Recapturing Past Glory

The recent revival of Anglo-Quebec fiction.

W riting in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis provides an important personalized historical account of the politics and institutions that have informed the production and dissemination of Montreal English-language fiction from the mid 1960s to the present. Linda Leith’s teleological history begins even earlier, though, with a brief account of the “glory days” or “golden age” of English Quebec fiction in the 1950s—when Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant emerged as internationally recognized authors. The story then moves into its telling of “the decline from the glorious past to the inglorious present” during the decades of the Quiet Revolution (1960s), the rise of the Parti Québécois (1970s) and subsequent referendums on sovereignty (1980 and 1995). It goes on to describe the energetic and entrepreneurial activities of Anglo-Quebec writers like herself to develop an institutional infrastructure that has enabled, in Leith’s opinion, an “Anglo Literary Revival,” the seeds of which “were sown with the creation of Blue Metropolis Foundation in 1997 and then of the Quebec Writers’ Federation in 1998.”

Leith tells the story with the same frank optimism and good-natured pluck that has characterized her work as a writer, scholar, teacher and literary organizer from the moment she returned to Montreal to teach at an English CEGEP (Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel) in 1975. Leith’s narrative of her personal experience in Quebec begins when her family moved to Pointe-Claire Village, about 15 kilometres west of downtown Montreal, in 1963. She was 13 years old and had already lived in Northern Ireland (where she was born), London and Basel. These early memories of her arrival in Quebec describe an encounter with a traditional French Canadian village—“there were nuns on the streets”—that would soon be radically transformed by the major political initiatives of Jean Lesage’s Liberal Party of Quebec. That transformation included the nationalization of Hydro-Québec (in 1963, under the guidance of then Liberal Hydraulic Resources minister René Lévesque), the establishment of a Quebec Pension Plan (1966) and the secularization of education, including the replacement of classical colleges with CEGEPs (1967). And this is how much of Leith’s narrative proceeds, alternating between personal (but never very personal) observations and more generic accounts of the political events and changes that were going on around her. It is a sound procedure, and readers will learn much about the social and political history of post-war Quebec by reading this book.

The real point, however, lies in how Leith makes connections between these personal and general political histories and the history of Anglo-Quebec literature. Montreal in the second regime of Maurice Duplessis (1944–59), a period since known as “la Grande noirceur” (the Great Darkness) for its corruption and for the repressive “authority of both the Catholic Church and Anglophone-controlled business,” is also the period that coincides with Leith’s above-mentioned “golden age” of English Quebec fiction. These “good old bad old days” were so nourishing to English-language writers, Leith suggests, not only because of the bohemian atmosphere that characterized Montreal at this time, but also because of the “often distant” relations between the French and English and the unproblematic self-identification of Montreal’s English-language writers “as Canadians.” With the death of Duplessis in 1959, the start of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec initiating change that “was overdue” and the subsequent articulation of new forms of Québécois and Canadian national identity came the impossibility for Anglo-Quebeckers of any simple mode of national self-definition. Here we are moving toward one primary thesis of Leith’s book, which states that the contending nationalist projects of Canada and Quebec arising in the 1960s and ’70s alienated, isolated and essentially exiled the English-language writers of Quebec: “The assertion of rival national identities called for clear boundaries, and writers working in English in Montreal were a complication that neither side was in any hurry to claim. We had become writers without a country.”

As we follow along, a series of pervading binaries—Quebec versus Canadian nationalism, Toronto versus Montreal as dominant centres of English Canadian and French Québécois literature, Michel Tremblay versus Margaret Atwood as representatives of two distinct national literary identities—come to inform the logic of Leith’s narrative. While these binaries certainly oversimplify the complexities that Leith is genuinely interested in discussing, it is clear how they help push forward her narrative about Blue Metropolis and the recent Anglo Literary Revival.

Leith poured herself into the work of developing the Blue Metropolis Festival in order to “promote the work of English-language writers” from Quebec in a manner “that would allow us to rub shoulders with international writers” and “to invent a new kind of literary festival for Montreal … that would cross the linguistic divide.” These two themes—international promotion and internal rapprochement—inform her understanding of what she has accomplished as a festival organizer and direct the connections she makes between national politics and local, organizational politics.

It is interesting to remember how these two concerns were addressed by English-language writers (mainly poets) in the early 1960s, at the very moment Leith first set foot in Quebec. Let’s take the example of promotion first. In what may well have been the last major English Quebec literary event before Leith’s proposed contending nationalisms model took hold, the Foster Poetry Conference (October 12–14, 1963), set in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, included all of the major English–language poets writing in Quebec at the time, including F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, John Glassco, Irving Layton, Louis Dudek, Ralph Gustafson, Leonard Cohen and D.G. Jones (to name fewer than half of the participants). Consisting of position papers, panel discussions and poetry readings, and funded by the Department of Cultural Affairs of the Province of Quebec, the conference ended with the adoption of three lengthy resolutions, which, in summary, called for provincial support for Quebec-based poetry endeavours and federal grants to support author tours, and for the CBC to provide “adequate opportunities for the presentation of Canadian poetry on its television facilities.”

One hears in these resolutions the desire of a community of writers who had been quite recently the central figures of Canadian literature (of poetic modernism in Canada, to be more accurate) seeking ways to promote themselves within Canada. While Leith does not really consider poetry in her book, and rather casually remarks that the history of Anglo-Quebec poets more or less “overlaps with that of the fiction writers” (an obviously contestable statement), the Foster conference poets’ ambition for national recognition becomes an impossible cul-de-sac according to Leith’s narrative of Anglo literary torpor and revival. Instead she finds that Anglo-Quebec writers have since been forced to make their “mark on the world map” in order to be heard at all: “English writers from Montreal have been enjoying a revival in this new millennium, and are today taken as seriously internationally, if not nationally, as they were in the post-war golden age.”

The details Leith provides as evidence of how this happened make for the most interesting reading from the perspective of institutional history, and the juiciest in the way of insider knowledge. This story of institutional infrastructure building begins with the establishment of the QSPELL (Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature) prizes in 1988. Especially interesting here is Leith’s account of how the Anglo-Quebec political advocacy group “Alliance Quebec played a significant role in the creation of QSPELL,” and how this affiliation affected the integrity of the society from its inception in the minds of many francophone Quebeckers due to AQ’s public challenges to parts of Bill 101. “The emergence of QSPELL, politically compromised though it was,” writes Leith, “did have the effect of raising the profile of Anglo writers.” But local prizes were not enough. A full-fledged writers’ organization devoted to the promotion and development of Anglo-Quebec writing was necessary, and this “supportive infrastructure” would eventually come into being in 1998 as the Quebec Writer’s Federation. Between QSPELL and the QWF, in the year following the 1995 referendum, which resulted in a vote of 49.42 for sovereignty and 50.58 against, Leith found herself inspired by an editorial Lise Bissonnette published in Le Devoir “about Anglophone artists and intellectuals engaging with Quebec.” She decided to embark upon an effort of collaboration between English- and French-language writers. Thus emerges her second major theme: rapprochement.

For a liberal humanist (neo-Arnoldian) Anglo-Quebecker like Louis Dudek back in the early 1960s, rapprochement meant imagining the potential of a bilingual national literature. As Dudek wrote in his article “The Two Traditions: Literature and the Ferment in Quebec” (1962): “Canadian literature, if we understand it, becomes the whole literature of France and the whole literature of England standing behind the literature of French Canada and the literature of English Canada. We must conceive of it in this large, dramatic frame, if we are to escape from provincialism and if we are to create a new complex civilization in the north. This, and nothing less, must be our aim.” More than just a conciliatory meeting between MacLennan’s two solitudes, Dudek’s vision reveals “a greater Canada that is literary in two languages” that will in turn lead “to an endless, unexhausted future of creative effort.” This is a complex literary conception of matters soon to be explored politically by the 1963 Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and made policy in the 1969 Official Languages Act.

As far as conceptions and examples of rapprochement go in Writing in the Time of Nationalism, Leith’s focus has little to do with Dudek’s idea of bilingual literary fusion. Rather, she provides a fascinatingly detailed chronicle of her attempts to convince members of Montreal’s francophone community that collaboration on multilingual events would be a worthwhile endeavour. Acting in 1996 as the Quebec representative on the national council of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Leith’s first effort was “to propose a historic event to UNEQ [Union des écrivaines et des écrivains québécois]: an event in French and in English that would be the first-ever collaboration between the two national writers’ unions.” The difficulties she and her collaborators encountered in pulling this event off included identifying the criteria for selecting participants (and avoiding those, like Mordecai Richler, who were “persona non grata among Francophones”), learning to write a budget in French and devising ways to avoid the word “bilingualism” (a term that “pressed all the wrong buttons in the political minefield of Quebec”) in describing the event for promotional purposes. This reading—advertised as “Write pour écrire”—did take place at the Lion D’Or (future site of the QWF awards) on October 31, 2006, with great success: “so many Francophones, so many Anglophones, various Allophones, all mingling with one another and amazed to find themselves in the same room.”

The concluding chapters describe in suspenseful detail the development of Blue Metropolis from its origin as an unrealized idea for a print magazine to a non-profit foundation, to a major international literary festival, including accounts of fundraising efforts, the continued scrapes with UNEQ, complex public relations negotiations about perceptions of the festival as a “federalist” “Anglo umbrella” and eventually of its formidable success as “the world’s first multilingual literary festival” that celebrates its homegrown writers (in many languages) alongside writers from across the globe.

Leith’s assertion that public gatherings like the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival have played a key role in creating a literary revival of English-language fiction in Quebec may suggest an outdated understanding of the national literary scene if one considers the growing use of digital modes of communication, the literary blog in particular, as a means of communicating local literary activities widely and bridging geographical distance across local writing scenes. Where small press budgets for expansive national author tours may not have changed much over the years, reviews and opinions, as well as audiovisual records of local events and readings, can now be shared with great ease, and in a format that invites interactive dialogue (in the form of posted “comments”), no matter where on the ground one is situated. It may be that the significance of the annual literary festival remains in tact, despite our new media, but it will be interesting to see whether Leith’s chosen methods of promotion will seem archaic to the literary impresario a decade hence.

Furthermore, with the focus so intently on the development of promotional avenues and venues for authors and publications, there is ultimately very little discussion of actual writing in Writing in the Time of Nationalism, and this is one of the book’s weaknesses. Leith does forward some preliminary observations about the importance of genre writing and “dystopian fiction in Montreal in the wake of the social upheavals” of the 1980s, and she makes similarly preliminary connections between the experimental, often interlingual feminist and lesbian writing emerging from Montreal in the 1990s and politically marginal or radical challenges to nationalist or hegemonic identities. But ultimately the book does not venture to describe to any extent what might define something called Anglo-Quebec fiction from a formal or aesthetic point of view.

Some of Leith’s thoughts on such matters can be found in an essay she published in Quebec Studies in 1989/1990 entitled “Quebec Fiction in English During the 1980s: a Case Study in Marginality”—a piece that seems to have been an early blueprint for her present book—but in Writing in the Time of Nationalism that sort of project is abandoned. This becomes most obvious in the closing “Revival” chapter of the book, where we find page-long lists of authors and the prizes they have won that add up to evidence of an Anglo Literary Revival, but very little in the way of qualitative characterization of these works. “There is no unity among these writers, nothing that could be considered a ‘school,’” she writes, using only the vaguest of categories, like “eccentricity” and “experimentation” as possible terms that identify texts on the list as having anything in common. In short, this is not a project of literary criticism or recovery, but rather a celebration of those who have received recognition due, in part, to Leith’s creation of the best “conditions” (dare one say, the “conditions gagnantes1) for the “eventual success” of Anglo-Quebec fiction.


  1. Conditions gagnantes”—“winning conditions”—was a phrase associated with former premier Lucien Bouchard’s governance of Quebec during the period following the 1995 referendum.