MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Why Montreal is Canada’s Parnassus

It has a sense of place. And Hugh Hood captures it with warmth and candor

PETER GZOWSKI August 1 1967
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

Why Montreal is Canada’s Parnassus

It has a sense of place. And Hugh Hood captures it with warmth and candor

PETER GZOWSKI August 1 1967

Why Montreal is Canada’s Parnassus

Books

It has a sense of place. And Hugh Hood captures it with warmth and candor

EVEN THOUGH its English-speaking population is not much bigger than that of, say, Hamilton. Ont., no Canadian city has figured in nearly so many works of our literature as Montreal. Montreal, as I trust all those thousands of extra visitors are finding out this year, is unique among Canadian cities. It has a sense of place. And, as writers from Stephen Leacock to Mordecai Richler have proved, all you have to do to make a good book is get some of that sense of place on paper.

That task, of course, is not quite as easy as it sounds. But Hugh Hood, the newest writer to address himself to it (Around the Mountain: Scenes from Montreal Life, Peter Martin Associates, $5), has succeeded admirably. Hood is, in fact, one of your better Montreal book writers. For one thing, he grew up somewhere else (Toronto), and in the years he has been teaching at the University of Montreal, he has explored the surrounding city with warm interest and a fresh eye. For another thing, he is a very straightforward writer indeed. He goes out and looks at things, and he writes down what he saw in them, and no fancy word-merchandising gets in the way.

Hood writes in the first person and, even in scenes that have been fictionalized, often unabashedly even drops in his wife and children under their real names. But unlike many other young writers who use the same devices he never lets that get in the way of his material either. For all that he appears in many of his stories, he is there simply as an observer — his own character doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the life around him, and the people who are living it. The businessman who sits in front of Hood at Canadien games, sometimes with his wife, and sometimes with his mistress. A young separatist who riots on Victoria Day. A landlord who takes advantage of Hood’s offer of transporting someone else’s property to demand that Hood help him move a heavy sink — and then wants to pay him two dollars. Or the man who (in my own favorite story) drinks himself out of the rag-tag amateur hockey league where Hood plays a

weekly game. So straightly does Hood handle all this material — sometimes barely imposing a plot at all — that they could easily be taken directly from life. Are they, or are they fiction? For myself, I couldn’t care less. They’re Montreal.

TORONTO, on the other hand is . . . well, Toronto. Even those of us who like it very much would have a hard time describing its sense of place. What it really is, like all of Canada, is a variety of different, smaller communities living, unmelted, together, and very few of those communities have found their literary interpreters.

One that has, though, is the small number of West Indians who have come to the city — our immigration laws haven’t been perfect, apparently — to work and live and dream about returning to their islands. The West Indians’ interpreter is Austin C. Clarke, a native of Barbados who came to university here and has stayed to write. We are lucky to have him. Clarke’s third novel, The Meeting Point (Macmillan of Canada, $5.95), is the story of a West Indian girl working as a maid in a Jewish home in Forest Hill Village. It has plenty of plot and a little mild sex, but what I like best about it is the juicy dialogue, and the sense of vivacity among the girl, Bernice, and her compatriots. They are alive, and it is nice tq see them in Toronto. What we need now is an Italian novelist to tell us about the west end, a Chinese to tell us about what goes on behind the city hall, and an Estonian to tell us where all those pretty gymnasts come from. PETER GZOWSKI

PETER GZOWSKI