Hand in hand with my history deficits go my geography lacunae.
Much of my early Canadian geological knowledge gleaned from Miss Cassell and triple Geography on a Friday afternoon.
Surely there are laws against such a time-table?
Prim, permed and a great lover of the dictated notes, Miss Cassell would K-Skip stride up and down the aisles between the desks dictating vast quantities of Gradgrindian facts at us, we'd scribble like robots (fountain pens and turquoise ink) and sadly no country ever came to life under this soul-sapping regime.
So Canada, I'm really sorry but I remember you for a lot of wheat and even more tundra and permafrost going down 24" or so (or was it 12"?) and something called the Canadian Shield which I suspected you all clouted with your spades under a few grains of meagre soil, but all generally giving me the impression you were wasting your time if you tried to bury anything in Canada.
This may all have been subliminally reinforced when I flew over Canada a few years ago, looked out and saw this.
Those little thoughts stick and, despite the passage of time, they still surface at odd moments and it was inevitable they would return when I picked up Red Dog, Red Dog by Canadian writer Patrick Lane and read the first sentence,
I couldn't be blamed for thinking 'well, am I surprised' or for then thinking 'great stuff this feels like one of those brilliant Canadian reads.' and wondering whether perhaps the delicious and immediate literary analogy forming in my mind might all come to pass. Unburiable secrets emerging as the unsayable and insisting on being exhumed and re-examined.
But I was also reluctant to judge this book within my usual Canadian literary parameters, because I'm beginning to think they might be outmoded, especially since, thanks to a gift subscription, I've been taking the Literary Review of Canada.
It's been fascinating to get a feel for a country and its culture and sense its successes and anxieties through these pages, much as anyone reading the London Review of Books may sense ours.
It's a simplistic generalization I know, and in-depth analysis would probably reveal that a fair balance is achieved, but my impressions are that whilst the LRB seem to be regularly deflecting our gaze away from disasters at home (Berlusconi in Tehran, Why are We in Afghanistan?) the LRC seem to be really good at facing up and dissecting internal issues (Who profits from Aboriginal poverty? Will Calgary business elites end up running the country?). This can only be good for an amateur sociological and cultural distance learner/sleuth like me, because actually that's what I want to know, what makes Canada tick and how might I see that reflected in the literature.
I was therefore completely phased to read a piece by Fraser Sutherland on a new anthology of Canadian poetry and in discussing the alleged narrowness of the Canadian critical scene he said this,
'Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism began the rot. Frye's grand synoptic vision became vulgarised into thematic criticism, epitomized by Atwood's deplorable Survival : A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature.'
You really only need to note those last nine words. I went hot and cold and felt a bit sick.
Deplorable... Atwood deplorable?
But how can you do this to me Fraser ?
I've based my entire recent, albeit amateur thinking on Canadian literature on the revelations in Margaret Atwood's book, it's been my trusted vade mecum because it made complete sense to me and it's quite hard to make sense of something so distant here in Devon and with no access to the wisdom of a university library. Clearly I need to search around and find a more up to date bible and I'd be grateful for recommends, a book that gives a good overview of the Canadian literary scene now.
Thankfully I was only out in the wilderness until the next edition of the Literary Review of Canada arrived and in it a letter in response to Fraser Sutherland from the editor of the anthology, James Pollock.
'As for Atwood, I do not agree that Survival is deplorable. It has nothing to do with evaluative criticism, but as cultural theory it is brilliant.'
I heaved a bit of a sigh but not a huge one, because I think I do need to reappraise my thinking on Canadian literature and get out of my head all those prevailing Atwoodian suggestions,
'Given a choice of the negative or positive aspects of any symbol - sea as life-giving Mother, sea as what your ship goes down in; tree as symbol of growth, tree as what falls on your head - Canadians show a marked preference for the negative.'
'If in England the family is a mansion you live in, and if in America it's a skin you shed, then in Canada it's a trap in which you're caught.'
'Families in Canadian fiction huddle together like sheep in a storm or chickens in a coop: miserable and crowded, but unwilling to leave because the alternative is seen as a cold empty space...the family and the structures that have maintained it are rotting away, generating in the process a lurid gothic light...warped family relationships, blighted harvests and mad children.'
After all things are bound to have changed since 1972.
Except taking all that into consideration and if you've read Red Dog, Red Dog you'll know what I'm going to say; Margaret Atwood could have been writing about Patrick Lane's most excellent book, so I think I might be right back where I started.
My thoughts on the book very soon and you'll have to take my own unsayable as a given because I'd better not write it for fear of being out of literary fashion, but this really feels like Canadian literature at its finest.