Discovering CanLit

As a Francophone born and raised in Montreal, I could have been exposed to (Anglophone) Canadian literature early on. But it took until a few years ago for CanLit to enter my life.

Here’s how it happened.

In November 2000, my wife and I were staying at a friend’s place in the Richmond Hill suburb of Toronto, while I was attending an academic conference. For several reasons, I wanted to take advantage of our time there as much as possible. We passed by a small bookstore and decided to go in. I think the book caught my eye before we went in. I had seen the author’s name before. Probably in something by or about John Irving, one of the few Anglophone authors that I had read (along with Douglas Adams and a few other things). The book’s cover or title might have caught my eye for other reasons. Reading the book’s blurb, I was intrigued by mentions of psychology (many members of my family are psychologists). So I decided to buy that book. My first item of literary Canadiana.

Those of you who know Canadian literature have probably figured out what it was. The Manticore, second volume of Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy. Not that the book was really a revelation to me, but it was a pleasant discovery nonetheless. Robertson Davies’s humour, narrative style and, most importantly, use of language all titillated my literary sensitivity. Among Francophone authors, playfulness with language is quite prominent. At least, for those authors I’ve appreciated the most, the plot usually matters very little and emphasis is put on what we might call “mind games,” as they encourage active reading. Robertson Davies’s literary style wasn’t at all similar to what I had been used to, with Francophone authors, but it was compatible with my reading habits.

Robertson Davies was an important figure in John Irving’s life and it is little surprise that my appreciation for Irving would carry over to Robertson Davies. In fact, with all due respect to Irving, I find Robertson Davies to be a more satisfying writer than Irving precisely because Robertson Davies emphasises language over plot while Irving tends to focus on plot development. Frankly, I’ve grown tired of plot-based works, whether in literature or in film. To a musician, a storyline is just one of many devices that can be used. This is partly a matter of personal preference but it does translate into academic interests of mine.

Robertson Davies died a while ago and his place in CanLit is set in stone. I’m sure many Canadians had to read some of his work in school and despise anything related to him because of compulsory reading. Contrary to what many schoolteachers seem to assume, forcing someone to read an author’s writing is not the best way to get that person to like that author. In fact, I’m sure many people find Robertson Davies stuffy, old-fashioned, old-school. His trilogies have been relegated to the Canadian Classics collections. A mere example of Canadiana.

It is therefore no surprise that those who have read Roberton Davies’s books choose not to discuss them and that those who have not read anything by him have little inclination to do so. I was just lucky in “discovering” his work for myself and have enjoyed, out of my own reasons, everything he has written. Not to fulfill a CanLit or CanCon quota, but to simply have fun with literature.

More recently, my relationship to CanLit took a new direction as I was exposed to LibriVox through an entry on YulBlogger Patrick Tanguay’s i never knew blog. LibriVox is a website dedicated to audio recordings of Public Domain works. Thankfully, the site has a podcast through which MP3 version of the audio recordings of complete works are being distributed. A bit like “books on tape” but in “free as in beer” and “free as in speech” form. Ideal for the commuter.

The first work to which I listened was Oscar Wilde’s three act The Importance of Being Earnest. Obviously, I knew of Wilde’s work. I did expect that, one day, I would read some of his work. But I never did. Too busy. Books are inconvenient to carry if you’re not sure you will read them. I have other things to read anyway. Electronic books can be really neat and I did read complete works on a PalmOS device, but I wouldn’t really have thought of reading Wilde like that. Listening to some of Wilde’s work while commuting or working turned out to be ideal. The voices themselves made the experience even more enjoyable. The time-shifting nature of the podcast meant that I was free to listen to those recordings as I chose while the shuffle function of my Digital Audio Jukebox meant that those recordings would come at unscheduled intervals. All in all, my LibriVox experience has been a very pleasurable one, in the past few weeks.

What does it have to do with CanLit, you ask? Or maybe you guessed it. The subsequent work to be distributed in the LibriVox podcast was an admirable piece of CanLit that is having a rather positive effect on me: Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock.

If people think of Robertson Davies as an oldie, Leacock is an ancestor. Which doesn’t mean that he should be dismissed, of course. My immediate reaction to hearing Leacock’s preface, with all its cynicism about academia, was similar to that of someone meeting an estranged cousin.

Further on through the book, I noticed very significant connections between Leacock’s writing and that of Robertson Davies. I started thinking that either Robertson Davies was deeply influenced by Leacock or that both of them were displaying something common to CanLit in general. Given the fact that Robertson Davies wrote about Stephen Leacock, the direct influence hypothesis seems to hold. But given the fact that many Canadian writers , including Robertson Davies, have received the Stephen Leacock Memorial Award for Humour, there might be some broader connection throughout Canadian literature, at least in the part that has to do with humour.

Nice that there is still such a thing as the Public Domain.

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

3 responses to “Discovering CanLit

  • Audio People of the World: "You, Knight!" « Disparate

    […] YulBlogger Patrick Tanguay’s own blog. Among other things, LibriVox helped me appreciate Canadian Literature and I’m quite glad that the project may contribute to Montreal’s widespread recognition […]

  • enkerli

    Thanks for the comment.
    Some of his work does seem to give insight about those changes. To me, both Robertson Davies and Stephen Leacock display the type of respect for human beings that goes above polarization. As a naïve humanist myself, I feel I can relate. Not that either of them was unbiased in their (social) politics. But that they could look beyond those differences to notice the human mosaic.
    Can’t get much more Canadian than the mosaic.

  • madrigalia

    Robertson Davies taps into that pre-multicultural Toronto vibe — the class struggle between Old Money and Upstarts, with the uneasy presentiment that the old order is drawing to an end. I love him too, though.

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