Saturday, January 31, 2009

Readings 2K9: January summation

So, the aim of trying to reduce unread material around the house progresses.

In January, I read twelve books (three write-ups are now pending), one of those being a library book. I also acquired three new books. Meaning that overall, I cut down the number of unread books in the house by eight.

It's a start. Things may get a bit difficult in February, as Grace and I will be reading a whole bunch of books to try to find some novels worth nominating for Hugo awards. Some of those will be from the public library, so ... we'll see how many of my own books get read. If I end up with another net total of eight, I'll be happy.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Readings 2K9: Past Master

Past Master
by R.A. Lafferty

This is easily the strangest book I’ve read so far this year, and I expect it to remain so. I enjoyed it quite a bit. The basic gist of it is: in the future, men from a colony of Earth bring Thomas More forward in time to be their ruler. The joke is that their world is a communistic utopia, effectively (though unintentionally) built along the lines of, well, Thomas More’s Utopia.

But there’s so much more to the book than that one-line premise. There’s a manic inventiveness that keeps the book moving, in ways that have nothing to do with traditional plot structures. Lafferty was noted for bringing the feel of oral storytelling into his prose, a hellaciously difficult thing to do, and that’s clearly shaped Past Master on a number of levels. Not only linguistically, but also structurally; the book careens from image to image, from event to event, in a completely unpredictable and extravagant way.

Character suffers for it, in a sense; that is, characters become flattened, archetypal. The book works because Lafferty knows that’s what’s happening, and runs with it. More in this book bears little resemblance to the Thomas More I’ve read about elsewhere, but he’s close enough that he collapses into the historical image of Thomas More easily.

The book, Lafferty’s first, was published in 1968, and acclaimed as a classic of the New Wave of SF. Oddly, though, what leaped out at me as I began it was its similarity to classical Campbellian Golden Age stories — the situation of the colony world, travel in time and space, evil robotic intelligences, action scenes, and so on. Then, of course, it became something completely different; but the superstructure of the older stories is still there. The point I’m trying to get to is that, looking back now, I wonder if the New Wave is best considered as an intermediary step; writers like Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester going a degree beyond Campbell in the late 40s and 50s, then the New Wave making another leap in the late 60s and 70s. Leading to, I suppose, writers like Jeff Vandermeer and A.A. Attanasio — arguably more literary, but also perhaps even more inventive writers. Like most teleological views of historical process, I expect this could be demonstrated to be false pretty easily; still, I find the notion intriguing.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cool things

A couple interesting things found on the Coolopolis blog:

First, it turns out I'm getting a new library -- or a new old library -- moving in right next door to me.

Second, found in the comments section, a dream of what could have been -- plans for Montréal's métro system in the early '80s.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Readings 2K9: King Arthur

King Arthur
by John and Caitlín Matthews

This book, published by the Folio Society, is an examination of King Arthur and of the stories of the Round Table and the Holy Grail. It’s got some interesting material in it; the first chapter is an analysis of a historical figure in 2nd-century England who might have been the original Arthur, which is a relatively new (or newly-revived) theory. There’s a lot of speculation involved, but it’s a creative take on the perennial problem of Arthur’s historicity.

Subsequent chapters move in stages through the evolution of Arthurian myth — examining the historical age of Arthur and its first historians, Welsh narratives in which Arthur appears, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s contribution to the figure of Arthur and the use to which that figure was put by Normans seeking to justify their rule of England, then on to medieval narrative epics, Malory and Le Morte d’Arthur, and finally the modern age and the contemporary explosion of Arthuriana. It’s at this point that the book begins to weaken, enough so that it makes one question the scholarship of earlier chapters.

Structurally, the last chapter doesn’t make any kind coherent argument about the use of Arthurian story, which is a pity, as the book’s analyses of what Arthur meant in earlier ages was quite involving. Instead, after the Pre-Raphaelites, the chapter becomes a series of quick mentions of different Arthurian stories. The selection of works referred to is mostly strong, though the inclusion of the original Star Trek is puzzling — the stated justification is that Kirk is an Arthur-figure with Spock as his Merlin, but surely many other stories have the same character dynamics, and the comparison is never made in the show itself. The greater problem is that there’s not much context given for the different works, and the balance of space given to some seem out of balance. I like Charles Williams, and I enjoy his Arthurian poetry, but there’s a page about his poems while Wagner’s Parsifal is described in one sentence. Moreover, by following specific forms (novels, poems, operas), chronology is lost — there’s no sense of how one work influenced another, how the story changed over time.

There are also some factual errors in this chapter, and those are particularly worrying in a scholarly work. Spenser’s Faerie Queene is said to have “been planned as a work in twelve parts”; actually, it was planned to have twenty-four books. Una is described as a “female knight”, which more properly describes the character of Britomart. Later, the creator of the TV show Babylon 5 is named Michael J. Straczynski, instead of J. Michael Straczynski. Both in the text and in a picture caption, the comic book Camelot 3000 is described as created by Mike Barr, with no reference to artist Brian Bolland — which is to say that the man who drew one of the images in the book wasn’t credited for it. Minor details like this make one wonder how thorough the research was in previous chapters as well.

(I’m not entirely sure what to make about the book’s praise for the 2004 movie King Arthur, which gets a whole paragraph: “a convincing picture of the Arthur of the Dark Ages ... unflinching in its depiction of the savagery of the times. Cive Owen makes a strong and thoughtful Arthur ... after decades of films portraying Arthur as a hero of medieval splendour, this is a welcome move towards an alternative, more consciously authentic characterisation.” I’ve not seen the movie, so I have no opinion on whether this is accurate or not. But it’s troubling to find out — from online sources, and not from the book — that John Matthews was a historical consultant on the movie. Surely that would be worth noting in the interest of clarity?)

With these things in mind, one begins to wonder about earlier choices in the book. This is a relatively slim volume, and can’t go into either all the contemporary manifestations of the Arthur myth or the wide range of medieval texts. So choices had to be made, which is understandable, but I wonder now whether some of the complexity of the Arthurian corpus is given short shrift. Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival is given a cursory mention, for example, but no more. The story the book tells, of how the Arthurian story develops, requires that certain manifestations of that story be passed over in silence. That’s fair enough, as every history must make its choices about what to include and what to leave out; but it means that the historian must maintain the confidence of the reader in their selections. In this case, I have my doubts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Egyptians

The Egyptians
by Alan Gardiner

This is a reprinting by the Folio Society of Gardiner’s 1961 book Egypt of the Pharaohs: An Introduction. It’s apparently a classic in its field, and still used in places as a textbook, despite its age. There’s no doubt it’s an informative, scholarly work. It’s a chronological examination of the history of the Pharaohs of Egypt, as nearly reign by reign as feasible. Of course, that’s not really possible; there’s too little known. The book is effectively an attempt at establishing a chronology of Egypt up to the time of Alexander the Great.

There’s nothing, or very little, about the experience of the people of the country. There’s some discussion of Egypt’s wars, but little about the way they went to war — either in terms of attitudes to war and soldiering, or in terms of weapons and technology used. There’s effectively nothing about religion, except insofar as it connects up with the political history of Egypt. Nor about art. Nor about culture or literature. Nor even about mummies. 

Much of this is by design.“We frankly admit our aim to have been propaganda,” Gardiner says in his Epilogue, “and our ambition will not have been satisfied unless we succeed in winning at least one fresh recruit to our fascinating field of research.” He writes this explaining why he’s left out the things he has, and why he’s spent much of the book discussing archaeology, and deliberating between different theories or analyses of archaeological research. He’s frankly hoping to draw people in to the field. I find his choices have the opposite effect: rather than presenting Egypt as a subject in its own right, with its own mysteries and fascination, it becomes merely a field of rubble for scholars to pick over. Something dead. Something mummified.

Up to a point, this is actually valuable; there’s no romanticism about the mysteries of the Pharaohs here. But the style can’t help but be dry. There’s too little known for sure about the Pharaohs, and specifically too little known about their individual personalities, for the subject to connect on a human level the way more recent history can. Gardiner’s choice to present pre-dynastic Egypt out of chronological sequence at the end of the book doesn’t help matters.

Gardiner’s writing doesn’t always help; it’s not that he’s a bad stylist on the sentence level, but he doesn’t seem to have understood how to construct a paragraph. Again and again paragraphs sprawl shapelessly for a page or more. One wishes a bit more craft had gone into the shaping of the text.

I can understand why this was a valuable book in its time; I’m not sure how much of it has been superseded in the past near-half-century, but as I say, I have read that it was being used as a textbook in an Egyptian history class. There’s a lot of information in the book; but lacking human context, it’s difficult to keep that information in memory, difficult to make it connect with anything, difficult to give it a human face. On one level, it has to be admitted that Gardiner accomplished just what he set out to do — he wrote a book containing exactly the information he wanted, and leaving out what was not relevant to his theme. But on another level, I can’t help but think that according to his stated aim, he failed. This is not the sort of book that I can see easily sparking the imagination.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Readings 2K9: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
by M.R. James

The Penguin edition I read contained both Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, first published 1904, and More Ghost Stories, published 1911. It’s surprising to think of these stories being written so late (realising that some, at least, were written at least as far back as the 1890s); there’s an apolitical conservatism, a Victorian stillness to them. The ghosts and horrors are never explicit, never broached directly, but approached elliptically. A review quote on the back cover speaks of the “academic reticence” of the style, which is as neat a way of putting it as any. And it gets at something else key to these stories; there’s a definitely academic tone to them, a concern with texts and provenance. With history, as well, and with thought; James expects his readers to think as they read, to assemble clues for themselves.

It’s quite possible that James forsakes a certain amount of horror in his intellectual style; H.P. Lovecraft’s brief capsule description of the plot of “Count Magnus” (in his essay “Supernatural Terror in Literature”) is probably more frightening than James’ actual tale. But on the other hand, it allows James to lure the reader in, to almost let them forget that they’re reading a ghost story. James conveys the character of everyday life very well, an unobtrusive characteristic of his stories which helps to emphasise the fantastic when it does occur.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Readings 2K9: Briefly Noted

This is an update post, to say that I've read Graceling by Kristin Cashore; a full review should be forthcoming from me elsewhere (more on that later, when it happens). I acquired the book in 2009, so it doesn't count in terms of cutting into the unread books around the house. That means out of a total of five books read so far this month, three have actually counted to my overall goal.

Luckily, I'm the sort of reader who always has a bunch of books on the go at once. So those numbers should be changing soon. 

Readings 2K9: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein
by Peter Ackroyd

I’ve been following Peter Ackroyd’s writing for some time now, both his fiction and non-fiction. He’s one of the most English of English writers, deeply involved with his country’s history and literature. His non-fiction includes biographies of great English heroes of the imagination (Dickens, Blake, Thomas More), and biographies as well of places (London, the Thames River). His novels are often elaborate pastiches, though one, The Plato Papers, is an extravagant science fiction. His new novel, The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, re-imagines Mary Shelley’s most famous novel as a London farce, a kind of cockney black comedy.

It’s a strange creature.

The novel’s world seems a bit off kilter; we meet a young cockney poet studying medicine named Jack Keat, not John Keats. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s first wife is not a suicide but the subject of an unsolved murder. Oh, and electricity restores the dead to life. But there’s a reason for all this, as we find out on the last page; for the novel ends not with one twist ending, but two, and it has to be said that the final twist is one perfectly in character for the genre Ackroyd’s playing with, calling to mind as it does thoughts of German Expressionist film.

“Playing with” is the operative phrase. In Albion, his study of the English imagination, Ackroyd identified the gothic as a characteristic English form. His last novel, The Siege of Troy, was a full-blown gothic in which an archaeological dig site replaced the traditional gloomy mansion. Now The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein pushes the form yet further, resurrecting the broad comic relief which was an element of the eighteenth-century gothic and allying it with figures out of proto-Dickensian London. The book becomes not only an evocation of the gothic and of the English past and English imagination, but of Ackroyd’s own career, a re-mix of his own tropes; so that as his last book was a study of the Thames, for example, thus the river features prominently here, as does the element of water in general.

I haven’t said much about the plot up to this point; this is in general not a plot-heavy or plot-centred book. It does follow the overall pattern of Shelley’s novel, but takes its time introducing the monster, to that for the first hundred pages or so the book is lacking in tension. Ackroyd’s style is smooth enough that this doesn’t seem to matter. That said, the voice he adopts for Frankenstein is less distinctive than I might have expected, given Ackroyd’s talent for pastiche and evocation of period. But then, he seems to be trying an unusual trick with the character, setting him up as a straight man who never gets the joke, the foreigner in London out of his depth, the butt of every gag. 

And Ackroyd is a man who knows London humour; its development over time, its sources and roots. Just as he knows the history of the city and its mentalities across centuries. At the same time as working with this comedic and urban material, Ackroyd mixes in traditional Romantic imagery — inspiration, lightning as the fire of creation, above all the idea of the double or shadow-self. The two strands don’t really seem to mix; that’s a pity, because one sense that if they had, new depths might have been found to both. It may be that I don’t see this happening because I don’t know London well enough; that is, that I’m missing out on the jokes or the resonances to be found in Frankenstein’s description of a given street or neighbourhood, which the ideal reader might be meant to contrast against the state of said places in the present day.

Ackroyd’s use of historical characters like the Shelleys and Byron is also somewhat disappointing. They’re a bit lackluster. Shelley certainly does some unusual things, and occasionally displays some surprising erudition, but to me there seems to be a quality of thought in the historical Shelley in particular which is missing in Ackroyd’s character. It’s notable that in Ackroyd’s corpus so far, the Romantics are largely notable by their absence. Still, Shelley comes off as interesting enough to be a credible subject for Victor Frankenstein’s unspoken homoerotic crush.

Ackroyd, himself gay, often makes homosexuality a theme in his writing. The story of Frankenstein resonates with this, and especially with the repression of homosexuality, the denial of one’s true self — it plays with notions of fertility and sterility, of doubleness and otherness, of the shadow, of the hidden part of the soul. So in Ackroyd’s novel, Victor Frankenstein’s monster represents the part of himself that he will not allow himself to look at. Mary Shelley’s monster makes a blood-curdling declamation to his creator that “I shall be with you on your wedding night!” — here, the creature asks hypothetically “What if I were to appear on your wedding night?” only to be told that his own existence makes it impossible for Victor to marry. Without going into details, the twist ending works to make this point; it establishes the centrality of this theme to the overall novel.

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein is an intriguing book, but one which feels somehow less than vital; it’s an interesting rewrite of its original text, but not somehow necessary in the way Shelley’s novel feels necessary. It’s well worth reading, but it feels like a mix of interesting ingredients which don’t ultimately quite cohere to become more than the sum of its parts. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Readings 2K9: Blenheim

Blenheim: Battle For Europe
by Charles Spencer

This is a solid work of narrative history, arguing for the importance of the 1704 Battle of Blenheim in the overall history of Europe. For Spencer, the battle marked the beginning of the decline of French military power on the continent. A skeptic might argue that the advent of Napoleon less than a hundred years later mitigates the point somewhat, but Spencer certainly makes an efficient case for the battle being a turning point in the War of the Spanish Succession, which itself went some way toward defining the political map of Europe — establishing Spain and France as separate countries, for example.

The story of the Battle of Blenheim is dramatic: a general in late middle age, the Duke of Marlborough, marches his men 250 miles in a move hidden even from his allies, in a desperate attempt to bring his enemies to battle before they can launch an attack against the empire at the heart of a grand alliance struggling against the greatest military power of the age. That said, the details which surround the core of the story are legion. The War of the Spanish Succession itself is neither well-known nor easy to summarise; and other than Marlborough and his ally, Prince Eugène of Savoy, there are few great personalities involved. The battle was long — beginning at 8 AM, it lasted until 9 PM — and complex, with a number of reversals spread over several interlinked fronts. Spencer manages to make the details comprehensible, presenting events chronologically, but breaking away when necessary for as long as a chapter-length in order to provide context or biographical detail. It tends to blunt narrative drive, and Spencer does double back from time to time in providing information from different perspectives, but is overall effective.

The most curious decision here is to underplay some of the hard calls Marlborough made. Most notably, after arriving in Bavaria in July, he had to find a way to lure his enemies out of their defenses into an open battle; his solution was to lay waste to the countryside, burning villages and terrorising the inhabitants. This was controversial even among his allies. Spencer doesn't sell this decision short, but more discussion of what Marlborough was thinking — even if Marlborough wrote little or nothing about this tactic, that very absence should be notable — would have been nice.

On the other hand, Spencer does make effective use of memoirs, diaries, and letters from both Marlborough and the men who followed him, as well as their allies and enemies. Generally, Spencer is very effective at presenting the realities of eighteenth-century warfare, from the appalling medical conditions to the difficulties of navigating bad terrain while under artillery bombardment. This almost tactile sense of the period helps make his description of the battle of Blenheim succeed, even when the movements of different detachments of men grows complex.

Overall, this is a valuable resource both for the battle of Blenheim and for descriptions of the strategy and tactics of warfare in the period. I do wish that the publishers had included another map in it —there are good small-scale maps for individual battles (though maps showing Blenheim at different points during the day of the battle might have been useful), and a good overall map of Europe during the War of the Spanish Succession, but a map showing the route of Marlborough's march would have been very useful; Spencer casually mentions a number of towns along his way which I can't find in my atlas, and I would have liked to be able to follow the geography more closely. Still, that minor caveat aside, there's no doubt that this is a useful and engaging book.

(And a note with respect to the overall purpose of these posts — I took this book out from the my local public library, so it doesn't count as far reducing the unread matter in my apartment. The count for the year so far is thus two books down, three overall. More, I hope, to come soon.)

Friday, January 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: Chronicles of the Black Company

Chronicles of The Black Company
(Includes The Black Company, Shadows Linger, and The White Rose)
by Glen Cook

I’ve been hearing good things about Glenn Cook’s Black Company series for quite some time now. But those good things never got past the high concept of the books: In a high-fantasy world torn by a war between Good and Evil, the Black Company is a company of mercenary soldiers hired by the side of Evil. That’s a nice enough idea (and it turns out there’s a little bit more to it, notably a competing force for Evil), but high concepts alone don’t make a story work. Still, when I saw that Tor had reprinted the first three books in the series in a one-volume anthology, I decided to give it a whirl. Turns out that the good word about the series was justified. 

The high concept is developed thoughtfully; in Cook’s hands, questions of good and evil, of personal honour against larger issues of morality, come alive and are developed into major themes. Croaker, the historian and doctor of the Black Company, has — like the rest of the Company — always lived by a certain code of behaviour. Which basically boils down to: live and die for the Company, fulfill your contracts, and don’t rape kids. But the Company’s latest master makes him start to wonder whether there’s something more; the experiences that befall him and his mates lead him to question whether there might, in fact, be broader issues of good and evil. 

So Croaker begins to change; and as the books go on, other characters (not just the ones in the Company) find themselves struggling with similar issues. In fact, as the books go on, they grow more structurally complex, contrasting Croaker and his experience with the perceptions of other characters. Impressively, Cook manages to integrate these other sections into Croaker’s first-person narration. It’s understated, and quite clever. 

The cleverness of the books, the concern with thematic material, is almost always understated, and brought out without comment. This makes their overall cynicism much more convincing. The more you think about the world of the books, the darker it seems. For example, almost always, the really transformative events, the things that really start to get the characters thinking about their lives, comes from an encounter with evil, with wickedness. Not from goodness, which is often ignored. Only when characters find themselves facing with something which goes where they do not, do they then begin to think of being better than they are.

This sort of thematic depth is also brought out through the creation of a vivid character. Croaker’s voice is not a million miles away from Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin, and that is no bad thing. The books convincingly evoke a soldier’s perspective (apparently the series has a strong following among the military). It should be noted that the books are not terribly concerned with the verisimilitude of medieval life and warfare, though. I found I didn’t mind that, which surprised me. But something rings true. It’s as though Cook has translated his story from a primary source, not only in terms of language, but in terms of attitudes as well; mentalities and outlooks are described in contemporary ways, but the sense of something timeless remains behind them (and questions of translation, of texts and of language, do have an influence on the series).

The books have an interesting tension between adhering to and subverting the fantasy genre. On the one hand, the Company is the kind of ultra-competent close-knit band which many genre stories feature; the kind of group into which the reader can easily project themselves. And Cook does cheat a bit in describing the blackness of the Black Company; he mentions that the men of the Company rape and murder, but refrains from foregrounding these kinds of incidents. More could have been done with this material.

But then on the other hand, the series is anti-romantic in many ways. There’s a close-mouthed stone-faced killer; but by the end of the series, the books conclude that this character’s emotional detachment is a flaw, not a strength. The gender politics are intriguing: There are two main female characters, one the leader of the forces of Good, the other one of the leaders of Evil. But both of them, in different ways, undercut these roles — that is, they are or become more than the roles into which history has placed them. Croaker’s romantic fantasies about the Lady, the evil queen, are relentlessly mocked, not least by Croaker himself; but one of the interesting aspects of the books is the movement from those fantasies to a deeper understanding of that character, the choices she makes, and why.

The books are fast and clever. The plot does threaten to get a bit out of control by the end of the third book — that is, threatens to distract from the theme and from the characters, rather than serving the theme and illustrating the characters — as mysteries and betrayals proliferate. But things ultimately dovetail in a satisfying way. I find myself looking forward to reading the other seven books in the series, as well as Cook’s other stories. I find there’s more potential in these characters, in this world. I want to know where the characters go from here. I want to know what any avid reader wants to know: what happens next?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Readings 2k9: A Fair Country

A Fair Country
by John Ralston Saul

The first book I completed in 2009. It was a good way to start the year. I've been following Saul's writing since the early 90s, with his "philosophical trilogy" of Voltaire's Bastards, A Doubter's Companion, and The Unconscious Civilization. Those books dissected things wrong with Western society-at-large; disconnections between understandings and aims, between aims and achievements. His next book, On Equilibrium, tried to suggest remedies; it encouraged a move away from reason, or what passes for reason among the élites of society, and toward a more humanistic balance of other qualities, including memory, common sense, and creativity. His book Reflections of a Siamese Twin was an attempt at reconsidering Canada, its history and reality. It could be seen as applying some of the ideas in the earlier books to the case of Saul's home country. A Fair Country demands to be read in light of the previous books; another consideration of Canada, it again considers the failure of the élite class (in Canada), again imagines new ways to understand Canadian history, again suggests ways to construct society with less of a ruinous focus on reason.

A Fair Country does this by arguing that Canada is a Métis country, a country born of — or at least a country that acts in line with — Native concepts of integration of the other, of fairness, of equality. It's an interesting, and in Saul's hands exciting, argument. Saul's approach here is a re-imagining of Canada as a unique thing in the world. It suggests what we have to offer to the global community. It analyses who we are; the characteristics we can't see, or often have not seen. It's powerful, and as a Canadian, as someone who has read a fair amount of Canadian history, I find it convincing and suggestive. This is a reading of Canada and its history as a creative act.

The immediate objection, and one that the book never squarely addresses, is to wonder why and how the social ideas that Saul identifies as being characteristic of Canadian Native societies developed over such a vast geographical spread, in coastal and land-locked nations, among peoples who sometimes had no obvious connection to each other at all. This is a worrying omission. Presumably, Saul would argue that the things he's talking about are things common to North America, or the Americas in general, and that the United States was not influenced by these ideas because that country always imagined itself as an embodiment of the ideas of the European Enlightenment. He does note in what is effectively an aside that the realities of South and Central America seems to resemble what he identifies as the Canadian reality. It's viable, but tenuous; I can't help but think the book might have benefited from examining these sorts of issues a little bit more.

But to me Saul's arguments about Canadian history do have the ring of truth, particularly in his analysis of what was happening in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his view, the European colonists in the lands which would later be a part of Canada were deeply affected by the Native societies around them — indeed, not only around them, but integrated within them, or even better, into which they became integrated. Saul gives several examples of how intermarriage counted as ‘marrying up' for Europeans, and how European and Native negotiators interacted; how the more perceptive of the Europeans came away with a respect for the way the Natives conducted business. For Saul, this shaped later aspects of Canada, such as Confederation, even without explicit Native involvement. Hence, he argues, Canada is not fundamentally a Judeo-Christian country; it is not only not a traditional Western nation-state, it is not traditionally Western.

The colonial mentality which has marked much of Canadian history can thus be identified easily in both past and present: if somebody is acting according to ideals developed in New York or London or Paris simply because these ideals come from Imperial centres, they're acting like a colonist. Canada's élites, says Saul, often operate along these lines; hence, the country's decline as an economic power, its increasing reliance on the resource sector of its economy, its increasing lack of control over its own resources (directly caused by foreign ownership within the Canadian economy), and the inability of the élites to recognise these things as problematic.

Many of the arguments in the book have been broadly foreshadowed in Saul's previous books. Canada as a place that embraces complexity. The significance of the oral as opposed to the written word. The incompetence of the élites, their tendency to not act in the service of the larger community without even realising it. New concepts and symbols emerge as well: the relevance of the Native experience, the significance of the word Welfare as opposed to the word Order in early Canadian historical documents, the image of society as an ever-expanding circle constantly integrating new arrivals within itself. In that sense, the book is a step forward; Saul keeps thinking, and the book reflects the expansion of his previous thoughts, both in terms of philosophy and of history (it's interesting reading the book not long after Ronald Wright's What is America?, which looks at the United States implicitly from a Canadian perspective, and devotes much time to considering the Native experience in the lands which now make up that country).

Having said all this, there are areas of Saul's arguments which I would argue with or which seem to me to be incomplete. These have mainly to do with his thinking on place and on creativity. Saul identifies an aspect of the colonial mentality as placelessness; a sense that the colonial is only in Canada as an accident, that Canada (or other colony) is an unreal place, and that real places are elsewhere, closer to the heart of Empire. This is to some extent familiar from his other books, and so far I have no argument with it. Saul then goes on to argue that part of the ineluctable reality of Canada is the nature of its place, and that there are five fundamental aspects of place in Canada: urban places, agricultural rural places, wilderness places of forest and rock, then barren places north of that (effectively a second wilderness place), and then the subarctic North proper. Saul claims that the latter three places cannot change their use; that the wilderness cannot be made rural or urban. I'm not entirely sure about this; in particular, I don't see why, if patterns of settlement and climate continue to shift, urban areas can't spring up in some of these places. But basically this is fair enough.

My problem is where Saul then takes this argument. After having defined a particular characteristic of Canada's urban centres — "They are gradually turning into primary sites of experimentation for the mixing of races and cultures" (p. 46) — he then tries to minimise their importance, by saying, for example, that "neither the urban nor the rural have been able to turn themselves into Canada's underlying source of wealth" (p. 47) and that to embrace the urban as of primary importance "is to cut ourselves off from our particular reality — to cut ourselves off from ourselves, our real life in our real country." By pages 283-4, Saul is saying that cities are potentially "new garrisons" (following from Northrop Frye's warning of a colonial "garrison mentality" in Canada, viewing the country as a small garrison of people from elsewhere fighting to maintain Imperial culture in a place with no inherent value of its own) which one way or another distances people from the land around them. In this way, argues Saul, city life risks dividing humans from the natural places which make up most of the country.

It seems to me that Saul is wrong here. It seems to me that the cities of Canada are (or should be) the particular reality of their citizens, and that an engagement with that reality by definition means that they cannot be garrisons in the sense he means; in other words, that cities are no more or less likely to be garrisons, to breed that colonial mentality, than any other place in Canada. If you're prepared to deny what's around you, you'll do so irrespective of where you are; if you're not, you probably won't.

I think further that Saul is looking at cities through the wrong lens. The question of how much wealth is generated by a given city is of interest in certain contexts, but, as he himself implies, not when examining the core nature of these places. That is, a city like Montréal is of primary importance as "a site of experimentation for the mixing of races and cultures"; I'd argue that this adheres fairly closely to the ideal of what a city is. I think a city is not primarily about generating wealth, any more than a human being is ‘about' eating and reproduction. Instead, both are about art, about culture, about history: about creation. About making new things. Especially, about making the greater world around them new. You can argue that cities might be more efficient if they made more money, but I don't think you could argue that this would make them better places, or more "real". (In fact, it seems to me Saul's missed a bet here: are Canadian cities perhaps unique due to an integration of rural and wilderness areas into their history and ongoing development in ways which are not common in the rest of the world?)

Now, Saul's general approach, that the idea of movement from hunter-gatherers to farmers to urban life is simply one of unquestionable progress to be unreservedly hailed, is one I would agree with. My point of disagreement, ultimately, is with his analysis of culture, of creativity. I think he undervalues these things, and I see this elsewhere in the book.

A Fair Country is a book concerned with language — can you write a book about Canada and not have it be concerned with language? — and it has many wise things to say about language use, particularly in terms of law or philosophy. But I have qualms with its analysis or assumptions about the creative use of language.

Consider the following statement: "Our universities — anglophone and francophone — are largely constructed as pale imitations of European models led by language. And so ideas — to say nothing of literature and history — are separated out by language, as if that were the ultimate statement of meaning, as if an Alberian novel had more to say to a francophone or a Sri Lankan novel had more to say to an anglophone just because it was written in their language, even if the experiences and influences are completely different." These sentences are problematic because Saul's confusing two different things: ideas, and literature. He's right that it's foolish to expect philosophy and history to appeal to people because they're written in a specific language; in those cases, the ideas are what matter, and the literary form, including language, is accidental. Literature is a different kettle of fish. Novels and poems (to a lesser extent, because less purely verbal, film and plays and graphic novels) are language. A translation is really a rewriting; it's not the original text. What that text is, is something dependent upon the language in which it's written.

For me specifically, I don't see why a Sri Lankan novel might have any more or less to say to me than an English-language novel set in Montréal; it might have more to say to me due to other aspects of it's subject, of course, and then again it might be more immediately accessible because I'll have fewer assumptions to set aside — the extrapolations that I and the hypothetical other Montréal writer may have made about our common experiences will be different, which is presumably something that's less likely to occur with a Sri Lankan writer. And, of course, I think most people read (I certainly do) not to confirm their reality, but to broaden it, to find new things, to in a sense experience new feelings and the perceptions of some other person. From this perspective, a foreign author writing in one's first language is a fantastic luxury. But the truth is that in the end experiences, shared or not, are irrelevant; the use of language is all. It is language that makes a text.

To be even more specific: I find, let's say, both Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version and the poetical works of Émile Nelligan to have some relevance to me, as a person and as a writer. I don't mean that latter in any specific sense or any precise influence, only that these creative works seems to me to harmonise with something in me (questions of relative quality, of course, are completely beside the point here). I'd say those works are more relevant to me than, say, The Great Gatsby, Vanity Fair, or Une saison en enfer. They are less relevant to me than, say, John Crowley's Ægypt quartet, the poems of Percy Shelley, or Notre-Dame de Paris. Same sequence of writers: American English, British English, French. Widely different reactions. The point: the country of origin of a writer is not significant in determining whether they speak to a reader. It is entirely a function of the use of a shared language. This recognition is lacking in A Fair Country.

Put another way: the best way to teach literature in English (for example) is in just that form — incorporating texts from around the world which were written in the English language. It is not as desirable, but probably still somewhat useful, to teach the literature of England, the literature of the United States, the literature of Canada. My experience at a primarily English-language Canadian literature tended to be a mixture of both, with the first predominating. I read English writers, American writers, and Canadian writers, all in English. But I also read some French-Canadian writers, in translation. According to Saul, this is apparently unusual, as he claims Canadian universities "soft-pedal the idea of Canadian literature" (p. 99). I can only say that I haven't seen that in any immediately obvious way.

Three last points about this subject: One, the quote from Saul above is in the context of arguing that creativity needs an interrelationship with place to flourish. I'm a bit more agnostic than that; I think creativity is wilder than that, and that while a healthy relationship with place is likely to spur creation, it's not absolutely needed. Two, Saul refers in this section to Canadian literature as "successful," which I think needs to be qualified; it seems to me that Canadian literature has not yet produced a story or character with world-wide resonance, something like Faust or Don Quixote. On the other hand, there may well be something in the Native myths which are just less well-known; and it may be that William Gibson, in effectively inventing the genre of cyberpunk, produced that kind of broad imaginative creation that I'm talking about here.

Thirdly, Saul consistently uses the word "Romantic" and its derivatives — in the general sense of Romanticism — as a term of opprobrium. Given the incredible range of meanings for that word, I would have liked to have seen some hints from Saul about what Romanticism means to him. I'm not sure his arguments about imaginative creation hold up given his perspective on Romanticism. On page 276: "If we cannot explain ourselves to ourselves, no one outside Canada will be able to imagine us. We need to be extremely clear, unromantic, comfortable with what is original or atypical about the Canadian experiment in order to create an imaginative space." Is a "clear, unromantic" perspective compatible with "creat[ing] an imaginative space"? Maybe; it's not obvious either way. Four pages later, Saul refers to "an obsession with clarity" as a Western, un-Canadian, characteristic. Which seems contradictory in a non-illuminating manner. At the very least, given Saul's interest in place, some interaction with Romanticism, and its own obsessions with place, would be intriguing.

These thoughts aside, A Fair Country is an important book. It's a search for a Canadian philosophy; a philosophy derived from place, of particular interest in these days when the apparent placelessness of the internet engages with the specificity of experience in specific places. Saul's own personal experience of the country and his status here inform the book; he can draw on his experience of what he has seen and learned first-hand about the country, and presumably he can write with some assurance that the book will become a part of the country's discourse — that what he says will be heard.

That's an encouraging thought, because Saul's voice is worth hearing. His articulation, the style of his arguments, are worth reading, worth engaging with. Above all, his passion for his country, and his engagement with its history, is worth experiencing; it has the capacity to inspire engagement in others.

Friday, January 2, 2009


Well, I'm back.

Funny how days can slip away from you. Or months. Or years. Well ... I've learned one thing about blogging: it's more difficult than it looks. At least, more time-consuming.

Still, it's long past time that I do something about this place. So: I've tidied it up, changed the layout, and hope to be posting more regularly in the future. By which I basically mean "posting in the future." My aim is to at least check in to list which books I've finished reading in 2009. Hopefully even write a few sentences about them. But definitely maintain a running count of how much I've read.

See, this is what I'm thinking: I have, by rough estimation, about a thousand unread books lying about the house. I want to try to make some inroads into that mass of text this year. The problem, of course, is that while I read books, I also buy them. So it's a running battle to try to stay ahead of myself. I'm hoping a written, public record will actually inspire me to read more books this year than I bring in to the house. I'll mention borrowed books, maybe even write about them, but won't factor them into my running count.

The real trick? Getting enough of a head start to overcome the amount of books I'll be buying at this year's McGill Book Fair. Last year I picked up about 130 volumes of various sorts. So by mid-October, I'll have to have read at least 100 more books than I'll have bought in order to stay in the game.

So that's the plan. Another minor wrinkle: One of my Christmas presents this year was a new and impressive-looking version of Porius, by John Cowper Powys, with the complete text presented as the author intended it. I've got a bunch of other books by Powys, some of which I've read and some of which I have not. I'd like to read and reread as many as possible (Ideally getting through his complete works, but I can't find a library near me that has a copy of Ducdame. Time for an inter-library loan, perhaps) in the order in which they were written. Can I get through to Porius by the end of the year? Seems unlikely. But it's something to keep in mind. A side quest, if you will.

Let's see where this goes.