Last week, I talked about American traits we might find in fiction. This week, I’m moving to Canada (literarily, not literally).
As a U.S. citizen, I don’t possess enough firsthand knowledge to discuss the psyche of our northern neighbor. I’ve spent 30 or so days in Canada, and have the sense that the people there are friendlier, more modest, and more tolerant than many citizens of the American colossus to their south. But that’s just a snapshot. Canada is also quite a birthplace of musical acts: Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, Oscar Peterson, Alanis Morissette, Gordon Lightfoot, Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire, Metric, Rush, The Guess Who, etc.
But I digress.
I’ve read several of Canada’s better-known fiction writers, and they will be what this post is about. Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Yann Martel, L.M. Montgomery, Alice Munro, Mordecai Richler, and even that part-time “Canadian” Willa Cather, who spent many a summer on New Brunswick’s Grand Manan Island.
Atwood deserves a Nobel Prize, just like Munro merited the one she received last year. A novelist since 1969, Atwood has excelled at traditional fiction, satirical fiction, feminist fiction, historical fiction, dystopian fiction, speculative fiction, and more. She is of course best known for The Handmaid’s Tale, a superb/scary book about the future subjugation of women that shares my “Top Six Atwood Novels” list with The Robber Bride (three women with the same enemy), Alias Grace (inspired by a real-life double murder), The Blind Assassin (novel within a novel within a novel), Cat’s Eye (painter reflects on her younger years), and Oryx and Crake (post-apocalypse). Despite the intense subject matter in many of her works, Atwood’s writing can also be quite funny.
I confess to having read only one Munro short-story collection, Friend of My Youth, but the tales were moving, subtle, and emotionally complex — along with being quite readable. It has been said that Munro never needed to write a novel because her stories are like mini-novels.
As with Munro, I’ve only read one work apiece (all novels) by Martel, Richler, and Davies.
Martel, of course, wrote the renowned Life of Pi, which mixes philosophical ruminations with an adventure story about a boy and tiger (not Calvin and Hobbes!) adrift after a shipwreck. Pi avoids two BC’s: British Columbia and Being Consumed.
Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here — considered by some to be “The Great Canadian Novel” — is a multigenerational story of a wealthy, eccentric family. The seriocomic saga includes real-life events and…Yiddish-speaking Eskimos!
Davies’ Murther & Walking Spirits is about a murdered newspaperman who retains a consciousness that allows him to see his widow, the man who murdered him, and the history of his many ancestors — with that history unfolding via a movie-theater film only the dead man can view. Rated PG: Progenitors Galore.
Richler is perhaps best known for The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, and Davies for the three novels comprising “The Deptford Trilogy.”
Then there’s the great L.M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery, author of the young-adult classic Anne of Green Gables about an imaginative, brilliant orphan girl. (I just reread that very engaging and heartwarming novel last week.) Montgomery also penned many Anne sequels (some better than others), the semi-autobiographical Emily trilogy, and “grown-up” books such as The Blue Castle — the most absorbing and at times funniest story you’ll ever read about a bright young woman with a (supposed) terminal illness. One of my top-ten favorite novels.
Montgomery’s fiction usually has rural settings, befitting the less densely populated nature of much of Canada.
Part-time Grand Manan Islander Willa Cather’s most Canada-centric book is Shadows on the Rock — a gem of an historical novel, starring a father and daughter, set in late-17th-century Quebec City. Canada also figures in Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge.
Is there something about Canadian literature that makes it different than, say, American literature? (Besides scenes of colder weather. 🙂 ) Is the fiction in The Country of Provinces “friendlier, more modest, and more tolerant” — like Canadians might be themselves? Hard to say. I certainly haven’t noticed an inferiority complex in the works of Canadian authors. Any thoughts on what, if anything, might make a novel “Canadian”?
Two more questions: Who are your favorite Canadian authors? (Obviously, I’ve named only some of the most famous ones.) And what are your favorite novels or other literary works from Canada?
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I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.