Re­bel­lion runs in city’s blood RE­VIEWS

The Georgia Straight - - Fall Books -

On Rate­mypro­fes­, the 2

web­site where dis­grun­tled stu­dents post anony­mous at­tacks on their teach­ers, no one speaks ill of Nick Mount. He lec­tures on Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Toronto, and his new book Ar­rival is a fas­ci­nat­ing overview of that sub­ject from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Its pub­li­ca­tion co­in­cides with the 50th an­niver­sary of the found­ing of House of Anansi Press, not coin­ci­den­tally the pub­lisher of the book in ques­tion. Mount was only nine years old when Anansi brought out Mar­garet At­wood’s Sur­vival, her own sur­vey of the field, back in 1972. So when he writes about how Cana­dian writ­ing was com­ing to an ex­plo­sive boil half a cen­tury ago, he is work­ing from gen­uine his­tor­i­cal re­search rather than his own mem­ory. He gets most of the story right and a few bits wrong, and does both things in a se­ri­ous but highly en­ter­tain­ing man­ner that seems to flirt with comic sar­casm at times.

The cen­tral idea of Ar­rival is that Cana­dian writ­ing blos­somed as a re­sult of ris­ing in­comes and added leisure in the af­ter­math of the Sec­ond World War. He has sta­tis­tics to back this up. For ex­am­ple, be­tween 1963 and 1972 the num­ber of new Cana­dian lit­er­ary works pub­lished do­mes­ti­cally in­creased by 320 per­cent. Sim­i­larly, there was a new vigour in the vis­ual arts, broad­cast­ing, and so on. Book­selling was grow­ing, li­braries were ex­pand­ing, new uni­ver­si­ties were start­ing, rep­u­ta­tions were born. So in a sense he is writ­ing pop­u­lar so­cial his­tory.

He tells tales of sig­nif­i­cant pub­lish­ers, ed­i­tors, and crit­ics, but most of all re­lates the sto­ries of au­thors. The ap­proach isn’t tex­tual, it’s bi­nary. Some writ­ers he likes be­cause they’re good, while oth­ers he dis­likes be­cause they’re bad. For ex­am­ple, he barely tol­er­ates Irv­ing Lay­ton, Mar­shall Mcluhan, Leonard Co­hen, Dave God­frey, and nu­mer­ous for­eign­ers. But he goes a bun­dle on Al Purdy, Northrop Frye, Alice Munro, Mavis Gal­lant—and Anansi. It’s all rather too sub­jec­tive. But in fair­ness it’s in­tended to be qual­ity lit­er­ary jour­nal­ism, not crit­i­cism.

An un­usual fea­ture is the in­clu­sion of more than a hun­dred short side­bars about in­di­vid­ual books. They are scat­tered through­out, each one with a re­pro­duc­tion of the cover and Mount’s per­sonal opin­ion of the con­tents. Each ti­tle is awarded from one to five stars, like cap­sule movie re­views in some Post­media news­pa­per. A sin­gle star shows only that the book some­how man­aged to get pub­lished; five stars in­di­cates a “world clas­sic”. Mar­garet At­wood has the largest num­ber of books in the race and the high­est num­ber of stars.

Mount does an ex­cel­lent job in show­ing the roles of the dif­fer­ent re­gions in so much of the coun­try’s writ­ing. New­found­land, the Mar­itimes, Que­bec, and the Prairies all get their due. He seems es­pe­cially un­der­stand­ing of the West Coast and Van­cou­ver in par­tic­u­lar. He re­caps what all of us here know—sheila Wat­son, bill bis­sett, Ge­orge Bow­er­ing, Tish, UBC, the 1963 po­etry con­fer­ence, and so forth. But as a syl­labus, es­pe­cially one for non–bri­tish Columbians, not bad.

Parts of the book read as though they have been re­pur­posed from Mount’s pre­vi­ous writ­ings or lec­tures. This leads to vari­a­tions in peo­ple’s names and oc­ca­sional rep­e­ti­tions. On page 218 he states need­lessly that the poet Daphne Mar­latt was born Daphne Buckle. Then he tells us again on 221. That kind of thing.


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