The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature

by Eva-Marie Kr+Śller
ISBN: 0521891310

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A Review of: The Cambridge Companion to Canadian Literature
by W. J. Keith

Despite the fact that 101 other Cambridge Companions to Literature and Culture are listed at the back of this book, I suspect that most readers will be more familiar with the earlier-established Oxford Companions that originated in the first half of the twentieth century. These were and are reference-books with alphabetically arranged entries designed to provide concise information easily and quickly. At the same time, they could accommodate browsers. Earlier editions (those to English and Classical literature in particular) could legitimately be seen not only as "Companions" but as "companionable," and although the more quaint pieces of information have tended to disappear in modern redactions, an aura of lightly-worn wisdom still to some extent survives. Even in this era of knowledge-explosion, Margaret Drabble, revising the "English" volume in 1985, could follow Sir Paul Harvey in aiming to provide "a useful companion to ordinary everyday readers of English literature."
The old Oxford Companions, then, presupposed a readership that turned to literature for enjoyment, edification, and the sheer pleasure of savouring what Coleridge once called "words in the best order." By contrast, the expected readership of the book under review is by no means clear, though it gives the impression of addressing rather earnest students eager to be politically correct at all costs. I deduce this from being told that Canadian historical fiction from the 1860s to the 1920s "deserves to be studied for the numerous manipulative ways in which one set of books modifies versions of history presented in another," that the power of Maria Chapdelaine "derives from the deployment of the ideological positions [the male characters in the novel] represent," that Anne of Green Gables is considered worthy of attention because it "initiated a tourist migration to Montgomery's home town of Cavendish that continues to fuel the island's economy." No weak-minded nonsense about the love of books or the pleasure of reading! Apparently, in the new millennium literature must be not only a science rather than an art, but a dismal science into the bargain.
Cambridge Companions are books designed to be read rather than merely consulted; this one consists of twelve chapters each written by a different specialist. Its attempted range is remarkable. The first two chapters are devoted to "Aboriginal" and "Francophone writing." The rest concentrate on works in English, with chapters on the expected genres but also on "Exploration and travel", "Nature writing", "Short fiction" (reasonable enough, but following rather oddly after "Fiction"), "Writing by women" (despite the fact that women are fully represented in other chapters), "Life writing", and "Regionalism and urbanism". The book ends with a chapter entitled "Canadian literary criticism and the idea of a national literature." All this is admirable in theory, but leads to difficulties in practice. Each writer is confined to roughly twenty pages apiece. Not surprisingly, the editor has to admit that "virtually all of the chapters have had to be shortened to conform with space restrictions." This problem is compounded by the "post-modernist" insistence (dubious, to say the least) in making no distinction-at least, officially-between "high" and "popular" culture. As might be expected, the main genres-poetry, fiction, drama-suffer most.
David Staines tries valiantly to provide a helpful overview of the country's poetry, and wisely concentrates on indicating the style and artistic attitudes of the writers involved. But it inevitably becomes a whistle-stop rush-and-tumble, and some important poets (notably Louis Dudek and John Newlove) fall by the wayside. Elsewhere, little attention is paid to strictly literary matters-and ideology takes over. Thus the chapter on "Aboriginal writing" has much to say about appropriation of content in one direction, nothing about appropriation of language (and its attendant responsibilities) in the other. Here is a specimen of poetry:

"i wonder if you could dell da govment
to make dem laws dat stop dat
whitemman from daking our isistawina [rituals] ..."

Sadly deficient as English verse, this is politically acceptable-which seems to be all that matters. The "Francophone writing" chapter avoids literary discriminations by being almost exclusively thematic in its commentary; it is apparently enough to say of one novel that it "addresses a number of significant [i.e., socio-political] themes." Moreover, the commentators themselves are often revealingly insensitive to language in their own prose. In "Drama" Henry Voaden's work is seen to represent "the totalizing formalist containment of disciplinary difference within an overriding master vision rather than any more open or inter-discursive hybridity." All this makes for oppressive reading.
Worse still, the chapter on "Fiction" is remarkable for some of the most bizarre and misleading statements (and misstatements) that I have ever read in a work of literary commentary. Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night is described as a warning "against an economic, technological, and cultural takeover on the part of the United States"! (One can only wonder whether the writer has muddled this novel with The Precipice.) The Stone Angel is not Margaret Laurence's "first novel." Joseph Skvorecky is implicitly classified among "allophanes (that is, authors speaking [sic!] neither of the official languages"!) Enough said. But then, I have my own personal acid-test for writers on modern literature: if they cannot get the title of The Waste Land right, they are not to be trusted. Not unexpectedly, this writer fails.
The blurb claims that the book offers "a comprehensive and lively introduction to major writers, genres, and topics." "Lively" would not be the adjective to come first to my mind, and it certainly isn't "comprehensive." For example, Malcolm Lowry is mentioned as a letter-writer but not as a novelist, Clark Blaise as co-author of Days and Nights in Calcutta but not as a writer of fiction. John Metcalf is given his due as an editor, but his own fiction is only mentioned casually, no details given. Hugh Hood's name appears twice, and Norman Levine's once, but their work is never discussed. Howard O'Hagan's Tay John is mentioned once, but only to pose the less-than-essential question: is it about the North or the West? The bias of the whole enterprise is revealed by the index where only three writers are distinguished by having their entries divided into sub-sections: Margaret Atwood, Robert Kroetsch, and Michael Ondaatje. Yet some of their less trendy but highly gifted contemporaries (Don Coles, Eric Ormsby, Richard Outram, David Solway) are quietly but totally erased from the record.
It can be regarded as a sign of Canadian literature's vigour and achievement that the kind of comprehensive coverage attempted in this book is no longer feasible. Selection is now inevitable. Moreover, whether fashionable criticism likes it or not, evaluation is similarly inevitable, for the simple reason that selection is an evaluative act. In fact, this book is doomed by its title (dictated, of course, by the series to which it belongs). If it had been called "Historical, Political, and Social Backgrounds to Canadian Literature," much (though by no means all) of my unease would fade. One could argue about the nature of the ideology presented, yet at least the title would adequately reflect the contents. But a "Companion" to a "Literature"? No, not even close.

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