by John Goddard
MONTREAL'S ENGLISH-LANGUAGE writing community is like its hockey team: rich in tradition and glorious achievement. At any gathering of the city's anglophone writers, the great names are conjured up like old photographs circling the dressing room, or banners hanging from the rafters.
"In the past when one did something significant in poetry," said D. G. Jones at the latest event, "one would get invited to Frank Scott's living room." He was speaking to more than 400 people crowded into the glittery Oval Room of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for the second annual Quebec English-language book awards. "If John Glassco hadn't been a poet," he said in tribute to another of les glorieux no longer with us, "I couldn't have written this book."
Jones was accepting a prize for Balthazar and Other Poems, presented by the Quebec Society for the Promotion of EnglishLanguage Literature, formed a couple of years ago in a moment of Anglo insecurity. The oscillating language debate had hit one of its high amplitudes, and a shudder of alienation passed through the community -- a feeling of being at once cut off from francophone Quebec, yet distinct from the rest of Canada. A group of citizens said they were "concerned that the work of Quebec authors writing in English was not being sufficiently recognized," and announced prizes of $2,000 each for poetry, non-fiction, and fiction.
At the founding awards ceremony a year ago, the insecurities showed. Peter Blaikie was invited to speak as president of Alliance Quebec, the political lobby group for Englishlanguage rights, lending a circling-of thewagons feel to proceedings. "Society for the preservation of English- language literature," a few witty types remarked. Another parochial note was sounded when John Metcalf, known for kicking agianst literary cronyism, announced -- as head judge for fiction that the winner was his long-time friend Hugh Hood. Maybe Hood's book, The Motor Boys in Ottawa, deserved the prize, people said, but Metcalf's pivotal role smacked of conflict-of-interest.
This year the awards were celebrated in an atmosphere of confidence, maturity, and a ruthless appearance of fairness. Political passions seemed to have been vented in the fall provincial election: no mention was made of Alliance Quebec, and defensive talk gave way to phrases like "honouring and acclaiming our writers."
judges playing favourites might have given the poetry prize to Louis Dudek for Infinite Worlds: The Poetry of Louis Dudek, a career retrospective. Born in Montreal's east end, Dudek has been a fixture on the Quebec literary scene since the late 1930s. Not giving him the prize risked being seen as unappreciative. But it went to Balthazar and that was that. (Also in the running was Blue Sand, Blue Moon, a first collection by Mark Abley, book-page editor at the Montreal Gazette.)
"Being a judge is no bed of roses," said William Weintraub, head jurist for nonfiction and well- known author of The Underdogs, a satiric novel about Quebec's anglophone community. "You must creep around all summer with your nasty little secret ... knowing you may find yourself (on awards night) the recipient of vigorous reproach." But he and fellow judges unflinchingly gave the prize to Witold Rybczynski for The Most Beautiful House in the World -- the book least expected to win because Rybczynski won last year in the same category for a book on a similar topic, Home.
"I have nothing prepared," said the winner, clearly taken by surprise. "I'm impressed by the uncharacteristically Anglo abandon and extravagance." Runners-up were Louise Abbot for The Coast Way: A Portrait of the English on the Lower North Shore of the St. Lawrence, and Dominique Clift for the The Secret Kingdom: Interpretations of the Canadian Character.
In the fiction category, all three books nominated were first novels. Kenneth Radu won for Distant Relations, over David Homel's Electrical Storms, and Roma Gelblum-Ross's To Samarkand and Back.
Rookies are given long odds for the top
prize next year, however, when the new Mordecai Richler novel -- Solomon Gursky Was Here -- will be eligible. Richler is the Guy Lafleur of the literary circle, making a comeback with his first novel in nine years after securing a place in the Hall of Fame. He is one of les glorieux who has kept the Quebec Anglo literary scene on the map, and his winning a prize could never be seen as cronyism or clever politicking. He campaigned hard for the Equality Party during the Quebec election, believing his celebrity status might help the cause. But on awards night this year and last, he didn't even show up.