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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

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Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Best Canadian …

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 07/06/08 at 07:09 PM

(cross-posted to Novel Readings)

There has been a lot of CanCon around this week, what with the holiday formerly known as ’Dominion Day‘ and all.* So, for instance, the Globe and Mail ran a story about revising the canon of great Canadian novels.

Thirty years ago dozens of scholars, critics, authors and publishing types gathered for four days in Calgary for what was billed as the National Conference on the Canadian Novel. Organized by the University of Calgary in association with publisher McClelland & Stewart and Dalhousie English professor Malcolm Ross, the conference, a raucous and controversial affair, became famous for two things. The first was the publication of the results of a ballot mailed earlier to participants in which they were invited to choose “the most important 100 works of Canadian fiction” according to three categories: “major,” “significant” and “secondary importance.” The second entailed the selection of “the 10 best Canadian novels yet written.” Critics decried (and continue to decry) its attempt to create a literary consensus as both a misguided nationalist holdover from the 19th century and a rank marketing/promotion stunt on behalf of M & S’s New Canadian Library, which Ross founded in 1958 and which, at the time of the Calgary conference, had more than 150 “classics” in print as paperbacks. (Ross later described Calgary as “the most painful experience” of his career.) The NCL still exists, winnowed down now to 110 titles. However, while the notion of “literary excellence” continues to hold sway, notions of a fixed canon or canons, of “shared literary values,” are pretty much in tatters. Even in 1978, as one participant in the Calgary conference observed, “we know that literary reputations are not built and perpetuated by any lists."

Still, lists are fun. Or they can be, if undertaken in a spirit of play and gamesmanship.

And so, with this in mind, The Globe and Mail thought it might be, well, fun, or at least interesting, 30 years on from the Calgary conference, 50 after the creation of the NCL, to come up with a new Cancon semi-canon - or should that be Can-on? - for the first decade of the 21st century.

My colleague Dean Irvine was among those consulted, and there has since been some spirited discussion on our DalNews site, with lots of further nominations.

I’m not about to volunteer a competing list--first, because I’m not nearly as well-informed or up-to-date about Canadian fiction as any of those called on, and second because, like them, I find the process of canon-formation more interesting than the end result in any case (there’s nothing like having to choose between unlike alternatives to focus the mind).  Still, as some evidence of my citizenship, I’m pleased to say that I could name a handful of Canadian novels I particularly like that I didn’t spot on anyone else’s list (though I wouldn’t necessarily make a pitch for any of them as one of the 10 best): 

Audrey Thomas‘s Intertidal Life, for instance, has long been a favourite of mine; though perhaps by now the novel has become cliched, I still have a strong visceral response to Timothy Findley’s The Wars; and I thought Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park was rather extraordinary.  Now I definitely want to read Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.  Overall, though, I seem to consider the Canadian fiction I read as simply keeping company with my other books, rather than as a category (or canon) apart; I don’t feel a strong sense of my own identity being tied up in it either.

For no reason I can really think of, I have a more fiercely loyal relationship to a number of Canadian films.  Maybe that’s because many Americans have read at least some Canadian authors, but very few have seen Canadian movies?  I don’t know, and that may not even be true (I’m sure I’ll be enlightened by my American friends here).  In any case, here’s my list of my own idiosyncratic top 5 in this category:

Bye Bye Blues: This beautifully filmed, bittersweet film, one of my all-time favourites Canadian or not, tells the story of a woman who returns to her home town on the prairie while her husband is a POW; to support herself and her child, she begins singing in a blues band.  The film deftly illustrates the challenges women’s wartime activities posed to conventional gender roles.  It’s also a love story, sort of, with no Hollywood-style magical thinking at the end.

Jesus of Montreal: There are scenes in this film that have haunted me since I first saw it in 1989; no doubt the emotionally wrenching soundtrack featuring Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and the Pergolesi Stabat Mater is part of what makes it so unforgettable.  Courtesy of YouTube, here’s a teaser:


The Barbarian Invasions
: Sex, cancer, philosophy...what more could you want?

Who Has Seen the Wind: Is it because I’m not from the prairies that I am more moved by seeing them than by reading about them?  This movie contains the saddest scene ever.  I’ll just say it involves a birthday party and a large tray of uneaten sandwiches.

My American Cousin: I’m pretty sure this is not a great movie.  My father spent youthful summers picking fruit in the Okanagan Valley, and we used to vacation there every year, usually at Lake Osoyoos, so one reason I feel attached to this film is simple nostalgia.  But it has a certain naively quirky charm, plus there’s a girl in it who went to my highschool.

Finally, my top Canadian song, in an outstanding performance:

Would anyone else like to highlight any of their Canadian favourites, in any category?



*Gosh, I’m sure glad Wikipedia included that helpful disambiguation note; I would have looked a right fool toting those dominoes around.


Comments

I was going to mention some Canadian SF and fantasy authors… when I realized that Canada is rather unexpectedly undersupplied with them.  The best known one appears to be A.E. Van Vogt (cue Nelson Muntz “ha-ha” sound) who has been critically savaged within SF since his heyday, for good reason in my opinion.  William Gibson classes as a major author, but he was born and raised in the U.S. and went to Canada to escape the draft.  Nalo Hopkinson, similarly, grew up in Jamaica.  Margaret Atwood is certainly major, but she’s denied being an SF writer.

So this is probably flame-bait, but I can’t think of any canon-worthy Canadian SF or fantasy books.  Sorry!

By on 07/06/08 at 08:58 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Films - I agree with Barbarian Invasions, which had me in tears one way or another for the bulk of the film. Also “Last Night”, the Don McKellar/Sandra Oh film which has one of the great last shots in a film as far as I’m concerned.
Music - Not so keen on KD’s version, but seeing LC himself do this and others a couple of weeks ago remind me that he really is the best lyricist in popular music, bar none.
I read By Grand Central Station this weekend after seeing the Grope and Flail lists and because my son brought it back from the library at the same time. Unique, that’s for sure. I don’t feel qualified to judge it but I’m glad I read it.
Does Ronald Wright’s “A Scientific Romance” qualify as Canadian? Some of the most haunting scenes I’ve ever read and a definite favourite.

By tom s. on 07/06/08 at 09:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Your remarks about your identity not being wrapped up with Canadian literature resonated with me. One of the best things about being Canadian is not having to feel embarrassed or ashamed about not being patriotic. This is in fact the thing I like most about our country.

The best Canadian novel I have read is David Gilmour’s A Perfect Night to go to China, followed closely I’m not embarrassed to say by William Deverell’s The Dance of Shiva.

The best short story, in case you decide to write such an article: Michael Redhill’s The Victim, Who Cannot be Named.

By Nigel Beale on 07/06/08 at 09:17 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Jesus of Montreal, a great film.

Curiously, the greatest of the dozens of Iraq war films that I’m aware of is G.I. Jesús, which revolves around the conscience of a Mexican national soldier in the U.S. military (a non-Canadian film). Another similar (non-Canadian) great film is Romero, about the assassinated archbishop. I’m not Christian but if Christians, or anyone, want to organize around some great partisan or liberatory art, these are three excellent films any way sliced.

By Tony Christini on 07/07/08 at 12:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Jeez, I hate to be the one to mention this in these environs, but Canadians rule comics: Chester Brown, David Collier, Seth, Julie Doucet (now doing fine art only, I believe), Drawn & Quarterly.... And the funniest comics artist in the world at this moment, Kate Beaton, specializes in comics about Canadian history.

By Ray Davis on 07/07/08 at 09:27 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yann Martel?

By on 07/11/08 at 10:16 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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