Writing in the Time of Nationalism: From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis. Signature Editions
Readers of Canadian literature may wonder with apparent reason about what has happened to the glorious days of literature produced in Montreal after World War II, a period associated with the names of Hugh MacLennan, Mavis Gallant, and Mordecai Richler among others. In her memoir, Linda Leith invites us to a guided tour focusing on Montreal’s literary life since the 1940s—more precisely, to an exploration of a rich segment of this body of literature invisible and unheard of for so long on the Canadian literary scene. Behind her proposed mission lies her contention that the strong nationalist sentiments in the 1960s both inside and outside Quebec had an enormous influence on the development of anglophone writing in Quebec in the decades to follow. Anglophones as a minority within a minority became homeless—without a viable literary community and without recognition. According to Leith, the social, political, linguistic context in which writers work is of crucial importance indeed. That said, we can understand why anglophone authors of the above mentioned period were silent and/or silenced in Montreal. However, there were some attempts made on the authors’ part to make their voices heard and be listened to: think of the Véhicule poets’ endeavours hand in hand with those of the Montreal Story Tellers.
Leith, as an academic, a journalist, a translator, an editor, a publisher, and novelist herself, has assumed the role of an ardent cultural and literary activist too, determined to change the situation for the writers who have chosen Montreal, the metropolis, for their creative activities. The multi-faceted and unique ambiance surrounding these writers left some of them indifferent, some disappointed, and others somewhat annoyed and even offended. As an adamant insider of this grim reality, Leith supported but was obviously not satisfied with the notable accomplishments of organizations like the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English-Language Literature and the Quebec Writers’ Federation. In her book, she gives an elaborate and highly detailed account of the possible ways and means she has used and turned to in order to realize her plan, which was to bridge linguistic and other divides between the two and the other solitudes. Her idea was to create a possible rapprochement between and among the different communities. The cumulative, immense, and often incredible number of difficulties she had to grapple with is beyond description. This may explain why at times the tone she uses is too personal and repetitive. Her ambitious and unceasing attempts to raise funds of different sorts often failed and fell on deaf ears. But stern as she is, she never gave up; as a result, the Write pour écrire event was followed by the creation of the Blue Metropolis Foundation (1997), just a step away from her role in establishing the annual Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival (1999) as the artistic director. The word “blue” has been carefully chosen, for it has many meanings and many connotations as well; therefore, Leith hopes that it will satisfy all involved and concerned.
From the very beginning, Leith has been a firm believer in international recognition that may easily precede recognition in the home country. This certainly held true for the aforementioned MacLennan, Gallant, and Richler. Accordingly, Leith’s clear idea behind this unique festival was to mix writers from different backgrounds in and outside Quebec and even outside Canada to provide them with an international and multilingual setting, a location in Montreal, for possible échanges.
Toward the end of the book, Leith compiles various lists that include the names of writers from Quebec who have recently won literary prizes internationally, demonstrating their phenomenal and unprecedented success. What one might miss, however, in this laudatory ending is a more detailed, powerful, and argumentative account of why one should read these works that are part and parcel of the Anglo Literary Revival and highly appreciated around the world.