Thursday, April 29, 2021

Hugh MacLennan's Canadian novel about novels - She knew she was supposed to admire these writers for their realism, but actually she loved them for their style

The last third of Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes jumps from World War I to the 1930s, ending in 1939 with the start of World War II, and the main characters switch to Paul, the son of the aristocratic, enlightened Athanase and Heather, the daughter of the war widow from the chapter I praised yesterday.  Young people problems come to the front, like romance (the French/English division will be reconciled by love and patriotism) and jobs and writing the Great Canadian Novel.  A surprising amount of the novel is about novels.

Hemingway, for example, inescapable in 1947:

He [Paul] went into the kitchen and opened a can of beans, spilled the beans out into a saucepan and heated it on the stove.  Then he cut a slice of bread and buttered it, and poured himself a glass of milk.  The beans and milk tasted good.  (225)

That last sentence especially, even if the whole thing is stolen from “The Big Two-Fisted River” (1925).

If that seems thin – although it is directly stolen – let’s look at Heather selecting a book from “her collection of post-war writers”:

All of D. H. Lawrence was there, all of Aldous Huxley and Dos Passos, some Hemingway and the social works of Bertrand Russell.  She knew she was supposed to admire these writers for their realism, but actually she loved them for their style.  She could not bear a book that lacked style.

  (258)

On the next page, MacLennan spends a paragraph watching Heather read the first ten pages of A Farewell to Arms.  “It was vibrant, it was beautiful, it was life!”  MacLennan is listing his own influences here, all easily detectable long before this page, however paler they become in his own style.  Well, I have never read Russell.

Paul and Heather begin a love affair that moves the novel firmly into Lawrence territory, although my notes tell me that I lost the most relevant page numbers (what a useful note, thanks, past me).  Not that Lawrence was not visible early on (this is Paul’s older brother, an interesting character in his own right):

His hatred of his father collapsed in a longing for his father’s approval, never attained because stubbornness of pride made him refuse consistently to do a single thing his father wished. (38)

Admittedly, that’s a heck of a lot balder than Lawrence would ever write.  How about what may be my favorite single line in Two Solitudes:

Twice last autumn, on silent nights with a full moon, he had heard miles away the cough of a rutting moose.

  (51)

A moony, moosey echo of a favorite bit of Women in Love (1920):

The moon was transcendent over the bare, open space, she suffered from being exposed to it.  There was a glimmer of nightly rabbits across the ground.  The night was as clear as crystal, and very still. She could hear a distant coughing of a sheep. (Ch. 19, “Moony”)

Paul is also the name of the hero of Sons and Lovers (1913).  That made me laugh when I remembered it, although the characters are more like Rupert and Ursula in Women in Love, with their honeymoon trip along the Gulf of St. Lawrence full of resonances.

Paul has been writing a novel about the masses – “Could any man write a novel about masses?” (307) – but it is not going well.  “A novel should concern people, not ideas, and yet people had become trivial” (same page).  His great breakthrough, with Heather’s help, is to turn to a novel about Canada.  This is what happened to MacLennan, too.  This is, of course, a terrible idea, leading to the kind of kitsch I find on the very last page, where MacLennan feels it necessary to summarize the meaning of Canada.  Inevitably, the moony moose returns: “the moose came out of the forests on October nights and stood in silhouette against the moonpaths that crossed solitary lakes” (369).  It worked out all right for MacLennan, overall.  We do not see how it works for Paul.

A highly instructive novel. Thanks again, Dorian, for the recommendation.

22 comments:

  1. I had a hunch it was Lawrence-inspired! I mean, a lot of things were, then. The comparison to Moony is good.

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  2. Nice comparisons. 'The beans and milk tasted good.' Ha! He's swallowed Hemingway entire and now hacking it back up undigested. Though maybe he did digest, I don't really know.

    Russell, too, is a lovely stylist. Heather is right.

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  3. I mean, "all of D. H. Lawrence"!

    I had known for a long time about the pervasiveness of Hemingway, but the Lawrence strain had escaped me, since I did not know Lawrence well enough. I think I'll write a little Lawrence wrap-up post after I write about Kay Boyle, who is up next.

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  4. I need some kind of Portable Bertrand Russell. He is the kind of writer who is really hard to sort at a distance. So many books.

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    1. And another Lawrence connection! They were going to write a book on pacifism together until they decided they hated each other. (Fairly mutual, usually DHL decided these things.)

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  5. I've read others but one could do worse, especially if one's interested in his style, than to start with History of Philosophy. Opinionated and often wrong, but still useful, readable and funny.

    Touting myself...it's the only one I've read since I started blogging.

    https://reesewarner.blogspot.com/search/label/Bertrand%20Russell

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  6. Oh right, I read that. Your piece, I mean, not Russell.

    Russell sorta turns into the villain in the long Wittgenstein chapter that is the climax of Witcraft.

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  7. I'm still meaning to read the the Rée. Lot of people think of Russell as a villain vis-a-vis Wittgenstein, but I generally think that's thinking too highly of human nature.

    Have you read Bruce Duffy's The World As I Found It? There's an NYRB reissue. Pretty fun, you'd probably like it.

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  8. Wittgenstein is the culmination of philosophy in Witcraft.

    That Duffy book does sound good. Holy cow, 600 pages.

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  9. I noticed that you are reading Les Tragiques. The section entitled "Jugement" is, to my ear, the closest that any French poet came to the sublimest moments of Homer Shakespeare, Aeschylus. What Hugo at his best was aiming for. It thrilling and truly awe-inspiring.

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  10. Wow. That is exciting to hear.

    The first canto was awfully good, but not that good!

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  11. Paul is also the name of the hero of Sons and Lovers (1913). That made me laugh when I remembered it

    That made me laugh when I read it, because I was thinking the same thing. I always like it when books talk about other books, so this novel could be my cuppa tea.

    When we were in Banff a couple of years ago, there was a large herd of moose across the river from town. I do not recall hearing any of them cough. The bulls were very aggressive, though.

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    1. Were they perhaps elk? Elk practically live in town. Moose are much more shy, and don't usually live in groups.

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    2. I think you're right, that they were elk. There was a herd in a field right across the river from downtown. We followed a trail south from town and had to be wary of the bulls because rutting season had just ended and they were still very territorial and had attacked people who got too close. Probably they were trying to steal cigarettes.

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  12. Moose surely suffer from a range of respiratory diseases.

    I guess it is not unusual that a second novel takes a self-reflexive turn. Still, it surprised me. His first published novel is about the 1917 Halifax explosion. If I ever get up to Halifax, I will read it.

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    1. I've heard it's quite good. I lived in Halifax for 4 years and somehow never read it.

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  13. Maybe they smoked more in the old days, them mooses.

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    1. Crazy to think what moose used to find cool.

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  14. I loved the whole post and read chunks of it to my wife, but I want to give a particular shout-out to “The Big Two-Fisted River.” I'll be chuckling about that all day. Hem!

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  15. Thanks!

    I don't understand what Hemingway was thinking. Why did he use the inferior title when the better one was right there?

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  16. A Lawrence-Russell collaboration sounds doomed form the start. But it fits Russell's habit of adopting younger geniuses.

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    1. And Lawrence's of declaring someone he had just meant was a great genius, the only person to ever understand him, etc, and then dumping him.

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