Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Hugh MacLennan, "Two Solitudes"

Afterword by Robert Kroetsch – McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 2008

Read from October 2nd to 15th 2014

My Rating

My ineffable Quebec, my love

Quebec is a magic place. You see it and you are besotted. You live in it and you become addicted. Almost imperceptibly you think of it not only as your home but also as your wonderland.

I often wander Montreal’s streets, never tiring to marvel at the people and places’ diversity. Nowhere else in the world the word “cosmopolite” makes more sense than here, furthermore, I almost believe this was the place that originated it, with its incessant scrolling of people from any corner of the world you could think of, with its happy charivari of languages more or less recognizable, with its interesting display of customs and traditions, with its generous, never-ending offer of artistic events. Whatever your mother-tongue, sooner or later you would hear it, in the street, or in a supermarket, or in a theatre foyer. Whatever new the place you happen to come by, sooner or later you meet a friendly face.

Therefore, it would seem the last word you could apply to Quebec is solitude. However, it is not paradoxical, not even oxymoronic. And you cannot truly begin to understand Quebec, its history, its aspirations and its very soul if you don’t accept its fundamental dichotomy, result of its perpetual struggle to assert its own identity, its continual need to remind the world but also its own inhabitants that it is a island of French speakers in a sea of English ones. So Europeanly atavistic is this need to define itself, this fear of assimilation despite its so open immigration politics. And so alien for a stranger, even a European like me, who cannot help but sharing the feelings of Paul Tallard, the character with mixed origins in the novel:
“Does it feel funny belonging to both races?”“Well, it makes it impossible to be enthusiastic about the prejudices of either of them, and that can be uncomfortable sometimes."
Here is one of the reasons I found MacLennan’s book so interesting. It helped me cope with my own incapacity to choose a side or another without feeling like betraying my French-Canadian friends every time I cannot identify with their choices and their views. For it is not a question of taking parts, at least not anymore, it is simply a question of acknowledging that these feelings are an undeniable part of Quebec’s ineffable charm, along with its picturesque places, generous people, undying love for art.

Another reason to count Two Solitudes among the great writings of Canadian literature is the creation of a complex and viable and tragic character, Athanase Tallard, born before his times, with a deep understanding of his country, which of course cannot understand him. Not yet.

Then there is an amazing reconstruction of a typical catholic village at the beginning of the 19th century, with its closed society suspicious of strangers and gravitating around the priest against whom not even Athanase, whose family had been the most influential in those parts for more than two centuries, can fight. Indeed, it will be Father Beaubien who will trigger, inadvertently, it is true, the ruin of the Tallard family.
“Well, Captain”, Athanase said slowly, “this is just like any other parish in Quebec. The priest keeps a tight hold. Myself, I’m Catholic. Bur I still think the priests hold the people too tightly, (…) Here the Church and the people are almost one and the same thing, and the Church is more than any individual priest’s idea of it.”
I agree with all those who observed that the second part of the novel, that follows the destiny of Athanase’s son, Paul, is not as good as the first one. Or maybe it should have been an independent novel, a sequel, maybe, for it harms the unity of the composition by changing tone and direction. Whereas the first part is mainly historical, the second becomes a bildungsroman, sometimes awkwardly constructed.

However, there are enough touching scenes and intriguing characters (Heather is one of them, McQueen is another) in this second part also to conclude that even this last dichotomy could count among all the other solitudes in pairs in the book: French/ English, village/ city, male/ female, war/ peace, Canada/ USA, catholic/ protestant, and so on.

That Two Solitudes deservedly gained its place among the the best of Canadian literature it is undeniable. The old-fashioned pace of the narrative, the classic structure and plot-building help to re-create a charming world, whose beliefs, fears and lifestyle have founded the nowadays Québec.

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