Books

If two of God’s creatures are truly in love, what does species matter?

BARBARA AMIEL April 19 1976
Books

If two of God’s creatures are truly in love, what does species matter?

BARBARA AMIEL April 19 1976

If two of God’s creatures are truly in love, what does species matter?

Books

BEAR by Marian Engel (McClelland and Stewart, $7.95)

Whethe. to intimidate readers or reviewers, the publishers of Marian Engel’s new novel have borrowed Hannibal’s strategy and sent their literary elephants trumpeting across the Alps. On the dust jacket of Bear Robertson Davies praises the novel’s theme—a cautious enough attempt at peaceful coexistence with the Young Turks of CanLit. Margaret Atwood calls the book “plausible as kitchens,” whatever that means. Margaret Laurence finds it “astounding” and “profound,”as she has most books by women writers these past seasons. Inside, Jack Ludwig, Rudy Wiebe and Adele Wiseman abandon such restraint and turn to adjectives generally reserved for the seminal works of Euripides. It’s all mildly tasteless and totally unnecessary. Bear is quite able to stand on its own.

This is Engel’s fifth novel and its clean, spare prose attests to her increasing skill as a writer. Bear is the story of a spinster archivist who escapes from her mole-like existence to a small northern Ontario island inhabited by a large brown bear. During the half-dozen months they share the island, archivist and bear become lovers, their intimacy aided by the bear’s taste for honey and limited only by the physical difficulties of interspecies mating. Man’s search for self-revelation through organic unity with nature is a theme with strong literary traditions from the Etruscan Romulus and Remus myth to Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea. Mankind predates urban life by about three million years, which may explain our atavistic (and literary) urge to find unity with the

wilderness. The reader could see his own reflection in the soul of Hemingway’s fisherman when he confronted the fish on an empty and merciless sea. In Bear, Engel has mastered the literary craft necessary to reveal at least a certain kind of human soul. The question is, what kind?

Small. Engel writes marvelously about people who haven’t the inner resources to cope with a carton of turned milk. Lou, the heroine of Bear, suffers from terminal selfpity treated as a virtue. “When the sunbeams were laden with spring dust and the old tin ashtrays began to stink of a winter of nicotine and contemplation, the flaws in her plodding private world were made public ... for the image of the Good Life long ago stamped on her soul was quite different from this and she suffered in contrast.” Not for long. “She cradled his big, furry, asymmetrical balls in her hands, she played with them, slipping them gently inside their cases . . .” Watch out, brown bear! Chained and submissive, you are the erotic fantasy of liberated shrews dreaming of sexual subjugation and intellectual dominance. If it is Engel’s aim to show we have not only domesticated nature but humiliated it as well, she has succeeded. Whatever Captain Ahab had in mind for Moby Dick, it wasn’t a fate worse than death. Nature retained more dignity when Melville made war on it than when it was made love to by Engel.

BARBARA AMIEL