Not fully replicated in Canada

June 20, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

The values of international modernism were also not fully replicated in Canada: the Great War tended to stimulate Canadian nationalism in the arts in a way alien to most English and American modernist writers. For example, the corrosive alienation about patriotism and national feeling found in works like Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or in American expatriate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was not present to the same degree in the work of many of the young Canadian writers and artists who had come of age in the trenches during the Great War, men like poet John McCrae or man of culture Talbot Papineau (who both died during the Great War), artist A.Y. Jackson, or historian Harold Innis. Canadians had tended to emerge from the war with less of the wholesale cynicism of young British, French, and German and American veterans.

– Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press

Here’s a question, and it is meant in all sincerity (because I don’t have the answer): Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism? We have our postmodern writers, clearly: Ondaatje, Coupland, Kroetsch, Heti, Lent. But has Canadian writing ever truly engaged with modernism?

Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers has modernest elements, as does the poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, bill bissett, and bp Nichol. And in the visual arts we have mid-20th-century abstract expressionist painters such as Riopelle and Borduas.

But it’s probably safe to say that high modernism never caught on in Canada to the extent that it did in Europe or America. I wonder if Campbell is correct in her assessment that part of the reason for this is a less cynical, more patriotic demeanour among our cultural creators. And if this relative lack of cynicism was present in the past (compare, for example, Morley Callaghan’s novels and stories to those of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce), is the same true now?

The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.

31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 14: “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

May 14, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway

“He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.” – William Faulkner on Ernest Hemingway

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words?” – Ernest Hemingway on William Faulkner

Although his assessment was a tad arch (as we saw earlier in the week, Faulkner himself abandoned the ornate, high modernist style on occasion), Hemingway certainly did not need big words to tackle big ideas. Nor did he need a voluminous numbers of pages. “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of Hemingway’s masterpieces of short fiction (and one of the best American short stories, period) runs to four pages, and yet manages to carry more impact than most novels.

Told mostly in dialogue, it’s the story of an American man and a girl who stop for a drink at a Spanish railway station. They are waiting for the train from Barcelona, heading to Madrid. While they wait, they drink beer and engage in what appears to be innocuous badinage:

“Oh cut it out.”

“You started it,” the girl said. “I was being amused. I was having a fine time.”

“Well, let’s try and have a fine time.”

“All right. I was trying. I said the mountains looked like white elephants. Wasn’t that bright?”

“That was bright.”

“I wanted to try this new drink: That’s all we do, isn’t it – look at things and try new drinks?”

“I guess so.”

“They’re lovely hills,” she said. “They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the coloring of their skin through the trees.”

“Should we have another drink?”

“All right.”

The two talk about beer and anise, a drink the girl has never tasted. They bicker back and forth the way that couples do, but in the early stages of the story, their conversation sounds entirely unremarkable, even boring. The only slightly discordant note is the girl’s insistence that the hills in the distance look like white elephants. She appears to mean this literally, referring in the passage above to “the coloring of their skin through the trees.” However, with Papa Hemingway, things are never just as they appear on the surface, and the choice of white elephants in this context is absolutely deliberate.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “white elephant” as: “an item or property that is no longer useful or wanted, especially one that is difficult to maintain or dispose of.” At first, this seems like a strange association for the girl to be making on a symbolic level, but the metaphoric import becomes staggeringly clear a few lines later:

“The beer’s nice and cool,” the man said.

“It’s lovely,” the girl said.

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

With the mention of the operation, which the man goes on to say is “just to let the air in,” the entire tenor of the conversation changes. All of a sudden, what was light and quotidian becomes fraught with unspoken tension.

“Hills Like White Elephants” was published in 1927. At the time, Spain was a devoutly Catholic country and abortion was illegal. Although it is never explicitly mentioned in the text, it is clear from the ensuing dialogue that this is the nature of the operation the girl is travelling to Madrid to undergo. “I don’t care about me,” the girl insists, and later the man tells her, “I don’t want anybody but you.” Though they circle around the subject, they never address it head on; nevertheless, the import of their conversation is abundantly clear to the reader.

The dialogue is shot through with irony, especially in the argument the man uses to try to persuade the girl that having the abortion is the best thing for her:

“We’ll be fine afterward. Just like we were before.”

“What makes you think so?”

“That’s the only thing that bothers us. It’s the only thing that’s made us unhappy.”

The girl looked at the bead curtain, put her hand out and took hold of two of the strings of beads.

“And you think then we’ll be all right and be happy.”

“I know we will. You don’t have to be afraid. I’ve know lots of people that have done it.”

“So have I,” said the girl. “And afterward they were all so happy.”

One of the reasons Hemingway’s writing is so brilliant – and so difficult for students being exposed to it for the first time – is that he never directs his readers as to how they are meant to feel at any given time. A less confident writer would have written, “‘And afterward they were all so happy,’ she said sarcastically.” Hemingway leaves off the final dialogue tag, expecting his reader to figure out the tone in which the girl has spoken. Reading a Hemingway story involves a process of plumbing the depths, searching beneath the surface of what is being said for the buried meaning.

The opening line of the story reads, “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white.” People unfamiliar with Spain’s geography will not realize that the hills Hemingway is referring to, when viewed from afar, take on the shape of a pregnant woman reclining on her back. It is not necessary to know this to appreciate the story. However, it is yet another level of insinuation the author has built into his carefully constructed, wickedly executed text. It’s true that Hemingway did not need big words to convey his big ideas. In many cases, the big ideas exist in the interstices between the words, waiting for the reader to come along and excavate them.

“I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me”

February 5, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Courtesy of Life: a picture gallery of famous literary drunks and drug addicts. How come it doesn’t surprise me that Ayn Rand was a speed freak?

P.S. Three guesses who was responsible for the quote in this post’s title. (And, no: it wasn’t me.)