A Compact Compendium

  • Reingard M. Nischik
    The English Short Story in Canada: From the Dawn of Modernism to the 2013 Nobel Prize. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Claire Omhovère

With this new opus devoted to the rise of the short story in English Canada, Reingard Nischik has written another landmark study, her thirtieth book to date, one among her many contributions to North American literary studies in general and Canadian studies in particular. The English Short Story in Canada is vintage Nischik: to readers familiar with her work, the book is likely to give the sort of pleasure experienced when reuniting with a friend of long standing, whose conversation is sure to delight and enlighten in equal measure.

With the exception of chapters 5 and 8, which respectively discuss the sub-genre of the short story cycle and the theme of aging in relation to the genre’s affinity with liminality, the other twelve chapters first appeared as separate essays in various venues, in Europe and in North America, which certainly accounts for the impression of pleasant familiarity made by the volume. These formerly disparate pieces had their mutual cohesion carefully reworked into the chapters of a single study that begins by throwing light on the historical circumstances of the early development of the short story in Canada and its flourishing during the literary boom brought about by the Centennial. Nischik then moves on to consider the thematic preoccupations and generic specificities distinguishing the Canadian short story from other national traditions. Frequent comparatist forays into the development of the Modernist short story in the United States are particularly valuable to assess the effects of the colonial lag on conservative tastes that prevailed in the Dominion from the nineteenth century well into the following century, or to discuss disparities with the United States as a result of the limitations of the publishing infrastructure and the precariousness of relationships between the artists and their audience over the same period. A third section opts for a closer approach to the texts themselves in four chapters that zoom in on the stories of an individual writer (Thomas King), on a single collection (Margaret Atwood’s The Tent), or on a specific story, as with Alice Munro’s “Boys and Girls” and John Metcalf’s “The Strange Aberration of Mr. Ken Smythe.” Each case study brings into sharper focus the analyses of the first and second part that revolved around the plasticity of the genre and its infinite capacity for renewal.

The volume forms a tightly-knit whole, packed with information about the antecedents of the genre, the circumstances that presided over its contrasted history on both sides of the border, and, finally, its unprecedented flourishing in the writings of Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, and Alice Munro. All three writers arguably draw much of Nischik’s attention—but how could it be otherwise on the part of a critic who has been immersed in their oeuvres since the early years of her writing life and whose insights have left an imprint on the way we understand these major writers? The study, however, far from being limited to the
better-known practitioners of the genre, also argues passionately against the oblivion, or relative neglect, of Ethel Wilson, Hugh Garner, Joyce Marshall, or the first anthologist and founder of the line, Raymond Knister. If it were only for the light it sheds on their respective works, this volume well deserves our listening to what Reingard Nischik has to say.

This review “A Compact Compendium” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 165-166.

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