Shifting Cityscapes

  • Eva Darias-Beautell (Editor)
    The Urban Condition: Literary Trajectories through Canada’s Postmetropolis. Vernon Publisher (purchase at
  • Jim Blanchard
    A Diminished Roar: Winnipeg in the 1920s. University of Manitoba Press (purchase at
Reviewed by Ralph Sarkonak

After the First World War, many cities had to contend with the influenza pandemic and the housing problems faced by returning veterans. Winnipeg also had to contend with the aftermath of the General Strike of 1919. Jim Blanchard’s A Diminished Roar: Winnipeg in the 1920s is the third volume of what is to date a trilogy on the history of that city. He begins with the inauguration of the new Legislative Building in 1920 and ends with the opening of Memorial Boulevard ten years later. These were turbulent times that saw the end of immigration, a postwar depression (1920-1925), and the ongoing dispossession of First Nations. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 led to a rise in the economic fortunes of rival Vancouver and the reverse in Winnipeg. Inflation and the collapse of wheat prices sorely affected the prairie city: “the city’s old ambitions were beginning to slip away.” Unemployment, unrest, and a concomitant rise in xenophobia also characterized a period that was to end with the initial downturn of the Great Depression. This book covers a lot of territory—from city politics to streetcars, power plants, conventions, tourism, prohibition (1916-1923), entertainment, fashion, and the erstwhile Winter Carnival. The book is based on extensive research in the City of Winnipeg Archives and the Archives of Manitoba. I could have done without the chapter on the city’s twenty-one millionaires of the period, but overall A Diminished Roar reads well. If First Nations and Métis history occupies almost no space, as Blanchard acknowledges, no doubt this is because of the shortcomings of the archival sources.

The Urban Condition: Literary Trajectories through Canada’s Postmetropolis is a study in contrasts. Eight essays study English Canadian and Italian Canadian writers who portray city spaces and their inhabitants in literary works—for the most part, novels. This is an international endeavour with two Canadian contributors; the other five are based in Spain. The book is the outcome of a Spanish government-funded research project headed by Eva Darias-Beautell, who has contributed the opening and closing essays. The weight of post-structural theory is heavy in this slim volume. The names that one encounters most frequently are Jean Baudrillard, Michel de Certeau, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Henri Lefebvre, Jean-François Lyotard, and Brian Massumi, although his due is given to the seminal thinker Walter Benjamin (via Baudelaire) on flâneurs and flâneuses. The premise of the book is the restructuring of the CanLit canon away from “wilderness tropes, the small-town imaginary, and the metaphor of nordicity” from the 1990s on. Canada is (also) an urban nation, so this turning to various cityscapes has a mimetic as well as a textual function.

The cities portrayed in the literary works studied include Vancouver, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and St. John’s. Among the works in which they figure are Jane Rule’s The Young in One Another’s Arms, Dionne Brand’s What We All Long for, Timothy Taylor’s Story House, Michael Helm’s Cities of Refuge, Maria Ardizzi’s Made in Italy, Petro Corsi’s Winter in Montreal, and Olindo Chiocca’s College Street. Don Austin’s ned after snowslides—half narrative, half poem—leads to an interesting study (by María Jesús Hernáez Lerena) of the theory and practice of a hypertext. I particularly appreciated the analysis of Holocaust allusions in this essay. The queer perspective of Ivan E. Coyote’s Loose End offers the example of a transgressive, transformative, and transgender text that uses the singular meaning of the pronoun they—both in the book and the essay itself (by Isabel González Díaz). French Canada is largely absent; and Québécois literature goes unmentioned. Michel Tremblay and Régine Robin, to name but two francophone writers who have tackled urban subjects, could have been referred to at the very least. The best essays are those that wear their theory lightly, and overall the analysis is better than the at times heavy-handed treatment of theory. Surely, the latter can also be deconstructed, but here theory plays an almost religious role of doxa not to be doubted, questioned, or challenged.

Whereas Blanchard’s book is archival in focus, The Urban Condition is theoretical to a fault. One wishes for an approach that might combine both such approaches. Architextual, it might be called, to coin a word, like the concept of architexture used in the essay on Story House (by Darias-Beautell). Reading Blanchard made me want to revisit Winnipeg; reading the essays written or edited by Darias-Beautell made me want to return to the literary works that portray and deconstruct Canada’s shifting cityscapes.

This review “Shifting Cityscapes” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jul. 2020. Web.

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