As Others See Us
Glimpses of Canada through other literary eyes
Canada is not a place that turns up regularly in the poetry, novels, plays or non-fiction memoirs of other cultures. Maybe that is because when foreign writers come here they tend to have immigration on their minds rather than tourism. Once they settle within our vast borders, we embrace them pretty quickly as Canadian authors, even if their palette is Mumbai rather than Montreal, Vienna rather than Vancouver.
But what about the writers who come just long enough to feel confident about slipping us into their pages? Or who never come but simply imagine Canada in their mind’s eye? What kind of portrait emerges when you look at our “few acres of snow” through outside lenses, as did Voltaire?
We asked some of our country’s own best writers (plus a couple of LRC insiders), based on their extensive and eclectic reading, to come up with examples of outsiders pronouncing on Canada or using aspects of it in their writing. One of them, we will admit—the American Edgar Z. Friedenberg—did move to Nova Scotia in the early 1970s and spent the rest of his life there, but to say he ever became a Canadian writer would be an implausible stretch.
Here are The Outsiders:
It is easy to forget that the narrator of A Prayer for Owen Meany—in many ways the most thematically American of John Irving’s novels—is living in Toronto as he tells his story about a boy with a wrecked voice.
An American emigrant teaching at Bishop Strachan School, John Wheelwright lives on Russell Hill Road within view of the clock tower of Upper Canada College. Although Toronto is manifestly not Gravesend, New Hampshire, where he was born, Wheelwright concedes that under certain conditions the two can resemble each other. “Toronto is sober, but not austere,” he observes, “Gravesend is austere, but also pretty; Toronto is not pretty, but in the snow, Toronto can look like Gravesend—both pretty and austere.”
It is clear that what is important about Toronto (for both Wheelwright and Irving) is that it is not in America. In the novel it is 1987 and the actions of the Reagan administration never cease to outrage and astound Wheelwright, whose tendency to let his views be known seems to discomfit Canadians. “But don’t you see how your … opinions can be disturbing?” a Canadian confides to him. “It’s very American—to have opinions … as strong as your opinions. It’s very Canadian to distrust strong opinions.”
— Steven Hayward
This playful and iconoclastic collection of poems views the Great White North by turns with rose-coloured glasses and through a jaundiced eye. Born to a British father and a Canadian mother, the Cheshire-raised Jen Hadfield is an ebullient linguist, writing with an idiosyncratic freshness about the Canadian landscape.
Hadfield’s poems seem to occupy a space somewhere between the Canadian and Shetland dialect. The essential oddness of the collection is, at the same time for a Canadian, somehow familiar. So much of Canadian culture is revitalized by its immigrants that the country and the land itself seem always being translated from culture to culture, eye to eye. Hadfield combines an uneasy strangeness with humour, resulting in poems that are unlike anything I have ever seen. Both incantatory and earthy, and written in a tense, compact language:
Alberta’s a miserable monochrome —
a bootcamp of little brown birds,
the grey, grey grass of home.
(from “Narnia No Moose”)
Or take this line, from “The Mandolin of May”: “With the white eye of a prophet, the salmon unravels but swims upriver.”
A wonderfully sui generis collection.
A strange novel—and I do mean peculiar—about those maniacal European arctic explorers. Jules Verne deeply researched the subject even if some of the elements in the novel are just plain silly. But he does capture the full lunacy of the polar quest.
Hatteras is read intensely around the world—everywhere except here. It confirms the High Arctic as the most exotic fictional place in the world. Southern Canadians cannot be bothered to go there. We say it is too expensive, too complicated—both untrue—to visit the real north where real Canadians—Inuit—live. We would rather spend our money milling about in vacated European palaces and on Floridian golf courses—a combination of colonial longing and emotional laziness.
If novels create myths, here is the great mythological portrait of our far north. And in its own way it is a great novel. As for Captain Hatteras—its certifiable hero—he is an early portrait of the 20th-century egomaniac individualist, out of control, surrounded by the deaths he brings about in the name of his personal dream. A combination of 007, Eva Peron, Napoleon and the Hitlerian Aryan superman, he is an imperialist nationalist, stoically indifferent to the fate of others, murderous, grail-driven. Only his dog truly loves him. Nietzsche’s man!
Verne offers us two great 20th-century truths. First, after the fulfillment of glory only madness and death can follow. Second, a hero is someone who fuses into one the obsession with race, with nation and with manhood. And this novel was written in 1865.
— John Ralston Saul
The novelist Howard Norman was born in Minnesota and lives in Washington DC, but most of his books are set in Canada’s Atlantic provinces. Norman may be an American, but he is a nonpareil observer of life on the eastern shores of our country. His best-known novel is The Bird Artist, set in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, in the early 1900s.
Fabian Vas is the bird artist. He is compelled by his “heart’s logic” to paint and draw petrels, kittiwakes, sandpipers, teals, mergansers and many other birds. But Vas is not only an artist. He is also a murderer, the man who killed Botho August, the lighthouse keeper and lover of his mother. Vas seeks redemption for his crime by painting a mural of Witless Bay and its birds in the village church. He paints “the lighthouse, sawmill, the peninsula houses, stilt houses, fishing shacks … the saw-whet owl careening between its trees.” He paints “plain village life” in a Newfoundland outport, a way of life that Howard Norman, a come-from-away, unexpectedly understands so well. In The Bird Artist, Norman captures and expresses the magical otherness of Newfoundland that is as powerful today as it was a hundred years ago.
— Philip Slayton
Could the Toronto of 1941 have been such a spiritual wasteland that an intelligent British woman would commit suicide rather than face the prospect of living there permanently? That is what Wyndham Lewis, the corrosively brilliant English writer and artist, seems to be implying in what many consider his best novel, a book loosely based on his own claustrophobic experiences in that Canadian city during World War Two.
Hunkered down in the Blundell Hotel in a heavily French-Canadian section of what Lewis calls Momaco, René Harding and his wife try to tough out the war, having left England after René’s perhaps ill-advised publication of a subtly pro-Nazi book, The Secret History of World War II. But Momaco is a violent and primitive place, where René gets physically attacked in bars because of his toffy English accent, where the affable hotel housekeeper gets murdered, where the hotel eventually burns down (through arson) and where Hester, the martyred wife, throws herself under a truck and decapitates herself.
There is a deeper subtext to all this, of course, namely the cynical portrait of an isolated and suffering artist, but the contempt for Toronto and Canada, “an outlandish culture-less world,” is bracingly front and centre.
— Bronwyn Drainie
In the 19th century, after the British Arctic expedition he commanded was obliterated in the Canadian Arctic, Sir John Franklin was cast as a gallant martyr to scientific discovery. For much of the subsequent century, revisionist historians portrayed him as “a cluck so dumb he could barely tie his own shoelaces,” as Margaret Atwood aptly put it. Sten Nadolny gives us another Franklin altogether, a man possessed of a rare gift of slowness.
In Nadolny’s novel, Franklin comes by it honestly. At age ten he was too slow to catch a ball. As a young naval officer serving with Nelson at Trafalgar, he killed a man by strangulation. He did not mean to. “I couldn’t stop squeezing,” explained Franklin, “I was too slow.” His first overland expedition across the Barrens of northern Canada was a disaster in slow motion. Needless to say, Franklin was comfortable with the pace. He survived to write a book about it, and although he might have struggled to tie them, he gained celebrity as “the man who ate his boots.”
When, on his most famous journey, with Her Majesty’s Ships Erebus and Terror trapped in ice, scurvy afoot (and lead poisoning, as it turned out), the crews looked to an ailing Franklin and, in his ponderousness, his persistence, derived strength. “He was slower than death,” writes Nadolny, “that could be their salvation.”
A German historian, writer and filmmaker, Nadolny has an unusual take on Franklin, one possibly truer to his nature—a man out of step with his time—than either of the clichés, the Victorian romanticism or contemporary revisionism. As Nadolny writes, “in the study of history, slowness is an advantage.”
— John Geiger
Edgar Z. Friedenberg
A latter-day Canadian de Tocqueville? Self-imposed American exile Edgar Z. Friedenberg arguably takes the honours. In Deference to Authority, he noted how well English Canada’s elites “have been gleefully outwitting the peasantry for the sake of order and good government” for centuries. Critics of Canadian docility are “tasteless.” Proponents of greater freedom are “Americanizers.” “Foreign” immigrants are future exemplars of a dull conformity.
Unconvinced of the prospects for reform, Friedenberg believed modernizers such as Pierre Trudeau soon succumbed to “a kind of Marcusian repressive tolerance.” More transformative was the business elite’s shift from protectionism to free trade, with its spread of American mores. He was appalled by the foreign domination of Canada’s corporate landscape, but saw American cultural influence as in many ways beneficial.
When his book first appeared, Friedenberg’s biting observations struck a chord. Thirty years later, after the arrival of the Charter and the rise of U.S.-style political partisanship, they no longer resonate with the same immediacy. But the ingrained deference he pinpointed may not be dead. Perhaps our view of government continues to resemble, as he put it, “the good, Victorian mother to whom it is impossible to attribute the sort of conduct that is necessary even to account for one’s own birth.”
— Mark Lovewell
Jill Ker Conway
In his conclusion to the Literary History of Canada, Northrop Frye said that the Canadian imagination was shaped by a “garrison mentality.” Was Jill Ker Conway acquainted with Frye’s concept when she wrote True North, the memoir dealing with her ten-year sojourn in Canada? She does not refer to it, but some of her observations echo Frye’s insight.
Conway joined the University of Toronto history department in 1964, while her husband became first master of York University’s Founders College. She remembers settling into Toronto as “entering the fortress culture.” British influence in this northern country was strong; anti-Americanism lingered. Conscious that women were outsiders in the academy, Conway does not comment on the position of other outsiders. Non-whites were not yet found on the faculty; Jews were few and far between. But Canada did seem less racist to her than her native Australia.
True North offered an answer to a question that occurred to me as I was preparing the history of York University: how did York gain its early reputation for radicalism? I now think its willingness to appoint quite a few Americans and Jews was responsible. Before the late 1960s, we infer from Conway, that was not (yet) the Canadian thing to do.
— Michiel Horn
John le Carré
In this haunting post–Cold War novel, John Le Carré won no kudos for authenticity when he shifted the action to a wind-swept, snow-bound university town in Saskatchewan with, as he described it, cobblestoned streets, an upscale neighbourhood where the Anglos “fume about the Yids, the Ukies and those darned Indians on welfare,” and an “immaculate medieval campus.” In Le Carré’s moral thrillers, however, accuracy of detail is less important than atmosphere, plot, character and theme. Here, his distraught hero, Justin Quayle, is on the run from shadowy pursuers while trying to complete his murdered wife’s investigation into a new wonder-drug, Dypraxa, which she believed had deadly side effects. Justin goes to Saskatchewan to interview a woman whose career has just been ruined after going public with her own fears about the same drug. At this point, it is clear that Le Carré’s choice of Canada as a locale is no accident, but a deliberate nod to the real-life case of Nancy Olivieri, the Toronto hematologist who in the mid 1990s fell afoul of a pharmaceutical company, Apotex, after publicizing her fears about the safety and efficacy of a drug she was testing at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. In fictionalizing Olivieri’s story, Le Carré remains true to life. And although he is careful, in his author’s note, to say, “There is no Dypraxa, never was, never will be,” he goes on to remark: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
— Paul Wilson
I am not sure that such an unabashedly light-hearted book about sex could be successfully published in these days of gender and sexology studies, on the one hand, and internet pornography-for-all, on the other, but it sure was a breath of fresh air when it hove into view for the first time in 1965. In Praise of Older Women had been too hot for Canadian publishers, so Vizinczey published it himself, and shortly thereafter moved to England.
I read the book soon after I arrived—Vizinczey and I were both born in Hungary and people were curious what I thought. There is a bit I could not agree with about Canadians being more interested in drinking, money and TV than in pursuing perky-breasted women, but I loved the self-deprecating, elegant, middle-European tone of the novel and I wished I had met young Andras Vajda, the perfect anti-hero, charming, vulnerable, oversexed. I loved his observations about virgins and the Couchiching conference—I made a note to go there next year, if only to see what goes on in the bushes. As for the apparent attractions of older women, how could anyone argue with the obvious?
In the postscript of my edition, Vizinczey writes: “there are very few truthful erotic novels. In literature, as in life, Eros is denied by desperate exaggerations—by pious tales. Dirty jokes and horror stories, born of dissatisfaction with the nature of our species.” Still true today, Stephen.
— Anna Porter