“A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.” — Robertson Davies
That quote showed up in my inbox a few months back, re-discovered and sent to me by a longtime friend, Marilyn Potts. I certainly was aware of it, although I will admit it had been a few decades since I had last brought it to mind. The email was very timely however because the reminder served as a catalyst to bring together two "reading" thoughts that had been separately percolating in my mind:
– Every time I headed into the basement to search the shelves for an older book, I kept coming across Canadian novels that I had read in my youth (and again in maturity) and found mysef thinking "I really should read that again".
– 2013 is one of those marker years for me: I turn 65 in February. I was looking for some project that would celebrate both that personal landmark and year five in the "publication" of this blog.
So I quickly decided that my 2013 project would be to pay attention to Davies' perceptive thought and revisit 12 novels — one a month — that had served to develop my tastes in Canadian fiction. I've read all of them at least twice (in youth and maturity) and a third read of each did seem in order. Having said that, I am not quite prepared to admit that I have arrived at "old age", so I'd like to modify Roberston Davies quote just a bit: insert "again when you get control of your own time" in the first half of the phrase and, to preserve the symmetry, "at dusk" in the second half (since fine buildings do look different at dawn and at dusk).
I know that only a third of visitors to this blog are Canadian, so I need to make a few qualifications before revealing my schedule. The first is that, unlike the United Kingdom or even the United States, Canadian fiction publishing is a comparatively "young" animal. While there are certainly Canadian authors who were published prior to World War II (Sinclair Ross and Frederick Phillip Grove are two that come to mind), they were originally published in the UK or US, with volumes exported back to Canada. Hugh MacLennan is generally regarded as the first writer to attempt to portray Canada's national character and even his first novel (Barometer Rising, 1941) about the Halifax Explosion was first published in the US. So foreign readers here (except, of course, those from Australia and New Zealand which have similarly young publishing industries) are going to find a very “modern” tone to this list of “classics” — all were first published post-War.
That also means that my life and Canadian publishing occupy the same time frame — okay, I wasn’t reading these books as a child but even the oldest was published less than 25 years before I first encountered it. More important, however, is that in the mid-1970s I was a weekly book columnist for the Calgary Herald and most of these seminal authors were still alive and publishing. That is reflected in this list — I interviewed or met all of the first six authors whom I plan to reread (usually in connection with that particular novel), so much “classic” Canadian fiction took place in real time for me. And that also means my project schedule is roughly in reverse chronological order — I’ll get to older works in the July to December slots.
Finally, this is very much a personal list and not meant to be an attempt at “12 best Canadian novels ever”. Indeed, my favorite Canadian novel — Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance — isn’t part of the project, because I last reread it just before starting this blog and it is too soon for a revisit. (If that perks your interest, Will Rycroft has an excellent review of it here.) And, while Mordecai Richler is part of the project, the chosen novel would not be the conventional choice as his best: I’ve already reviewed The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (and that review is by far the most often visited post on this blog). And I have excluded many authors because they are still publishing (Michael Ondaatje, Jane Urquhart, Guy Vanderhaeghe). Only two on my list are still publishing — Margaret Atwood makes it because her career breaks into two parts (pre- and post-“speculative” fiction) and Alice Munro because, because,…well, because she is Alice Munro (the volume that is part of the project was her first collection, published 45 years ago). I would like to think we have not read the last of her new work yet (and I will be reviewing her latest in just a few weeks, which is why she gets pushed to December in the project).
What follows is the list, by month in case you would like to follow along or join in the project on some selected months. A quick scan shows that all but the Hugh Hood selection are available in Canada — non-Canadian readers might have a challenge finding a few of them but Abebooks has sources for all at reasonable prices. (If you are really keen, my essay on economically buying Canadian fiction — here — has some strategies on how to reduce shipping costs.) Except for this month where I have delayed the review to allow anyone who wants to take part time to read the book, I’ll try to post the review in the first week of each month.
January — Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
February — The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
March — Solomon Gursky Was Here, by Mordecai Richler
April — Surfacing, by Margaret Atwood
May — White Figure, White Ground, by Hugh Hood
June — The Studhorse Man, by Robert Kroetsch
July — The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence
August — Cabbagetown, by Hugh Garner
September — Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan
October — Collected Stories, Alistair MacLeod
November — The Tin Flute, Gabrielle Roy
December — Dance of the Happy Shades, by Alice Munro
I am very much looking forward to this reading journey — I hope that some visitors here will find a reason to join at least part of it, be it re-reading an old favorite or taking up a Canadian classic for the first time. These 12 authors have been influential in defining Canadian literature — as a new generation of authors grows into prominence, it is important not to overlook the contribution that they have made.