It was an interesting experience rereading Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night. I did read it quite long ago, and occasionally reading some passage would trigger a faint memory, but I really didn't remember the overall plot. I suspect I simply was reading too much in my mid-twenties and books just didn't stick with me that much. (I recently found evidence that I previously read DeLillo's The Names, but I have no recollection of reading that at all!) In some cases, this is not such a bad thing, since many novels are just read as a form of escapism, but The Watch That Ends the Night is a very solid novel, and I am a bit sorry that I didn't recall more about it. I guess I can set the record straight now. It did seem particularly appropriate that I read a significant portion of the novel on the train from Montreal to Toronto, as the novel is mostly set in Montreal (with a short side trip to Ottawa by train). However, perhaps I should have started the novel a few months back, as it starts in the winter and moves to the spring (with perhaps a bit of an Indian summer at the end).
I have no idea how many contemporary readers come to The Watch That Ends the Night due to the fact that the Tragically Hip song "Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)" from Fully Completely is a paean to the novel and actually includes an extended quote from the novel. However, since the song title only is a tip of the hat to MacLennan, and CD booklet doesn't say which book inspired Gord, casual fans probably will not make the connection. In my case, I probably did pick up the CD and the book at about the same time, though I wasn't aware of the connection (and I surely listened to the CD long before I read the novel). In any case, this post does a good job explaining the story behind the song and contains a good overview of the novel as well. For me, the song has even more resonance now that Gord Downie is suffering from terminal brain cancer.
The main plot of the novel is fairly simple involving three people in a love triangle, though one that is less sordid than usual. I'll get to that in a moment. However, this all plays out against the backdrop of the Depression and WWII and its aftermath. MacLennan is interested in setting up contrasts between the mass movements and sweeping political changes that more or less ground down the individual (personal choices about how to live one's life became unsustainable during the Depression and then the war mobilization, often with the State overruling personal autonomy) and then insisting that the personal still matters, particularly when one is facing one's own mortality or that of loved ones. MacLennan comes back around to elevating the fact that the individual still matters. And indeed, the novel can definitely be read as a kind of instruction manual for coming back to religious faith for the masses that had shed their religion. While it certainly isn't as complex or as dogmatic, the ending does seem at least a bit reminiscent of The Brothers Karamazov.*
The set-up is that George is married to his childhood sweetheart, when he learns that his wife's first husband, Jerome, has seemingly returned from the dead (he had gone to fight the fascists in Spain and never came back). Unlike some novels, this is revealed within a few pages (and is on the cover of the paperback!). His wife, Catherine, has a very weak heart, having already survived 2 embolisms, and there is a big question whether seeing Jerome will trigger another health crisis. It is a foregone conclusion that she will see him again, of course. While I shouldn't give too much away, the last part of the novel is basically a meditation on mortality and how one should attempt to live while under a death watch as it were. While all humans are fated to die, relatively few find sufficient grace to continue living well when their expiry date is so much shorter than the average person's (again, one of the reasons I thought of Gord Downie and his recent struggles).
The novel delves into a number of flashbacks and we find out more about George and Catherine's childhood and why they didn't marry in the first place. Then we learn Jerome's back story, which is fairly harrowing. There are also several sections that go over the events that led to Jerome heading off to Spain (and some of these events are a bit more on the sordid side). There are quite a few secondary characters introduced (a few of them on the eccentric side), and this part of the book reminds me just a bit of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. The novel then returns to the present and the necessity of dealing with Catherine's fragile health. While the set-up is different and the tone vastly different, I think there is a strong connection to another classic novel, Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier, which also deals with a woman's "tricky heart." I think both novels are very good, though perhaps pairing them (in a class or in a paper) might be a mistake. At any rate, I expect to reread The Good Soldier by summer's end or early fall.
MacLennan is mostly considering how a generation of people who had been left empty when their political ideals proved to be inadequate or even dangerous (he is mostly talking about Socialists or Communists) should cope with a cold, demanding world. His answer seems to be to encourage a return to religious faith, though perhaps to a personal god and/or an individual faith rather than to organized religion. I'm not interested in promoting that. At the end of the day, people do have to find something to keep them going. My issue with religion is that once people have found their way, they seem to insist on trying to impose their truth, values and behaviours onto others. That is the fatal flaw with belief systems that claim universal truth.
MacLennan mixes the personal story with the political background more than one would generally see in a contemporary book, specifically because he saw how the personal was subsumed into mass political movements for most of the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s. It's possible that the political is making a return in the 2010s (much to the surprise of folks like Fukuyama, who felt in the late 1980s that we had reached an end-state with liberal capitalism dominating the Western world). In a broader sense, it is more than a little discouraging that we seem to be coming back to a period in time where political systems are gearing up for a major conflict, but the level of political thought is so low and incoherent nowadays. Trumpism, for lack of a better word, is basically just an aggressive, uninformed, anti-elistist (ha!) pose that lashes out at the establishment (and basically all democratic norms) but doesn't offer an actual solution (other than a fantasy that we can retreat to the 1950s when everything was so much better). For all the faults and shortcomings, political thinkers of the 1930s of all stripes were at least making coherent attempts to move society onto a different footing. This review
points out some of the shortcomings of turning away from politics (both
in fiction and in real life), but points out that MacLennan found his
own answer in how to more forward rather than stay steeped in despair.
I've mentioned a few other heavy hitters in this review (Ford and Dostoevsky), and The Watch That Ends the Night is a serious novel that stands up pretty well in their company. To my mind, it is MacLennan's masterpiece (though I still have to read The Return of the Sphinx). I can't guarantee you will find as much of value in the novel, but I thought it was an interesting read (or rather reread) and is one of the best novels I tackled this year.
* Dostoevsky comes up with this clever quote -- related second-hand by Father Zosima, who is repeating what a doctor told him once: "But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity." For much of my life I basically embodied this quote, perhaps the motto of the technocrat, though lately I have drifted into a more anti-humanistic position where I think of humanity as a virus that will ultimately choke off most other life on the planet.