The Man Who Loved Jane Austen

283 pages,
ISBN: 0889842027

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Brief Reviews - Fiction
by Ted Whittaker

I was once told-in a friendly way, mind-by a Québécois, that foreigners (he included his own nation) thought Anglo-Canadians resembled hobbits.

Not all of us, perhaps. Ray Smith's fourth novel, The Man Who Loved Jane Austen (Porcupine's Quill, 283 pages, $18.95 paper, ISBN: 0-88984-202-7), looks at the garrisoned anglophones of Westmount whom the author portrays as threatened predators; Smith's other English-speaking Quebecers are pleasant enough, merely threatened. His focal character is college lecturer Frank Wilson, a Jane Austen specialist stuck with bored undergraduates. Frank owes much to Eeyore.

Smith's near-contemporary Montreal is the arena for an ever-baleful referendum, and many Quebecers are being nibbled to spiritual death by cutbacks and by ressentiment from the Québécois; threatened in turn from without, they are in the saddle in their own paddock, and they ride. Frank, to his credit, doesn't get upset by this political turnabout.

For Smith's bourgeois anglophones, Montreal is often a joyless city. Frank's Friday nights at the bar with colleagues don't make him happy at all. A sad-sack, overworked, widowed single parent, he's diffident, lacking in wit and moxie. As if all this weren't enough to bring a kindly, feckless man down, he's frontally assaulted and outflanked by his rancourous in-laws, who constantly raven after custody of his sons.

Everywhere he turns, Frank is thwarted: in office politics; in his footling attempts to get another job in Ontario; in his helpless love for his boys. Hear him, pretty typically thinking about his inadequacies: "...a...quibble...like all my complaints, whining, despairing, passive, a mediocre life, an anglo in Montreal, a nuisance to Quebec, a nuisance to Canada, irrelevant..."

Ray Smith possesses a splendid ear. The voicings of the children and, even better, of the Hatchers, Frank's up-mountain in-laws, are flawless. Here is the mother-in-law, a singularly sharptoothed old fish, greeting Frank at a party: "...that blue blazer again-why do you go out of your way to disgrace the family, don't you even own a suit?"

Then there's Smith's take on the politics of daily life for têtes carrées in Quebec, caustically instructive to readers outside that charming milieu. Francophones are offstage presences, directing the scenes. They're usually lumped, by Frank's peers, as the "nationalists" or "bozo the [education] ministry." During a bar conversation among friends,

Frank replied, "If I'm not mistaken, several of you gentlemen are, as my in-laws put it, among the Chosen. How come you haven't left yet?"

After a loaded pause, Sholem replied, plonkingly, "It can't happen here."

To Frank Wilson it happens, soon enough. A little light bulb switches on, all too late (Jane Austen could have told him much about shark ethology). He's finally onto something, realizing, during a late-night cathartic rant to an old friend, a few home truths about parenting: he's doing it in both spiritual and economic poverty, and failing; love is not enough. And also about the them and the us in Quebec: "`there are always others...others to blame...as the Hatchers blame me, as the separatists blame us...when we argue with them, we use their terms, and we become them...'"

Smith ends his bitter fiction a year after the same dead season in which it begins. Frank has quit his job and has been finessed out of future employment, Montreal house, savings, kids. Sans everything, he's going down the road to his childhood home. Just previously, he was chewing like cud a tag from Othello-"tranquil mind". Now, driving blind in a pristine, dangerous night blizzard, he redefines his mental state, spinning the phrase a little into "frozen tranquility". Remembering the colours of his children's hair is an effort. Frank smiles to himself. As his older son once crucially observed, "Dada doesn't laugh." The comfort of memory, like the snow, is cold. 


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