Wednesday, August 27, 2014

8th Canadian Challenge - 2nd review - Two Solitudes

Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes (and Roy's The Tin Flute) were two of the last books I read before making the move to Toronto.  They had originally been close but not stacked on top of each other in my TBR pile.  After doing a bit of preparatory research, I realized they were quite closely related, so I read them back to back.  This is a fairly common pairing, also followed by Craig MacBride over at the Toronto Review of Books -- his (quite interesting) reviews are here and here.  I found out a while ago that I had actually read Two Solitudes back in the mid to late 90s, but I really didn't remember much of it, and only occasionally did I think, oh yes, now I recall what is coming.  It was essentially like reading the book for the first time; I had never read any Gabrielle Roy before.  Of the two, I definitely preferred The Tin Flute, which I will discuss at greater length in the next review.  I think MacBride gives Two Solitudes a slight edge.

One last general comment before I start the review itself: a friend warned me that Two Solitudes was quite dated and that it really didn't explain Quebec any longer.  That's sort of a weird warning, in the sense that most fiction over 50 years old describes a world that no longer exists, but then again most novels don't really try to "explain" a province or a people the way that Two Solitudes does.  MacLennan was almost trying to be pedagogical in conveying what it was like to be a French-speaking Quebecker in an English-dominated country -- not quite but almost an "issue" book.  The plot itself sometimes seems secondary (much more so than in The Tin Flute) which does date the book more now that conditions have completely changed.  Indeed, while Atlantic Canada still seems a bit overrun by Catholic dogma (including some truly shameful things that are still happening in terms of access to abortion out that way), Quebec has gone the other way and is mirroring France in attempting to fully secularize their society and even purge religion from the public square.  Quebec has fully embraced manufacturing where this is still a viable business model.  Clearly this is very different from the society that MacLennan was attempting to describe.

There be SPOILERS ahead

While there are actually several sections, the book basically breaks down into two parts.  The first focuses on Athanase Tallard, an influential land-holder and Member of Parliament from a small town somewhat outside of Montreal.  He is the equivalent of the landed gentry.  But his family life has always been quite troubled.  More critically in terms of the plot, he gets into a serious fight with the local priest, Father Beaubien, which leads to his alienation from the villagers which in turn leads to his loss of political power and eventually his family fortunes.  I have to say, for a supposedly educated (if somewhat internally divided) person he is not very clever, since he clearly should have gone over the head of the local priest to the Bishop, with whom he actually has good relations, and thus avoided the whole confrontation.  Indeed, his Anglo counterpart, Huntly McQueen, does exactly this.  It really did seem like a huge mis-step that Athanase wouldn't have made, and thus the later plot developments seemed a bit false to me.

MacLennan sort of explains this away by saying that the priest got under his skin by needling him about his first wife (a religious fanatic nonetheless much loved by outsiders) and then his second wife, a much younger woman of Irish background (who hates the village where they live and who longs to move to Montreal).  So Athanase chose badly twice in his family life.  His eldest son Marius is an extremely unpleasant French separatist, whom even his own father doesn't seem to care for.  He is depicted as a total loser, a scrabbling lawyer who spends much of his time making speeches in favour of sovereignty and cannot feed his ever-growing family.  I can certainly understand why MacLennan wouldn't have been popular in Quebec after this novel came out.  Marius is mostly around to push the plot in a couple of key instances.  First, he is a draft-dodger (WWI, not WWII) and the visiting daughter (Janet) of a neighbour drops a dime on him.  This leads to the complete alienation of the village from her and causes no end of difficulties for her father, Captain Yardley, who is actually a retired Anglo sea captain, who was making friends in the village despite his background.  Janet has always been a bit of a snob and she eventually becomes insufferable, worrying excessively about her place among the rich English families of Montreal.  I guess this is MacLennan's way of balancing out Marius.  He (MacLennan) certainly paints the most positive picture of those characters who try to bridge the Anglo-French divide, such as Athanase, Captain Yardley, Paul Tallard and Heather Methuen (Janet's younger daughter).  Second, Marius provides some of the family dirt to Father Beaubien, enabling him to rile up Athanase.  As an aside, the priest is dead set against the factory that Athanase and Huntly McQueen want to build, which is why Father Beaubien conspires against Athanase, but he only manages to derail Athanase's participation in the project.  The factory still goes ahead and he is more or less exiled elsewhere (I was briefly reminded of the terrific novel Morte d'Urban by J.F. Powers, which centers around a priest exiled to the boonies, though that priest would never have worked against the local gentry, as it were).  Anyway, this part of the book does read like a family tragedy, although the asides of McQueen discussing his business doings are somewhat interesting.

Paul Tallard is the younger son, and the "hero" of the second half of the book.  He is of "mixed" background, although in those days, I am not sure his Irish blood would really have made him a representative of English Canada.  It strikes me that Ontario was far more dominated by those of English and Scottish extraction.  Nonetheless, he functions largely as a symbol of the plight of Canada, torn between two different paths.  It certainly doesn't help that his father lost all their funds, and Canada is deep in the midst of the Depression.  (Oh, and he wants to be a writer!)  Through a series of unlikely events, Paul meets and befriends Heather in Montreal.  McQueen has managed Janet's portfolio quite well, and Heather is well-off and mostly associates with the moneyed classes.  She seems to be seeking out something else, however. At the very least, she wants a career, though if I am not mistaken, her degree is in the arts (something that wasn't terribly helpful during the Depression).

Of course they fall in love and meet up with incredible resistance from Janet, who starts pulling the medical emergency card.  In other words, she convinces herself that she is deathly ill and that Heather must nurse her back to health (for the rest of Heather's life apparently).  Oh, by the way, she will disinherit Heather if she marries Paul. To her credit, Heather is more than willing to break with her mother.  However, Paul basically avoids a complete family break by declaring that now that war (WWII) has broken out, he will enlist and when he comes back he will finally have the connections to get a real job and can take care of Heather.  An unusual plan to say the least...

So it is more than a little like a soap opera.  And MacLennan works extra hard to get us to root for anyone willing to bridge the cultural gap between French and English Canada, and to despise the narrow-mindedness of those who stay in their own camps (Marius and Janet particularly).  And of course to point out how damaging and short-sighted the Church could be in small villages throughout Quebec.  I have to admit, I felt some of this same heavy-handedness in Barometer Rising, which I didn't much like.  I think he moved away from this didacticism in later novels.  At least I recall thinking The Watch That Ends the Night was a better novel, though the moral choices were framed in a particularly stark (and unfair?) way.  I haven't read Return of the Sphinx or Voices in Time, but I may some day.  I've decided I am just not interested in Each Man's Son, which sounds terrible from the plot outline on Wikipedia.  I do think that MacLennan and Morley Callaghan have a lot in common, including a preference for plots offering moral dilemmas and a weakness for melodrama.  Well, perhaps one day after I've read through more of Callaghan's work, I can work up an essay along those lines.  But this is more than enough on Two Solitudes.

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