Book Review: Arrival, The Story of CanLit, by Nick Mount

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The best books, Somerset Maugham once quite rightly insisted, are enjoyable to read. By this measure, Arrival: The Story of CanLit is a virtuoso performance. It’s fun, not at all academic. It’s informative – many of the most important works in the Canadian canon are evaluated (albeit cursorily) – it’s also funny, well written and stylish. Though difficult to compare Arrival to other works (“I wrote this book because it didn’t exist,” says its author, University of Toronto English professor Nick Mount), from the perspective of one who has a hungry interest in books and publishing history, I’d say it’s in the same elite category as James King’s Jack: The Story of Jack McClelland, and David Mason’s memoir, The Pope’s Bookbinder.

Arrival presents a kaleidoscope of succinct often amusing vignettes that describe the story of what’s now known as the ‘CanLit boom’. Stretching from the late 1950s to the mid 1970s, the boom was ignited by an explosion of literary creativity. Replicating the excitement of the period, Mount crafts a script that not only explains the phenomenon, it hurtles its way through a litany of lives, loves and landscapes that together, nurtured an enduring mythology and birthed an extraordinary literary canon.

If Margaret Atwood’s classic work of literary criticism Survival,(1972) is a movie that features an overriding theme, complete with sweeping vistas and recurring melodies, its sequel, Arrival, is a TV mini-series, crammed with pithy, riffy observations; a pastiche that enthusiastically and evocatively captures the feel of a distinct period and its personalities. While Atwood’s book provides a satisfying, masterfully constructed, if contentious, explanation of what Canadian literature contains (multi-hued victims grimly struggling to survive),Arrival gives us context, a sequence of colourful biographical portraits interspersed with blunt, informative assessments of noteworthy novels and poetry collections which in tandem explain how we got “from a country without a literature to a literature without a country.”

At the end of Survival, Atwood asks, “have we survived? If so, what happens after survival”? Arrival sets about answering this question. It takes us back to the Massey Commission in 1951, and its report, which stated that as a means of national expression, “literature had fallen far behind painting”. The report also recognized that government needed to be involved if Canadian culture was to do more than just survive, despite, as Mount puts it, “the idea of giving taxpayer money to Leonard Cohen so he could get high in Greece”, taking some getting used to.

While the Report explains in part why Canada experienced a CanLit boom in the sixties, another driver was, according to Mount, post-war prosperity. A newly affluent society, a resource-rich land experiencing increased production and foreign investment meant increased disposable income and more leisure time. More people could afford to buy homes, so the demand to purchase accompanying stuff also increased. More ‘coffee books for coffee tables.’ New found prosperity created both an existential backlash – is this all there is? – and the means to buy what many thought was missing, plus the leisure time to produce and consume it. This nagging dissatisfaction with satisfaction itself, with ‘success’ , Mount argues, produced a demand for ‘the Arts’, a commodity that assured those who cared, that some things mattered more than carpets and shiny new cars. Many weren’t happy. For some, affluence itself was to blame. Books, among other things, provided therapy and companionship.

One important by-product of the new affluence was that it gave women more time to themselves. This, suggests Mount, in an argument that I think needs more work, may in part explain why Canada has so many great female authors. They took advantage of new found freedom.

To illustrate the size of the CanLit boom, Mount points to stats that show the supply of Canadian-published English-language literary books in print increasing by some 250 percent between 1963 and 1972. New titles in Canada appeared at eight times the global rate. A York University study reported that during the same period, literary book sales increased nineteen times faster than the population. And here’s another interesting fact (the book is full of them), fifty literary magazines were active in French and English Canada between mid-60s and 70s, ten times as many as had ever existed before. Yet, despite this domestic activity, Mount reports that by the 1970s Canada was the world’s largest importer of books, magazines, and newspapers, mostly from America. From before Confederation through to WW ll Canadian nationalism was, Mount says, mainly about political autonomy from Britain. After the war, it was mostly about cultural autonomy from the U.S. The enormous success of America’s cultural industries gave Canadian cultural nationalism something to rail against.

In addition to a main stream publishing boom, small Presses also did well at this time. This is explained in part by the prosperous consumer culture against which they could define themselves, and by cheaper and easier printing methods. New production technologies also emerged, enabling experimentation with presentation. Many Coach House books during this period are best described as exuberant works of art. Mount here gives us a characteristically curt, funny description of the contrast between Coach House and Anansi: The former was the ‘aesthete,’ the latter the ‘activist.’ The former used drugs, the latter drank.

Government, as mentioned, also played its part in fostering the boom. As Mount puts it, “public support for the arts exists in Canada because private support doesn’t”. The Stratford Festival, dozens of new universities, the National Library, the National Ballet, a national TV network, a national arts council – all helped make the boom possible. Production and consumption of goods was facilitated by a society that “after several centuries of cutting tress and swatting bugs suddenly found itself with time and money on its hands.” The Baby Boomer generation produced unprecedented numbers of writers at a time when the largest, best educated, most affluent population of readers in history showed up on the scene.

In addition, the Canada Council also contributed. Describing its origins, Mount playfully tells us “Then a butterfly flapped its wings in Brazil and two wealthy men died in Canada.” With their money Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent announced funding for it in 1955. By far the largest share of Council grants went to universities and academics. Between 1960 and 1975 the number of universities and colleges in Canada almost quadrupled. This of course meant lots more readers. If you wanted support from the Canada Council in the early 1960s and you weren’t a university or an academic, says Mount, your best bet was to be an opera singer. “Literature wondered what happened to its invitation to the party.” The little it did get went a long way however. Margaret Atwood received $6000 in 1969. “It helped her write three books that confirmed her career and defined Canadian literature, Surfacing, Survival, and Power Politics.” “Measured in her subsequent income taxes alone, that just might be the best $6,000 the people of Canada ever spent.” The Council also supported writers-in-residence programs. Poet Al Purdy at Montreal’s Loyala College was responsible for perhaps the most auspicious accomplishment of this program. A term’s worth of empty beer bottles appeared under his office window when the snow melted in the spring, prompting students to call them ‘Purdy’s crocuses’.

Arrival percolates with these kind of humorous anecdotes. In the context of selling excerpts of novels to women’s magazines, for example, Mordecai Richler is quoted as saying “The thing to remember when writing a novel, is to include a chapter with a recipe.” Referring to Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers: “But perhaps because few people read it, the first and so far only Canadian novel to feature vaginal, anal, and armpit penetration by a self-propelled flying vibrator somehow escaped obscenity charges. At number two on the Canadian bestseller lists, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, newly legal in Britain and America, did not.”

The book is also packed with interesting facts and figures. For example, the University of Toronto bought Leonard Cohen’s manuscript of Beautiful Losers for $6,000, easily twice what the book earned him in sales. Margaret Laurence sold the film rights for A Jest of God to Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward for $30,000. No province required students to read Canadian literature until Ontario did in 1977. This was a consequence, not a cause of the CanLit boom. Coach House’s first book was printed in an edition of three hundred copies. There’s a great short form comparison between the thought of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan on page 62. Mostly what the two did for Canadian writers, says Mount, was provide examples of international success, proof that Canadians could be ‘written about, argued over, read.’

Here’s an example from one of Mount’s many brief and brill chapter-starting character sketches:

“Milton Acorn was from Charlottetown, a Second World War veteran with a metal plate in his head, a socialist chip on his shoulder, and a serious case of chronic depression. He came to Toronto in the summer of 1960 and soon became an Embassy idol, shouting poems at the rafters, scaring the college kids, helping lawyers and housewives imagine themselves part of the revolution for a night. He was nineteen years older than Gwen (MacEwen), a cigar-smoking caveman to her Isis reborn. The marriage lasted eight months, ending in Gwen’s affair with the man to whom she dedicated her first book, a painter who conducted seances on Ward’s Island and claimed to be from another planet.”

Here are the goods on Jack McClelland: After joining the navy in 1941, he “lost his asthma, saw men die, and learned to drink, fuck and curse. He said later that he never had a better time.” Here’s one of many great throw away lines in the book: “The only good novel you can write while high is a novel about being high.” And more fun: In the late 1950s Toronto was the publishing centre of Canada, where young writers, publishers, editors and designers forged a community. “Add money to spend and places to drink, and voila – the CanLit cocktail.”

And there’s no shortage of critical judgement: “The Double Hook came out on May 16, 1959, and became the most influential Canadian novel ever published.” “Civil Elegies is the closest that Canadian literature has come to a founding epic – our Waste Land, but also our Aeneid.”The Incomparable Atuk is “A silly book then, it’s mostly unreadable today. The humour is juvenile, the writing sloppy, the story slapped together.” “Judging by the typos alone, Wiebe’s editors had the same problem with his fourth novel [The Temptations of Big Bear] that legions of undergraduates have had: staying awake while reading it.”

Evaluative criticism is also evident in sidebars throughout Arrival. Each contain rankings, from one to five stars, of works found in the Canadian canon. Each challenge us to agree or disagree; to keep the conversation going; to keep the canon alive and evolving, in much the same way Survival does. Despite Atwood suggesting otherwise (“It is not evaluative. I try to refrain from handing out merit badges, and no admiring reader should feel elated or put down because his favourite author is or isn’t included) the book postulates a thesis and argues cogently in favour of it, using and citing an impressive number of supporting arguments, illustrations and quotations. In effect she’s saying, you don’t like it, come up with something better or contest the points made. In short, Survival is designed to stimulate discussion, dissenting opinion, and competing ideas.

***

I have no beef with Arrival. For the most part its arguments are sound. Frankly, as a Canadian book lover I’m just thrilled that such a book now exists. My only concern, and it’s no fault of the author, is that while there is welcome discussion of the ancillary components of Canadian literature: bookstores and booksellers (The Double Hook bookstore in Montreal for example survived for more than 30 years), publishing (Sheila Watson’s The Double Hook was published first in paperback); I wish there could have been more, particularly about the design of books. Oh, and I spotted a bit of an anomaly. Mount rates four of Al Purdy’s stand alone poetry books, two **, one ***, one ****. All very well. But he then gives Purdy’s Selected Poems *****. Just doesn’t seem to add up. Finally, taking up the challenge thrown down by this kind of rating system, I think Mount is too hard on Irving Layton (***,*,**,*), perhaps mistakenly conflating his puffed-up personality with his work. Layton is, I think, despite the self-obsessed dick swinging, one of our greatest poets.

***

Canadian literature, despite its focus on death and loss, is, as Mount says, more alive and more exciting than ever before. With Arrival he does a wonderful job of letting us live for a while in an equally exciting time – one in which the canon was created – and of showing us how we got from there, developing a national literature, to ‘here’, where we are today, beyond borders, active and hailed on the international stage.

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