Placing the Text
- Frank Birbalsingh (Author)
Novels and the Nation: Essays in Canadian Literature. TSAR Publications (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Gunilla Florby (Author)
The Margin Speaks: A Study of Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch from a Post-Colonial Point of View. Lund University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by David Creelman
Cultural materialism, new historicism, feminism, and post-colonialism have become powerful and influential critical schools, in no small part, because they have demonstrated that literary texts are shaped within and contribute to the economic, historical, sexual, and political discourses which are the fabric of our culture. In the last fifteen years these new critical practices have served Canadian studies well. As readers of Canadian texts, we no longer expect or accept the notion that our literature has been formed within such monolithic structures as a "garrison mentality." Instead, critics have been exploring the particular discursive systems surrounding specific writers or texts, and the readings which result from such approaches have often been fresh and stimulating. Certainly, Frank Birbalsingh’s book, Novels and the Nation, develops careful and convincing analyses of a wide variety of Canadian writers. Unfortunately, Gunilla Florby’s manuscript confirms that the new critical practises can still be infected by some old- fashioned weaknesses.
Birbalsingh’s Novels and the Nation assembles eighteen solid essays which focus primarily on twentieth-century Canadian novels and short fiction. Arranged chronologically, the book opens with essays about Sara Jeannette Duncan and Stephen Leacock and closes with articles exploring the work of Austin Clarke and Michael Ondaatje. Each essay is short and compact, and the style is precise, yet eminently readable. Birbalsingh tends to discuss a limited number of texts by each of the authors, and he then employs a variety of critical positions to examine the writer’s specific relationship with the social and cultural discourses of his or her time and place. For example, a kind of broad cultural criticism is adopted to examine the early fiction of Gabrielle Roy and Ringuet. Birbalsingh claims that their novels not only repeatedly develop images of self-destruction, but also echo the deeper trauma of the francophone community and provide "an authentic reproduction of the actual attitudes of francophone Canadians during the first half of this century." A psychoanalytic approach influences his treatment of Frederick Philip Grove. Examining Grove’s unhappy life as a Canadian immigrant and his deficient contact with Europe’s traditional and cultural influences, Birbalsingh convincingly argues that while Grove is drawn to the angst of the existentialist discourse, his personal "grievances" and "prejudices" ultimately undermine his commitment to "the aesthetic criteria" of that philosophical position. Birbalsingh is equally at home with post-colonial theory, as is evident in his fruitful comparison of Morley Callaghan and Frank Sargeson, who developed eerily similar styles and themes within their Toronto and Auckland settings. Birbalsingh’s collection connects a series of writers to their particular moment in history and culture, but the essays are also useful for their frequent references to the literary contexts of each novelist. Canadian texts are frequently linked to key examples of American and British modernism, thus deepening our understanding of the forces which influence some of our best writers.
Birbalsingh’s collection is not, of course, without its flaws. In his search to establish broad cultural contexts and critical frameworks, he sometimes glosses over the particulars of the texts. For example, he has interesting things to say about Mordecai Richler’s attitude toward such issues as nationalism, Zionism, and Jewish- Canadian culture, but his analysis of Richler’s early fiction is superficial. Similarly, he includes two chapters which provide a broad overview of contemporary South Asian Canadian writers, but these studies sometimes function as quick summaries of the writer’s fictions, rather than an analysis of their particular insights and contexts. Such lapses are rare, however, and Novels and Nations stands as an insightful, intelligent exploration of Canadian fictions.
Gunilla Florby’s The Margin Speaks: A Study of Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch from a Post-ColonialPoint of View is a less satisfying attempt to explore the cultural contexts which surrounded two of Canada’s best novelists. Problems become evident in the introduction when the reader encounters a relatively underdeveloped analysis of the study’s central terms and concepts. There is a degree of validity to the main assertion that Canadians lack a stable identity because they inhabit a rather troubled middle-ground between the fading power of the British empire and the growing power of an American neighbour; but the very question of "identity" needs to be interrogated more carefully. Florby claims that a "distinct," "national" identity emerges as writers attend to local culture, explore the margins, and subvert European traditions, but sometimes this returns to a kind of essentialism. As the book unfolds, identity increasingly appears to be the stable product of immediate experience, rather than an evolving construct formed within competing discourses. Florby also dwells on the affinities which link the decentralizing impulses of post-colonialism with the projects of postmodernism and feminism, but says much less about what distinguishes these critical positions.
Just as some key issues are left as vague conflations in the introduction, so the main body of the study is marred by generalizations. Many of the chapters on Kroetsch’s texts begin with promising arguments. The book seems fresh and engaging when Florby asserts that The Studhorse Man is a "wickedly ironic disassembling" of the romance, and that Alibi is a carefully enacted dramatization of "Derrida’s analysis of the problematic of writing and signification." Unfortunately, once these main ideas are developed the rest of the chapters tend to summarize the narratives, repeatedly referring back to the static central point. Indeed, while the analysis of Kroetsch’s The Ledger and Laurence’s African fictions are carefully linked back to the issues of post-colonialism, other observations about the fictions could just as easily be developed within a postmodern reading. Florby’s argument that the texts have a distinctly post-colonial view is not always convincingly presented.
Florby’s fine discussion of Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners is one chapter which stands out for its lucid analysis. The discussion of Laurence’s final and finest novel weaves together a careful account of numerous current readings, with a convincing explanation of the text’s post-colonial concerns as they have been reworked through Laurence’s feminist lens. Florby traces the national and sexual significance of Morag’s personal search for her identity without overstating the case. But the strength of the book’s final chapter does not fully compensate for the frustrations experienced by the reader in the earlier sections.
- McLuhan Redux by Christopher Keep
Books reviewed: McLuhan, or Modernism in Reverse by Glenn Willmott and Virtual Realities and Their Discontents by Robert Markley
- Vancouver's Early Life by Lindsey McMaster
Books reviewed: Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913 by Robert A. J. McDonald
- Lives About Poets by John Lennox
Books reviewed: Furry Creek by Keith Harrison and If I Could Turn and Meet Myself: The Life of Alden Nowlan by Patrick Toner
- Pilgrim and Parable by Jim Taylor
Books reviewed: Annabel by Kathleen Winter and Two More Solitudes by Sheldon Currie
- Family Secrets by Gisèle M. Baxter
Books reviewed: Every Time We Say Goodbye by Jamie Zeppa and Miracleville by Monique Polak
MLA: Creelman, David. Placing the Text. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 178 - 179)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.