The occasion of this review is the 2000 republication of a 1936 novel. But Think of the Earth is not just any novel from that year, and Glenn Willmott's decision to prepare this new edition of the text, with introduction and notes, is not a casual one. Bertram Brooker's novel won the first Governor General's Award for Fiction in 1936¨and the cover of this new edition carries the familiar label used by contemporary publishers to announce this distinction. Glenn Willmott, a specialist in Canadian literature and cultural history, is positioning this novel as a key feature in his larger map of modernism in Canada. In reviewing this one publication, therefore, I am keenly aware of the larger enterprise of which it will form a part, and I will confess from the start that I am eager to see Willmott's larger study and support his project wholeheartedly.
A reassessment of modernism in Canada is long overdue. While such a reassessment may focus on one genre (in Willmott's project, on fiction), it must be interdisciplinary in scope. If a particular year is to be singled out for attention, then 1936 is a good one to start with, and if a particular writer is to be flagged as in some sense pivotal, then Brooker is that writer. Who, then, is Bertram Brooker and why should his 1936 novel be so significant? Why should we read this novel now, at the beginning of the 21st century?
Brooker (1888-1955) came to Canada from England in 1905. He settled in Portage la Prairie, but later moved to Toronto, where he spent the majority of his adult life. Although he worked at a number of jobs, from running a cinema to writing articles for newspapers, and, most successfully, advertising, we remember him today as a painter. His abstract, symbolic canvasses are in the permanent collections of most major galleries across Canada. He was a friend and associate of Herman Voaden, the avant-guard theatre teacher, director and playwright, of Lawren Harris, and of many other men active in the arts between the wars¨Frederick Housser, Charles Comfort, Roy Mitchell, and William Arthur Deacon, to name a few. Brooker was, moreover, a passionate advocate of the arts in this country and a champion of what he understood as modern art. In addition to his prize-winning novel, he wrote poems, plays, other fiction, and important essays on the arts. For a time, he was a voice and a practitioner to be reckoned with.
Think of the Earth is an unusual novel in some ways and not, at least to my mind, an entirely sucessful one. For a man who painted abstract cavasses like Sounds Assembling (1928) or even a quasi-expressionist portrait like the 1934 Phyllis (Piano! Piano!), which Willmott has chosen for the cover of this edition, the novel seems disappointingly unexperimental. I continue to believe, as I have said before, that Think of the Earth is a very conventional narrative from an artist who was not conventional in his visual art. Glenn Willmott, however, is challenging me to re-think my assessment, or, at the very least, to consider that assessment within the larger context of modernism. Willmott's claim is that Brooker's novel is in some ways a modernist novel and that Brooker himself must be taken seriously in those essays and comments in which he defends modernism in Canada.
Brooker's story is set in the early 20th century prairie town of Poplar Plains (based on Portage la Prairie). It covers three days and nights and concerns the uneasy encounter between the town's folk and an outsider called Tavistock. The town has one kind of cultural history and ethos and Tavistock has another. The town's character is practical and down-to-earth; its cultural life revolves around the land, the local railway, the local newspaper, and the simple Christianity represented by the local minister. Poplar Plains is untouched by the larger world of Canada, let alone the international scene, despite the fact that many of its inhabitants are recent immigrants. The arts have little or no role in this prairie society, and high-flown intellectual or mystical thought is suspect.
Tavistock, however, is the quintessential outsider: he is an artist, a former actor from England, an intellectual, and a mystic with a self-ordained mission. Poplar Plains is nothing more than a stop on his way to fulfilling his spiritual goals. He is a wanderer with an idTe fixe. As the story opens he is preparing to leave the town for the Rockies. However, a rather sudden, and to my mind contrived, sequence of events holds Tavistock in Poplar Plains long enough for him to fall in love with the minister's daughter and to realize that his mystical notion about the unity of good and evil can only be grounded in the body and in a life lived through thinking about the earth. Tavistock reminds me of the Flying Dutchman, and the minister's daughter, Laura, is his Senta. She saves him from his curse and consequent wandering by the power of her love and the physical attraction of her sexuality. The only physical threat to their love¨in Wagner's opera it is Eric, who desires Senta¨is a young man who, like Laura, has some small experience of the world beyond Poplar Plains. However, in Brooker's novel, the Eric figure drowns, and his death brings Laura and Tavistock closer together.
Such a theme is fundamentally allegorical and romantic. I do not want to push the analogy with Wagner too far, but it helps to underscore the qualities of Brooker's story that make it seem anything but modernist, unless of course, we see the figure of the alienated wanderer as a key modernist trope. In this context I think of Joyce's Bloom, of Lowry's Consul, and of many other twentieth-century novels in which a male exile is the hero. My chief quarrel with Think of the Earth is not with its allegory or theme or with whether or not this kind of subject matter can be seen as modernist. Where I think the novel fails is in its integration of the Poplar Plains world with Tavistock's world. The two regimes neither mesh nor clash productively; in some senses they cannot, and that is one of Brooker's points.
Tavistock is a dangerous madman who thinks he can turn his back on this world in his search for a metaphysical realm beyond good and evil. But Brooker's writing does not convince me that I should care about Tavistock as a character or that his quest is important. Brooker's prose is not, alas, Wagner's music. By contrast, Brooker's capacity to capture the world of Poplar Plains in dialogue and prose is much more successful. The small town characters come to life under Brooker's hand; his ear for their speech is sure; and his descriptions of the prairie, the railway, and the dusty summer streets are convincing.
In assessing this novel and its position within, or contribution to, a corpus of Canadian modernist fiction (or modernism more generally), I will place my bets on what Willmot calls its realism and on Brooker's creation of a small town. As scholars we have for too long assumed that modern fiction was defined by the abstraction of so-called high modernism (for example, Pound and Joyce), in itself a homogenizing creation of critics, a product of globalization avant la lettre. But modernism was national and local, with a rich store of local variants. In Canada those variants include the realist work of Morley Callaghan, the mythic work of Sheila Watson and Howard O'Hagan, and the epic narratives of Frederick Philip Grove and the early Hugh MacLennan. Simply grounding a narrative in Canadian soil¨as all these writers do¨is one major aspect of Canadian modernism. Rereading Think of the Earth today makes me think back to The Double Hook, Tay John, and Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House.
Reassessing this novel, as Willmott invites me to do, raises some interesting possibilties and important questions about the nature of Canadian modernism. Republishing it is a challenge to each of us to rethink our categories and definitions. I for one look forward with anticipation to Willmott's continuing work. As for Bertram Brooker, perhaps we need to rethink him as well and Think of the Earth provides an excellent starting point. But if we are to have the fullest kind of appreciation of modernism in this country, we need more reprintings, more basic information about forgotten artists, more cross-disciplinary research, and above all more biography. Will someone out there please take this new publication of a forgotten novel as their inspiration to write a biography of Bertram Brooker? ˛
Sherrill Grace teaches English at UBC. Her most recent book, Canada and the Idea of North, is forthcoming from McGill-Queen's University Press, and she has begun work on a biography of Sharon Pollock.