31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 22: “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” by Clark Blaise

May 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Montreal Stories

Montreal_StoriesWhen we think of Montreal writers, we tend to think first of Mordecai Richler, the bard of St. Urbain Street. But Clark Blaise also mythologized the city in some of his best stories. As Peter Behrens writes in the introduction to the 2003 volume Montreal Stories, “Montreal functions like an (unreliable) heart within the body of Clark Blaise’s oeuvre: a treacherous, indispensable organ at the centre of his fiction.”

The parenthetical adjective is significant: the eye with which Blaise views the city is noticeably jaundiced. Take, for example, the bravura opening paragraph of the story “Among the Dead,” which reads, in part:

In a certain season (the late winter) and in certain areas (those fringes between the city, and the river that makes it an island) Montreal is the ugliest city in the world. Despite its reputation, its tourist bureaus, most of the island of Montreal will break your heart. … In this, Montreal is truly the Paris of North America. The same bleakness, the same bidonvilles stretching for miles beyond the city walls. Our dream has always been salvation and bonheur, even knowing that we’d ingested the worst of both worlds: the suspicions and ignorance of the petit commerçant, with the arrogant sprawl of America.

This paragraph testifies to Blaise’s often fractious relationship, in his fiction, with Quebec’s largest metropolis: himself a transplant from the United States, the author views the city from the critical perspective of an immigrant. It also testifies to his sublime, seemingly effortless technique.

Both aspects are on display in “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” which also blurs the line between fiction and autobiography (a quality Behrens refers to as a “deliberate and daring instability of form” that “anticipates writers like W.G. Sebald.”)

The young boy at the story’s centre is driven and purposeful (“That’s how it is with janitors’ sons,” he tells us), to the point of waiting for a bus at 4:30 a.m. to take him to his paper route after Greek immigrants overrun his own neighbourhood and shrink him out of a viable business. He is ten years old at the time. “After a few days I didn’t have to pay a fare. I’d take coffee from the driver’s thermos, his cigarettes, and we’d discuss hockey from the night before. In return I’d give him a paper when he let me off. They didn’t call me Curette for nothing.”

The nickname, given to him by the nuns at school, means “little priest,” and underscores both the resourcefulness of the boy and his essential otherness. His position as an outsider, even in a city that is teeming with new immigrants – witness, for example, the Greeks who move into the neighbourhood, encouraging their compatriots to snap up vacancies by using for-rent signs written only in Greek – is deeply felt, to the point that he wears a Boston Bruins sweatshirt to hockey games at the Forum. Unlike the hero of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater, who wants a Canadiens shirt and is mortified to be given a Leafs jersey instead, Blaise’s protagonist wears the Bruins jersey almost as a coat of arms or an insignia declaring his status as an expat.

Regardless of the association professed by his clothes, the boy is a devoted aficionado of the Canadiens, especially their unstoppable forward, Maurice “Rocket” Richard:

I loved the Canadiens fiercely. It had to do with the intimacy of old-time hockey, how close you were to the gods on the ice; you could read their lips and hear them grunt as they slammed the boards. So there I stood in my Boston Bruins shirt loving the Rocket. There was always that spot of perversity in the things I loved.

Blaise describes the quintessential Canadian (and Canadiens) passion for hockey precisely; “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard” pairs well with Mark Anthony Jarman’s “A Nation Plays Chopsticks” as two stories capable of defining, for those who may not entirely share the same degree of interest, what captivates hockey fans about the sport. For the boy in the story, it is not just a pastime, but verges on something almost religious: “[T]here was nothing in any other sport to compare with the spell of hockey. Inside the Forum in the early fifties, those games against Boston … were evangelical, for truly we were dans le cénacle where everyone breathed as one.”

The chronology is important because, as the boy points out elsewhere, this was the time that poor people could still afford a ticket to a Canadiens game at the Forum. Indeed, the first thing the boy tells us in the story is that his family was poor. “It was a strange kind of poverty, streaked with gentility (the kind that chopped you down when you least expected it),” he says. Although the boy is an only child, and thus “there was more to go around,” much of the family’s money gets drunk or gambled away by the patriarch (the alcoholic father being a tried-and-true CanLit archetype).

The family’s poverty is what eventually drives them south across the border to the U.S., where the father hopes to land a job in one of his brother-in-law’s dry cleaning establishments. The job, needless to say, never materializes, and the family returns home in disgrace. The crossing of borders, Behrens notes, is another essential feature of Blaise’s fiction, but more importantly, the return to Montreal reinforces the family’s outsider status. They find the father’s brother, Réal, who had been enlisted to watch the apartment while the family was off pursuing its fortune, “very happily installed.” The ease with which Réal slips into “lifelong comfort and security” is in stark contrast to the boy’s father, whose idea of the good life  is “moving up to the ground floor where the front door buzzer kept waking you up.”

Finally, the attitude toward Montreal, like almost everything in Blaise’s stories is bifurcated. There is the authentic love of the home team and its captain, the Rocket, but this love must be indulged at one remove, from behind the screen of a Boston Bruins shirt. What resounds most clearly at the end of the story is the statement made by one of the residents in a house the family stops at on their way back to Montreal – “Man, you sure is crazy” – a statement the boy adopts for himself, wearing it “like a Bruins sweater, till it too wore out.”

Are there any world-class CanLit writers?

June 12, 2009 by · 13 Comments 

There’s a bit of a contretemps going on over at Quillblog (which seems these days to be where I’m getting all my material) about an interview that Nigel Beale did with John Metcalf, in which Metcalf defends the utility of negative reviews, even those that resort to invective and insult to make their points. I’ll let that debate simmer away over at Quill; what most interests me in the Beale/Metcalf interview comes later on, when Metcalf turns his attention to the Canadian canon and asks whether Canada can be said to have produced a world-class writer. In Metcalf’s view, this country has produced only one work worthy of being set alongside the best writing from England and the United States: Mordecai Richler’s St. Urbain’s Horseman. Beyond that single novel, Metcalf claims, anyone looking for important literary writing must look outside our home and native land:

Anybody with any literary sense whatsoever knows that a really important book of literary fiction comes maybe once every ten years, out of England or the United States and not here, because we don’t have an audience hard enough to exact one.

[ … ]

The Canadian critic’s duty is to be vitally aware of what is happening in England and what is happening in the United States and to compare Canadian output with the best from those two countries. Of course, when you do that, the result is painful. I mean, we’re not even on the same planet.

Metcalf’s detractors will put this down to simply more colonial bitterness from an inveterate curmudgeon and complainer, but this knee-jerk response gives his argument short shrift. One presumes that Metcalf is confining his attention to literature written in English, which is why he singles out Britain and the United States (and not, say, Latin America) as the twin hubs of significant literary output. Were Metcalf to look past Canadian literature written in English, he might be surprised at the wealth of talent coming out of Quebec, even that small percentage that has appeared in translation. (It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to make a case for Marie-Claire Blais’s stature as a world-class author.) And there is a sense that Metcalf is engaging in a bit of hyperbole to make his point: even he admits that Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are important Canadian writers.

Still, his basic contention is worth considering: if one were to build a literary canon of significant books from the past 50 years or so, how many works of Canadian literature would fit comfortably on it? I would suggest, for example, that Cat’s Eye and The Robber Bride – arguably Margaret Atwood’s two best novels – are important works in the annals of Canadian writing, but would their lustre not be the least bit diminished were they to be placed alongside the best of Philip Roth (Sabbath’s Theater, American Pastoral)? Or Don DeLillo (White Noise, Underworld)? Or Jeanette Winterson (The Passion, Written on the Body)? In such august company, would Atwood’s novels not come off looking just the slightest bit parochial and twee?

It’s been pointed out that in the chronology of world literatures, Canada’s is a relatively young one. We may indeed now be entering the period of literary development that the States found itself in at the mid-20th century. Still, by that point American literature had produced Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, not to mention Flannery O’Connor, Willa Cather, Nathanael West, James Baldwin, Katherine Anne Porter, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, and Carson McCullers. Where are the Canadian writers to compare with these canonical names? Where in Canada are we to find such technically audacious, philosophically inquisitive, or cosmopolitan writers as José Saramago, Julio Cortàzar, Vladimir Nabokov, A.S. Byatt, Iris Murdoch, Roberto Bolaño, Michel Houellebecq, Alasdair Gray?

In his essay “Confessions of a Book Columnist,” Philip Marchand wrote, “Not even the most fervent partisans of Canadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez.” Perhaps this partially explains the experience of a colleague of mine on a trip to France. Speaking about her work in the field of CanLit, she was questioned about important Canadian writers. Atwood’s name drew blank stares. The people she was speaking to had some vague notion of who Michael Ondaatje is, but that was about it. If being world class means being recognized abroad, this anecdotal experience suggests that we’re not doing terribly well.

Metcalf thinks this is because we don’t have a culture of tough criticism, and I for one would be hard pressed to disagree. The culture of boosterism and cheerleading to which we have consigned ourselves precludes us developing “an audience hard enough to exact” a literature that is able to compete with the best of what’s being produced internationally. Even Canadian writers feel this: ask anyone working in the trenches of CanLit about what’s exciting them in literature these days, and they’re more likely to name Joseph O’Neill than Anne Michaels. This is a shame. Where are Canada’s answers to Bolaño and Saramago, to Ali Smith and Haruki Murakami? They don’t exist – yet. But it is only by holding ourselves to the highest literary standards that we may hope to rectify this situation. We need to develop the “hard” audience that Metcalf advocates. We should not hesitate to judge Canadian writing against the best of what is being produced internationally, nor should we hesitate to point out those instances in which our writing comes up wanting.