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Cover of issue #220

Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Promoting Canadian Writers

  • Barbara Pell (Author)
    A Portrait of the Artist: Ernest Buckler's The Mountain and the Valley. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Robert Lecker (Editor), Ellen Quigley (Editor), and Jack David (Editor)
    Canadian Writers and their Works: Fiction Series, Volume Twelve. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Diana Brydon (Author)
    Writing on Trial: Timothy Findly's Famous Last Words. ECW Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)

Reviewed by Heather Sanderson

The latest volume in the Canadian Writers and Their Works series is a mixed collection, bringing Timothy Findley belatedly onto the core list of authors, along with Sandra Birdsell, David Adams Richards, and W.P. Kinsella. In the introduction, George Woodcock applies the unifying adjective "absurd" to characterise the work of these writers, but the articles indicate many differences. The essays follow the series pattern of giving a brief biography, then a placement of each author in the tradition, a summary of the criticism to date, and then an overview of individual works, followed by a comprehensive bibliography. This series, especially as it collates the available sources, is an invaluable resource for students of Canadian literature, and this volume is no exception.

The most significant author examined is Timothy Findley, and Lorraine M. York, the author of two books and several articles on his work, is an authoritative critic. This essay reads, at times, as a telescoped version of her Front Lines: The Fiction of Timothy Findley (1991), but she has also continued to develop her readings; in particular, she discusses at greater length the significance of homosexuality in his "pervasive concern with gender" and the "enforced construction of masculinity" in "the male club," although she does not mention the ground-breaking 1992 article by Richard Dellamora on this subject. She also focuses on the complex use of intertextuality in Findley’s work, and continues her almost unique tendency among his critics to accord his short stories weight among discussions of his novels. She further points to his plays and his concept of witnessing as areas for future analysis.

The other three essays are engaged to varying extents in defending their authors from critical judgements or the lack thereof. Dallas Harrison discusses the narrative complexity of Sandra Birdsell’s works, and analyses their non-linearity: "The discourses are retrograde: the stories loop along as they curve around."She points to the "puzzling" lack of full-length studies, and takes issue with the only two academic articles, one for identifying Birdsell as a Mennonite writer, and the other for reading her as a feminist. Harrison is at pains to support Birdsell’s own denial that she writes with a "feminist agenda," but since she does not clarify what this might be, the essay remains vague and defensive on this point. Lawrence Mathews writes vigorously about David Adams Richards, defending him from critics who read his work through the "myth of natural genius overcoming the odds to flourish in an unpromising environment (that is, not Toronto) while retaining nourishing contact with its roots." He debunks some of the more egregious pronouncements, noting the double bind of such critical biases: "while considering his work as that of a Canadian regionalist invites one sort of condescension, considering it as that of a writer aspiring to the condition of Faulkner dooms it to another sort." Fortunately, Lawrence devotes the second part of his essay to a penetrating analysis of Richards’ style, giving him the interested attention he deserves, and pointing out some serious flawsas well as developments in his style. Don Murray’s essay on W.P. Kinsella notes the lack of serious critical studies, but touches only briefly on the charges of appropriation of voice and stereotyping in Kinsella’s Hobbema Indian tales, before moving on to discuss his baseball stories with "Another area where Kinsella is clearly at home.. . ." This essay is frustrating at times because Murray discusses many stories briefly but few in depth; perhaps a more extended discussion of representative stories would have given greater scope.

Diana Brydon’s Writing on Trial: Timothy Findley’s Famous Last Words is an excellent contribution to the growing body of criticism on this novel. Her thought-provoking discussion extends from a comprehensive survey of the existing criticism to argue that the book is a "stage on which we may reenact, with the characters, both the fascination and the horror of fascism in order to understand more clearly the choices facing us today." Writing is on trial, and words themselves are the heroes of this text: "in it, every human is necessarily flawed, but human values may prevail through atten- tion to the language in which they take shape."

Brydon’s reading responds to the metaphor of a trial, ending by placing the novel itself on trial by examining its complex use of intertexts. Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, fascist collaborator, writes his final novel, a testimonial that both exposes and mythologizes fascist icons such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and which is judged by the internal readers, Freyberg and Quinn, as well as by external readers. But Mauberley’s testament is slippery; while seeming to reveal Nazi secrets, he says nothing specific about crucial facts such as his own initial involvement and rise to power or of Nazi atrocities, focusing instead on the Penelope Cabal: "we learn of Dachau through Freyberg and Quinn, not from Mauberley." Brydon takes her analysis of the complicity in Mauberley’s narrative one step further, arguing persuasively for a crucial ambiguity where Findley "seems to invoke a fascist aesthetic in the novel specifically to counter it and to question its cultural authority (while not always remaining immune to what he finds fascinating in it)." Drawing on Sontag’s definition of fascist aesthetics as involving "a conjunction of violence, eroticism, creativity and death" applicable to Mauberley’s narrative and the text that contains it, Brydon points to Findley’s parodie play on various intertextualities, "including the camp signs of fascist aesthetics." Using Hutcheon’s analysis of parody as a post- modern technique complicitous with what it parodies, Brydon identifies similarities between fascism and postmodern techniques of problematizing the bases of certainty, of historical knowledge, and of standards of judgement. She also points out that "Findley seems less intellectually rigorous in his adherence to exposing contradictions and maintaining a sceptical stance. Ultimately he appears more of an old-fashioned moralist employing contemporary postmodernist techniques to his own (sometimes ambiguous) ends."

Yet, despite its moral urgency, Famous Last Words "flirts" with fascism in problematical ways, partly because it psychologizes the attraction to fascism, while devoting "little attention to political, social, or philosophical explanations of the fascist success in attracting intellectuals to its cause." The novel opposes a universalized fascism with "a universal notion of the human," and resistance is limited to individual acts and "symbolic gestures" which fail to produce material change: "neither Mauberley nor Findley seems capable of imagining a community-based form of resistance," except a "communally shared reading [which] may begin to clear a space for dialogue." The foregrounding of the importance of reading as a collective activity redeems the novel, in Brydon’s view, in that the complex and complicit text engenders further discussion. Her own words on this book will not be the last, but they are a high point in the criticism on it to date.

Barbara Pell’s A Portrait of the Artist: Ernest Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley is partly a defense of the novel against the dominant critical readings that simplify the text either as an autobiographical portrait of the artist heroically struggling against cultural isolation and repression, or as an ironic Künstlerroman, a portrait of the failed artist. Pell argues for a more balanced reading of this "subtle, complex novel in which the protagonist, most often the centre of consciousness, engages the reader’s admiration and sympathy from the beginning," which at the same time recognises that "Buckler has achieved an ironic objectivity toward his semi-autobiographical artist that. . . reveals David’s self delusion and leads the reader to an increasingly critical judgement of his failures." The body is a close reading organised in sections titled after the novel’s major symbols. She concludes with a brief discussion of Buckler’s "overwrought and intense" style, which is not always clearly distinguished from David’s consciousness, blurring the "ironic parody of David’s mind": "Therefore, Buckler’s tortuous prose demonstrates the failure not just of his artist but at times of his art" This section of the reading could have been expanded, especially as Pell relies heavily on stylistic analyses by other critics here. It would also have been valuable to have seen the novel situated in the light of recent discussions of regionalism in Canadian writing. In a lucid analysis of a Canadian classic, Pell makes a strong claim that The Mountain and the Valley "is worth our attention."

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MLA: Sanderson, Heather. Promoting Canadian Writers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #157 (Summer 1998), (Thomas Raddall, Alice Munro & Aritha van Herk). (pg. 153 - 155)

***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.

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