Northrop Frye was, and still remains, one of Canada’s true national treasures. He was one the most prolific academics and thinkers this country has ever seen. He was a master in so many fields, literary criticism, philosophy, Biblical scholarship, cultural criticism, and was an able observer of the visual arts. On top of this, he was a skilled writer who could succinctly make a point and disseminate obscure concepts to the general reader. His contributions to literary studies were numerous: he literally changed the paradigm in English literary criticism with his signature book, Anatomy of Criticism; he defined the overarching thematic thread in early CanLit in his conclusion to W.H. New’s History of Canadian Literature; he wrote one of the great contemporary pieces of Shakespearian scholarship with his 1986 Governor General Award winning Northrop Frye on Shakespeare; and he wrote The Great Code, a masterful book examining the influence of the Bible over every aspect of Western artistic culture. It is really impossible to overstate the contribution of Frye to Canadian culture; he really was one of the greatest Canadians.
The Educated Imagination is Frye’s 1962 contribution to the CBC Massey Lectures – only the second set delivered. Still in print, this book is a regular title you’ll see stocked in the miniature section called “Literary Studies” at your local bookstore. This is a thin book; I read the Kobo edition which was only about 160 screens, so the paper version would be around 100 pages. Despite its small size, not since Margaret Atwood’s Survival have I been so affected by a single book. This little book should be required reading for every university English major in their first week and then be re-read every year. Additionally, everyone who teaches English, from elementary school through to PhD programs should be reading this book regularly.
This series of essays attempts to answer two questions: Why study literature? And How do we best teach literature?. Frye uses his strong and fluent prose to answer these questions. He contrasts the study of literature with that of physical sciences to demonstrate the power and importance of the human imagination. The Educated Imagination looks at so many topics: different levels of imaginative communication, use of metaphor and simile, censorship and free-speech, teaching methodologies, the importance of knowing Biblical and classical stories, and the interplay of the arts, social sciences, and physical sciences.
There was nothing revelatory about this book. By that, I mean there wasn’t any new Earth-shattering notions that hadn’t crossed my mind before in the abstract. This book affected me the way it did because of how it articulated concepts and ideas that have vaguely occurred to me over my many years of academic study and general reading. Frye lays out, in clear and eloquent language, the argument for the study of literature and the arts.
Massey Lecture titles are always very engaging reads. Northrop Frye’s books are always a highly pleasurable experience. The two combined is something almost too overwhelmingly great to put into words. Ironically, this book was only Frye’s third published volume of work and his first following his seminal Anatomy of Criticism. Even this early in his career, he shows off his intellectual muscle. Now, not to sound elitist or “snobby”, but this book is not for everyone because, honestly, a lot of people will not connect with the topics or even understand them. This book is a must read though for anyone who has formally studied literature (and wondered why as we all have), anyone who writes seriously, or anyone who reads to be enlightened or to expand the intellect, not just to pass the time.
The Educated Imagination is one of the best books in that large fuzzy “non-fiction” category, and the best literary studies book, I have ever read. Full stop. Go read it.
Well, it certainly has been a while; one year and 11 days to be precise. It is nice to have a break from being told what to read by a course syllabus and having free-reign in my selections. So here we go. Oxford University Press is currently publishing a series of Canadian books called the Wynford Project. This series is bringing important Canadian titles back into print that have been relegated to obscurity over the decades. One of the first, and most prominent, titles is Donald Creighton’s The Road to Confederation. Originally published in the 1960s, this book gives the reader what feels like an insider look at the birth of Canada. The Fathers of Confederation become characters as opposed to vague historical figures and clear protagonists and antagonists emerge in Creighton’s writing. Most impressively though, this book is filled with subtle, and not so subtle, commentary on Canada as a whole. The introduction by Donald Wright says that this book “reveals as much about the 1960s as it does the 1860s.” The Road to Confederation tells a story of great optimism with a tone of cautious pessimism.
I grew up in Nova Scotia and attended Sir John A. Macdonald high school and all through my school years I heard stories of the great Nova Scotians who helped build Canada. Names like Charles Tupper and Joseph Howe are known, at least in passing, by every bluenoser. For the last ten years I have lived in Charlottetown, which is , as my license plate tells me, the “Birthplace of Confederation.” Like anyone my age, I studied the confederation conferences in school and have distant memories of terms like reciprocity and Fenian raids; but as I have found out over the years, the gritty details of the birth of Canada are left out of the junior high textbooks. Most Canadians have only heard this sanitized version of history. Creighton gives the average reader, even one with no knowledge of our story, an unapologetically honest and unsanitized recap of those raucous four years of political headbutting that lead to Canada, the greatest nation in the world.
Some of the details Creighton reveals are mind-blowing. Here are a few examples, just to grab your attention: the original idea of Maritime union was hatched up by the Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick because he thought the small provincial parliaments were embarrassments, the first conference was held in Charlottetown only because the PEI delegation refused to venture to the mainland, George Brown was essentially a raging bigot, PEI chose not to join confederation in 1867 for quite ridiculous reasons, all of the British North American colonies were wholehearted supporters of the South in the American Civil War, and Britain was eager to cast off its North American responsibilities. These are just a few of the many high points.
When you pick up this book you know how it is going to end, Canada comes into being on July 1, 1867, but that doesn’t diminish this book’s power. This is a real page-turner and is what could be easily called the original Canadian political thriller and is highlighted with numerous historical photographs and maps. A history professor I was speaking with about this book suggested that I also read 1867 by Christopher Moore; he said the 30 years between the two books provide a great contrast in the interpretation of our founding. All this being said, this was a fantastic read and I want to thank Oxford University Press for resurrecting this jem.
I’ve felt like that the last month or so I have gotten away from the original reason I started this site, to review pieces of “classic” CanLit and contribute my two-cents on Canadian culture. With this in mind I have decided to focus my reading for this blog on my New Canadian Library shelves and review some oldies for the next few months. Whenever I need to kick-start my enthusiasm for reading again I usually reach for one of two authors, either Mordecai Richler or Margaret Laurence. I was in the mood for something funny so the obvious choice was Richler. I picked up one of his shorter novels that I hadn’t read yet, The Incomparable Atuk. This novel is one of Richler’s more eccentric pieces of satire; it has a similar feeling and tone as Cocksure, likely one of the strangest novels to come out of Canada in the 60s. Atuk is about an Inuit (or, as they were known in the 60s, Eskimo) poet who achieves national stardom and is transplanted to the soul corrupting city of Toronto.
The Incomparable Atuk was Richler’s follow-up to his best known work, Duddy Kravitz. The story starts with Atuk gaining fame as a gifted Eskimo poet and falling into a crowd of memorable characters. Although it is a short book, the NCL edition comes in at 178 pages with big print, it is very dense in the amount of story that is packed between the covers. It would be hard to summarize the novel because the book is basically just a bunch of random stuff that happens to Atuk and his inner circle; some of these include game show appearances with deadly punishments, cannibalism, swimming Lake Ontario, Eskimos being locked in a basement being forced to create “authentic” pieces of art, and of course Richler’s trademark witticisms on the state of post-WWII Judaism.
Something that always impresses me with Richler’s work from the 50s and 60s is his ability to seamlessly shift point-of-view with almost every chapter while still keeping the book as a whole very cohesive. I think part of the reason Richler is able to pull this off is because of how unique and memorable his characters are. All of his novels have a lot of characters and almost all of these characters are very well developed. Within two pages you have a sense of what this character is all about and which side of Richler’s proverbial fence he or she stands (this usually having something to do with the character being either Jewish or anti-semitic). I haven’t said anything specific along these lines in relation to this particular book, but all of my aforementioned comments apply to this novel.
You can never go wrong with a Mordecai Richler book. The Incomparable Atuk is a great representation of his approach to writing and the themes that are explored throughout his writing career as a whole. Richler was a master at holding a mirror up to Canadian society and exposing our foibles with hilarious and biting satire. If you liked Cocksure you would definitely enjoy Atuk.
Translated by Sheila Fischman
Without even realizing it, every Canadian has had a piece of Roch Carrier’s writing in their hands: an excerpt from his well known conte “The Hockey Sweater” is reprinted on the back of the five dollar bill. The former National Librarian of Canada has built a reputation as one of the great observers of French-English tensions in Quebec. One of Carrier’s early novels, La Guerre, Yes Sir!, released in its original French in 1968 and translated in 1970, looks at these tensions through the lens of a small Quebec village during World War II. Quebec fiction typically has a few common structural points that are worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with les livres Quebecois. These works are often filled to the saturation point with characters. This particular novel is just over 100 pages but there are at least 15 characters that the story is told through. Also, perhaps as a result of the large number of characters or vice versa, Quebec novels are often told through a number of vignettes from the point of view of several different characters. The result is often times a rich mosaic filled with memorable dialog and sharp wit. Carrier, Tremblay, Beauchemin, Godbout, and Aquin all fit this mold. This novel is funny, heartbreaking, violent, shocking, and an all around great read that has aged very well; 42 years after its first publication, this book is still as relevant as the day it was written.
With conscription as the backdrop for the story, La Guerre, Yes Sir! centers on a family who’s son has just been killed in the war; a troupe of English soldiers, or the maudits Anglais as they are referred to, bring the body to the parents’ kitchen for the wake, making this young man the first war casualty of the village to be repatriated. What ensues is a mix of a tears, laughs. fists, tourtiere, and cider. As I mentioned previously, dialog is the driver of this novel, but there is one scene in particular that I believe demonstrates the linguistic and cultural divide better than any other: Arsène, the local gravedigger and butcher is enjoying the wake as much as everyone else but has been making very strong comments against the men in uniform. Bérubé, a soldier who recently returned home with the body of the casualty, takes great issue and brutally assaults Arsène to show him what being a soldier is truly like. The other guests of the Corriveau home make no comment and many barely even take notice, but the Anglais who delivered the casket take great offence with this, decide the party is over, and evict the well-wishers. This is a great insult to the French villagers, and without giving too much detail that will spoil the book, does not go unpunished. The idea that English soldiers dare interfere with the grieving village’s customs is an insult of the highest order. With all of this in mind, it will come as no surprise that the overall tone of the novel is decidedly anti-war. We have characters who are deserters, characters dodging conscription, and characters who will do whatever it takes to be disqualified from conscription; take this example from page 1:
Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.
His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in his blood.
Renowned translator Sheila Fischman did a superb job on this book. Fischman has a keen eye to translate sentences or phrases that could be considered untranslatable. One technique that is used in this novel is leaving some of the French writing as is. One obvious example is the title. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was the original title; it is meant to highlight the linguistic divide, and to change this would be to take away part of the fundamental raison d’etre of the novel. Much of the profanity, and there is a lot of it, is also preserved in the original French. For those who are not familiar with how to swear in French, it is mostly taken from words that are religious in nature, i.e. hostie, tabernacle, or vierge; whereas English profanity is taken from words that were originally sexual in nature. This is very effective because if Fischman were to simply transliterate this it would be senseless. The book reads like it could have been written by an Englishman from Quebec; the language is rich and the translated idioms and speech patterns fit the class of character that Carrier is portraying.
This book is a fine read. It is definitely a must for anyone interested in any facet of Quebec culture. This is also a must for anyone who is interested in the effects of World War II on small town Quebec, or really any small town. Or, if you would simply like a funny book, this is pretty good choice.
Winner of the 1968 Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction
In 2004 Mordecai Richler was ranked as number 98 on the list of the 100 Greatest Canadians. While his fiction, in my opinion at least, is among the best produced in our nation’s literature, it his essays and non-fiction pieces that have established Richler as an icon not only in Canadian culture, but in the Canadian public. His best known piece of non-fiction was his 1992 historical book Oh Canada! Oh Quebec! Requiem for a Divided Country; with this book, written at a time of great national disunity, was hailed as a heroic piece of writing almost unanimously by English Canada but denounced as subversive and racist by the Francophone community. Hunting Tigers Under Glass: Essays and Reports, Richler’s first book of non-fiction, contains pieces he had written for magazines and newspapers from approximately 1960 to 1968, the year of publication of this volume. These essays run the gamut from Canada’s centennial celebrations, Canadian culture, sports, literary matters, and, most passionately, about the Jewish “problem” of his generation.
Typically when I read an older book I do not review it or evaluate it in a historical sense, unless of course the book calls for it (Hard Times by Dickens for instance), but for a collection of essays I am going to need to put my typical methods aside. Because this collection is over 40 years old, there are a few of the essays that really have no relevance to me or my interests because of my age, most notably the sports essays. The pieces that were of real interest to me were the ones on the state of Canadian culture in the 60s. Right now Canadian literature, art, film, TV, and music are either going through, or have already gone through, a great proliferation both domestically and internationally. I found Richler’s comments about the cultural vacuum that existed during his time very intriguing; he equated Expo ’67, Canada’s centennial celebration, to the possible seed of national patriotism needed for a cultural renaissance. On a somewhat related topic, in one essay the author discusses the state of film and the occupation of writing for the screen. Having written dozens of screenplays and receiving an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of his signature novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Richler has some very interesting insights into the business that still ring true today; one passage really struck me as it is something that is basically still being said:
In recent years, it is fair to say that films have become less juvenile, more intelligent. An increasing number of good satisfying films have come from Europe. There have been two or three that are arguably great. But, by and large, I am convinced that the new films are not nearly so good as they are cracked up to be, their seriousness is often spurious and half-educated, and they they are being critically oversold. A major trouble is we are so grateful for even a modicum of originality on the screen, we are so flattered to be addressed directly, we seldom realize that the so-called film is, for the most part, shamelessly derivative, taking up a position abandoned by novelists years ago. (“Writing for the Movies” p. 105)
The underlying theme or topic in all of the essays, and fundamentally in all of Mordecai Richler’s work, is trying to answer the “Jewish question” of his generation. The final essay in the book is called “This Year in Jerusalem”, which eventually was revisited and worked into a full length book in 1994; in this piece Richler takes his first trip to the homeland to explore the state of Judaism. I was surprised that the author’s tone was somewhat hostile towards the new nation of Israel and many of it’s inhabitants, this was the exact opposite of what I expected. Richler was appalled by the developing class distinctions between the European Jew and the North American Jew and how the residents who hailed from the new world were essentially second class citizens. Another thing I found very interesting about this essay was Richler’s seeming concern for the Arab inhabitants of this new nation. He continually asks residents what he thinks of this issue; he closes the essay with perhaps the most common thought amongst the Israelis:
“But Surely,” [Richler] said, “if the Jews are entitled to come ‘home’ after two thousand years then the son of an Arab refugee is a Palestinian too?”
“All right. Conditions in their camps are deplorable. However, the conditions I lived under in Dachau were worse.” (“This Year in Jerusalem” p. 176)
Hunting Tigers Under Glass is definitely worth reading for its historical significance and insight. But, that being said, this book is almost impossible to find. Published in 1968, this book has been out of print since 1972. On abebooks.com, a used book site that you can find anything on, there are only 39 copies available in Canada. I ordered my copy, printed in 1971, from a bookseller in Ontario. I hope that an academic press like UofT Press, Penguin, or Oxford University Press eventually resurrects this book as it is an important piece in the career of an important writer and a milestone in our literary evolution.