Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco

Life’s been a whirlwind lately and in addition to catching up on sleep, I’ve been trying to catch up on some reading. A few months ago I passed a table with a “for free” sign, a stack of science textbooks and Memoirs of Montparnasse by John Glassco. Of course I snatched up the memoirs and left the textbooks behind. Unfortunately I couldn’t read Glassco’s work right away as I was bogged down by schoolwork but, having wrapped up the semester on Friday, I ended up taking yesterday’s rainy day to curl up in bed and read, or, rather, devour Glassco’s memoirs.

They were exactly what I’d been missing in life as of late and they examined many of the topics I’ve been contemplating over the past few months, namely hedonism, chaotic youth and the extent to which we rely on fiction to portray “the truth.”

Memoirs of Montparnasse epitomizes the 1920’s and the Parisian literary scene. Glassco is, of course, his own main character, and I say “character” because even Glassco admits to straddling the line between fiction and non-fiction. While the book is a collection of memoirs, three quarters of the work was produced some thirty years later. In fact, before it was published Glassco admitted to his friend Kay Boyle that: “It has the form of fiction- i.e. with lots of dialogue, speed, rearranged and telescoped action; never a dull moment- and is more a montage of those days than a literal truth.”

The book begins with eighteen-year-old Glassco in Montreal. It is clear from the offset that Glassco is set on pursuing a literary career despite his father’s lack of support, thus he and his friend Graeme Taylor set off to Paris to become writers.

Nowadays, the 1920’s are highly romanticized. Of course we read books like The Great Gatsby or watch movies like Midnight in Paris and are exposed to an era seemingly defined by partying, an abundance of tightly knit literary figures and beautiful women. In essence, we are exposed to excess. The argument most commonly raised in regards to why the 20’s were so “fun” is because the decade was preceded by World War I and followed by the Great Depression. This is frequently touched on by Glassco, who often comments on the impacts of the Depression and the number of expats living in Paris during the 20’s.

What struck me, however, was the way in which Glassco himself romanticized the era, the city, its writers, the women, the food etc… This led me to ask myself: how are the writer’s preconceptions reflected in the writing? To what degree can I trust this work? This, of course, is a question we are most likely to ask ourselves when reading a work of non-fiction. When I started university, I began by enrolling in creative non-fiction workshops and initially believed that I wanted to portray “the truth and only the truth.” Said every young writer ever? Perhaps. Nowadays I am beginning to gravitate towards an acceptance of more “representative truths”- perhaps less adherent to specific events or dates but work that nevertheless offers a truthful rendering of some identifiable human experience.

Meanwhile, Glassco’s experiences are certainly identifiable. They come off as almost cliché: rebellious youth set off to Paris wherein they meet a myriad of literary figures, drink too much, attend parties, are introduced to the world of prostitution and pornography, write the occasional chapter whilst hungover, gorge on food and smoke too many cigarettes. This brings me to question something I’ve been thinking about over the past few days… Hedonism.

Halfway through the book Glassco writes that: “the important thing in life was to have a good time.” This thought is then interrupted by a section of italicized writing (Glassco is awaiting a critical surgery and writing his memoirs in the hospital- he occasionally interrupts the memoirs with commentaries from his older, wiser self.) He goes on to write: “it is hard to say now whether I regret this reiterated choice whole-heartedly. Considering where it has led me- to the breakdown of my health, the failure of my hopes, the frightening prospect of an early death [….] and all I can promise myself at the moment is to be a little more careful in exploiting the resources of pleasure in the future…”

To me, “exploit” is the key word. To enjoy life is important, but then again it depends on the lens through which one views life, how wide it is, how much is captured. I personally spend a great deal of time considering the future and feel I can learn from Glassco’s sense of careless abandon… but this only goes so far, as he’s made clear in his later ruminations. Thus, the study of hedonism is perhaps most fascinating when the subject’s thoughts are contrasted. To compare those self-indulgent years with years to follow offers a depiction of hedonistic behaviour with its ensuing consequences.

Overall Memoirs of Montparnasse was a pleasure to read and I plan on seeking out more of John Glassco’s work in the future. I would certainly recommend this book, though the subject matter may appeal to a somewhat narrower audience than those following Heather’s Picks. As Michael Ondaatje writes: “Memoirs of Montparnasse is one of the most joyous books on youth- the thrill and the gall and the adventure of it. It is also one of the best books on being literary in Paris in the 1920’s.”

Truth in Literature

There is no such thing as truth and yet there is, undoubtably, because we’ve given this mystifying word space to grow. But I imagine that truth is, by now, a tired and weathered line, tugged by definitions as pigheaded as their creators.

“Truth,” one will claim, “is this.”

“But no,” another will say, “truth is not that, rather, it is this.”

“I,” the first will say, “assure you that you are wrong.”

Poor truth, I think, how exhausted and defeated that dubious word must feel, watching quarrels erupt time and time again over the nature of its meaning. But of course we quarrel. After all, we rely on truth to define ourselves, our lives, our purpose. We seek truth in all aspects of our lives. We even attempt to define truth within illusory contexts. Children know that Santa Claus is real, or at least, for sometime these alternate truths provide a reliable narrative. But it’s no wonder that the first word to follow Santa Claus when conducting an internet search is “real.” At some point or another, we all begin to question what is true and the word begins to break down.

I am going to admit (and I am somewhat ashamed of this fact) that up until now I’d never read anything by Carol Shields. This week, I read The Stone Diaries, a novel published in 1993 that tells the story of a woman’s life, a woman referred to as Daisy Goodwill, Mrs. Flett, Dee, Mother, Grandmother, Aunt Daisy, Daze and Mrs. Green Thumb. Each chapter offers rumination on the distinct stages of her life: childhood, marriage, widowhood, remarriage, motherhood and old age.

The book is very much a biography. In its opening pages, the reader is provided with an elaborate family tree. In the middle of the book are several pages of photographs. Daisy’s parents, her children, her late husband. The reader will wonder:

“Is this not a work of fiction? ”

“Perhaps,” they will think, “I am mistaken but yet I swear… the book was organized under “fiction” at that bookstore off 17th Avenue and 14th Street.”

“Perhaps,” they will think again, “the book was misplaced.”

But the reader will soon realize that it simply doesn’t matter. Daisy Goodwill is as “real” as real can be. It’s been a long time since I’ve become emotional over a book and I’ve grown somewhat attached, irrational and bewildered. Joy, sadness and angst permeate my thoughts. The book clings to me as I cling to it.

“Alice shut up!” I scream in my head. Her mulish ways have begun to gnaw on my nerves. I want to tear the pages and yet, some years later, I love Alice dearly, so much I can barely stand it. So again, here I am, my heart is beating. I am convinced of Mrs. Flett’s sorrow and when Beverly calls Warren “a drip,” I want to cry. Ink is sneaky. Clever. How “true” these characters feel. They feed on empathy, gain enough strength to walk from the page and declare a reality of their own.

So we may quarrel as much as we like over the meaning of “truth” but the only “truth” I know is that which I believe, that which sneaks into my life and forces me to feel. The only “truth” I know is my own version of “truth,.” This is not to say I’m not influenced by others. I will forever feel influenced by Daisy Goodwill, making her, in many ways, a “truth” that straddles the line between fiction and reality.

To conclude with a quote from The Stone Diaries. Shields writes:

“The real and the illusory whirl about her bedroom in smooth-dripping waltz-time- one, two, three; one, two, three. On and on she goes.”

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis

If you don’t believe in the philosophical potential of dogs, you must begin by reading Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis. The novel is currently short-listed for the Canada Reads 2017 contest and will be defended by Humble the Poet in the great Canadian book debate that unfolds March 27th to March 30th. The novel is sure to please even the greatest of canine skeptics. As Alexis works to distill the relationship between contentment and intellect, he offers the page a pensive whimsy that is at once unique and traditional in its treatment of philosophical matters.

The story begins in the Wheat Sheaf Tavern in Toronto where two Greek Gods, Hermes and Apollo, wager a bet. Apollo claims that dogs would be just as unhappy as humans if they were given the same level of intelligence. Fifteen kennelled dogs in a nearby veterinary clinic are thus subject to the Gods’ experiment. Rousing suddenly in their kennels, the dogs become aware of a strange and new sensation. At first, the story appears to support Apollo’s sure claim as the dogs begin their intellectual journey in a pool of melancholy.

Despite the parable’s long history, Alexis has written a surprising and noteworthy tale. The dogs themselves are memorable characters who must learn to negotiate a world burdened by the emotional pain associated with their newfound intellect. The narrative therefore provides an in-depth analysis of the origins of pain and its impact on both inter and intra-personal relationships. A myriad of relationships are depicted, including that of Majnoun, a black poodle who is spotlighted as Fifteen Dogs’ most developed canine character, and the Torontonians who adopt him. The ensuing alliance highlights both the initial agony of linguistic barriers and the importance of doggedness. Meanwhile, a mutt named Prince develops a similar fascination with language and begins to write poems using a language invented by Majnoun. But although the dogs discover an ability to convey abstract ideas, Alexis continues to infuse the text with smells of fish, urine and socks, smells that remind the dogs of their instincts and of what they cannot help but love.

Alexis’ 160 page novel is transformative in its exploration of linguistics, power structures, violence, inevitable change and, ultimately, in its analysis of the human condition through the lens of fifteen dogs. Fifteen Dogs was published in 2016 by Coach House Books and the novel won the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the 2015 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

On a personal note: I haven’t loved a book more than Fifteen Dogs in several years so it’s currently my top book suggestion! I read it while wild camping in Alaska and did not move from my tent until I’d finished. Meanwhile, I’m hoping (considering I have a million other books to read for school) to get around to reading some of the other Canada Reads 2017 contender books, but we’ll see! I’ll keep you posted. Happy reading!

Mãn: A Novel by Kim Thúy

[Less than a week ago I said: “I’m not going to buy any more books until I’ve finished reading all the books I already own.” Well, I already failed. Yesterday evening, after watching the movie Genius, I felt inspired to visit my local bookstore and I found Kim Thúy’s second novel, Mãn. Earlier this year I read her first novel, Ru. It is one of those rare novels I find myself returning to, flipping through the pages to glean inspiration. I was immediately drawn to Thúy’s exquisite stylistic choices and poetic language, so to not buy Mân (used nonetheless) would surely cause my bookshelf a great deal of grief. So Mãn came home with me and I’ve spent the greater part of the morning devouring these 139 pages.]

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Mãn: written by Kim Thúy and translated by Sheila Fischman

This is a story that moves between worlds. It moves as fluidly as the water that exists between them. A patchwork of flashbacks introduces the reader to Canada and to Vietnam, and to Thúy’s newest protagonist, Mãn, whose identity is shaped by her attachment to these two countries. At once delicate and wistful, Mãn is replete with zeal and potent imagery.

We are immediately introduced to Mãn’s Maman, a woman who seeks to find Mãn a husband and who, in her attempt to provide Mãn a better life, encourages Mãn to forget. Thus the story begins with a question that seeks to unveil the relationships between duty, love and stability, between the meaning of family and location.

They only promised not to forget. Unlike other Vietnamese mothers, who counted on the loyalty and gratitude of their children, Maman wanted me to forget, to forget her because I now had a chance to start again, to go away with no baggage, to reinvent myself.

As the story is propelled forward, the reader witnesses Mãn become exposed to the layers and complexities associated with love, a love she does share with her husband but rather develops upon meeting a Parisian chef. The novel opens with Mãn’s introduction to her husband, a man to whom she dutifully and respectfully offers her body and services but to whom she cannot offer her heart. Void of the clichés so commonly found in love affairs, Thúy has navigated Mãn’s emotions and engagements carefully and masterfully, evoking in the reader a sense of empathy and perhaps, even, longing.

Thúy’s novel is one to be savoured. Each page appeals to the senses, is luscious and demanding. The details are embedded with exactness and Thúy manages to infuse the narrative with the smells and sights of Vietnamese dishes, meanwhile her details are far from distracting. Instead, they contribute to Mãn’s growth and contemplation, evoking memories and emotions that speak to Mãn and Maman’s pasts. Thus, the present and the past are woven together delightfully. At times, one becomes lost between the slender country of Vietnam and the turbulent city of Montreal, suspended by the smell of baguettes stuffed with bananas, soaked in coconut and cow’s milk.

Mãn is an exploration of the limitations of obedience and memory. Can one’s history, one’s desire to preserve harmony, become a something of a carapace? Protective and a part of one’s self? By adhering to one’s ideal, is one’s identity further developed or does it become restrained by choices that are calculated and prudent? Thúy considers these questions in what is, ultimately, a book that begs to be read.

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kimthuy

About Kim Thúy: Thúy has worked as a seamstress, a lawyer, a chef and a restaurant owner. She is an award winning novelist whose first novel, Ru, won the Governor General’s Literary Award, the GrandPrix RTL/Lire, the Grand Prix du Salon du Livre de Montréal and was short-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize among others.

Thúy left Vietnam when she was ten years old and is currently living and writing in Montreal.

Flight of the Hummingbird: A Parable for the Environment

Described as a “simple yet moving parable,” Flight of the Hummingbird tells the story of a great forest fire. The animals of the forest flee and from the forest’s edge they watch the devastation unfold. One small bird, a hummingbird named Dukdukdiya, flies to a nearby stream and gathers a single drop of her water in her beak. She then flies over the fire and lets the water fall into the flames. She flies back and forth and each time she carries a new drop of water to help quell the fire. The animals cry out to Dukdukdiya, warning her of the perils. The smoke. The heat. It’s all too much, they say. But she persists.

The parable is a commentary on inaction. Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas teams with Wangari Maathai and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to provide a compelling analysis of contemporary idleness in regards to environmental initiatives.

Before reading this book, I was at my friend’s house doing homework and asked to print off some of my readings. She scrounged to find scrap paper so as not to be wasteful. I realized, then, that I’ve never in my life bothered to print on scrap paper. Meanwhile, in Wangari Maathai’s foreword, the Kenyan activist outlines her insistence that government offices use both sides of papers in order to halve the amount of paper used. Needless to say, I was immediately struck with guilt and an ensuing desire to change.

What I first noticed about Flight of the Hummingbird was the welcoming yet insistent style of writing. The narrative invites the reader to consider environmental issues, encourages them to contemplate without coming across as condemnatory. In the parable’s last line, Dukdukdiya says: “I am doing what I can.” This gentle reminder of our humanity, of both our capabilities and limitations speaks to the book’s most prevalent themes: collaboration and commitment.

The book explores stories whose origins can be traced back to the Quechan people of South America and the Haida of the North Pacific. In an age where we must carefully analyze how cultures interact and share information (for example, considering the meaning of cultural appropriation) Flight of the Hummingbird acts as a reminder that while every culture has a story to tell, a rich history of its own, some stories have no geographical limitations. The stories of our environment ultimately affect a shared planet and in these stories are relevant lessons, lessons that shed light on the human condition and not solely on the deterioration of various environments. Thus, Flight of the Hummingbird is an appeal to the human heart as much as it is to the mind. The story evokes empathy and rumination.

The hummingbird is an important figure to the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The parable was inspired by a story that belonged to the Quechan people (of modern day Ecuador). A symbol of optimism, wisdom, beauty, agility and the celebration of life, the hummingbird infuses this parable with hope. The contrast between hope and urgency certainly adds dynamism to the narrative. Meanwhile, the Haida Nation of the North Pacific calls the hummingbird dukdukdiya, an imitation of its sound.While the hummingbird has been celebrated by numerous cultures, what the stories of hummingbirds all hold in common is the consensus that even the smallest creatures can contribute meaningfully.

Rather, those who are not afraid to act, and who are aware of what is at stake, can make the biggest difference.

Biographical Information:

Wangari Muta Maathai: Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940, Maathai was the daughter of farmers in the highlands of Mount Kenya. She founded the Green Belt Movement, which works to engage rural women in tree planting operations and in 1986, she established a Pan-African Green Belt Network. She has worked with the United Nations and various campaigns. Her aim is to direct attention towards democracy, human rights and environmental conservation.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: The head of state and the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He was born in 1935 into a farming family in northeastern Tibet. At the age of two, he was recognized as the reincarnation of his predecessor, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He has received over eighty-four awards, honorary doctorates and prizes in recognition of his advocacy of peace, nonviolence, compassion and universal responsibility. He now lives in exile among numerous Tibetan refugees in Dharamsala, India.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas: An artist trained in Haida design, Yahgulanaas is Flight of the Hummingbird’s brilliant illustrator. He developed a genre called “Haida Manga” that attempts to connect his colonial and indigenous heritages. He is from Haida Gwaii, Canada, and his work is inspired by his long career in social and environmental justice issues. You can visit his website at: http://www.mny.ca

 

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

It’s been a wonderful morning. Today is a stat holiday so I’ve stayed in bed with coffee and a book, basking in sunlight. Last week, rather serendipitously, I wandered past the University of Calgary’s sidewalk book sale and found a copy of A Week at the Airpo41lm9p1s8zl-_sx323_bo1204203200_rt by Alain de Botton, a book I was assigned to read for class and that is everything the Daily Mail claims of it: “Funny, charming, and slender enough to pack in your carry-on.” I have to say, I’m quite taken by this book.

I would consider myself a regular traveller and though I’ve not travelled nearly as much as I’d like, I can at least say that my experiences in airports are numbered and varied. For this reason, I was immediately drawn in by de Botton’s first sentence:

While punctuality lies at the heart of what we typically understand by a good trip, I have often longed for my plane to be delayed- so that I might be forced to spend a bit more time at the airport.

I, too, love airports. They are strange places. Places where connections are made… perhaps a human connection… two readers exchange a glance as they wait, their flight delayed by a snow storm in Toronto or perhaps a traveller is forced to dash from one end of the airport to the other in an attempt to catch a connecting flight.

International best selling Auther Alain de Botton is appointed writer-in-residence at Heathrow

I will begin by detailing what I loved most about this book. When we consider stories, whether a story is reflected through film, writing or music, we so often pair our understanding of stories with our understanding of conclusions. In writing, for example, we consider denouement, the importance of resolution, conclusion, the finale that bursts into existence as a result of certain cumulative events. To witness the tidy ending of a love story in a Hollywood film rarely shocks us. Instead, we are trained to expect it. But this is not life. Not really. Rather, we are more commonly exposed to what, in film or writing or song, would be considered a “cliff hanger.” In everyday life, however, we don’t consider the people at bus stops who step onto buses only to disappear as “cliff hangers.” This is because we so rarely stop to consider other people’s stories. A woman, carrying a bunch of white tulips, hair slightly astray, missing, perhaps, the top button on her coat, steps onto the bus and stares silently out the window. She gets off near a dentist’s office, enters the building, a smiling tooth pasted to the door and she disappears. The bus carries on. Perhaps she is an employee, a dental assistant. Perhaps she has developed a cavity, or maybe her daughter, a teenager in the throes of puberty, is having a tooth removed after falling from her skateboard only to meet, with a loud crunch, a paved ramp near the local skatepark. Such mundane questions and yet when given proper thought, these questions become about more than cavities or skateboarding, they become essential to human life. We exist together, share a planet, share dreams and hopes, all the while existing in our own, private spheres.

A Week at the Airport reminds us of these stories. de Botton leaves us with cliff hangers. I want to know, desperately, why the couple he so eloquently describes, stood in the airport sobbing together until, at the last moment, the woman he claims was a beautiful brunette, checked her watch and left, careening through the airport until de Botton lost her in a shuffle near SunHut. What happened to the woman? The man? Did she cry as she stepped onto the plane? I’m forced to fill these gaps as I read. Thus, de Botton provides a work that both engages and challenges the reader, infuses every story with truthfulness.

Taking a poetic but also conversationalist approach, de Botton reveals the turbulence and restlessness of Heathrow Airport through his own observations, detailed vignettes and the stories of airport staff. Whether you love to travel, dream of travel or simply enjoy considering how people interact, A Week at the Airport is a must read, a careful collection of stories woven together through one commonality: the airport.

About the author:

Born in Zurich in 1969, Alain de Botton, now a Londoner, is a renowned writer. As a prominent essayist, he offers his readers what has been described as “philosophy of everyday life” and has written on topics ranging from love and architecture to travel and literature. He started “The School of Life,” which is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture.” Meanwhile, de Botton’s works have been bestsellers in some 30 countries.

On Marian Engel’s Controversial Novella “Bear” and the Role of Taboos in Literature

This book was published in the 1970’s but still gleans as one of Canada’s most disputed and beloved novellas. Despite its aging existence, Bear is an incredibly controversial gem of a book and thus its content continues to reverberate on the fringes of our society. The book deals with highly sexual content so this post will include a discussion on the roles taboos play in literature.

In sum, Bear is the story of Lou, a librarian who moves to Cary Island for a summer to catalogue the deceased Colonel Jocelyn Cary’s library. On the island Lou lives alone, except for a domesticated bear who’s inhabited the land for years. Lou soon forms a relationship with the bear that initially appears friendly but soon blossoms into an erotic relationship.

I recently reread this book for a class. I was sitting in a seminar when I pulled up Bear on Google Books during a break. A classmate sitting next to me widened her eyes, apologized for peering over my shoulder and proceeded to describe her shock in regards to the book’s content. Of course bestiality is shocking, even in a world that attempts to explore taboos within literature, so I was not surprised by her response. The first time I read the book I also felt shocked (I didn’t know what it was about when I first read it and was certainly taken aback) and frankly, I still feel shock in the re-reading of it. This does not, however, diminish the quality of the writing nor does it dissolve the narrative. The novella is filled with delicate, poignant, gruesome and sparkling images, some of which are so vivid they’ll stop you in your tracks.

They went berrying together in the woods. He pawed the ripe raspberries greedily into his maw. She saved hers like soft jewels in an old Beehive Honey tin with a bindertwine handle she found in the shed.

She lit the gas-lamp in the kitchen easily enough: held a match to it, turned its key, and heard it pop softly alight. Under its warm glow she filled the kettle with a dipper from a graniteware pail of water by the sink. The water was cold and smelled of sulphur. The house was cold now too.

Now, in analyzing this short piece of fiction, readers differ in opinions. Such controversial material is a sure way to spark debate. Some consider Bear to be one of Canada’s greatest fictional works. Others view this novel as a work focused on raw sex scenes that illuminate a dark taboo. But Bear is far more than a highly erotic novel focused on a woman’s sexual relationship with a bear. The story explores themes that are fundamentally intertwined with the human experience, themes such as rejection, loneliness and guilt.

First of all, I’d like to argue that taboos are themselves a kind of cultural cage, a place to send banished ideas or experiences, many of which deal with human sexuality. So I believe that literature attempts to take these cages and dismantle them, then observe how those detained notions interact with society. Because this book was written in the 1970’s some argue that it embodies a form of second-wave feminist literature in an era when female writers were celebrating women’s sexual liberation.

One of my first impressions of this book is drawn from a comparison I noted between the experience she shared with the bear and sexual experiences shared with men. In one scene, Lou sleeps with a man whose name is Homer. Homer finishes, says “thank you” and leaves. In contrast, the scenes with the bear provoke discomfort yet they frame one who “gives” rather than “takes.” So how do we interpret this kind of material? Is there a message here? Certainly the emotional complication of loving one who cannot or will not love you back crawls to the forefront and begs attention.

I’ve often contemplated what would happen if this book were to replace the bear with a man. We’d see a women plagued by loneliness, who falls in love but feels heartbroken by his inability to provide her with what she desires. We’ve seen this kind of plot and yet the presence of a bear in this narrative has more effectively triggered conversations pertaining to women’s sexual loneliness and/or guilt. So is Engel using bestiality, a longtime taboo, to illuminate a more common struggle? Is she attempting to capture our attention? There is no clear answer, but instead a myriad of speculations. She is definitely questioning the impact of sexual relationships on our perception of love. As Lou begins to admit she loves the bear and reminisces on sexual and romantic experiences with men, her sense of isolation is deepened. Meanwhile, Engel may be exploring the ways in which one’s understanding of love is corroded by sexual cravings that overwhelm rational thought.

Because what she disliked in men was not their eroticism, but their assumption that women had none. Which left women with nothing to be but housemaids.

Perhaps this is an indicator that some time has passed since the book’s publication. A discussion in the back of the book asks: How do you think the reading public’s reaction to this novel would have differed had it been published now as opposed to in 1976?

In my opinion, I think the reason this book is still being taught and discussed is because women and sex is still a hot topic. Magazines continue to feature women owning their bodies, taking control of their sex lives or pushing for equal recognition in the workplace despite a pushback against “white liberal feminism.” Nevertheless, Bear attempts to break taboos by portraying a form of sexual liberation that may be interpreted literally of metaphorically. Either way, this book explores women and sex and is, therefore, still relevant.

Oh, she was lonely, inconsolably lonely; it had been years since she had had human contact. She had always been bad at finding it. It was as if men knew her soul was gangrenous. Ideas were all very well, and she could hide in her work, forgetting for a while the real meaning of the Institute, where the Director fucked her weekly on her desk while both of them pretended they were shocking the Government and she knew in her heart that what he wanted was not her waning flesh but elegant, eighteenth-century keyholes, of which there was a shortage in Ontario.

I admit, despite the weird responses I usually get, that this is one of my favourite books. I do believe it raises relevant questions in addition to providing some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever come across. Note, I am a sucker for CanLit, which Bear represents wonderfully. Hazlit’s take on CanLit, a genre sometimes criticized for an over reliance on nature, did give me a good laugh though: “imagine a CanLit drinking game in which you have to empty your glass every time you read the words, ‘the sound of the loon cry.'” I must concede, though I don’t personally feel bothered by this detail, Bear does rely on landscape to mirror emotion in a very “Canadian” way.

Another important emotion explored in Bear, which I mentioned above, is guilt. Guilt, I believe, is one of the most corroding human emotions belonging to our emotional repertoire. Lou feels immense guilt, especially as she moves forward in her relationship with the bear. Despite loving the bear, she knows she has engaged in a social wrong, demonstrating her shame in various ways throughout the course of the narrative. “She remembered guilt” is written on the second to last page, so while Bear in a sense attempts to justify, it also recalls the rigidness of taboos and their effect on the human psyche.

Bear is certainly filled with some awkward and disturbing scenes but if you’re particularly drawn to Canadian or feminist literature I definitely suggest taking a read. As I said, Bear is one of my favourites, not only because it is filled with content that can be peeled and examined microscopically but because of Engel’s superb writing.

If you’ve read Bear and would like to share your thoughts, please drop a comment below.