Arrival: The Story of CanLit
House of Anansi Press, 2017.
$22.95, 448 pages.
Although not every reader will have the same experience reading Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit, anyone with an interest in the “CanLit Boom” is sure to find it an enjoyable read. Such might be an odd claim to make about a book that is chock full of facts, dates, and statistics—and yet, under this author’s deft pen, numbers become page-turners. The book is certainly academic, as far as research and authority go, but it also indulges in pithy observation. Clearly addressed to a broad readership, it is mercifully devoid of jargon and as such is accessible to any curious reader.
In his Preface, Mount tells us he was encouraged by potential readers to offer his own assessments of the writing produced during the CanLit Boom—the period between about 1959 and 1974—but that he was hesitant to comply. I would like to thank those people for insisting and Mount for relenting; the mini-reviews he presents of selected books in sidebars are invariably entertaining and, in fact, constitute a sort of subplot that at times seems to challenge the main narrative. While I can agree with David Staines’s review in The Globe and Mail, which claims the sidebars are “not essential” to the narrative, I disagree with his contention that they “impede the progress” of the account. Rather, going from the main text to the sidebars offers readers a breather and, more importantly, invites debates—an offer I take up in this review. In fact, Mount expresses his wish to see an app that would allow readers to engage directly with the text; unfortunately, any author-reader polemic so far must remain private, unless one is fortunate enough to be asked to write a review. Nothing is more inspiring than an invitation to disagree, in particular when the big picture appears so solidly factual as to allow little room for debate. The lack of argumentation that an academic reader might expect from a text by a literary scholar is amply compensated for by Mount’s wit. It seems somehow appropriate that in a text on Canadian literature, revelations often hide in the margins.
The generous sprinkling of anecdotes, gleaned from interviews with the participants—writers, editors, critics, and patrons—or their writings or sayings, lends a sense of immediacy to the history. It is as if Mount were himself present on many of the occasions that shaped the CanLit scene, hanging out with the TISH poets in Vancouver or listening to Gwendolyn McEwen read her poetry at the Bohemian Embassy. Against the background of many well-known governmental initiatives to promote Canadian culture—including the Massey Report, the Canada Council, the National Library, and the National Film Board—we see the shaky beginnings of Canadian small presses and magazines, and watch the development of institutions that would become household names. Against the backdrop of the various political initiatives that resulted in the establishment of the cultural institutions we have come to take for granted, Mount foregrounds individual initiatives. Facts and figures are often presented in the shape of vignettes, in significant episodes and encounters whose consequences can only be gleaned in retrospect. Politics plays an important role in Mount’s narrative, but so does serendipity. Would this book ever have been published if Dave Godfrey and Dennis Lee had not met and, inspired by les Editions de l’Hexagone in Montreal, embarked on the Anansi adventure? More than anything, the portraits of the artists (complemented by photographs), as well as their publishers, editors, and patrons make this book come alive.
Mount boldly declares his objective in the opening sentences: he wants his narrative to bring together ingredients of the CanLit Boom that have so far been relegated to separate studies: writers’ biographies, the history of publishing, and the time itself. That is, indeed, an ambitious goal. Few will quarrel with historical facts, but those alone would have made for rather dry reading. Biography offers more leeway for tickling the reader’s interest, and Mount’s insights into the sometimes petty, sometimes heroic, and often consequential interventions of a large cast of characters, their rivalries and collaborations, and their individual foibles are as titillating as they are illuminating. But the reliance on the personal also raises questions: what is the difference between fact and hearsay, anecdote and gossip? What sources can be trusted? I enjoy reading about evenings in Stan’s Village Book Shop on Gerrard Street and the goings on in Rochdale College, perhaps because I know what became of these places. And it may be argued that the marital improprieties at Anansi or the Richler holiday retreat had consequences for the Canadian literary scene, but can the same be said for the physique or pedigree of Irving Layton’s first wife or the age of Mrs. Nowlan? Unfortunately, Mount rehearses the prejudices that characterized the era he describes.
In spite of such occasional reminders of the less attractive aspects of the period under scrutiny, Arrival proved a pleasurable walk down memory lane for someone who discovered CanLit at the tail end of the boom. I was one of many foreign students who benefitted personally from the political investment in national culture, arriving in Toronto in 1978 on a scholarship from the Canadian government, with a view to writing a dissertation on CanLit at my alma mater in Uppsala, Sweden. Those who dispensed this generosity probably did not count on the beneficiaries falling in love with Canada and staying put, as happened in a number of cases, including my own. But even before my first visit to Canada in the early ’70s, I was intrigued by its culture. Swedish television bought a lot of material from the NFB. Norman McLaren was a favourite; I was gobsmacked by a documentary about Gilles Vigneault, and I will never forget Carol Kane’s eyes in Wedding in White. My first encounter with Canadian academe, on the other hand, was a bit of a letdown: when I asked about courses on Canadian literature at the U of T English department, the graduate advisor took his pipe out of his mouth just long enough to say, in an impeccably British accent, “We don’t really do that sort of thing.” I did not know, until I read Arrival, that the head of the department at the time, Milton Wilson, was a champion of Canadian literature, nor that only a year earlier Ontario had been the first province to require the study of Canadian literature in school, and then only because of the efforts of one teacher, Jim Foley of Port Colborne High. It is much to Mount’s credit that he lifts names like these out of obscurity. The fact that the French department at U of T offered a choice of Québécois courses no doubt had something to do with the fact that the study of the nation’s (not the country’s) literature was made compulsory with the establishment of the CEGEP system in 1967.
Not long after my arrival in Toronto, Northrop Frye returned from a lecture tour in Italy. His subject was Blake, but to his amazement the Italian students insisted on asking questions about Canadian literature. Frye’s influence on CanLit may have been exaggerated, as Mount suggests, but his impact on Canadian scholarship is difficult to minimize. His thematic study of Canadian Literature, The Bush Garden, spawned many attempts to define Canada’s literary ethos under one pithy rubric. Mount himself follows in the Frygian footsteps of such books as Margaret Atwood’s Survival, which he considers “still the most ambitious book ever written on Canadian literature,” a judgment I would advise the several critics who have made valuable—and hardly unambitious—contributions to Canadian criticism to disregard. It may be because Mount engages less with critics than with the other players in the CanLit story that he privileges Atwood’s study over more scholarly comparative studies such as D.G. Jones’s Butterfly on Rock or Ronald Sutherland’s Second Image, both of which preceded Survival. Jones and Sutherland were the founding fathers of the Comparative Canadian Literature program at the University of Sherbrooke, whose importance Mount acknowledges (though Jones’s bilingual Ellipse: Writers in Translation is absent from his inventory of literary magazines). It may be argued that nothing much has happened since, but in terms of ambition Survival can hardly compete with E.D. Blodgett’s Five Part Invention.
In his first book, When Canadian Literature Moved to New York—equally enjoyable, though more academic—Mount claims that Canadian literature came into its own in New York at the end of the 19th century. In order for something to move, it has to exist already, but Canada’s is not the only national literary tradition to come of age by going abroad. “Arrival” signifies the end of movement, and Canadian literature arrived at “CanLit.” Mount’s metaphor seems to answer Northrop Frye’s famous query “Where is here?” and vindicates the often touted contention that English Canada’s literature is obsessed with geography (while French Canadian literature, as expressed in Quebec’s official motto “je me souviens,” presumably is stuck on history). The term also echoes “survival,” and one can think of Mount’s book as a response to Atwood’s book, carving a positive story from the frequent Canadian motif of being lost in the wilderness, the snow, the city, or, indeed, the world. If survival indicates struggle, arrival evokes the comforts of home.
The metaphor of arrival also adumbrates the interest in migrant writing that succeeded the boom period; the narrative of CanLit that came to dominate critical discourse in the beginning of the 21st century often claims that the typical Canadian story is about arriving in a new country. Mount chooses to begin his study with just such a story. Harold “Sonny” Ladoo arrives in Toronto from Trinidad in 1968. As Mount acknowledges, Ladoo is far from what comes to mind when one thinks of the boom, but as an opening hook his story fits a more contemporary image of Canada. It is surprising, nevertheless, that none of the early arrivals that had a greater impact on the Canadian canon are highlighted; Austin Clarke’s first collection of short stories, for instance, was published by Anansi in 1971. Mount may want to include those he feels have been unfairly left out, even if that to some extent contradicts his stated intention about truthfully reflecting “the time itself.” And he does not extend that courtesy to those who never “arrived” but were already here, those who remained invisible until recently. In this exclusion, Mount is faithful to history; with the exception of Maria Campbell, whose Halfbreed was published in 1973 and appears in one of Mount’s sidebar reviews (gaining three stars), Indigenous writers were rarely invited to the party.
The mini-reviews come with a rating from one to five stars. Their purpose, Mount says, is to assess “the most popular, acclaimed, or otherwise remarkable books from the period.” What is “otherwise remarkable” is, of course, subjective, and in the dialogue between the centre and the margin, Mount the literary historian encounters Nick the opinionated reader. The encounter implicitly revolves around a question of definition that has vexed Canadian criticism since its inception. What does the word “Canadian” actually encompass when one speaks about culture? His target readership is Anglophone and Mount, like many of his precursors based in English departments, reads French Canadian texts in translation—which is certainly better than not reading such texts at all. The problem arises when this limitation leads to the rather vacuous claim that “the literary cultures of English and French Canada are not as different, or as separate, as we like to think.” It is a conclusion that begs its question. Translations need to find a receptive audience; texts that find their way into another language tend to be those considered to fit with what is already there, hence hardly the most challenging or, for that matter, the most representative. As long as translations are the source of critical analysis, content rather than form will be its focus. The Frygian legacy lives on in the “we” who believe in the difference between the two literatures until we read a couple of the other’s books in our own language and discover what Frye once defined as “a common national mystique.” “CanLit” is an English concept with no equivalent in French. To French Canadian critics, “national” tends to means Québécois (as in L’Assemblée nationale). To their English Canadian counterparts, it seems de rigueur to include the other even if stripped of exactly that which makes it other. It is no surprise, then, that francophone poetry is invisible in the CanLit Boom—and hence in Mount’s account of it—at precisely the time when such poets led the way in Quebec’s own literary ascension.
Quebec is always present in the historical and political background that Mount sketches, and he acknowledges its role in Canada’s cultural self-scrutiny, but its literature is relegated to one chapter. Rather than openly defining the “boom” as an English phenomenon into which a few translations found their way, Mount turns French Canada into a kind of supplement (as in, “my Canada includes Quebec”) to English Canada. Michel Tremblay may be an excellent example of a writer who crossed more than one language barrier, but how many CanLit curricula ever contained the name of Réjean Ducharme, a writer whose genius is impossible to fully appreciate in translation? Gaston Miron appears in Mount’s narrative as the recipient of one of the first Canada Council grants and as the founder of les Éditions de l’Hexagone, yet talking about Québécois literature without mentioning L’homme rapaillé, published in 1970, is rather like talking about English Canadian poetry without mentioning Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies. It can only be done because Miron’s groundbreaking poetry was not available in translation until the late 80s (and then published by an American university press). Mount does point out that “Trudeau made Canada bilingual politically but not culturally, where it matters,” but seems unaware of how this affects his own project, or how the emphasis on personal narratives can skew the perspective. So, for instance, the October Crisis becomes the reason for June Callwood’s disillusionment with her country and the Bowerings leaving Montreal, rather than a fulcrum for the cultural separatism that fuelled Quebec’s own boom.
I cannot, of course, resist Mount’s invitation to the battle of the books that he implicitly launches in the margins. Some of his selections for inclusion are happy surprises. I agree that The Journals of Susanna Moodie is Margaret Atwood’s masterpiece, but was even more pleased to find Graeme Gibson’s Five Legs awarded three stars. Gibson’s novel can hardly be said to play a big role in the boom, unlike its author—a tireless promoter of Canadian writers in his roles as editor and interviewer. But it was, by pure accident, among the first Canadian novels I ever read (at least since Anne of Green Gables). As part of the Canadian government’s effort to promote CanLit, my Swedish university library received a gift of books in the mid-seventies. The two that I got my hands on first, simply because they happened to lie on top of the pile waiting to be catalogued, were Five Legs and Helen Weinzweig’s Passing Ceremony. Perhaps because I was a fan of French modernism (Gibson’s book, Mount claims, made the Canadian sixties catch up with international fiction of the thirties), I decided that Canada was a happening place. Imagine my surprise on arriving in Toronto and being met with blank stares at my enthusiasm about those two.
Having developed an early interest in postcolonial theory after a year in Quebec in the early seventies, I was almost equally intrigued by Dave Godfrey’s The New Ancestors (although I never shared its author’s unbridled admiration for the work). I disagree with Mount’s one-star rating (for being published at all) and am comforted to learn further on in his sidebar review that Margaret Laurence agreed with me. And I wonder if the inclusion of Alistair MacLeod is a kind of retroactive wish fulfilment; although MacLeod belongs to the boom generation and his first story was published to great acclaim in the late ’60s, his first collection, The Lost Salt Gift of Blood, did not appear until 1976. But while some of Mount’s choices for inclusion are idiosyncratic, at least one of his exclusions is simply odd. If I were asked to pick one title that best represents the national self-scrutiny at the heart of the boom—one that certainly meets the criterion of being among the “most acclaimed” books of the time—it would be Timothy Findley’s The Wars, which Mount does not mention. Instead he includes, only to dismiss, The Last of the Crazy People—Findley’s first novel and his least “Canadian” one.
Although Mount’s sidebars seem to corroborate the notion that CanLit has been hospitable to women, a closer look reveals a boom dominated by a few women who wrote many of the books worthy of mention, while each of the men wrote fewer. It is tempting to turn Mount’s margins into statistics: 63% of his reviewed books were authored by 14 women, who represent less than a third of the number of authors appearing in the margins. Only 1% of those included wrote in French, but they produced 12% of the books, half of which were written by Marie-Claire Blais; in fact only six Francophone writers appear in the margins. Mount also uses book titles as subtitles for his chapters, the selection of which is not always clear, and here hides a story that is probably not the one intended: five of 18 writers whose titles appear as chapter headings are women (Atwood appears twice).
Published for the controversial sesquicentennial of a country of many nations, Arrival provides rich soil for further investigations into the relationships between centre and periphery, official history and individual experience, country and nation. Mount ends with a brief look at the current state of affairs that consolidates the emphasis on place. Both readers and writers have become more cosmopolitan, which for the latter seems to mean a kind of global regionalism. CanLit is now firmly established and its proponents are free to return home or go abroad as they please. At the same time, the teaching of Canadian literature has retreated from both school and university curricula. What Mount fails to mention, however, is that while the torrent that resulted from the opening of the nationalist floodgates has been reduced to a reliable stream; other gates have been opened, and those who have always been here are at long last occupying the many places that were theirs before the settlers. Let us hope that somebody will be around to write that story in 50 years.
Sylvia Söderlind received her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto. She taught in the English department at Queen's University until retiring to her native Sweden four years ago.