Wednesday, April 28, 2021

She was each of the characters in turn - Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes

Dorian Stuber asked people to let him recommend a book; I asked; he pointed me to Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes (1945), a novel that became a reference point – the title especially – for the differences between English and French Canada.  So poetic!  It’s from Rilke!  I assume that all such references are now to Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006).

The first two-thirds of the novel are set during or just after World War I, when the English Canadians are gung ho to help their British countrymen fight the Huns, and the French Canadians are not.  You would think they would want to help the French, but no, the French have become godless lunatics who deserve their suffering.  The portrait of the Quebecois village in 1917 is like a trip back in time to the French 18th century, with a tyrannical village priest and characters named Polycarpe and Athanase.

Athanase is the central character of the first section.  He is a man of the Enlightenment, believing in knowledge and progress and probably not so much in God:

He looked at the print of Rousseau hanging beside Voltaire.  Rousseau was wearing a fur cap, and it made him look like an early French-Canadian colonist, almost a coureur de bois.  (75, 1945 edition)

Poor Athanase is ground to a powder, between his intolerant, backwards neighbors (prints of Rousseau and Voltaire cannot compete with that priest), and the greedy momentum of the English bankers who want to turn his Quebecois idyll into a factory town.

Two Solitudes is a family saga, with the son of Athanase and the daughter of another character using the last third of the novel to reconcile the two sides of Canadian culture.  I will leave that for tomorrow.  It turns out to involve the writing of the Great Canadian Novel.  Most of my notes are from the last third.

MacLennan’s novel is good with the culture clash, and good with Montreal – anyone interested in Montreal should read it, no question – but also quite good with death.  The death of the defeated Athanase, torn between three faiths, Catholic, Protestant, and atheism, is excellent, and anticipated by the best chapter in the first part of the book, when the focus shifts for just one chapter to a minor character, a woman whose husband is a soldier.  The post office has received an official letter, “from His Majesty the King, via the Canadian Ministry of Defense,” and everyone in town can see it.  Everyone knows what it means.

Then she began to walk very fast down the road to her father’s house.  All the stories she had ever read in which one of the characters received bad news of a bereavement began to chase each other through her mind.  Idiotically, they got out of control, they became herself.  She was each of the characters in turn, bravely keeping her personal grief from intruding on others, she was nothing but memories and the things which had made her what she was.  (129-30)

But at home, no one has seen the letter, and life is just flowing onward.  Only the widow knows what has happened.

The advantage of including it in a novel is that in the later part of the book, MacLennan can show how her husband’s death in combat poison her life, or perhaps how she chooses to let it poison her life, and tries to use it against her daughter.  But this ironic chapter could stand on its own as a terrific short story.

Tomorrow, D. H. Lawrence and the Great Canadian Novel.  Thanks for the recommendation, Dorian!

I borrowed the book cover from the irritatingly sparse Wikipedia entry.  That’s the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City on the cover.  The characters in Two Solitudes never go to Quebec City.  It’s a Montreal novel.  Don’t ask me.


  1. Alright, I suppose I do need to read this. (Or at least watch Bon Cop, Bad Cop...)

    I was going to write the same comment on Call It Sleep (at least the first half of my comment). I understand perfectly well why I haven't read Two Solitudes. I really can't explain why I haven't read Call It Sleep.

  2. Call It Sleep is so good. Two Solitudes is no masterpiece, but has many interesting features. Just as a Montreal novel, it is awfully interesting. Maybe I will make it sound even more interesting tomorrow.

    Plus it helps a reader fulfill his Canadian Content Requirement.

    Maybe I'm wrong - I'm digressing - the characters do briefly stop in Quebec City, in the honeymoon sequence. They sure didn't stay at the Frontenac.

  3. Since I have not read this since high school, I am glad it was not a total disaster!

    I would really like to read CALL IT SLEEP. I'm sure this is no CALL IT SLEEP.

    As to Montreal novels, you might be interested in this:

  4. Yes, definitely interested. It is such an interesting city, and it is curious to me that these city novels are in English.

    I just finished a French-language novel with a lot of Montreal in it, by Dany Laferrière, also a kind of outsider. Curious.

  5. It used to be a much more Anglo city than it is now.
    One of the great French Canadian Montreal novels, I gather (shamefully, I have not read it, though I gather it is quite good) is Gabrielle Roy's THE TIN FLUTE.

  6. Interesting. Working class social novel. Easy French, based on one page. Long, though. Thanks, it goes on my Montreal list.

  7. I remember Yves Beauchemain's THE ALLEY CAT being a big deal back in the day. No idea if anyone reads it anymore.

  8. Geez, that one's even longer. 600 page picaresque restaurant novel. There can't be too many of those.