It strangles you, this life. You're surrounded by weird people ... and after living with them for two or three years, little by little, you get to be weird yourself.
Dr. Astrov, from Uncle Vanya
I GREW UP and still live in a suburb a half-hour drive north of downtown Montreal. Whenever I do come into the city to attend a literary event, I'm asked the same question by fellow writers: why do you live out there? Lately, I've gotten into the habit of saying that the reason I live where I do is because it's so Chekhovian. That generally puts a stop to any further inquiry.
Of course, it had to happen. Eventually someone had to ask me to elaborate, and someone did at this year's QSPELL Awards gala. (QSPELL stands for the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English Language Literature.)
"What do you mean?" a travel writer asked. "Well, actually it's a lot like this," I said, stalling for time, sipping my single complimentary glass of champagne, and gesturing toward the crowd at the Ritz Carlton Hotel. The chandeliered Oval Room was elbow-to-elbow with the usual suspects, virtually the entire anglo literary community - writers, publishers, editors, critics, publicists, and even a few readers. (I realized that if a bomb dropped on the room, no one in francophone Quebec -or in Toronto, for that matter - would notice.) The travel writer wasn't satisfied with my reply, but at least I knew what I meant, probably for the first time. The fact is that if you're an English writer living in Montreal today, it's impossible not to feel like you've wandered into a production of Chekhov. Writing at the end of the 19th century, Chekhov dedicated himself to "taking the pulse of a dying world" and recording its "hour of sunset." And while the sun hasn't set here yet, it's certainly getting late in the afternoon.
The past - when English was still allowed on signs; when people still complained because English wasn't allowed on signs - seems too distant to talk about, the future too uncertain. Most of the people I know who are making plans are making them for someplace else, going on about Toronto, New York, London, or Hong Kong the way that Irina in Three Sisters goes on about Moscow.
Even if we do stay, we may wake up one morning to find our already small local audience gone. A survey done last summer revealed that 35 per cent of young anglophones now plan to leave the province - a number that doubles if Quebec chooses independence. Irina and her sisters never leave and I'm guessing a lot of us won't, either, hut we are, like Chekhov's characters, talking about it more than ever.
So much, in fact, that the most unlikely people are beginning to listen. 1 heard recently about a group of anthropologists from the University of Montreal who asked the owner of an English bookstore if they could visit his store - like Dian Fossey dropping in on an endangered species of gorillas - and observe the natives in their natural habitat. A camera crew from Radio Canada (the CBC's French television network) was at this year's QSPELL awards, too, compiling footage for a documentary they're making on Quebec anglos.
"I have the sense that we're becoming like the Mud Men of New Guinea. We are now rare enough to be studied," said Don Gillmor, one of the QSPELL judges for non-fiction this year. Two books short-listed in non-fiction this year offered proof that our community's mind is more on the dubious future A Different Vision: The English in Quebec in the 1990s by Reed Scowen - and the glorious past Remembrance of Grandeur: The Anglo-Protestant Elite, 1900-1950 by Margaret Westley - than the present. The winning book - Donald MacKay's Flight from Famine: The Coming of the Irish to Canada - went back even further into Quebec history for its subject matter.
"If the community does continue to disappear," Gillmor added, "you could end up with a half-dozen people winning the award every second year." (QSPELL has already had three two-time winners in its brief four-year history.) And whoever's left at the Ritz gets to switch off the chandelier.
Chekhov insisted on describing his plays as farces and comedies even when they were about as funny as a toothache. During the first reading of Three Sisters, the producer recalled how surprised its playwright was to find the actors weeping over his "happy comedy." Expecting the worst, Chekhov hoped for the best. The QSPELL awards evoke a similar feeling in me.
Three years ago I served as a judge in the fiction category. I accepted mainly because I was flattered to be asked. After the winner was announced one of the two runners-up broke down and cried, the other one joked about not talking to me any more and then proceeded to do just that. In retrospect, the experience was so unpleasant that I agreed, in true Chekhovian fashion, to do it again the following year.
This year I went to the Ritz Carlton a symbol of the ancien regime if there ever was one - free of any obligations and free to gauge the mood of the room. I was reminded of a recent television adaptation of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. What struck me about the characters' intense, self-involved dialogue was not how easy it was to make fun of them - it was - but how easy it was to sympathize with them. Accepting their marginal role in a changing society, they're still not ready to exit the scene. They hang around instead: discussing everything, confronting very little. It makes them seem, in the end, more endearing than short-sighted. I think what I admire most about this community is its ability to go right on mingling, in the face of devastating statistics, newspaper headlines, and the bleak big picture. We may be holding on by a thread but, as John Cheever, another chronicler of decline, said, the thread holds.
So while everyone from Alliance Quebec (one of QSPELL's founding sponsors) to Jacques Parizeau is coming up with ways to keep anglophones here - "When a lot of remedies are suggested for a disease," Chekhov wrote in The Cherry Orchard, "that means it can't be cured" - writers at the QSPELL gala went right on being preoccupied with literary questions. Like why weren't the nominees in the poetry category - Rue Sainte Famille by Charlotte Hussey and Woman Listening by Paddy Webb - announced along with the winner, Eric Ormsby's Bavarian Shrine? Or why didn't a woman win for fiction?
The gender split in the fiction category this year underscored what is becoming a QSPELL sore point - the fact that no woman has ever won any QSPELL award outright. (Erin Moure shared the prize for poetry last year.) Mary di Michele, one of the fiction judges, told me that the reason Kenneth Radu's short-story collection A Private Performance was chosen over Claudia Morrison's novel From the Foot of the Mountain was because her fellow judges -Neil Bissoondath and P. Scott Lawrence -didn't get it. (The other nominee was Keith Harrison's novel Eyemouth.) The reason they didn't get it, she added, was because they are men. "I did get what Morrison was trying to do," Lawrence said. "I just didn't think she did it well enough."
For his part, Radu felt the debate about gender bias detracted from his award and his book. He also told me, a few weeks later, that he and Morrison were no longer speaking to each other.
My guess is we'll all be on speaking terms for next year's awards. After all, we're a community: forced to get closer as we get smaller. Weirdness may be inevitable and contagious, as Dr. Astrov says in Uncle Vanya, but maybe that's not such a bad thing. If it means we're set in our ways, it also means we're stubborn enough to stick it out, despite declining demographics. And as literary communities go, we're not as petty as they are in Halifax, where the locals are busy playing politics, ousting Dawn Rae Downton, the conscientious president of their writers' federation. I also doubt we're as taken with ourselves here as the literary community in Toronto, where silly novels by Daniel Richler and David Gilmour are celebrated on the cover of Saturday Night and on "The journal," respectively.
So if I do expect the worst and keep hoping for the best, it's because I realized something else at this year's QSPELL gala: I like my colleagues and, on the rare occasions we get together, I enjoy their company. We whine and complain a lot, but we're still here, doing enough good work to pat ourselves on the back annually without it becoming unbearably embarrassing. "I see salvation in individuals scattered here and there," Chekhov said, "for they're the ones who really matter, though they are few."