Great Realizations:
The New Age

by Hugh Hood,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0887841716

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by J Struthers

I wonder how many readers possess the intellectual instincts, the training, the willingness or time, or the peace of mind to read a novel-let alone a series of twelve interconnected novels-as an extended autobiographical meditation, as a long poem, as a work of contemporary mythography. For such is the nature of Great Realizations, the eleventh and second-to-last volume of Hugh Hood's visionary epic, The New Age / Le Nouveau siècle. The same is true of each volume in this series, conceived in 1967 out of the nationalistic ferment of the Centennial, then launched in 1975, and scheduled for completion by 2000, when, for good or for ill, we enter the time prophesied by the series' title. And though I know I am not alone in wanting to bring attention to Hood's achievement, sometimes I imagine myself-in a nightmarish, apocalyptic world, as in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451-as the chief archivist and head of circulation for all surviving copies of Hood's series. I wonder what I can do or say to help create for these remarkable books the discerning and passionate audience they deserve.

Great Realizations is set largely in the not-too-distant future. The novel presents recollections of Matthew Goderich, once the child-hero of the series' first book, The Swing in the Garden, and now seventy-something. The novel is divided into six sections, a structure that recalls the six days of Creation and looks forward to a time of rest, thanksgiving, and worship-probably suggesting the spirit in which the events of the novel are narrated for us or are to be read by us.

At the outset of Great Realizations, Matthew is reflecting on the launch of the first manned spacecraft to Mars, in early April of an unspecified year during the first decade of the twenty-first century. The expedition includes John Sleaford Goderich, a renowned Cambridge physicist who is the youngest son of Matthew and his long-estranged wife, Edie Codrington. From a remote point on the reclaimed land of the Leslie Street Spit down by the Toronto Harbour, Matthew scans the heavens, watching proudly yet apprehensively, almost mournfully, turning on his heels in order to follow the spacecraft Visitor I as it vanishes-very likely not to return. Then he looks backward more than sixty years, where he sees in his imagination his nine-year-old self, as portrayed in the last chapter of The Swing in the Garden, peering forward in the months before the Second World War, as if trying to visualize his future adult self.

An hour after the launch, and still out on the Leslie Street Spit, Matthew meets, by clandestine appointment, Gerda Kotecke Pluyshin, a major operator in the world of international art intrigue, with whom Matthew last entered battle at the Venice Biennale in 1980, as told in Property & Value, the eighth novel in the series.

Pluyshin wishes to arrange through Matthew the purchase by Canada-for some $55 million plus a $5 million agent's fee for herself-of Titian's extraordinary last work, an immense painting called King Priam Before the Tent of Achilles, Begging the Body of Hector from the Hero, for Burial. Matthew tells us that the painting was "mentioned with great curiosity by Byron in the fourth book of Childe Harold, and treated as legendary, purely imaginary, by Henry James and Browning." In the world of Hood's novel, the Last Titian is treated as utterly real; it measures a remarkable "143 1/2 inches by 156 inches, almost exactly twelve feet high by thirteen feet wide."

Priam & Achilles belongs to the great but now financially overburdened Bianchini family of Classe, a small Italian town where British and Canadian troops pushed back German forces in a campaign little noticed in history books but remembered with gratitude by the Bianchinis sixty years later. Canada, therefore, is offered first refusal on the sale. Acquisition of the painting is viewed as certain to confer on its new homeland a reputation as one of the leaders in world art. Successive chapters chronicle the raising of the purchase money, the transportation of the painting-and so of the cultural significance-from the Old World to the New, and, finally, the installation and unveiling of the painting at the National Gallery of Canada on October 15th-eighteen months after the launch of Visitor I, and three months after its successful return to Earth. In this way, the action of the novel comes to a resounding ending. Or perhaps we should say that the action of the novel, and of the series, reaches the threshold of a new beginning.

What are we to think of the scope, the objectives, the audacity of Great Realizations? In a novel seemingly absorbed with space-outer space with the Mars voyage, psychological or imaginative space with Matthew Goderich, the other characters, and the reader, geographical space with Toronto Harbour, pictorial space with The Last Titian-can Hugh Hood also be inviting us to think of time in a new way? His treatment of the 1943-44 Italian campaign owes a good deal to the conventions of the historical novel; technically and thematically, he is no doubt attempting to echo some facets of War & Peace. Historical novels have often been set some sixty years in the past; as for Great Realizations, an Author's Note states, "The events depicted in this narrative will take place in the near future." Rather like a futuristic fantasy such as Fahrenheit 451, or, possibly more like Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles, Hood's novel-though told in the past tense and allowing occasional glances quite a bit farther backward into the histories of Matthew Goderich and the twentieth century-appears to look forward, and to let us look forward, into the not-too-distant future. Or so it seems for now.

We imagine Matthew narrating this novel (primarily about a period from early April of one year to mid-October of the next) from a point in time a few years afterwards. But the narration of Great Realizations, including our sense of time throughout it, is not, and cannot be, fixed. The concept of time present-of the individual times when successive readers first encounter this story, or of each new time a particular reader re-encounters it-will continue to move forward. The gap between the time the story looks forward to and the time when the book is being read will diminish, then vanish.

In reaching that point, even in imagining it, the manner in which we normally conceive of time is transcended; we are granted a vision of eternity. At this point, as T. S. Eliot said in Four Quartets, all times-past, present, future-are gathered, in-folded, into a coherent and resplendent form and vision. Or, as Matthew explains, all times eventually come to "coexist in the dreaming person, the striving scanning being that ranges through sequences and connects them into unities." So Hood constructs his imaginary reader, each individual whose dream-vision takes in the whole of, and looks forward to, The New Age. For this reader, as for the reader of Eliot's mandala-like poem, the end of time is not, or at least not simply, some cataclysmic dark ending-though it may appear to be that, may even feel like that, as in the case, here, of the sudden death, seemingly unattended and unloved by anyone who was once close to him, of Matthew's younger brother, Tony. The end of time, for Hood's reader as for Eliot's, is rather, or at least potentially, a fully illuminated beginning.

Great expectations and great realizations indeed! The painting by Titian, which at the end of this novel is ceremoniously unveiled in its new home in the National Gallery, is drawn from an event in the last book of the Iliad. Matthew describes this story as "one of the very greatest and most moving incidents among the narratives of the West, a test of one's capacity to feel." This is a telling description, since Matthew himself seems only to have begun to learn how to love in his late fifties-as detailed poignantly in the second part of the previous novel, the tenth of the series, Dead Men's Watches-through caring for his old childhood chum, later a world-famous gay actor, Adam Sinclair, during Adam's final months of suffering from AIDS at the end of the 1980s. The Iliad-like each novel in Hood's series, perhaps most sweepingly in Great Realizations-is a story involving conquests of and in space as well as involving the difficult but, we hope, dignified accommodations that we attempt to make in and with time. In Titian's painting, at least a couple of figures in the original design have been painted over. These subliminal figures, Matthew speculates, "might be grand allegorical shapes suggesting Conflict and Tranquillity, perhaps simply War and Peace. Or again perhaps Love and Hatred, or Gods and Men."

By this self-reflexive device, Hood reminds his readers of specific allegorical and thematic dimensions within his narrative that need to be discerned and, in some instances, to be re-examined and critiqued. For Man's pursuit of war-echoed in the voyage to the planet named for the war god of Classical myth, echoed even if the purpose of the mission is to conquer Mars in the name of peace-has a peculiar ironic resonance when placed in the context of Christian myth. Hood, who is a practising Roman Catholic, signifies the pre-eminence for him of Christian myth in many ways here. For example, Matthew's and Edie's youngest son (the space traveller) bears the name not only of the author of the fourth gospel, but also of the great visionary witness of Revelation. Structurally and thematically, the unveiling of Priam & Achilles, the Last Titian, at the end of this novel parallels the discovery of the extraordinary triptych The Population of Stoverville, Ontario, Entering into the New Jerusalem, the final work by May-Beth Codrington, Matthew's mother-in-law, approximately forty years earlier, as portrayed at the end of A New Athens, the second novel in the series.

As the narrative of Great Realizations proceeds, closer and closer ties, in terms of action, emotion, and metaphor, are established between the novel's two great expectations, and ultimately its two great realizations. We witness the blending of hopes surrounding the internationally co-ordinated space venture, which is viewed as a possible model for a new and peaceful world order, with hopes surrounding the purchase of the Last Titian, seen as an emblem of Canada's envisioned cultural maturation-though not, Matthew hastens to point out, of an importance equal to cultural productions by Canada's own musicians, painters, and writers. When some difficult phases of the Mars voyage are over and Matthew's fears for his son have been partly allayed, he begins to look ahead to John's return to Earth and decides that it would be fitting for the world-renowned space traveller to play a role in the unveiling of the Last Titian in Ottawa.

For unspecified private reasons, Matthew schedules this event for October 15th, three months after the expected return of the spacecraft. Could this be because that is the anniversary of the day in 1970 when Quebec's government asked the Canadian government in Ottawa for military help in dealing with what came to be called the October Crisis; the next day the War Measures Act was implemented and normal civil liberties were suspended. The same event, which had disturbing, dispiriting, and at least potentially tragic ramifications for Canadian life, is cited symbolically at the exact mid-point in Hood's series, at the close of the sixth book, The Motor Boys in Ottawa. Could it be that Matthew intends the joyful, uplifting, and in this sense comic celebration of the installation of the Last Titian-an event likewise radiating out from Ottawa-to stand in symbolic opposition to everything connected to that awful earlier event? In the end, Matthew says, the excitedly awaited return of the spacecraft and the more quietly heralded relocation of the painting "became connected, then almost merged in public awareness. Here was an almost unique instance of the birth of a myth."

Recurrent images in the novel, and haunting echoes of other novels in the series, encourage the reader to notice numerous parallels and connections. The voyage of the manned spacecraft out to, then back from, Mars, and the resulting temporary (unwanted) separation and subsequent joyous reunion of John Sleaford Goderich and his wife, Emily Underwood Goderich, parallels (though with significant differences in tone) the much longer, uneasy separation and the later, reserved reunion of Edie and Matthew. Some thirty years earlier, in the summer of 1973, Edie, taking their three children, Anthony, Andrea, and John, left Matthew to run off to England with Matthew's younger brother, Tony-Tony, a highly entertaining and very successful literary artist, after whom the seventh novel in the series, Tony's Book, is named, and who stands in dramatic contrast to Matthew, a staid and stolid art historian. Ironically, Tony's final, joking bequest of his ample estate jointly to Edie and Matthew deliberately guarantees their-from some readers' perspective-long-awaited reunion, first in England and then in Canada, though it is a reunion, again ironically, as something more than business partners but something less than lovers.

There is another set of such connections: the imperceptibly rotating motion of the body of Visitor I; Matthew turning on his heels to watch the departure of the spacecraft; and the body of Tony Goderich strapped down and slowly rotated for the purposes of, first, a series of medical tests and, finally, the unexpectedly fatal surgery that leaves him practically a soon-to-be-forgotten statistic, though he had once had the general public as his audience. All these images are echoed in the almost imperceptibly rotating motion of Priam & Achilles, in its new home in the National Gallery, a motion, and a conception, which seem to parallel the way this novel, like others in the series, will continue to rotate subtly, fostering new interpretations, as we revisit it or as new readers experience it. Hugh Hood reinforces this impression through his choice of the last word of Great Realizations; even more emphatically, it's a one-word final sentence and paragraph, "Turns."

For each reader whose dream-vision takes in the whole of The New Age, even a simple line like "How's little Andy?," the first remark that John Sleaford Goderich makes to his wife Emily upon his return to Earth, resonates with enormous power. This line echoes back to one introduced ten novels earlier in the series, in the opening volume, The Swing in the Garden, where Matthew recalls the death, and the last words, when he was five years old, of his maternal grandfather. "How's little Tony?," Papa Archambault had remarked. In the 1970s, Matthew remembers this seemingly light-hearted question, "the only authentic set of last words recorded in the family", as he narrates The Swing in the Garden in the 1970s; at that time, Matthew can't yet bring himself to speak of the shock to him of the recent departure of Edie and their three children to live in England with Tony. Hence his remembering the phrase suggests feelings that are much stronger than he is at that point able to admit, feelings that impinge on Matthew's unconscious and conscious mind for a very long time. Now, ten novels later, the answer to the once-innocent question "How's little Tony?" that Matthew must face, and that the reader must supply, is "Dead." The ferocity of this answer is unsettling, unshakeable. Clearly, a literary work of such amplitude and sophistication that it suspends as long as this a final answer to a question not only presents extraordinary challenges but also is capable of generating extraordinary impact.

The fate of Matthew's younger brother, Tony Goderich, is chilling, as is the usually detached tone that Hood employs here, whether he is writing in the voice of Mission Control speaking of the technology of space travel or in the voice of Matthew Goderich talking about military history during the Italian campaign of 1943-44. The tone continues in descriptions of the technology of modern medicine confronting Tony; in discussions of the operation of Codrington Hardware and Builders' Supplies since 1867 (the very large family company inherited by Edie and by Matthew as her husband, which Matthew persuades Edie to turn into a public company in order to raise and then to donate to the Government of Canada the bulk of the funds needed to purchase the Last Titian); and in details provided by Matthew about matters of public administration involved in acquiring the Last Titian. I don't like this tone and I don't think Hugh Hood likes it that much either, though he employs it fairly consistently in this book. I believe that he is using it satirically, to emphasize the risks at which the greatest technological advances put us if they are undertaken without a sense of spiritual purpose. He is satirizing it to convey how "muddled and apprehensive", how alienated we feel in a world governed through and quite possibly by the language of such technology. He is calling attention to the huge emotional and moral losses incurred when we mistake mere innovations in technology or administration for the creation or the birth of a genuine life-enhancing mythology.

Back here on Earth, roughly half way through the space mission, occurs the birth of John and Emily's first child, Andy, named after his great-grandfather Andrew Goderich, a philosopher, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and NDP member of Parliament, whose accomplishments are recorded in early volumes, notably in the third and fourth, Reservoir Ravine and Black & White Keys. If the birth of the newest of the Goderiches, or "the first space child" as he is affectionately regarded by millions of people around the world, is to mean anything, it must convey this: the birth must be charged with something of the force, something of the qualities, of the Nativity of Christ, the Incarnation of the Holy Word. For Hugh Hood, life-and art-can aim for nothing less. Habitations of the Word is the title William Gass once gave to a collection of his essays on the possibilities of literature and criticism. Habitations of the Word: on Earth, on Mars, in literature, in criticism. We must aim for nothing less.

As Matthew Goderich reflects early in Great Realizations about his younger son John's then seemingly life-ending decision to travel to Mars, "He was hazarding all that he possessed." It was "time to find out what he was made for...," Matthew imagines his son thinking. No doubt the aging Matthew applies the same standard to himself as he sets about accomplishing what may be his last task, a heroic and remarkably charitable and in this sense Christian one, the acquisition for Canada of the Last Titian. "Time to find out what he was made for...": so may we imagine Hugh Hood thinking in 1967, at the age of thirty-nine, with the promise of Expo 67 rising around him, as he began to get the first glimmerings of the now soon-to-be-completed twelve-volume work that he would choose as his epic task, as his magnificent and magnanimous gift to the Canadian public, over the three decades leading up to the new millennium. Time, too, we realize, for us as readers, to find out what we are made for, to contribute all the imaginative resources we can to comprehending, to discovering how much we can learn from, and to sharing our responses to this epic of our lives as Canadians that Hugh Hood has so bravely forged for us.

The New Age will not and cannot match everyone's personal taste; as a fully articulated and highly original whole, it's a product first and perhaps last of his imagination, not ours. Yet with some imaginative effort of our own we can readily allow ourselves to share in this remarkable series: to connect powerfully with a variety of details remembered or invented throughout it and to be emboldened by the sweep, the motion, the spirit, of its overall design. How many of us, on grounds of our apparent differences, would want to relinquish such an opportunity as this for engaging with a work that can stimulate us to imagine, to reflect, and finally to feel in ways so much more intricate than we ordinarily do? 

J. R. (Tim) Struthers teaches Canadian literature at the University of Guelph. He is the editor or co-editor of seventeen books, including a study of Hugh Hood, Before the Flood (1979) and New Contexts of Canadian Criticism (1997). He is preparing a new book on Hugh Hood and The New Age.


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