make of it? Such a critic would note that Presley had a twin brother who died at birth, and probably say, as Frye does in Words with Power, that the twin motif, applied to heroes and gods, runs all through folklore and literature…..

“There is a great deal more that this Frye critic could do with the life of Presley. All of it would amount, in the end, to less than the fact of Presley’s existence, to the terrible importance of a life that “really happened.” Christians no doubt feel the same way, in a case of infinitely greater moment, about Frye’s treatment of Jesus.”

Serafin thinks that Marchand is unduly sarcastic and makes two mistakes. “First, he assumes that Frye wasn’t interested in what “really happened.” Second, he assumes that he knows better than Frye how the imagination relates to reality, something which especially shows itself in his pompous final paragraph, in which he implies that Frye treats Christian belief frivolously.” But Frye really wasn’t interested in what “really happened” in the events reported in the Bible and says as much at many points in many places. And, according to George Grant (who was harsh in his review of The Great Code for The Globe and Mail) and the greater number of Christian theologians and Biblical scholars who have considered Frye’s two books, he does treat Christian belief frivolously. I don’t consider this a major flaw in his work but then again, I’m not a Christian let alone a practicing Catholic deeply immersed in the analogical tradition of Aquinas, Maurer, Maritain, and McLuhan. But I do object strenuously, on literary grounds, to Frye’s cavalier approach to the actual texts anthologized by the makers of the Bible.

Serafin reads Frye as Frye wants to be read – uncritically, theoretically, unrealistically. The much-vaunted pattern of call and response, type and antitype, the remarkable double mirror , the self-enclosed world , the group voice that Frye attributes to the Bible is partly the invention of the translators of the King James Bible and partly Frye’s own idiosyncratic imposition on the text whose underlying principles of unity within diversity manifest levels of political, theological, and literary complexity that Frye simply refused to consider: they might have scratched the Teflon of his self-proclaimed “genius.” Frye’s dialectical typology is no more to be found embedded in the Hebrew and Greek originals than are the titles, chapter divisions, verse numberings or highlighted words that Serafin so admires but thinks make the Bible “so archaic” to modern readers. For Serafin, Frye is worthy of uncritical acceptance because his typology induces a very special conception of history, “the future as a realization of the past and the past as a prefiguration of the future,” which produces “a mode of thinking that structures time” in a way that allows its practitioners to “feel that a deeply comforting order exists which has nothing to do with causation, the thing usually associated with historical change. And this is true whether what is being considered is the existence of the individual or the existence of mankind.” Or, “a sense there is nothing outside its double mirror – the Beginning is reflected in the End and the End in the Beginning.” Thus, it “simultaneously miniaturizes the universe and subjects it in its entirety to narrative” and “in doing so it holds out the promise of an end to history, an apotheosis which is to be humanity’s permanent and ever-renewed consolation.”

Is Frye so much the Vedantist, so indebted to Aldous Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy as Serafin makes him? It’s arguable that he isn’t.

Frye was drawn to the Bible as Serafin is drawn to science fiction, “arguably the most important form of writing today,” by the gargantuan hope it proposes. Frye’s “reading of the Bible (and indeed of literature and human work in general) was entirely bound up with the concept of redemption” – “a vision of humanity no longer lost in the hell it has made for itself.” To reject this as “unrealistic” does not demonstrate, as Serafin insists it does, that Marchand shows “absolutely no appreciation of literature’s need to be imaginative.” Serafin claims that writers such as Marchand, Richler, Coupland, and Smith (and I include myself in their company) cannot feel what Proust felt when he wrote of Bergotte’s death.

Suffering from an attack of uraemia, looking again at Vermeer’s little patch of yellow wall, “He was not unconscious of the gravity of his condition. In a celestial pair of scales there appeared to him, weighing down one of the pans, his own life, while the other contained the little patch of wall so beautifully painted in yellow. He felt that he had rashly sacrificed the former for the latter.”

After suffering a fresh attack of uraemia., Bergotte rolls to the floor.. “He was dead. Dead for ever? Who can say?…. All we can say is that everything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even, nor make the talented artist consider himself obliged to begin over again a score of times a piece of work the admiration aroused by which will matter little to his body devoured by worms, like the patch of yellow wall painted with so much knowledge and skill by an artist who must for ever remain unknown and who is barely identified under the name Vermeer. All these obligations, which have no sanction in our present life, seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts, knowing not whose hand had traced them there – those laws to which every profound work of the intellect brings us nearer and which are invisible only – and still! – to fools.

Marchand does understand this (as does anyone who has read Plato or Saint Augustine or, in Richler’s case, The Book of Zohar) but to understand it and even sympathize with it, as Proust clearly does, it is not necessary to accept it at face value. To see how this can be so for Proust and for those who write in continuation from him, you have only to read the one good novel written by a Canadian about the world of angels. No, not What’s Bred in the Bone. Far from being is “the best novel English Canada has produced,” Robertson Davies’s fictional account of a man’s life as perceived by a recording angel is a minor exercise in self-regard by a second rate writer who here caters to his banal, self-educated taste for the occult and medieval as a vehicle for his Master of Massey College wit, fustian wisdom, and jejune reflections on art. The best that one can say for it is that it’s a page-turner that is less of a strain on credulity than much of his other work simply because it is within the realm of the possible that an angel might speak the kind of faux-donnish Edwardian drag English that Davies himself practiced and could never free his human characters from even when they were supposedly young, female and of foreign extraction. (What I’ve written in This is Our Writing about Davies’s deficiencies might be answerable but it has gone unanswered.) No, the good Canadian novel about angels is Hugh Hood’s final installment of The New Age/ Le Nouveau Siècle, the twelfth volume, Near Water. It’s set eight or nine years in the future, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, and Matthew Goderich is in his mid-eighties. As the son of a Nobel laureate, father of an astronaut, close friend of a movie star, estranged husband of a world class painter, and as a long-winded explainer of all their lives, the fictional Goderich is better-connected, more widely known, far wealthier, in more robust health, and less endearing, interesting,and eccentric than Hugh Hood actually was when he wrote of Goderich’s last hours. That said, he’s still something of an alter ego for his author and natural curiosity about Hood’s view of his character dying the same kind of death Hood actually suffered just before Near Water was published makes reading it overwhelmingly poignant in numerous places. And more approachable. It’s a difficult read — much closer to le nouveau roman , the anti-novel, than we usually get from authors born on this side of the Atlantic, so close that it’s almost as if Hood (who spent most of his adult years as a professor in the Faculté des Lettres de Université de Montréal) wrote it in French using English words. Its stream-of-consciousness deliberately blurs the distinction between writer and reader and Hood uses the devices of Samuel Beckett’s Malone Meurt in order to undermine Beckett’s final purposelessness as well as to counter Proust’s account of Bergotte’s death which it explicitly evokes: Matthew Goderich is waiting for God (not Godot) and his God of the Gospel of Matthew and of the Torah (as Aquinas not Augustine would have us understand Him) is surrounded by choirs of Angels, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, Principalities, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim and Seraphim — forces that Hood believes enable human beings to communicate more successfully through screwball intuitions than rational discourse.

In “Authority in Canada” (1991), an essay that’s as angry as anything he ever wrote, Hood accuses Canadians of being enthralled by public authorities who “tell us what we must think and how we must feel, …. the correct social line, the right way to think, the titles of the right books to read and the right films to see.” He calls us les bien-pensants, the right-thinking element who would sooner die than hold unofficial opinions….” Against this, Hood’s twelve inter-linked novels assert (never more forcefully than in Near Water) that if we pay as close attention to things as Matt Goderich, stare at them, concentrate on them as hard as we can, not just with our intelligence, but with our feelings and instincts, we will begin to see life as a series of revelations, visionary gleams of spirit in the flesh. We’ll learn that what we know, love and desire in others isn’t inside them like a nut in a shell but is everywhere they are, forming them and surviving their physical absences Avoiding Proust’s palliative trap (All these obligations . . . belong to a different world, founded upon kindness . . . which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws . . . ), Hood wants to remind us of our ancestry is dark and collective, East of Eden with more in common with the House of Atreus than Plato’s World of Ideas, and uses Goderich’s transition from life to death to show the way to new births — not rebirths. He’s an agitator, a disturber of the peace who seeks to arouse Canadians from escapist imaginings by shaking the pillars of our collective complacency. He’s restless and disquieting. Near Water can move readers to tears worth shedding in a way that Robertson Davies never does because Hood understands that the need for wonder, for Serafin’s “excessive, unprecedented image in which the true surrealistic face of existence breaks through” cannot, in the end, run counter to reason, rightly understood, and can never be as thoroughly unrealistic or idealistic as Frye would have us believe: imagination is reason in her most exalted mode.

Given a choice between Wordsworth and Coleridge, Dante and Hopkins, Shakespeare and Cervantes, Aristotle and Aquinas, Homer and Joyce, Proust and Hood, Richler and Marchand and Frye, possibly Milton, possibly Blake, contemporary science fiction writers, and Serafin on the other, I’ll stick with those who intuit what literature does, rather than those who claim that they know what literature is for – the route from the benign fancies of Frye to the malignities of Marxist-Leninism and Maoism is far shorter than that from the Catholic Church to Trotsky despite what Terry Eagleton likes to claim. Eagleton and Serafin have something else in common: both reject F.R. Leavis without showing any understanding of what he was attempting to do and that was to demonstrate a continuity between the prophetic writings of ancient Israel (which are decidedly not antiphonal) and the writing of novels in English in order to create a secular spirituality. He couldn’t do it but the greatest and least orthodox of his followers, Ian Robinson in The English Prophets, has shown exactly how and why he failed and where in both the Bible and English literature real continuities can be found. In doing that, Robinson has also shown what is bent out of shape and what is utterly lost when the King James Bible is read as Frye reads it – unrealistically, casually, flippantly and unimaginatively. – without due attention to what it actually says life is and insists life can be.

Even though I don’t share Serafin’s premises, he does point to a real weakness in much that gets written about contemporary Canadian writers and their books: there is far too much casual dismissal of subtle work by clumsy reviewers who are fueled with resentment. And he’s right to single out Stephen Henighan and David Solway as exemplars of this phenomenon. What they practice is less “linguistic neo-conservatism” than something older, deeper, more intractable. Henighan not only has the facial features and expression commonly found in portraits of Cromwell’s foot soldiers, his writing is thoroughly Roundhead in its setting of boundaries: he categorically refuses to delight in whatever falls outside a self-definition which he extends nation-wide. That same refusal is just as strong in Solway but is alleviated a little by his crazed wit and larger sense of self. But both are equally unable to accept that the limits of their worlds are not the limits of the world-at-large. Both refuse to stretch themselves to see the understated forces at work in writers far more energetic, talented, imaginative, and refined than themselves. It’s a toss-up which is more grotesque – Solway’s pissiness towards Anne Carson or Henighan’s prissiness towards Barbara Gowdy. Such self-aggrandizers are worth reading only when they deal with writers clumsier and more misogynistic than themselves.

The more innovative, more marvelous writing being done in Canada these days comes from women generally born after the mid-point of the twentieth century. There are exceptions (Austin Clarke, Brian Fawcett, Russell Smith) but if you want to be stretched in the way that I’ve been stretched in my search for writing that is exuberant, fresh, vital, delightful, daring, witty, then open yourself to Barbara Gowdy, Catherine Bush, Elizabeth Hay, Annabel Lyon, Aislinn Hunter, Miriam Toews, Lisa Moore for starters. Am I missing out on something wonderful by reading them? Should I be reading the science fiction Serafin lauds instead? I don’t think so? Science fiction rests, by and large, on fictitious science. Why daydream about impossible worlds when our own world is so full of unexplored possibilities? Although I’m still waiting for a writer to emerge in Canada who is a match for England’s Maggie Gee when it comes to exploring the implications of theoretical physics on neurological sense and sensibility, Catherine Bush’s astronaut mother’s effects and affects on her terrestrial daughter in Minus Time, Elizabeth Hay’s climate conditioning in A Student of Weather and Barbara Gowdy’s elephantizing of memory in The White Bone all leap into the realm of exalted reasoning, as does Brian Fawcett’s assessment of human ecology in Virtual Clearcut. Can I really find weirder and wilder cultural clashes in SF than in Oakland Ross’s tale of Aztec, Maya and Spaniards The Dark Virgin? Or more multi-layered dialogue than in Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe? Canadian experience is neither European nor American and, addressed as these authors address it, challenges a reader’s certainties. To paraphrase and extend Christopher Irmscher’s observation in The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature about our nature writers, the question inherent in best contemporary Canadian writing is less Northrop Frye’s puzzled “Where is here?” and, more typically, a genuinely amazed “What is here?”

Whenever Frye wasn’t fighting to think himself free of the doctrines of his church while remaining an ordained minister in its employ without abusing his conscience, when he was simply reading without that agenda in place, he could read closely and well and delight in what really was happening on the printed page. It’s a shame he missed these writers and their books. As editor of The Canadian Forum, he read far too much clumsily executed Canadian writing that can, at best, be called socially daring. Although some of Frye’s essays are still very useful in the classroom (like those writers – Davies, Laurence, Findley, Atwood — who modelled their novels on his critical principles, he is eminently teachable), the Frye most worth reading is the Frye of the posthumously published letters and journals. The what of him is genuinely amazing: his life as he documents it is “a series of revelations, visionary gleams of spirit in the flesh” and his loves and desires survive his physical absence in a way that his theories do not.

July 12, 2004 5619 words


  • T.F. Rigelhof

    Terry Rigelhof is a Contributing Reviewer to The Globe and Mail's Books section, an occasional contributor to Dooneys Café and CNQ, and the author of nine books – the forthcoming Hooked on Canadian Books: The Good, the Better, and the Best Canadian Novels Since 1984 (Cormorant Books, Spring 2010), a book of essays on writing in Canada, This is Our Writing (Porcupine's Quill), two novels, a novella, a collection of short stories, a brief biography, George Grant: Redefining Canada (Editions XYZ for the Quest Library where he is also a member of the Editorial board), and two volumes of memoir, the second of which is Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief (Goose Lane Editions). Two of his books of fiction have been translated into French by Ivan Steenhout and published by Les éditions de la Pleine Lune. Les éditions de la Pleine Lune has also published Dérives du Sacré, a translation of Nothing Sacred: A Journey Beyond Belief.

Posted in:

More from T.F. Rigelhof: