Beyond Alice Munro: A Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Lit

October 30, 2013 | 12 books mentioned 24 7 min read

A quarter century ago, when Canadian author Brian Fawcett wrote Public Eye: An Investigation Into the Disappearance of the World, much of the novel was set in Fawcett’s hometown of Prince George, British Columbia, a remote working-class city 300 miles north of Vancouver. But when he sold the book to an American publisher, the editors insisted he change the setting to Akron, Ohio, which would be more familiar to American readers. He did and the book was published by Grove Press in 1990.

Fawcett’s tale, told with considerable good humor from the stage at panel discussion at the Vancouver International Writers Festival last week, helps explain what Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize means to Canadian writers, especially older ones who remember the cold shoulder that Canadian authors writing about Canada sometimes received from American publishers and readers. For many Canadians, Munro’s Nobel — the first for a Canadian writer if one doesn’t count Saul Bellow, who was born in Canada but moved to the U.S. when he was nine — is a sign that the world is finally catching on to the quality of Canadian literature, which has long labored under the shadow of the cultural hegemon to the south.

“Canada has been producing fine writing by a number of very fine writers, many of whom have achieved international recognition, whether it’s Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for quite some time,” says Hal Wake, who runs the week-long Vancouver Writers Festival, which wrapped up on Sunday. “In my view, there have been a number of Canadian writers along the way who might have been considered before.”

“I see it more as just, ‘We were due,’” he adds with a laugh.

Munro, who began publishing in the 1960s, was among the first wave of Canadian writers to find a wide audience for stories about Canada both within and outside the country. But half a century later, as the nation has grown both economically and culturally, Canadian literature has matured to a degree that it is no longer possible to point to any one particular “Canadian literature.” This is partly because homegrown Canadian publishing firms, while facing the same systemic problems as their American counterparts, have grown more robust and adventurous in the last 50 years. But Canadian literature has grown and changed mostly because Canada itself has grown and changed. The Canada Alice Munro grew up in, largely rural and agrarian, and, outside Francophone Quebec, mostly of Scottish and English ancestry, has given way to a polyglot nation of immigrants with thriving metropolitan hubs in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver.

Twenty years ago, when I first started visiting Vancouver, I used to call Canada “the whitest place on Earth.” But when I moved to Vancouver with my Canadian wife last year, I was startled to find that our son’s kindergarten class in the local elementary school was in some ways more ethnically diverse than his class at P.S. 8 in Brooklyn, where we had been living. Children’s birthday parties here are a miniature United Nations of Scots, Irish, British, French, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Serbs, Poles, New Zealand Maori, along with several children of First Nations tribal ancestry, and many, many children whose parentage is some mixture of the above.

covercoverSo for Americans who have plowed through Munro’s Selected Stories and are looking for a broader taste of Canadian literature — or CanLit, as it is called here — I offer a partial and admittedly idiosyncratic “Beginner’s Guide to Canadian Literature.” To avoid stating the obvious, I will skip some of the more famous living writers, like Martell, Ondaatje, and Margaret Atwood, whose work is already well known outside Canada. Institutional modesty also prevents me from touting my talented Millions colleague, Emily St. John Mandel, a native of British Columbia (though I will not refrain from mentioning that her most recent book is The Lola Quartet and that she has a new book, Station Eleven, due out from Knopf in 2015).

I cannot pretend to be an authority on the eternally fraught subject of CanLit, having only lived in the country a year, so readers should feel free to chime in with other Canadian faves in the comments section.

coverJoseph Boyden: Let me put this as bluntly and unequivocally as I can: It is a crime that Boyden’s work is not better known outside Canada, especially in the United States. With his latest novel, The Orenda, he has set himself the breathtakingly audacious task of rewriting the creation story of Canada to put Native people, in this case the Huron and Iroquois Indians, at the center of the story where they belong. This alone would make it worth a look, but the novel also happens to be a terrific read, if not always an easy one. Set in the mid-1600s, The Orenda recounts the blood-soaked history of the early French exploration into what is today the Canadian province of Ontario through the eyes of three central characters: a brave Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl he has adopted after killing her family, and French Jesuit missionary come to bring the heathen Natives to Christ.

The novel is 500 pages long and contains some of the most vicious scenes of violence I have ever read, but Boyden has a fascinating story to tell and he tells it with extraordinary delicacy and even-handedness. It would have been easy, and perhaps understandable, for Boyden, who is part Ojibwa Indian, to have made Christophe, his Jesuit missionary, who is based on a historical figure, St. Jean de Brébeuf, into the bad guy. In the book, Christophe and his fellow Frenchmen lay waste to a rich and complex Native society, but by telling so much of the story through Christophe’s eyes, Boyden renders the priest’s actions both comprehensible and in some ways even noble, despite the destruction he wreaks on the very people whose souls he is trying to save.

coverThe Orenda has been out since September in Canada, where it is already a #1 bestseller, but won’t be available in the U.S. until May 2014. No matter. It’s worth a trip to Amazon.ca to buy it now. Boyden, who is just 47, plans to write a companion novel to The Orenda, as well as a final novel to complete a trilogy he started with his first two novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. Many things could stop him. He could run out of gas. He could get spooked by the magnitude of his own talent and ambition. But if he does not, if he is able to carry out the work he has cut out for himself, I think I already know who will be Canada’s next Nobel laureate.

Mavis Gallant: Think of Gallant as the Francophone Alice Munro. Born in Montreal in 1922 — she is, incredibly, now 91 — Gallant worked as a newspaper reporter in the 1940s before leaving journalism to become a fiction writer in Paris, where she has lived most of her adult life. As with Munro, many of Gallant’s stories first appeared in The New Yorker, and like Munro, Gallant has a gift for capturing the inner lives of young, spirited women raised in provincial, cloistered worlds.

coverGallant wrote two novels, but she is best known for her short fiction, the best of which can found in her doorstop-sized Selected Stories. Her fiction can be decorous to a fault, but when she is on, there is no one smarter or more observant about the human heart. I have never forgotten the first story of hers I ever read, “Across the Bridge,” published in The New Yorker in 1991, about a young French girl engaged by her parents to the son of a business partner who rebels by becoming infatuated with another boy. The world of the story is petty and narrow, and the stakes tiny, but in her quiet way Gallant makes you feel as if the future of love itself hung in the balance.

coverAlistair MacLeod: Now 77, MacLeod is best known for his short stories collected in Island, most of which are set on the remote Cape Breton Island of Nova Scotia off Canada’s east coast, where MacLeod spent much of his early life. Seven years younger than Munro, he is, like her, of primarily Scottish ancestry, and the world of his stories, like that of some of her early work, is provincial, economically straitened, and emotionally austere. But unlike Munro, who grew up in Ontario near placid Lake Huron, MacLeod is haunted by the sea, and in the best of his stories, like “The Boat,” the first of the stories collected in Island, the sea is almost a character in the story.

coverMacLeod’s stories tend toward the bleak, and after a while one begins to hanker for some coloring beyond shades of gray. For this reason, Island, for all its mentions of the sea, is anything but a beach read. I recall finishing the collection with two central conclusions: first, that MacLeod is a marvelous craftsman of short stories, and, second, that I was very, very glad I wasn’t raised the child of fishermen on Cape Breton in the 1940s. Together, these two thoughts spurred me to rush out and buy MacLeod’s acclaimed 1999 novel, No Great Mischief, but not so far to actually read it.

covercoverRobertson Davies: For those who prefer their slices of small-town Canadian life a bit less brooding, there’s Robertson Davies, that white-bearded font of plays, critical essays, reportage, and fiction, including his three trilogies, The Salterton Trilogy, The Deptford Trilogy, and The Cornish Trilogy. His best-known book is probably The Fifth Business, the first installment of The Deptford Trilogy, a busy tale told in the form of a long letter by its central character, retiring teacher Dunstan Ramsay, who lays out the story of his life as a World War I soldier, teacher, and lifelong frenemy of businessman Percy Boyd (“Boy”) Staunton.

Davies, who died in 1995 at age 82, was an actor and the editor of a small-town newspaper before his writing brought him to prominence, and some of his best work, like his early novels Tempest-Tost and Leaven of Malice, touch on the worlds of amateur theater troupes and newspapers.

coverEsi Edugyan: Even as Canada’s population becomes less Anglo-Saxon and pale, it is still rare to see black people — or Hispanics, for that matter — in most Canadian cities, so it was with deep curiosity that I recently picked up Half-Blood Blues, by Edugyun, a child of Ghanaian immigrant parents born and raised in the central Canadian city of Calgary. A detective story of sorts, Half-Blood Blues centers on the disappearance of Hieronymous Falk, a brilliant jazz trumpeter born to a white German mother and a black African soldier, who is arrested by the Nazis in occupied Paris.

Narrated by one of Hiero’s fellow musicians who sets out 50 years later to learn what happened to his friend, much of the book is written in an odd slangy patois, and like a lot of novels written in slang, it can take some getting used to. But once Edugyun immerses you in the world of these black jazz musicians living amid the intrigue and dangers of wartime Europe, your ear adjusts to the dialect and you succumb to the pleasures of a tale well told.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. www.michaelbournewriter.com

24 comments:

  1. Thanks for the kind mention, Michael. I enjoyed this list, and agree absolutely with regard to Joseph Boyden; given the brilliance of his work, it’s absurd that he isn’t better-known in the U.S. I think The Orenda is a masterpiece.

  2. Totally agree in regard to Joseph Boyden. Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce were both outstanding. I’ll have to get hold of his new book.

  3. An excellent idea for an article, thank you, and now Joseph Boyden is absolutely on my radar.

    I would also add a few more worthy Canadian writers to the list: Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers; Brian Moore, author of The Black Robe (made into a stunning and faithful film); Gloria Sawai, author of A Song for Nettie Johnson (winner of the Governor General’s Award for fiction); Thomas King, author of Medicine River; and Thomas Wharton for his beautiful and haunting novel Icefields.

    And then of course there’s Douglas Glover, whose novel Elle was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His novel, The Life & Times of Captain N, is one of the best novels I’ve read, a revisionist take on the American Revolutionary War, from a Canadian perspective. He’s a terrific short story writer too, and has a new collection out, Savage Love.

    Oh, and then there’s Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries . . . so many amazing writers to the north of us!

  4. No mention of Réjean Ducharme? THE SWALLOWER SWALLOWED is legendary, and it’s desperately in need of a new English translation (calling NYRB!)

  5. Thanks, Philip, Emily, and “beamish13”. As I say, I make no claim to authority on this topic, which I’m only now beginning to explore in a more serious way. I’m hoping that others will chime in with recommendations and additions to my list. Americans, myself included, don’t know near as much as they should about writers north of the 49th parallel.

  6. Maybe I’m showing my age, but the first two names that come to mind on this topic are Mordecai Richler and Margaret Laurence. The Street is a good sampler of the former’s work as it is a collection of short stories, but his last novel, Barney’s Version, would probably appeal the most to a modern audience as it is more contemporary. Laurence’s The Stone Angel is required reading in most Canadian schools the way The Catcher in the Rye is in America — which is not to say that they have anything in common, outside of their penetration.

  7. Does Josef Škvorecký count? I know he was born and lived half his life in Czechoslovakia, but he lived in Canada for a full half of his adult life. I’d expect in some ways he’s as Canadian as Nabakov is American. Novels don’t get much sadder or funnier than his The Engineer of Human Souls, and like a lot of his stuff it’s very much in print and available in the States: http://www.openlettersmonthly.com/stevereads/2010/02/the-engineer-of-human-souls/

  8. Another vote for Patrick DeWitt, Thomas King, and Thomas Wharton. Icefields is an incredible book. I’ll also enthusiastically add Timothy Findley and Lynn Coady, both for their novels and short stories. Coady’s latest, Hellgoing, is in the running for the Giller Price this year, and certainly worthy of it.

  9. This is an ok list to begin with. Alastair MacLeod’s “No Great Mischief” lives up to the excellence of his short stories, and I second those who advocate for the addition of Mordecai Richler and Thomas Wharton. I’d also mention Michel Basilieres’ “Black Bird” as a somewhat overlooked, hilarious dark comedy about the comings and goings of a dysfunctional Montreal family.

    One small correction: The title of Robertson Davies book is “Fifth Business” not The Fifth Business. Davies’ slim volume of ghost stories “High Spirits” is one of my favourites.

  10. Here’s a telling comment:

    “Canada has been producing fine writing by a number of very fine writers, many of whom have achieved international recognition, whether it’s Yann Martel or Michael Ondaatje or Anne Michaels, for quite some time”

    ‘Fine writing’ is probably about right, though hardly a glowing review. I know artistic quality has a subjective aspect, but I can’t imagine any of the listed authors being considered for a Nobel (and certainly not Yann Martel, the M Night Shyamalan of literature).

    That aside, this is a fine survey of CanLit, akthough I agree with Glen Cadigan that the absence of Lawrence and Richler is surprising.

  11. Great list, Mr. Bourne, I’m happy to see Mavis Gallant up there, she’s so often overlooked. There are many great additions in the comments, too (many of which I didn’t know about and will be looking into). I think Rawi Hage also deserves a place on that list, for his IMPAC winning DeNiro’s Game, and for his two other books also (especially his last, Carnival).

    As a French-Canadian I’m also going to have to propose a few Québecois writers in the mix, all available in translation (they are all Canadian too, after all): Michel Tremblay, Hubert Aquin, Dany Laferrière, Jacques Poulin. Also Nancy Huston, who is a Franco-Albertan and now lives in France; she writes in French but usually translates her own novels into English.

    Happy Reading!

  12. Definitely second (or third) the Mordecai Richler recommendation. How about Rebecca Lee? Or John Glassco?

  13. Great piece, excellent choices, and so exciting to see readers chipping in with their own favourites. For those interested in further exploring the diversity of talent in CanLit today, I heartily recommend http://www.49thShelf.com, a website entirely devoted to Canadian books (in English). It boasts a searchable database of 70,000 titles, a regular blog, amazing lists and recommendations, and a huge fan community. Its whole purpose is to help readers find their next great Canadian read. Twitter is @49thShelf.

    p.s. Just saw Boyden on tour with Michael Winter, one of my Canadian faves, in Ottawa. They were amazing.

  14. I can’t see how this list omits Roch Carrier. His tales of mid-century Quebec and the influence of the church amid a hard-scrabble existence have been expertly translated into English. Not to mention, the most famous Canadian short story ever was written by him — The Hockey Sweater. Maybe it was the influence of Sartre, Camus and Malreaux in my teenage years but when I started to explore Canadian literature it was the French Canadian authors that I gravitated toward.

  15. You cannot leave out Timothy Findley!

    I was in a Lebanese grocery in Ottawa when the shop’s radio began playing a recorded excerpt from his novel Not Wanted On The Voyage. I listened idly at first, then stood, spellbound, for 10 minutes. The excerpt ended, I bought some falafel from the bemused grocer, then made a beeline for the nearest bookshop and bought the book.

    It’s a magic-realist retelling of the Noah story, but that phrase does not begin to describe the novel’s audacity and power. It’s captivating. It’s also one of the very few books that has actually made me sob aloud. (But in a good way!)

    His other novels are magnificent (especially The Wars), but Not Wanted will always have the place of honour in my heart.

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