Frenemies and Possibilities

Reviewed by Ian Rae

Patrick Coleman’s Equivocal City offers an intriguing analysis of francophone and anglophone authors “in counterpoint with each other, not as speaking within separate literary traditions but as offering mutually illuminating examples of the kinds of story that could be written about the city at successive moments in its life.” Given that both francophone and anglophone Montrealers witnessed, and in some ways precipitated, radical transformations of their national narratives in the decades following the Second World War, Coleman’s decision to read the postwar novels within a civic context, and not within the nationalist frameworks of Quebec’s Révolution tranquille and Canada’s pre-centennial push for bilingualism and biculturalism, is a bold move. Of course, national questions are never far from the surface of stories by the likes of Gabrielle Roy, Pierre Gélinas, and Mordecai Richler, but Coleman’s aim is to explore what lies outside the national rubrics. He is interested in any form of “success in putting the recognition of Montreal’s cultural complexity and linguistic diversity in novelistic perspective,” whether that entails mapping the unique “mindscapes” of particular neighbourhoods or exploring the social imaginaries of shared class struggles or entertaining the contrafactual postulation of what Montreal could be.

Admittedly, “success” is a highly provisional term in this analysis, as novels such as Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes and Gérard Bessette’s La Bagarre “diagnose[ ] a cultural problem that remains to be solved,” including in the matter of matching stylistic innovations to social ones. In the literature of a city held together by “a consensus of non-agreement,” “Failing Better” serves as the title for a chapter on “Francophone Novels on the Eve of the Quiet Revolution” and not, as one might expect, for the chapter on Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. Nevertheless, there is a strong cumulative effect to Equivocal City as common themes and rhetorical devices from earlier chapters—which might at first seem to participate in the same “abstraction and dubious symmetry of comparisons based on broad similarities in theme or mythic substructure” that Coleman criticizes—reappear in the concluding sections on Beautiful Losers and Jacques Ferron’s La Nuit. The introduction to Coleman’s penultimate chapter illuminates his method:

An impressionable man of weakly defined identity, occupying a liminal position on the fringes of urban life, struggling with an admired and resented mentor figure, “master” of the city he surveys: this is the situation Ferron and Cohen dramatize in the novels that became turning-points in their career. We have already encountered other versions of this tension: for example, in the relationship between George and Jerome in [MacLennan’s] The Watch That Ends the Night, and in the responses of Maurice and Claude to their mentors in [Gélinas’] Les Vivants, les morts et les autres. Never before, however, had the conflict culminated in violence. In those books, the authority figures were discredited or displaced; in La Nuit and Beautiful Losers they have to die.

This review “Frenemies and Possibilities” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 26 Jun. 2020. Web.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.

Canadian Literature is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.