July 1 is Canada Day, and what better way to honour that wonderful place by highlighting some of their best writers. Plus, it’s handy information if you ever meet Trudeau.
Here in Australia, many think of Canada as a faraway place with a charismatic leader (sigh!) who brings out the best in Canadians. Canada has delicious maple syrup, great skiing destinations, Mounties, Niagara Falls. It’s the land that gave us k.d. lang and Michael J. Fox. But today, to celebrate Canada Day, we’re going all literary. We’re taking a brief look at four of Canada’s finest writers, complete with a few reading recommendations to keep you busy this 1 July.
One of Canada’s greatest gifts to world literature is Margaret Atwood (born 1939), novelist, poet, environmental campaigner and inventor. She also writes short stories, essays, critiques, excelling in them all. Her name has been in the media lately because one of her most famous works has been made into a television series.
Her disturbing dystopian 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, one of the so-called handmaids whose job it is to bear children for upper class couples. The book is at least partly a statement about control of women’s own bodies being taken away, although it’s more than that – women have no independence at all in this world, no voting rights, no individual freedoms. They suffer violence, rape, repression. The women who aren’t handmaids (valued only for their fertile wombs) are assigned different roles, such as wives, servants, aunts and so on. Often they’re pitted against one another. Atwood paints a bleak totalitarian patriarchal world, where words are appropriated and given new meanings, in much the same way that Big Brother did in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The television series is sure to resonate.
Atwood’s most recent novel is Hag-seed (2016), her retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She cleverly sets the modern-day story in a prison, mirroring the prison of the island upon which the Bard’s Propero and Miranda were stranded. It’s full of humour and irony and is as much a warm tribute to Shakespeare as an innovative work from a great story-teller.
Additional recommended Atwood reading: The Animals in That Country (poetry) (1968), Cat’s Eye (1988), The Robber Bride (1993), Alias Grace (1996), Oryx and Crake (2003), The Penelopiad (2005), The Year of the Flood (2009).
Robertson Davies (1913-1995), professor of literature at the University of Toronto for over 20 years, is another giant of Canadian literature. Davies wrote novels, plays, essays, reviews, critiques, all brimming with imagination and incorporating various themes and motifs, from magic to music to murder to Carl Jung, and “the growth of a life, of a spirit, from innocence to experience”. He was funny and wise, flippant and philosophical, instructive and playful, and always surprising.
I recall my astonishment when in the very first sentence of Murther and Walking Spirits (1991) the narrator is murdered by his wife’s lover. His spirit wants revenge, but this is no ordinary ghost story. He ends up at a film festival featuring classic films, but the narrator sees something quite different – a series of stories about his ancestors. There’s really nothing predictable about the book. It’s a cracker.
His last novel, The Cunning Man (1994) is a gripping read about a somewhat unorthodox doctor who combines folk and Western medicine with psychoanalysis and an amazing olfactory sense. The book is populated with lively characters and wonderful dialogue. He has a way with words, that’s for sure, but also plenty of insights into the human condition.
Additional recommended Davies reading: The Cornish Trilogy: The Rebel Angels (1981), What’s Bred in the Bone (1985), The Lyre of Orpheus (1988); The Deptford Trilogy: Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), World of Wonders (1975).
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, Montreal-born writer Mordecai Richler (1931-2001) asked “hard, uncomfortable questions and [took] clear, often unpopular moral positions”. An early work, Son of a Smaller Hero (1955), was a hard-nosed story about a young Jewish man keen to explore what lay beyond his small community in Montreal. Jewish groups panned the book because of its hostility towards them, but he didn’t care if he offended anyone.
Richler once said that “to be a Jew and a Canadian is to emerge from the ghetto twice, for self-conscious Canadians, like some touchy Jews, tend to contemplate the world through a wrong-ended telescope”.
His best-known work is The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), the satiric, bittersweet story of a determined young man who equates wealth with success. Greed and materialism are central themes of the novel, Duddy believing that the more he acquires, the happier he’ll be. The book was made into a film in 1974, the screenplay written by Richler for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Richler’s style was an uncompromising blend of mockery, pathos, intellect, tenderness, humour, compassion and satire.
Additional recommended Richler reading: The Street (1969), St Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Joshua Then and Now (1980) and Solomon Gursky Was Here (1989), hailed by many critics as his best novel and nominated for the Booker Prize, and Barney’s Version (1997).
Alice Munro (born 1931) won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Canadian to be so honoured, for being “master of the contemporary short story”. She’s written thirteen short story collections, the first one Dance of the Happy Shades published in 1968 when she was 37 years old. The complex title story in The Love of a Good Woman (1998) begins with the death of a town’s optometrist, before moving on to a nurse, who is told something about that death by her patient, the dying wife of a local farmer. By the end of the story, the nurse is in a quandary about what to do with the information. It’s a powerful tale examining the dilemmas we face and the consequences of our action or inaction.
Her stories, told in spare simple language and usually from a female viewpoint, tend to be set in small towns in provincial Canada and her characters live basically ordinary lives. Yet Munro is an acute observer of human experience, writing about the complexities of love, family, secrets and lies, relationships. Her stories can be subtle, leave things untold and don’t necessarily follow a strict chronology. She always gives you something to think about. Consider this excerpt from Too Much Happiness (2009):
“Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind … When a woman goes out, she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.”
Additional recommended Munro reading: Lives of Girls and Women (1971), Who Do You Think You Are? (1978), The Moons of Jupiter (1982), Open Secrets (1994), Runaway (2004), The View from Castle Rock (2006).
Happy Canada Day to all our readers.