Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan (2/5)

I’ve got about 3 weeks left and 3 more books to go.  At least this last one was the longest of the 5 books.  At first I thought that Two Solitudes and February (see that review here) were extremely different because the types of prose and style of story telling is so opposite.  The more I compare the two I realize that they share a common theme:  memory.  Memory of individuals and memory of cultures.  It will be interesting to see if that theme plays out for the whole Canada Reads 2013 series.

Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

This is a tough book to review, especially with such a sound Afterword by Richard Kroetsch but I’ll try to add something new to the discussion.  Discovering and reading this book was a bit of a cultural aha! moment – I had missed a reference that those-in-the-know of Canadian culture/literature would not have missed.  But now I am in on the secret.  Before I read this book (or was even introduced to it by Canada Reads) I attended a talk by the Canadian author Joseph Boyden that he entitled Three Solitudes.  He then proceeded to discuss the plight of First Nations youth (including suicide) in Canada without mention of which solitudes he was speaking.  I had thought it meant the solitude of self vs. culture or phases in our lives where we may feel solitary.  That wasn’t really it at all.

The book Two Solitudes comments on the anglophone vs francophone culture in Canada from 1917-1939, through the first world war and to the start of the second.  French vs English.  Joseph Boyden was making a statement by adding a third solitude about the fact that Canada was founded by 3 cultures, not two:  English, French and First Nations people.  He was also hinting at how the First Nations had been (yet again) so easily overlooked and at how we continue to overlook a lack of hope in those communities today.

But back to the book in question.  The author creates two generations of Canadians at various levels on the French-English continuum.  But there are multiple continua at play in this novel.  It also examines the dichotomies (or solitudes) of men and women, Catholic and Protestant, older generation and younger generation.

There are also levels of prejudice.  Some people slip easily between cultures and others are penalized when they cannot choose a side be it a cultural side, a religion or a traditional gender role.

Perhaps the most penalized is Athanase Tallard, a Quebecois man from a small village who becomes a member of parliament.  He is a member of the older generation yet he is more open to change and the breaking of cultural boundaries.  He has been married to both a model Roman Catholic francophone and an Irish woman – both bore him a son.  He even challenges religion and the importance of the denomination or the presence in one’s life at all.  The other members of the village are not generally supportive of his toe-dipping into Protestantism.  But he is the older generation – he raised one of his sons, Paul, to jump easily between the two solitudes and this gap-bridging seems a bit less frowned-upon in Paul Tallard’s generation.

It is a good look at ends of spectrums in Canada between the world wars.  It examines the struggle for people who did not fit into one box.  A must-read for anyone interested in Canadian culture and literature.  If nothing else you won’t miss overt cultural references in educated circles.

A few favourite quotes:

Athanase Tallard reflecting on why he found the need to ruffle feathers around him, to prove something about his manhood or place

Nothing was left to him but principles and ideas. ‘God’ he thought, ‘is that all there is to it?’ And then it occurred to him that perhaps all wars and revolutions and movements of history started from sources just as trivial and undignified.  He saw the people in their churches and nationalisms huddling together under flags and banners in desperate attempts to escape the knowledge of their own predicament.  They were all silhouettes moving almost accidentally for seventy years or so over the ridge of the world between darkness and darkness.  Among them he saw himself.

The next is an excerpt from the perspective of Huntly McQueen, older generation, wealthy capitalist commenting to himself on Heather Methuen – an English-Canadian woman from the younger generation.

If Heather was a sample of the younger generation there was going to be trouble.  McQueen wanted to be just, but he doubted if he was exaggerating.  Where there was smoke there was generally fire.  Heather had allowed some of the younger professors at the university to put ideas into her head.  She had made some very unnecessary and annoying remarks at the table about the values of socialism.  McQueen saw no necessity for it whatever.  He was convinced that the last thing any socialist ever wanted was to be forced to accept power.  Idealists were all the same.  And yet they were mischievous.  They opened up the masses to the real scoundrel who invariably followed them.  Look what had happened to Germany!  The socialists had preached idealism but the only result of their pernicious meddling was Hitler.  McQueen clucked his tongue.  It served them right.

And here is one more interesting quote (from the McQueen character, again) that hints at keeping social order by brainwashing the uneducated masses and squashing too much independent thought or access to it.  Not my usual picture of Canada.

McQueen thought how sharp a contrast he could make between the United States and Canada, if he went about it skillfully.  In Canada, first of all, there were the two races:  each could be employed to balance the other.  Then there were the churches:  they were filled every Sunday, and it was possible for the whole nation to excite itself over a theological dispute.  But the real point was this:  ten per cent of all college graduates, perhaps not the most brilliant men but certainly the most restless of the lot, found it so difficult to get what they wanted in Canada that you could always count on them drifting south to the States.  That made enormously for stability above the border.  Down there they could write their books and broadcast their ideas, and compared to the average American they were probably fairly stable citizens.  Yes, McQueen thought with satisfaction, we have discovered a great social secret in Canada.  We have contrived to solve problems which would ruin other countries merely by ignoring their existence.

I marked pages and pages with quotes to share but I won’t bore you with all of them.  Besides, you’ll just have to read the book for yourself.

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