All About CanLit

  • Eva-Marie Kröller
    The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature. Cambridge University Press
Reviewed by Rocío G. Davis

Eva-Marie Kröller’s outstanding editorial work for The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature is to be commended. The thirteen strong essays offer comprehensive and interrelated perspectives on the concept, development, and future prospects of Canadian literature. This companion aims to introduce Canadian literature to an international public in writing that is clear, concise, and inviting. It magnificently serves the dual purpose of offering the reader a schematic introduction and more in-depth explorations of familiar issues. The thematic concerns negotiated in essays on Aboriginal writing, Francophone writing, Exploration and Travel, Nature Writing, Writing by Women, Regionalism and Urbanism—as well as genre—Drama, Poetry, Fiction, Life Writing, and Short Fiction—are intelligently framed by two essays that define and recap many of the issues critical to the creation and understanding of Canadian Literature. Kröller’s introduction begins by analyzing the multi-layered controversies surrounding Spanish-born Anglophone French Canadian Yann Martel’s Booker Prize for The Life of Pi (2001), given in a year when two other writers born outside Canada, Carol Shields and Rohinton Mistry, were also nominated. The issue of the “Canadianness” of these writers became the subject of “intense investigation,” Kröller’s point of departure for her insightful discussion of the “historical complications,” reception, and internationalization of the writing we call “Canadian.” In particular, her analysis of the novel’s reception within and outside Canada foreshadows many of the contested issues developed in subsequent chapters of the book. Issues of nationality and nationalisms, diaspora, bilingualism and multiculturalism, and the history of book publication in Canada set the stage for a well-developed introductory volume that should be required reading for students and scholars of Canadian literature. By concluding the collection with Magdalene Redekop’s essay on Canadian literary criticism and the idea of a national literature, the volume neatly attests to both a growing field of creative endeavor and a sophisticated critical theory that reads it.

Kröller is also to be commended for the way in which the essays complement each other and keep overlap to a minimum. What we perceive is the literature developing organically on the one hand, as diverse writers began to focus on similar patterns—nature and the rural landscape, for example—and independently on the other, as palimpsestic histories begin to occupy an increasingly important role in writing. The vexed relationship between a colonial past and an uneasy relationship with the North American present also colours many of the arguments, as definitions of what it is to be Canadian and write “Canadian literature” resonate on diverse formal and aesthetic levels. Penny van Toorn’s essay on aboriginal writing and Christoph Irmscher’s on nature writing (this latter with its fascinating analysis of the interconnected evolution of writing and drawing in answer to the question “What is here?”) engage particularly strongly with the intersection of history, national consciousness, and creativity. E. D. Blodgett’s essay on Francophone writing also foregrounds many current concerns of Canadian literature. Though this book unfortunately could not accommodate more on Francophone writing (as the editor explains, that would require another Companion), Blodgett’s piece gives a clear chronological and cultural perspective of the “layers of strength” that make up this writing. By reading the history of the changing position of Francophone writing within Canada, Blodgett nuances any potentially facile conclusions and effectively invites the reader to continue learning more. The essays on drama, poetry, fiction, short fiction, and life writing are excellent outlines of the manner in which genre has developed in the Canadian context. Marta Dvorak, in her comprehensive chapter on fiction, provides effective tools for reading as she attends to literary movements and paradigms, and suggests the revitalization of writerly and aesthetic codes in the Canadian imaginary. By locating the development of this fiction in relation to that of other postcolonial countries, she highlights the emerging sense of national consciousness, and the subsequent maturity and multiple layers of the production of fiction. Susanna Egan and Gabriele Helms’s essay on life writing, in particular, attends to the most current trends in both theory and practice, illustrating how much Canadian autobiography has become a site of strategic intervention in forms of self-representation as it intersects with questions of self-formation in the context of developing nationhood. Robert Thacker’s reading of the history of short fiction in Canada also foregrounds the manner in which many writers used the story cycle form, which some argue is a strikingly North American phenomenon, as well as how the form developed. The essay on women’s writing seemed the most dispensable in some ways because the overlap is strongest here. Though Coral Ann Howell’s discussion of Munro, Laurence, and Atwood is superlative, one cannot but feel that many of these issues and writers would have been better negotiated in another context. At this time, and after witnessing the prominence of women writers in all genres throughout the history of Canadian literature, one wonders why it is necessary to devote a separate chapter to what is already so clearly pivotal and significant.

This Companion is, above all, a very practical and helpful book for anyone who wants to study the changing and challenging contexts of Canadian literature. The excellent bibliographies assure us that there is more reading to be done. The diverse geographical origins of the contributors (scholars from Canada, France, the UK, Australia, and the US) attest to the increasing interest in Canadian literature around the world, as well as to vital connections and comparisons between literary developments in different countries.

This review “All About CanLit” originally appeared in Writers Talking. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 183 (Winter 2004): 142-143.

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