A WRITER or a Canadian writer? That is a question that no one writing in Canada can entirely avoid, however much he may like to. It returns to trouble his singleness of intent and to deflect him, at least at moments, from the solitary task of finding his subject matter and refining it and learning how to express it.
Perhaps the case might be different if the country’s character had been so fixed and identified as to become a reference point which a writer might disregard or take for granted if he cared to; or if there had been writers in Canada in the past who had triumphed so signally as to win wide respect abroad and establish the value of what they wrote in the estimation of their countrymen. But neither condition has been met. There is no reason to be apologetic about what has been achieved: I would claim, for example, that there is at least as much good poetry being published in Canada today as in either England or America; and a country which has such good poets to boast of as Earle Birney, Anne Hébert, Irving Layton, and James Reaney — and at least half a dozen others — has no reason to be ashamed. Among our prose writers of a rather earlier day, it is also true that authors as diverse as Stephen Leacock and Mazo de la Roche have won wide popularity abroad. Yet the fact remains that no Canadian writer of high imagination has ever gained a large international reputation. And that deprives Canadian writers of the assurance of belonging to a mystery with acknowledged masters.
They also are subject to the uncertainties that arise from living in a national community with indeterminate features. No one can tell yet what mask to carve for Canada, which type to choose — a pulp savage or a bank teller, a civil servant or a broke hustler or a signalman helping to keep the peace in Cyprus or the Gaza Strip-whether the face should be serene and adventurous, or withdrawn and introspective. No one can tell for certain yet whether Canada is one nation or two. The country reveals itself only slowly even to those who love it most, and much of its character still remains ambiguous. As a result, the writer in Canada is bound to be lured sometimes from the solitude of his own creation into other solitudes, either peopled or unpeopled, that he perceives in the national environment about him.
It could hardly be otherwise. He sinks into the depth of his own quiet in order to catch the images and actions that seem most native to him, closest to him, that seem to sum up most completely his own experience and his own vision-of man, it may be, or of man in society, or of the hero, or of lost perfection. But except in the case of the purest lyrics, the process of interrogating the subject is unlikely to go very far without raising the question of the importance of Canada in the background. The question is obvious and immediate with any fiction whose implications and involvements are largely social. And it is almost as unavoidable with works that are more mythic, or abstract, or poetic. For the more the subject is pondered, the more the writer must ask himself how much his view of it has been influenced by his experience of a particular time and place, by his experience, that is, as a Canadian, and how far his success in shaping and presenting it will depend on his drawing explicitly on that resource. The writer may see his theme in almost purely lyric or universal terms; he may be more irked and fretted than anything else by the subtle distinctions of national life and national feeling; but at some stage in the effort to come to grips with his subject matter he must reckon with them, since the way his theme presents and announces itself to him will always have been differenced by them. So the setting is inescapable. The writer in Canada must meditate on it and wonder about it sometimes, trying to get at its heart, even when it figures little in what he is trying to say.
IN THE farthest distance-and not so far as all that, either-is the wilderness, “up to the foot of the blue pole star. . . .” That is one silence, a silence of rigor, of the boreal forest, of tundra, of permafrost, which has influenced much of our earlier poetry and fiction and which, through such works as Maria Chapdelaine and the stories of Charles G. D. Roberts and the poetry of Robert Service, has given many readers in other countries their principal impression of Canadian literature and even of Canadian life. But what can be won from the wilderness nowadays? Perhaps little but resolution, because it remains remote, untamed, inhuman, inarticulate, something with a sympathy and resonance of its own, but in the end a resonance of silence, a tympanum of ice crystals, something before writing, before history, where a rifle crack rings back immemorially. Yet that is where our history starts. And with our history we are launched on a chasm of other silences and solitudes. The silence of the explorers. Or the solitude of the two races, French and English, which one of our best novelists, Hugh MacLennan, has examined so perceptively.
Occasionally in retracing the course of Canadian history the writer will have the sense of having come upon an image or a face that can help to orient him and make him know himself better. One such for me has always been LaSalle’s. His appeal lies not so much in the magnitude of his endeavors, although there will always be something almost stupefying about those voyages that tore the heart out of a continent; or in the extremity of what he endured and the savagery of his death; or in the strange intermingling in his life of considerations of commerce and policy and sheer adventure. What returns an echo is, rather, the mystery about his motives and the fact that he himself admitted the mystery, acknowledging that he did not know what it was — it might have been weakness —that had driven him into the wilderness and made him so avid, avid almost to the point of madness, for something that could not be specified.
Here is consanguinity, an image of intimacy and value. But LaSalle was as alien and suspect to much of the Canadian society of his day as he would be now. And so the image is drowned in sobriety and respectability. We pass on to an age of merchants, and of good farmers, and good crops, and good husbands and fathers. But perhaps there is something that can be plucked and rescued from the encompassing dimness. An image, a conjoined image of bourgeois and voyageur: the Nor’wester who in youth travels the canoe routes westward and lives on Lake Athabasca or Great Slave Lake as a wintering partner, and who only when he is middle-aged returns to settle permanently in Montreal and to build himself a big house on the side of the mountain where he can look out and see the “River of Canada” flowing by and remember when he was young and lived hard and was ready for anything that might come at the next portage or the next turn of the river. Bourgeois and voyageur: it is a phrase that can be coaxed into summing up much in Canadian history, making long stretches of it seem more evocative and attractive than they would be otherwise; and sometimes the two qualities can be miraculously combined in the one person. So it must have been with many of the fur traders. And even with Louis Riel, that baffling, rebellious spirit, of whom it is related that when he would receive official visitors at Fort Garry as the leader of the provisional government of the Northwest in 1869, he would be wearing leather moccasins and a frock coat. It will be a long time before either of those trappings will have altogether ceased to indicate something about the Canadian scene and the Canadian consciousness.
The frock coat suggests how buttoned-up and reserved and respectable — yes, and how stuffy—Canadian life can often be. And Canadian writing often suffers from the same faint whiff of mothballs. And sometimes it can be depressingly official and academic. Duncan Campbell Scott was a fine poet of an older generation, one of our best, with a sensitive lyric and romantic gift, but on the occasion of a royal visit in the thirties, he consented (what else could he do? he was a civil servant after all) to write a ceremonial ode. The great moment came: the company in the Prime Minister’s study in Laurier House in Ottawa had been hushed, the royal personages were dutifully receptive, the spaniel was silent, the poet was asked to begin. But he had not read more than a stanza in appropriately scholarly tones when Mackenzie King, with the parliamentarian’s itch for oratorical effect, could stand it no longer, snatched the paper from the hands of the helpless bard, took out his pince-nez, and boomed on to the end in his best House of Commons voice embellished with gestures. Encounters between the arts and officialdom can be ludicrous enough anywhere. But nowhere else have they been more ludicrous than in Canada. It is little wonder that the writers here who have taken a stand against what is official and academic in Canadian life have sometimes done so a little stridently. For example, it sometimes seems to me that Irving Layton’s great power of imagination and purity of phrase are marred in some poems by a savagery that verges on the histrionic. And it can be objected that his strictures on the academic temper are perhaps overdrawn: “The poet roams,” he writes,
the professor ruminates. The one experiences; the other expatiates. The one is a vulgarian; the other must permit his training and associations to turn him into a gentleman.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. But however that may be, it is good to know that there are still some in Canada who want to roam, whose hearts are still savage and unappeasable, that there are still moccasins showing somewhere in the national life beneath the enveloping frock coat.
These are some of the images that may come to a writer in Canada as he thinks of his own country. A wilderness. (But what can be made of that nowadays?) Or the face of a voyageur, a coureur de bois. (But what place can there be for him in wastes of respectability and matriarchal good taste and good manners?) Or an image — is it a real possibility, or something as mythical as a hippogriff? — of bourgeois and voyageur joined. Someone sitting at last in authority in moccasins and a frock coat.
I soliloquize, of course. The images I mention are ones that come to me whenever I try to think of Canada in terms that go beyond the public realm of statistics, whenever I try to think of it in ways adapted to catch its quality and quiddity. Others will have their own ways of seeing it. But instead of trying to follow them up, it might be better to speak less allusively.
THE writer in Canada finds himself in a large country with a small population. Nowadays his voice can be magnified for him by the efforts of a handful of energetic and enterprising Canadian publishers, by assistance of various kinds from the Canada Council (which was established and endowed by the Canadian government in 1957 “for the encouragement of the arts, humanities, and social sciences”), and by programs of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which may make his work better known. But it remains true that the native audience he can hope to reach will be small at best, and scattered and regionally divided.
Some of the silences and the solitudes begin right there. The regions into which Canada is divided — the Atlantic provinces, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies, British Columbia — are sharply separated and different in character. Difficulties of communication are further compounded by the divide which separates English and French. Ideally, this is a circumstance which should be a source of strength to writers in both languages: it should be an advantage to both French and English writers to be free to sharpen their intelligence and whet their imagination by contact with the genius of two languages and two cultures. And occasionally (when reading, for example, Frank Scott’s translations of Saint-Denys-Garneau and Anne Hébert) one has the feeling that the division could be made to yield such effects in practice. But more usually, any such fruitful possibility has been frustrated by the monolingual lethargy of English-speaking writers, and perhaps also by some sense of cultural superiority on the part of their French-speaking compatriots. In any case, the division of Canada between French and English has meant inevitably that there is a smaller audience than there would otherwise be for the works of writers in either tongue.
A small, scattered, and divided population has meant a small reading public. And a small reading public has meant that it is difficult to the point of impossibility for any writer in Canada to make a living by writing alone. What, then, are the practical possibilities that are open to him? Three, it would seem: to become a teacher in a school or university, to write scripts for radio or television, or to move abroad. Leonard Cohen lives in the Greek Islands and returns to Montreal only when he feels the need, as he puts it, “of renewing his neurotic affiliations.” Mordecai Richler lives in London but continues in his novels to write about the Canadian scene; Brian Moore, after sampling Canadian life for a decade, has moved on to New York.
But my theme is the problems of the writer in Canada. Increasingly, universities have shown themselves hospitable to those who remain; and it does not seem to me that their hospitality has been abused. Nor can I believe that the risks for the writer are so great as Irving Layton would maintain. Teaching may not be a perfect solution. But what is? It has been a benefit both to the universities and to writers; and I doubt whether it contains any greater risks for the writer’s trenchancy of vision than does the alternative solution of making a living by writing for radio and television.
Deeper than these practical problems are the problems of attitude that arise from the national environment. However much the writer in Canada is engrossed in that environment, he cannot be entirely oblivious to the fact that, with luck, he might command a larger audience abroad than he could ever expect at home. This is a kind of siren music that flickers almost constantly around the margins of his consciousness, the possibility of winning a larger public, particularly in the United States and Britain; and it is difficult for him to know how to deal with it skillfully. It can betray him into falsification of his own experience. But it also can spur him on to relish the keenest competition and to take the stiffest fences, and so to outsoar parochial limitations. In that case, though — and it is only one aspect of the problem — he will be confronted by difficult decisions about idiom. Although the English spoken by Canadians is, of course, essentially the same as the language spoken by Americans and Englishmen, it has its own peculiarities not only of accent and intonation but of diction and phrasing as well. One question for the writer in Canada is how far these should be smoothed out in the interests of gaining a wider reception and a wider audience.
Another problem that arises largely from the national environment is uncertainty about how deep to make the incision. When Alden Nowlan writes
Don’t get written,
Because I’m still scared
he is touching on the problem I have in mind. Always and in all countries the writer has felt some secret horror about telling the terrible truth. But there have been societies, or at least moments in some societies, when the writer has been encouraged to cut through appearances and tell what he sees, however bestial or frightening or terrible it may be. Canada is not such a society and never has been. Its sky is rigorous, and its climate. But there is something in the social atmosphere that has operated to blur sharp edges and to restrain the hand of the artist who might try to reproduce them faithfully. Canada is no more immune than any other country to the miseries and flaws of humankind — which are inseparable from its glories. But this chiaroscuro has long been muffled in the folds of a conformity which has been insidiously but relentlessly propagated by the leaders of a society, small, unsure of itself, and not far from the comparative simplicities of pioneer agricultural life. Whatever the reasons for it may have been — whether they are to be found in the abruptness of the transition from a rural to an urban society or in the remaining traces of a colonial mentality — this element in the atmosphere has inevitably made it harder for the writer to tell the truth. He has been inhibited by the social disapproval he has sensed about him for any design that would transgress the bounds of a very restricted view of human nature and human possibilities. Now these clouds may be lifting a little. As they do, there are new opportunities for the writer.
In working out his design, though, he will find that there is little or no imaginative tradition to guide him. That can provide exhilaration for the writer, but it can also provide difficulties. What mode should his subject matter be cast in? What tone should it have? What should be its structure? If these questions and others like them have to be answered without any assistance from tradition, the writer may be too intellectually preoccupied to be able to draw as fully as he should on his own deeper resources in the process of composition, or to have energy to spare for the deft disposition of details on the surface. I myself have written about Canada as “A Country Without a Mythology”; and much of its landscape still remains superbly intractable. But that is true of Canadian life generally. The task of interpreting it imaginatively has hardly begun.
So MUCH for some of the difficulties. Now let us return for another look at the country itself. A large country with a small population. A country with great distances and divisions and taciturnities. A country which has already achieved great things in peace and war, even if it has not yet found full expression, even if it has not yet fully found itself. A great country for all its difficulties and inhibitions. A great country, even if its most distinctive qualities have never been fully realized and made apparent. Often they seem to have been cast into the shade by the overwhelming presence of the United States across the border and by its almost overwhelming influence on Canadian life; but there are moments when they ring out as unmistakably as the five clear notes of a whitethroat singing from a spruce tree.
I am conscious of the tang of something distinctively Canadian whenever I return to Ottawa, with its booms of logs immediately beneath the Parliament buildings and its obvious mingling of French and English, with lumberjacks lounging in the station and, beyond the river, the low pinecovered granite hills of the Laurentian Shield rising and rolling into the distance; or whenever I walk through the halls of some Canadian universities; or whenever I remember — as I will till I die — the style and heart and grim, high-spirited humor of Canadian soldiers in action. But often, of course, in Canadian life there is nothing distinctively Canadian to be noticed at all. There is little that is native and characteristic about its airports or its laboratories or its expressways or its department stores or its automobile plants or its oil refineries or, indeed, about most of its factories and much of its cities. For the fact is that Canada is now a highly industrialized urban society, closely meshed into the rest of the world by trade and science and increasingly rapid communications, and borne along by rapidly accelerating change.
There are some things in Canadian life that are native and special to it. But there are other things that would not be very different in Cleveland or Denver or Milan or São Paulo; and the areas of similarity are increasing. That is one reason why I have the instinct that a new strategy may come to commend itself more and more to Canadian writers. No matter what strategy he may be employing for the moment, any Canadian writer will have to wrestle with the national environment in which he lives in order to extract its secrets, so far as he can, and to know what influence it has had on him. And some writers in Canada will always want to take what is special to the Canadian scene and make it central in their work. But I suspect that other writers will be attracted by a quite different possibility. Instead of trying to refine the singularity of being Canadian, they may want to dive so deeply that what they have to say can be expressed in terms of what happens in an anonymous setting to an anonymous, or virtually anonymous, hero.
If the risks of such an undertaking are obvious, so are the advantages: it can produce a result of almost universal luminosity which can be understood anywhere. A strategy of this kind may also commend itself to some writers because of seeming to be congruent with contemporary critical views of myth and symbol. But however that may be, it would seem to be a strategy with some adventitious attractions for writers working in a country that is in one sense or another peripheral, whether the country be Argentina or Switzerland or Canada.
To make clearer the kind of opportunity that I am thinking of for Canadian writers, I might offer one final image. It is the passport office in Ottawa, where all Canadian passports are issued. It is a nondescript office rented by the Department of External Affairs from the owners of a nondescript office building in the business district of Ottawa. But it has an importance which goes far beyond what might be suggested by its air of undistinguished bureaucratic routine. For a Canadian passport, whether genuine or forged, whether obtained honestly or fraudulently, is a very precious commodity in the eyes of many of those operating international rackets or foreign intelligence systems. When Robert Soblen jumped bail in 1961 after being convicted in New York of espionage for the Soviet Union and flew to Israel, he was carrying a Canadian passport. So was Colonel Rudolph Abel, the Soviet spy master who was exchanged for Francis Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot. So was Conon Molody, the Soviet agent who stole the plans of Britain’s atomic submarine under the alias of Gordon Lonsdale.
Nor is it very difficult to understand why a Canadian passport should be so popular. Part of the explanation is that with it one can travel easily almost anywhere. Another reason for the popularity of the little blue booklet stamped in gold is that one can speak English or French or Ukrainian or Polish or Chinese and still be a Canadian. One can, in fact, be almost anyone and still be a Canadian; and to be a Canadian is to have a passport to the whole world. It is those facts which make the image of the passport office seem so important to me, make it in some moods seem even more important than the image of bourgeois and voyageur. There will always be a place for books that are redolent of a particular region or of a particular aspect of Canadian life and experience. But there will also be a place, and an increasing place I suspect, for writing which is more stripped and bare and absolute, for writing marked by little or nothing on the surface to distinguish it as Canadian and which will ultimately reveal its origin by imparting a spirit that is both adventurous and responsible and by being able to pass everywhere as true.
Or so, at least, I am inclined to think for the time being. But since I am a Canadian, it may be that by next year or next month or next week I may be thinking differently and may be tempted again to wrestle with the implacable angel of this marvelous, voiceless country.