||A Feeling For History
by Joel Yanofsky
For`wandering Canadian` Douglas Glover, marginality is a metaphor for self in themodern age
DOUGLAS GLOVER is theauthor of three collections of short stories, including A Guide to AnimalBehavior (Goose Lane, 199 1), which was short-listed for a Governor General`sAward. He has won a National Magazine Award for his fiction and his storieshave appeared in the Journey Prize Anthology, Best Canadian Stories, and Best
American Short Stories.Glover has also written three novels.
His latest, The Life andTimes of Captain N., was published last year by McClelland & Stewart inCanada and Alfred A. Knopf in the United States. Glover teaches creativewriting Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He divide his timebetween upstate New York and the family farm near Waterford, Ontario. Joel Yanofsky conducted this interview with Glover through the mail and by telephone.
BiC: Nowadays, more andmore novelists seem to be [)reoccupied with writing historical novels. Whatmade you choose that form for The Life and Times of Captain N.?
Douglas Glover. I don`tthink I`ve told this story before, because it`s one of those personal fantasiesa writer lives by but which has nothing to do with the intellectual and publicunderpinnings of a book or its final grandeur. It was the afternoon of my father`sfuneral in 1984, and my Aunt Norma and I were sitting together in theliving-room of the family farmhouse just outside Waterford. For some reason,she began to tell me about a book about Indians that had belonged to mygrandfather. He had been particularly fond of this book, which reflected insome way his affection for Indians in general. He
had connections on thenearby Six Nations Reserve, and every summer whole families of Iroquois wouldcome to the farm to harvest strawberries. In turn, the Iroquois would
invite my grandfather toattend their longhouse ceremonies. But the book about Indians had eventuallydisappeared, a victim, my aunt thought sadly, of one of her mother`s periodiccleaning fits. And the connection with the Iroquois on the Reserve had dwindledas my father got older.
These two ideas --the missing book and a lost connection -- took root at the back ofmy mind. Of course, a missing book is always problematic for a bookish person;Umberto Eco`s The Name of the Rose, for example, is inspiredby Aristotles missing book on comedy. A missing book is a mystery that demandsto he solved -- or rewritten.Overthe years, while I was writing other things, the image of the missing book --copperish leather binding, etched illustrations, or perhaps bark scrolls inkedwith blood -- acquired a certain necessity. I wanted to put thebook back on the attic shelf where it belonged, along with mygreatgrandfather`s carpentry manuals and the family Bibles and the photographalbums full of long-dead, anonymous ancestors.
BiC: And The Life and Times of Captain N. is that lost book?
Glover: In my heart,when I came to write the novel I was writing something that had already beenwritten, which I called, in the text itself, "Oskars Book aboutIndians." And it is not only about Indians and history, which is notSurprising given the book`s provenance, but also about a father and son, andthe terrible duty the father has of laying down the Law and the son`s terribleduty of bending to the Law, which both breaks and saves him.
BiC: But the idea of a historical novel raisescertain formal expectations and demands. How did you adapt the form?
Glover: The phrase"historical novel" is a marketing tag that, nowadays, is probablymore misleading than helpful. Nothing I write will he anything like Thomas B.Costain`s historical romances or the boy`s adventure novels of G. A. Henry orthose best-selling costume melodramas that dwell so lovingly andlaboriously on period detail. Conversely, Warand Peace is ahistorical novel of sorts, written about events that took place before Tolstoywas born, but no one ever calls it one. So the phrase begins to lose meaningunless we redefine it.
BiC: How do -you redefine it?
Glover: One of the keynotions behind The Life and Times ofCaptain N. I gotin a conversation with Winnifred Bogaards at the University of New Brunswick.She said that the contemporary historical novel had to be about the writing ofhistory, about Our changing sense of the nature of time and history. An old-stylehistorical novel takes a period or event or heroic figure as its subject; themodern historical novel takes history as its subject. So, one of the thematicarguments running through The Life andTimes of Captain N. evolvesaround the difference between the Native (oral) view of history and the white(literate) view of history and what happens when they clash.
BiC: What does happen?
Glover: Well, the oraltradition loses. It falls away. McLuhan had it right -- technologychanges your mind. European civilization went through the agony of the loss ofits oral mindset a couple of thousand years ago. Plato was a kind of high-class marketer for the new technology -- writing. He hated poets, rhetoricians, sophists, who werethe wise men, singers, shamans, and historians of the old oral order. In The Republic, he makes it clear thatthey have no place in a model social structure. As the dwarf Witcacy says in The Life and Times of Captain N., "Plato hatedIndians."
The Native oral cultureof North America began to decompose as soon as it met the book. This was asudden and violent confrontation unlike the long, twisting demise of orality inancient Greece, and the Natives, I believe, are only now beginning to get backon their feet after the shock of their toss. But part of my point in the MaryHunsacker story in the novel is that underclass whites and especially whitewomen along the frontier in North America were close enough to their oral pastthat they often found the Native culture not so vcry alien. This is bome out instatistical Studies of captivityand acculturation.
BiC: What I`ve noticed about most contemporaryhistorical novels is that they are invariably about the present. Does thatapply to TheLife and Times of Captain N. as well?
Glover: Yes, but only ina very narrow sense. The modern view of history, which begins concretely, say,with the American Revolution, separates into three parts --History, Nature, and the Individual -- that which was previouslyonly one. (In the world of oral cultures, there was only Nature and the eternalrecurrence of things and a sort of roving corporate consciousness.) This modemview of history is still dominant today; this is the way we conceive ourselvesand the world. Now we can say, in the words of the title of Milan Kunderasnovel, "Life is elsewhere" -- a sentence that would makeno sense in the oral universe. Hegel, Marx, and Freud are the great modemmetaphysicians of separation, of history, and of forgetting. Their philosophiesare immensely complicated devices meant to conceal the gaps and show, somehow,that our modern feeling of alienation is only transient, a local condition,that the old sense of wholeness and coherence still obtains.
BiC: And is writing ultimately a device toconceal the gaps, the modern feeling of alienation.,
Glover: Yes. None ofthis would be possible Without the technology of writing, without the book. Byrecording facts, the book separates the world of facts from the flow of memory,from individual consciousness, from poetry. This is Oskar`s dilemma throughoutthe novel. He writes to knit LIP the tear in his life, but the thing keepsunravelling again behind him. At the moment of writing, though, he feelsbetter. So the book remains a mystery, even to us. It is an impossible object.It both condemns and redeems us.
BiC:One reviewer, in an otherwise positive piece about TheLife and Times of Captain N., complainedthat the novel lacked a moral resolution. How do you feel about that kind ofcriticism?
Glover: Puzzled, mostly.Near the end of the novel, Captain Nellis delivers his "An Address toPilgrims," which is a kind of sermon. He says: "We are all pilgrims.We are on a journey, I know not whence nor where. Love difference." Thisis his conclusion, his last judgement on life. And if that isn`t a Moral, Idon`t know what is.
There are two kinds ofethical injunction: one implies consequences, the other is pure and absolute.The novel doesn`t say, "Do this and things will get better." It justsays, "Do this." Nellis is insane, blind, and dying in exile --the consequences of loving difference. But out of this rhetorical position ofloss, he gives the Law, the 11th commandment. Nellis isn`t a liberal. He`s noimprover. He has already rejected history and the future. He`s a tragic hero,an Old Testament patriarch. And his words are a kind of prophecy.
BiC: In The Life and Times of Captain N., Captain Nellis is described as being againstthe future -- specifically the American Revolution. And you seem tobe saying that being against the future has become part of the Canadiancharacter. Do you think Canadians, particularly Canadian writers and artists,are still playing catch-up with history?
Glover: That`s aquestion that requires me to speak about all Canadians, and if there isanything I am sure of it is that Canada is a cracked mirror, a splinteredpsyche, that no proposition applies to all Canadians. Jewish Canadians, forexample, have a completely different obsessional past, nothing like that of theIroquois or the white Loyalists of Southern Ontario. But I do think that theidea of being against the future and, consequently, somehow outside history isa powerful theme in the discourse of Canadianism. It is part of what we used tomean in the good old days of ideological debate when we described Canada ascolonized or marginalized or provincial. And it doesn`t restrict itself toparticular racial or ethnic groups. The idea of being outside history iscentral, for example, to Denys Arcand`s movie The Decline of the American Empire.
BiC: But you`ve also said there are only threekinds of Canadians.
Glover: By and large,there are. There are old-style, antiAmerican, radical Tories like GeorgeGrant, who would have preferred to keep Canada out of history. There are small-Iliberals like Brian Mulroney, who found much to admire in the Americandemocratic experiment. And then there are a few Canadians who have what I thinkKeats meant by negative capability, who don`t mind being on the cusp, and whofind the rhetorical position of marginality intellectually and artisticallyinvigorating. Denys Arcand is one. Hubert Aquin was one. The Leonard Cohen whowrote Beautiful Losers was another. Maybc the Margaret Atwood of Surfacing. Maybe Michael Ondaatje.There are others.
BiC: So this "artistically invigorating"marginality is built into the Canadian character as well as the Canadianliterary tradition?
Glover: I don`t knowabout that. But this identification with the losers, the sickies, and theirrelevant -- Canadians -does happen to coincide with one ofthe classic rhetorical stances of high modernism. (Or early postmodernism, whoknows, right?) The stance taken by Beckett, say, or Kafka. These are writersand artists who see both the comic and tragic possibilities of marginality, andwho see marginality (Canadianness) as a metaphor for the self in the modern age-- that self that everywhere feels somehow exterior and irrelevantto its own destiny. This is something American writers, trapped in the toils oftheir all-encompassing national myth, find difficult to do convincingly(they end up sounding like liberal reformers). Whereas some mid-Europeanwriters -- for example, Christa Wolf, Peter Handke, Max Frisch,Thomas Bernhard, and Milan Kundera, to name a few -- write veryCanadian novels, Canadian in the specific sense I am talking about. Christa in The Quest for Christa [Christa Wolf], Agnes inImmortality [Milan Kundera],Christine Forestier in The Antiphonary [Hubert Aquin], Paul in Wittgenstein`s Nephew [Thomas Bernhard], andEdith in Beautiful Losers are the same characterplaced within a constellation of oddly similar traits and ideas. They are allversions of the alienated (sick) self posed against a cultural system or itsrepresentative, which constructs and defines it. Their cracked narratives (conventionalplotting cannot possibly express the requisite feeling of displacement, ofbeing written) amount to a fictional critique of modernity. And, of course,these are all historical novels in the sense given earlier.
BiC: In your essay "Nihilism andHairspray" you seem to take the problems of alienation and displacementfor Canadian writers one step further, to the point of saying that writing hasruined your life. Did you mean that or were you being facetious?
Glover: As an individualI find it difficult to separate the rhetorical from the personal or vice versa.I`m a nomad, an expatriate, a wandering Canadian (which is worse than Justbeing a Canadian, I am doubly displaced, a Canadian squared), and I can nolonger tell whether that`s because I am a writer or why I am a writer. Somemornings I wake Lip and it`s a problem. Some mornings I wake up andit`s a dance.
I think this isgenerally true of the sort of writer I have been describing. Kundera is anexpatriate. Christa Wolf is hiding in California, living the life of one of herown characters, hounded Out of Germany for being politically incorrect. LeonardCohen stopped writing novels after BeautifulLosers. AndHubert Aquin killed himself. Exile, silence, and death, which are optionalmodes in a piece of fiction, seem, in the lives of certain writers, to take ona kind of necessity. For this kind of writer, there are no safe havens, no fireexits, and the patient never recovers. They are eternal Cassandras.