IT IS ALWAYS a shock to meet an old lover with somebody new, and I felt a pang of jealousy when I encountered Talbot Papineau in Sandra Gwyn's Tapestry of War. Papineau was killed at Passchendaele in 1917, and I fell in love with him 60 years later when I read his war letters in the National Archives. I made Papineau the tragic hero of my novel Willie, A Romance, and quoted extensively from his letters there as well as briefly in my documentary. A Terrible Beauty, the Art of Canada at War. Gwyn has also found Papineau's letters irresistible, and since his commanding officer in the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Agar Adamson, also left his war letters to the archives, the interlocking stories of the two men - they cordially disliked each other - form the dominant threads in Tapestry of War.
With their combination of cold observation, macabre humour, and flirtatious charm, Papineau's letters are more powerful literature than Rupert Brooke's patriotic poetry, and the book's insistence on equating Papineau with England's "lost" generation - "the Pierre Elliott Trudeau who never was" as she puts it - is irritating and false: Trudeau scorned British jingoism and Papineau, had he lived, could have hoped for nothing more than a minor post in Mackenzie King's cabinet, a fate to which death was clearly preferable. Adamson's letters are so prosaic Gwyn rarely quotes from them. She writes instead about his wife, Mabel, a rich Toronto socialite who spent the war in Belgium aiding refugees in order to avoid her husband. Agar, a cigar-and-whisky old sport who lived well on Mabel's money, apparently enlisted to avoid her.
I do not share Gwyn's fascination with the unpleasant Adamsons - she wrote about them earlier in The Private Capital - and a strained marriage between two selfish people may generate hate, but not the lust this book equates with passion. Papineau's letters are cool; they were written to a pen-pal, Beatrice Fox, a young American woman he never met, and while she fell hard for him, she ruefully realized that, like Dante's Beatrice, she was largely a figment of his literary ambition. Talbot fell in love with death.
Such a passion is beyond the Harlequin banality of Tapestry of War, a book relentlessly determined to interpret the terror and pain of the Great War as a not very amusing interlude of gossip and intrigue. As with The Private Capital, Gwyn centres her book around the twittery twerps at Rideau Hall, and it takes them seriously: this book is not about colonialism, it is colonial: a pompous crowd of handsome, elegant poohbahs stand about in uniform while Canada COMES OF AGE. I can hear Lome Greene's voice (from the next war) and see the cameras rolling for a Canadian remake of War and Peace.
In the Great War, military engagements were meticulously recorded in official war diaries, making the diary the literary genre of combat. Although the soldiers were forbidden to keep private journals and their letters home were censored, many, like Papineau, broke the rules and wrote the emotional, human story of the war. The problem for an anthologist today is to choose from the thousands of letters and memoirs in Canadian archives those which are most meaningful.
Gwyn limits her selection to men and women of the middle class, especially members of Canada's post-war liberal elite. Yet the dull war experiences of Brooke Claxton and Harold Innis add nothing to the story, and Lester Pearson is hastily skipped over; Pearson's biographer, John English, recently exposed Mike's war record as embarrassingly unheroic. In Tapestry of War, all the characters must be beautiful, brilliant, witty, and brave, even the hateful Max Aitken, who parlayed his meddling in the Canadian war effort into a propaganda victory for his publishing empire and a peerage for himself. Those who do not fit the stereotype, such as Canada's minister of militia, Sam Hughes, certainly one of the most powerful and astonishing players in this war game, simply disappear from the book, leaving holes as large as shell craters around which Gwyn glibly gallops in hot pursuit of unsubstantiated liaisons and imaginary amours.
Because the personal relationships in Tapestry of War are so devoid of genuine passion, a tone of prurience hangs over the book like a pall of poison gas. It begins with the diaries of Ethel Chadwick, a fatuous fruit-fly who hovered around the decaying court at Rideau Hall in the forlorn hope of nabbing a British officer. Miss Chadwick, a joke in her own time, had no meaningful relationship with the war, yet Gwyn devotes a third of the book to Ethel's pathetic flirtations and trivial jottings. When the egregious Ethel is finally snubbed at a silly party, Gwyn gives this event more weight and significance than the annihilation of the Royal Newfoundland regiment at the Somme, and goes so far as to suggest that as a result of her social humiliation, Ethel was a casualty of the war. Talbot Papineau was also a casualty of the war: he was blown to bits. The book's implied analogy between Ethel Chadwick's hurt pride and Talbot Papineau's death I find a deeply offensive insult to all of the 66,000 Canadians who were killed in the Great War.
In spite of its portentous title, Tapestry of War focuses on the often tawdry private lives of a tiny group of essentially irrelevant people; the major figures - Laurier, Sir Arthur Currie, Nellie McClung remain offstage or hidden in the shadows. If Tapestry of War depicts Canada's coming of age, then a vulgar and depressing country we must be.