- Paul Comeau (Author)
Margaret Laurence's Epic Imagination. University of Alberta Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Nora Foster Stovel
Margaret Laurence’s Epic Imagination by Paul Comeau is the latest in a number of books that have appeared on Margaret Laurence in the last several years, and it forms a valuable addition. Comeau’s monograph has all the ear-marks of a thesis, and a very good one at that. As such, it has both the advantages and disadvantages of the genre: on the one hand, it is very coherent and closely focused on the epic tradition; on the other hand, it is rather repetitive and restrictive.
Comeau states his thesis clearly at the outset: “I believe that the Manawaka books, from The Stone Angel to The Diviners, comprise a coherent artistic vision, a Commedia dell’ Anima of epic depth and proportion.” He proceeds to argue this thesis cogently throughout seven chapters. Comeau compares Laurence’s oeuvre to Dante’s Divine Comedy, although he does not claim that Laurence had read Dante’s work: rather, he argues, “she instinctively invoked as the defining pattern of the Manawaka cycle the tripartite structure of Dante’s spiritual pilgrimage.” His comparisons of Laurence’s texts to Dante’s are frequently insightful and occasionally ingenious. He argues, “Like Dante, Laurence takes the reader on an imaginary odyssey, through an infernal state of self-destructive pride, out of a purgatorial condition of self-doubt, and on to a kind of paradisal fulfilment in self-knowledge.” He explains, “I have therefore interpreted the Manawaka novels as a ‘Comedy of the Soul,’ elaborating on The Stone Angel as a vision of hell, A Jest of God and The Fire-Dwellers together as a perspective on purgatory, and The Diviners as an attempt to mitigate the burden of paradise lost, thus forging whatever redemption may be possible in a postmodern world.”
Comeau has chosen to combine Laurence’s two Cameron sister novels in one chapter (“A Jest of God and The Fire Dwellers: Purgatorial Progress”), as Coral Ann Howells and Nora Foster Stovel had done previously. More unusual, he has combined Laurence’s collection of Canadian short stories, A Bird in the House (1970) with her earlier children’s book, Jason’s Quest (1960). The reason for this may be the fact that the collection of short stories does not fit the epic thesis of the study very well, whereas the children’s book does, albeit in a parodic manner. Apart from that, the two texts do not go together nearly as well as do the sister novels. Comeau gets around this difficulty by combining the epic tradition with Bakhtin’s theory of dialogism in his discussion of A Bird in the House. Nevertheless, this may be the weakest chapter of the study, as the discussion of the stories tends toward summary, until the final story, “Jericho’s Brick Battlements.”
The strongest chapters are on The Stone Angel, a version of which was published previously in journal form, and The Diviners. This is not surprising, since not only are these arguably the greatest of Laurence’s Manawaka books, but they are also the best suited to Comeau’s thesis.
The monograph includes Laurence’s major works of fiction, but other relevant works, such as her memoir, are not addressed. Comeau emphasizes Laurence’s debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, but does not mention the fact that this epic poem plays a major role in Laurence’s unfinished novel, Dance on the Earth.
If Dante Alighieri, John Milton and Northrop Frye are Comeau’s gods, to employ his own frame of reference, then his devils may be feminist critics with whom he takes issue, such as Evelyn Hinz and Keith Louise Fulton, whose interpretations conflict with his epic thesis.
On the whole, the study is well researched, well argued, and well, even eloquently, written. It contains informative endnotes and a reasonably complete bibliography. The book has been well produced by the University of Alberta Press on good-quality paper, making it enjoyable to read.
Interestingly, Comeau explains that Laurence’s Manawaka cycle spoke to his own Métis heritage: “Laurence’s creation of a Canadian epic served to locate my fragmented awareness of personal ancestry within a more comprehensive framework of cultural achievement and identity.” Clearly, Laurence’s creation of a Canadian epic has inspired Comeau to compose an illuminating study that provides compelling reading for any student, scholar, or admirer of Laurence’s writing.
- Souvenirs et découvertes by Jeanette den Toonder
Books reviewed: Les secrets de la Sphinxe: Lectures de l'?uvre d'Anne-Marie Alonzo by Roseanna L. Dufault and Janine Ricouart and Momo et Loulou by Louise Desjardins and Mona Latif-Ghattas
- Plus qu'un outil pédagogique by Daniela Di Cecco
Books reviewed: Robert Soulières by Noëlle Sorin
- A Rhetoric of its Own by Nathalie Cooke
Books reviewed: The Rhetoric of Canadian Writing by Conny Steenman-Marcusse
- Frye's Critical Commentary by Graham Nicol Forst
Books reviewed: Northrop Frye on Literature and Society: 1936-1989. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 10 by Robert D. Denham and The "Third Book" Notebooks of Northrop Frye: 1964-1972. Collected Works of Northrop Frye. Vol. 9 by Michael Dolzani
- Tragique émorationnalité by Stéphane Girard
Books reviewed: Suites sociologiques by Simon Laflamme and Jean Marc Dalpé: Ouvrir d'un dire by Stéphanie Nutting and François Paré
MLA: Stovel, Nora Foster. Epic Laurence. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 22 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #197 (Summer 2008), Predators and Gardens. (pg. 125 - 126)
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