Books

A voice out of time

Roy MacGregor September 22 1980
Books

A voice out of time

Roy MacGregor September 22 1980

A voice out of time

Books

Roy MacGregor

Beyond him, the hardwood forest is blackening in the setting sun, blushing with the early rumors of fall. Soon the colors of Quebec’s Eastern Townships will rise to equal his own anxiety; October will come and with it the release of Voices in Time, his first novel in 13 years, perhaps the last. Hugh MacLennan is leaning on a visitor’s car, arms folded over the roof, his hazel eyes blocking an exit. This is a man who does not fill conversations so much as furnish them, and there will be a final polish before inspection. The voice is lilting now, not choked as it was when he dealt with his first wife’s death and her later, other-world appearance to him; and the right hand has settled now, not trembling as it was when he spoke, for the first time, of his own private terror during the 1970 October Crisis. Fear then, fear again now, as he prepares for what may be the final judgment. Dismissed by the critics and badly hurt last time out, he will try again in a different age and see if, just maybe, his time has come again.

“When I finished the book,” he says in his select, proper manner, “I suddenly discovered I had become very tired. Not just tired in body”—he slaps the palm of hand to forehead—“but tired up here.”

A falling acorn raps off the fender, closing off the conversation. MacLennan draws away and looks up into the red oak that stands outside his North Hatley cottage. It is a tree that a younger Hugh MacLennan once wrote had a “destiny” to fulfil, and this oak | stands some 70 feet high, straight and Ï proud. But not perfect. Caterpillars f have left its leaves shredded, its destiny £ slightly flawed. d

“I am writing,” the First World War | note home from Nova Scotia’s Big Cove YMCA camp read, “on the sole of my boot.” Hugh MacLennan was a child then, but in this, his 74th year, we are still concerned with the path of his words. “It is my first aim,” he wrote in a 1942 application for a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, “to write a novel of the Canada I know, in which I have lived. When Canadians understand themselves better, they will be understood by the rest of the world.” Prior to Hugh MacLennan, Canadian novels had been concerned with, in his own words, “Boy meets girl in Winnipeg: who cares?” There had never been a true sense of Canada. When MacLen-

nan’s first two novels—set in Austria, Germany and the United States—were turned down, he concluded that the novel was “such an intimate form that you’re stuck with your own country.” So he went back to something he did know, the 1917 Halifax explosion in which he witnessed, as a stunned 10-year-old, the deaths of two men, and the book he produced in 1941, Barometer Rising, was a huge success. His second, the one he wrote on the Guggenheim Fellowship, he titled Two Solitudes, which came to say more about the duality of Canada than did the British North America Act. Geographer, sociologist and, at

times, prophet, he one day found himself as much an institution as the author of six novels. The words of Toronto critic Claude Bissell typify MacLennan’s status: “No Canadian writer has contributed so much to national selfawareness and understanding.”

They speak of him as if he were dead. But in the same year as Margaret Atwood’s and Mordecai Richler’s huge literary successes, a healthy, robust MacLennan is squeezing a few more miles out of his used Ford. He is a man of subtle humor—sad, hooded eyebrows serving as quotation marks for the exclamation point his mouth forms at the

end of a delightful point—and it is with irony, not pity, that he recalls Barometer Rising selling 20,000 hard-cover copies and a further 100,000 in paperback and the biggest payoff amounting to $735. One day, when he was 50, he sat down and tallied up his life: four Governor-General’s Awards (now five) and $900 in the bank. The used car is a necessity, not an eccentricity. Royalties these days are helped by his critical success in West Germany, but they still only amount to $14,000 a year. His parttime professor emeritus status at McGill is, as he puts it, “not to be regarded as a sinecure.”

But MacLennan has always been concerned more with the future than the present. Overhearing his grandparents discussing the need for more hens when he was 6, young Hugh immediately ran off to the chicken coop and began planting eggs. And this fall, seven decades later, he is investing in another crop. Voices in Time (see review, page 50 ) is an apocalyptic, futuristic view of the past we are living through today. Set 50 years in the future and after a “clean” nuclear war has destroyed the major cities setting the world population back 400 years, MacLennan offers a bleak view of what he sees as our sinking, post-Christian Western society. Previously a writer who would sacrifice character for message, MacLennan has created, in Conrad Dehmel, the truest character of his career, and it is perhaps this that makes the gloomy message all the more chilling. “Now the storm signals are flying again,” this man who survived Nazi Germany tells a 1970 television audience just before his death in a classic shoot-the-messenger scene, “and the world may easily go out of control once more.”

The Gaelic word for second sight is da-shealladh and it is a Scottish belief that sailed easily to Glace Bay, Cape Breton Island, where Hugh MacLennan was born, and to Halifax, where he was raised. This is the Nova Scotia where toothaches have been cured by driving rusty nails into trees, and where MacLennan’s own mother once woke up screaming, having dreamt that a huge ship was sinking with hundreds of helpless passengers. That was shortly after midnight, April 15,1912—the night the Titanic went down off Newfoundland.

Sitting with friends in his North Hatley cottage the night of Oct. 23, 1963, Hugh MacLennan correctly predicted the month-away death of American President John Kennedy, but this prophecy, he argues, was more related to cold logic than chilled spines, as have been the accurate predictions in his books. Oddly enough, the most prophetic of his novels, Return of the Sphinx (1967), has also been his

greatest disappointment. In it he used Montreal as a setting to show how misguided nationalism and the times could set father against son and seriously disrupt society. The critics hated the book. “They murdered it in Toronto,” he says, not at all comfortable with the memory. “Why? It happened, didn’t it? I was dead right.” Full of doom and gloom, it was hard, nonetheless, to reconcile this MacLennan with the one who began his career with great optimism. In Barometer Rising he had even allowed himself the nervy luxury of rewriting Shakespeare, taking John of Gaunt’s “this scepter’d isle” speech from Richard II and applying it to Canada: “. . . this sprawling waste ... this unborn mightiness . . . this future for himself, and for God knew how many millions of mankind.” To understand how four decades later he would be sitting in his cottage rhetorically asking, “When has mankind ever been anything but senseless?”, it is necessary to see how one man’s faith in all but the individual soul came to evaporate.

The setting for MacLennan’s own story is North Hatley, a village that is stuck in time as all summer escapes are.

Originally cottaged by wealthy Americans, North Hatley people still place high stock on decency and being a gentleman, two things MacLennan excels in. But what is valued above all else is order. It was no surprise that when MacLennan wrote about his cottage hideaway in 1951 (he called it Ste. Elizabeth), the title of his essay became “Everyone Knows the Rules.”

In that world they did. But North Hatley, it must be said, has nothing to do with the real world. It is, rather, an illusion, its value precisely in that description. MacLennan happened to be at his cottage on Aug. 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb exploded on Hiroshima. There was some celebration in the village, but not from MacLennan. He went to bed but couldn’t sleep, got up, dressed, and as it was a warm night he walked out into the garden. He was still there at dawn, alone with his smoke, the stars, the calm of the lake spreading out from the bay. All for the moment meaningless. “I thought ‘We’ve lost everything,’ ” he remembers. “With a weapon like that what was the hope? I tried to convince myself that it was all right, but I knew it wouldn’t be.” Part of his

faith passed from him that night.

But he did not completely change until 1957, the year Dorothy Duncan died. Theirs had been a heartwarming romance between two writers, one American and the other Canadian, begun in 1932 by a correspondence on ideas, completed in 1936 by a marriage of feelings, though both knew children would be impossible. As a child Duncan had had four severe attacks of rheumatic fever, leaving her with a badly damaged heart. All went well for several years— she even won the 1944 Governor-General’s Award for nonfiction—but an attack of viral pneumonia in 1947 changed their hope to fatal acceptance.

From then on, they knew the end could come at any time. (Ironically, though he is today widely known as a teacher, he joined McGill in 1951 primarily to get his wife onto a Blue Cross medical plan.) At 7 a.m. on Easter Monday in 1957 she rang the bell beside her bed and he ran to her. “This is it,” she told him calmly. “This is going to be the end.” Two days later, with her body waiting to be cremated, he awoke at 4 a.m. in his friend, the poet, F.R. Scott’s house, and Dorothy

was once again with him. “She was present, very distant,” he remembers, his voice shaking. She had a message for him, and it became the guiding force of The Watch That Ends the Night, the key to the troubled book he had battled with for years and which went on to become his greatest success.

For MacLennan, writing this book was “like a snake shedding its old skin.” Gone forever was the idealism that had him flirting with communism in the ’30s, had him convinced that mankind, that countries, that societies could work to improve the world. MacLennan looked around at his international writing peers and saw that instead of celebrating life—as Dorothy Duncan had—they were “devoting their immense technical abilities to the dissection of cowards, drunkards, weaklings, criminals, psychotics, imbeciles, deviates and people whose sole common denominator seems to be a hatred of life and a terror of living.” The man who had begun his writing career by casting a city, Halifax, as a novel’s central character and who had eulogized a country as a great hope of mankind had suddenly turned about-face. “It came to

me,” he wrote at the end of The Watch That Ends the Night, “that to be able to love the mystery surrounding us is the final and only sanction of human existence.”

Unfortunately, he was already boxed in. As MacLennan’s personal beliefs shrank inward his reputation had been spreading outward, and with it came a tag he came to abhor—nationalist. That he loved his country was never the question, but he did believe that nationalism “when it becomes a surrogate for religion is a terrible, evil thing.” Yet, having been the novelist who created the Canadian stage, he was charged with its upkeep. He had long seen what would happen, in fact had written his editor, Macmillan’s John Gray, on May 27, 1950, to argue “... all I was trying to do was to define the background out of which any Canadian writer has to work. This buildup backfired, as I knew it was bound to among the critics later on, and one of the most necessary things in marketing my work in the future, I believe, will be to undo some of these labels which have been pinned around my neck.”

It could not be done. With the arrival of the ’60s MacLennan slowly slipped out of fashion. He had remarried, the charming Frances Walker, an old friend from Montreal, but he had stuck firmly with the order-loving conservative generation he had been born into.

“In the era of The Beatles he stood for old-world authoritarianism, a patriarch who represented all the values that were being challenged,” says Toronto critic Elspeth Cameron, who will publish the first biography of MacLennan next spring. “It was thought to be smart-ass not to like MacLennan. He was, well, ‘Father’—all the things people were rebelling against.”

The ’70s were not to be the golden years he might have expected. Montreal lawyer Jack Spector, his closest friend, died. Two Solitudes became a movie, and a terrible one; MacLennan and his wife spent a sad evening watching it, unnoticed, at the back of a Montreal theatre. A nonfiction gift book, Rivers of Canada, was also hammered by the critics. The scholarly analysis of his work now often became sharp, painful. “It is certainly time now,” Roger Leslie Hyman wrote in the Queen's Quarterly in 1975, “to give his novels a more honest critical reading than they have yet been accorded, and to remove MacLennan from the pantheon of literary untouchables to which he was unjustly elevated.” The major CanLit study of the decade, Margaret Atwood’s Survival, had but six fleeting references to his name. “This is the man who prepared the way for everyone else,” says Ottawa University critic David Staines, “but, you know, Moses never

reached the promised land.”

All this hurt MacLennan. “As long as there’s any criticism,” says Elspeth Cameron, “he’s going to feel uncomfortable. He was very heavily criticized as a child and perhaps that triggers it.” That his novels are populated with basically two kinds of fathers—the frail who fail or the strong who are wrongmay well be tied to his own father, Dr. Samuel MacLennan, a stout Presbyterian, described by Hugh’s sister, Frances, as “stern” but by a family friend as “generally disliked, thorny and opinionated.” Young Hugh was a superb athlete excelling in tennis and basketball, but the doctor had decided early on that his only son would be a classical scholar and nothing else would be considered. Each week, Jotham Logan, the classics teacher at the Halifax Academy, would be invited to dinner, after which the two men and the boy would retire to the medical office’s waiting room to read Vergil and Homer aloud. Hugh was eager to please and brilliant, but one can only imagine what he felt inside, that wintry night in 1928, when he announced he had just won a Rhodes Scholarship and his father’s only response was, “Go out and shovel the snow.”

He went from a PhD at Princeton and a scholarly future, to a ground breaking novelist partly with the help of a 1937 tour of Russia that “cured me of any idealism I may have had about Marxism” and a growing perspective that “human nature repeats itself— that doesn’t mean that history will, but certain syndromes do keep occurring.” His message could not be delivered through scholarly studies, but only through communication.

The only thing he couldn’t see—perhaps the da-shealladh failed him here— was that what he had to say would change so drastically. There was not much satisfaction in being right, as he believes he was, if a book like Return of the Sphinx was going to be used to put him down. And there was certainly no satisfaction when his fears came true in October of 1970. On Thanksgiving Monday, two days after Pierre Laporte had been kidnapped, MacLennan was leaving for a short drive around the Eastern Townships to see the colors when he found a back road blocked by two cars. Fortunately, a truck barged through ahead of him, but the two cars gave him chase, forcing him to accelerate up to 150 km/h until he found a milk truck he could slip in front of; when out of sight, he quickly escaped up a sideroad. Whether it was all massive coincidence or whether he—as a convenient symbol for English Canada—missed an appointment with a car trunk is something he will pever know, and doesn’t care to know.

But that, fortunately, was fully 10

years ago. Another time, another place; gone McGovern, come Reagan; bleached bell-bottoms to designer jeans. One of the few threads to run consistently through those years has been old, dependable Hugh MacLennan, pecking away at his typewriter, unsure whether he could ever publish again, convinced as he has always been that “a writer should also be a citizen.” Part of his bitterness he was able to pour off into Voices in Time, losing some of his own burden to Conrad Dehmel who “as there was an open season on any public man over 50 ... became a target for the neoMarxists and separatists.” This was Conrad Dehmel—really MacLennan— in 1970. By 1980 campus rebellion had receded into nostalgia; by 1980 the vote on Quebec separation had become “non.”

Perhaps, he dared wonder, his time had come again. He had written a dark, dark novel, but suddenly there was Iran, Afghanistan, invisible bombers and a new arms race. And yet the novel was not entirely without light. MacLennan is a great lover of classical music, where any great movement has counterpoint, and he has applied it to his novel, as faint at times as the beat of a single heart in an angry crowd. But that, of course, is where he has been heading since he moved from Canada’s great promises in Barometer Rising

through Dorothy Duncan’s tragic death. The book warns of destruction, yes, but the story could not have been told without a survivor. And MacLennan, good God-fearing Celt that he is, could never deny his own clan’s grim but honest motto: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” ;v?