My Author Husband
How does the author of a best seller look to his wife? Here’s the writer of "Two Solitudes" seen by the other half of the literary team of MacLennan and Duncan
Today the most-talked-about author in Canada is Hugh MacLennan, whose trenchant novel of French and English Canadians, “Two Solitudes,” was cheered by the critics and snapped up by the public after publication early this year. Twenty-five thousand copies have been sold, another 16,600 printed and paper ordered for further editions. His first novel, “.Barometer Rising,” a story of the Halifax explosion, has sold 100,000 copies in Canada.
Dorothy Duncan, whom Maclean's ashed for this article, has particular qualifications for writing about Hugh MacLennan. She's been married to him for nine years. She is also a successful writer. Among her works are “Here's to Canada,” “Bluenose,” a portrait of Nova Scotia, and “Partner in Three Worlds,” the life story of a Czech refugee, which won her the Governor-General's award for creative nonfiction last year.—The Editors.
A N ANCIENT LADY, with the best of intentions, /% greeted Hugh MacLennan at a party not long -L M. ago. “I feel so intimate with you,” she said. Her smile matched her eighteen-nineties hairdress. In explanation, she added, “I’ve just finished your new book.”
Because the remark was intended as a compliment, it was so taken. But MacLennan had no answer for it. He has never been skilful at making wisecracks or quick remarks, and he is still inordinately shy when he is praised in public. So he merely bowed as she swept on to speak to someone else. Long ago, when he was being lauded in narrower circles as a rising young tennis player, he learned to forget such fatuous comments and let them fall into limbo. It is not his fault if his wife treasures them now. But they do form one of the merriest aspects of my life with him.
For there are two Hugh MacLennans, I have discovered. One is the man I married nine years ago, before he was known to anyone but the two of us as a potential light on the horizon of Canadian letters. That man has grown and developed, but never changed. The other MacLennan is the novelist, with a face which is becoming tolerably familiar to the Canadian reading public, and not exactly unknown in the United States and England. The fact that there are two men instead of one is due to a misguided public which cannot help believing he is an individual in many respects different from the real person. Being married to both of them at once, I find the situation full of endless amusement and unexpected turns.
To himself he is still one man, and the less the public knows about him personally the happier he is. There is nothing he wants to hide; he just happens to have grown up in a Nova Scotian Highland family, and the ramifications of meaning in that phrase are still unfolding to me. Highlanders seem to have an almost superstitious fear of publicity, as though meaningless words about a mythological self, printed where a great many people can read them, might in time anger the gods of one’s fathers and turn the halftruths into fact. Or perhaps it is simply a taught belief that nice people don’t find their names in the papers. To an American, as I am, it is a quaint and endearing characteristic in someone who must depend on the public for success.
I can remember what a shock it was to be told by a stranger who had read my “Bluenose” that she understood my husband was an extraordinarily taciturn man. She implied that I had shown him to be glum, and the kind of man who is evil-dispositioned before breakfast.
That’s what comes of trying to write about him without offending his sense of privacy. As a matter of fact he is the opposite of taciturn. He is apt to talk a great deal and to all kinds of people, especially those he likes the most. In that book 1 deliberately did not say the whole truth, for it would have included the fact that he has a disposition like a he-angel until he finds something worth getting fighting mad about. And if I had shown the proportions of his consideration and kindness and tact, I would have been forced to emphasize his old athletic records in order to give both sides of the picture of a somewhat extraordinary man.
Inside Our Front Door
DURING the winter we live in a small apartment in downtown Montreal. If it isn’t in the slums, it’s only one jump away, though 25 years ago our street was considered one of the best in town, when daughters of the families who lived on it made their social debuts at the Saint Andrew’s Day Ball.
Today, one side of our block is still lined with rather fine old Georgian doorways—flanked by signs inviting tourists to spend the night. Here and there an old family is still holding out, and in these houses the curtains are freshly laundered, the brass doorknobs polished, and a ring at the bell is answered by an ancient servant with Edwardian manners.
The building in which we live was once upon a time two of these handsome old houses. A false front of drab grey stone was added, and the insides were scrambled in assorted ways to house some 40 or 50 people where perhaps only nine or 10, including servants, lived before.
It’s an appallingly ugly structure, viewed from the outside, flanked by a basement restaurant and nudged by small shops covered with yellow and red signs advertising soft drinks and tobacco. By now we are accustomed to the surprise on the faces of people who come t o see us for the first time.
Once inside our own door it is easier for them to understand why we choose to live there. Our living room was once t he drawing-room of the old house, our bedroom the library.
Beyond the oriel window that overhangs t he street roll trucks and Army jeeps and funerals and delivery vans. Throughout the war we have heard countless pipe bands and seen hundreds of parades without the trouble t>f putting on our hats. Yet at the back, beyond the bedroom window, there is almost no sound whatever, in spite of the fact that streetcars pass on both sides of us half a block away.
Our living room would get low marks from any
interior decorator, but we find it comfortable and we make our things live together harmoniously, though some are exceptionally good and some aren’t worth a dime. One long wall is lined with books. MacLennan’s classical library occupies more than half the shelves.
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My Author Husband
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Over the wood-burning hearth hangs a handmade rug of undyed sheep’s wool, and at least one of the sheep concerned was nearly black. The design was copied, by Acadian women in Cape Breton, from an old tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum. Applegreen walls and a cedar-colored rug make the room warm and bright, and mammoth nasturtiums climb through otherwise white floor-length window draperies. We have several pieces of fine Bohemian glass, some old copper, water colors and a crayon nude done by young Canadian artists, and something of a phonograph record library. I give all this detail because our four rooms in town please the man I live with and afford him comfort as a background for thought and work.
His desk, made especially to fit him and his typewriter, is in the dining room. He has a capacity for concentration that still amazes me; extraneous noises have no effect on him, so long as they do not concern him. People who know little about the habits of writers ask questions about the way we work together in the space of four rooms, j and appear surprised to learn that two typewriters can clatter at once and bother neither of us. My desk is an oversize affair in the bedroom, a room j 20 feet long that is flooded with smoky j Montreal sunshine whenever there is any about.
Writing Is a Pattern
During the years when MacLennan was both teaching—classics and history —and writing, he worked on his books in the evenings and through week ends. How he managed two such nervewearing jobs simultaneously for so long I still don’t know. Certainly his long years of training as an athlete and a top-honors student must have helped considerably.
Throughout the winter we spent in New York, when he was a Guggenheim Fellow finishing “Two Solitudes,” his hours for work fell into a steady pattern. Now that he is no longer teaching—he has given up his post at Lower Canada College—it will be much the same during the coming winters in Montreal. He enjoys being leisurely until after breakfast, and an open book beside his plate appears to add to his enjoyment of that particular meal. But once at the typewriter he is capable of forgetting everything else, and he must be nudged in order to remind him of food again in the neighborhood of one or two o’clock. In New York, when I was also working long hours every day at my own typewriter, we took turn about getting breakfast and lunch. He may not enjoy cooking as much as I do, but he certainly turns out as good a meal.
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By three o’clock in the afternoon he has completed four or five hours of steady work. Some of it may be redrafting what was done the day before, some of it may require long pauses for contemplation, but it is all accomplished at his desk, before his typewriter. When three o’clock comes around I think a bell must ring in his mind, echoing from all his years of school as a student and a teacher. At that hour he leaves his work and his desk and gets out-of-doors.
In New York we spent the late hours of the afternoon at Carnegie Hall, at art shows, seeing friends, walking with the crowds on Fifth Avenue between Rockefeller Centre and the Plaza. When I was too busy to go with him he walked through the park, walked down to the Thirties and back, walked and walked and walked. He thinks easily on his feet, and he finds himself stimulated by city streets. Because his boyhood was spent with the sea and the forests of Nova Scotia, and he learned to observe nature closely during years when an indelible impression was being made on his mind, cities now have a meaning for him that is not revealed to those of us who have known nothing else.
After an early dinner MacLennan is ready to return to work. This kind of a schedule is also the result of a habit acquired during long school years that carried him through Oxford and the Graduate School at Princeton. He insists that some of his best work is accomplished during the three or four hours before midnight. Occasionally he breaks the routine for an evening at the theatre or with friends, but at least five nights out of seven find him working, when a novel is really under way and moving.
Even when one novel is completed and the next a matter of conjecture only, his mind is never still. He reeds an average of three books a week, chiefly history, biography, politics and a few novels. And there is always an endless correspondence to be maintained, for in our household there are neither secretaries nor maids. Uncompromising Enthusiast
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During the 12 years I have known him he has never been static. The intensity with which his interest holds to the wider aspects of the world he lives in seems wearing at times to his friends, but his enthusiasms are difficult to curb. As a consequence many friends find they like him best taken in small doses.
It is much the same with the quality of his writing. MacLennan wants to be read and enjoyed as much as any man who writes, but on his own terms. He will compromise with nothing less than the whole of what is in his mind. Nor will he add or subtract anything from a character or a situation for the sole purpose of ensnaring more sales for one of his books. It is for this reason that sincere praise and appreciation for what he has accomplished mean so much to him. When he drops his head in shyness in response to a compliment about his novels and mumbles, “Thank you,” he means no less than everything those two words imply.
From the middle of May until the leaves turn in October we live in an old cottage in one of the eastern townships of Quebec. It had been closed for a long time when we bought it, but now, after only three years, it has begun to take on a personality of its own. Overhanging cedars have been cut back, underbrush has been cleared, lawns have been barbered, and perennial borders and flowering shrubs have softened its harsh lines. The first summer we lived in it MacLennan painted the outside, and between us we covered with light paint all the brownstained insides. A patch of brambles and brush was turned into a vegetable garden. It is an open question whether MacLennan takes more pride in his tomatoes or his roses, but his faith in the value of sheep manure and peat moss leaves no room for controversy.
In his twenties he played tennis and in his thirties he gardens. In those few words lie the secret of his well-balanced nature. He believes in nothing so much as the necessity for keeping in harmony with one’s own age. When he had passed the prime of his career as a tennis player, he gave up the game without a backward glance, for it seemed to him not only foolish but wasteful to try to hold to the fringes of adolescence and youth. There are always so many new activities waiting to be learned and enjoyed in harmony with advancing years. Gardens, for instance, with their infinite variety and color and their willing response to personal care.
But his months in the country are also full of hard work at the typewriter, on much the same schedule that he keeps in the winter when a book is under way. He merely substitutes swimming, dusting cabbage worms and aphides, and paddling not too strenuously in his red canoe, for lateafternoon walks when he is in the city.
The Shadow Man
Though it Is only a portion of the picture, this is the real Hugh MacLennan. Few people would recognize it who know him only from his books. How far the legend of the unreal MacLennan will grow, it is hard to guess. We get shadows of its proportions in the fan letters he receives. All of them are answered, the charming, the inar-e, |he indifferent and the sincere. All of them are then saved by me, and if some future harassed English student should get her hands on them and try to do a thesis on the character of the man as revealed by the response of his readers, she’ll come up with a monstrosity of no mean size.
One woman wrote to tell him that she bought “Barometer Rising” to send to her son, a stoker in the merchant marine, but after reading it she threw it away because she considered it unfit literature to put into the hands of a growing boy.
A clergyman in a small Ontario town wrote him a long letter, upbraiding him for various scenes in his books and remarking at length on his lack of fitness as a teacher. That one angered MacLennan.
And then there are all the people who are sure they can identify each of the main characters in his books. It is useless to tell them how desperately hard he works to keep any of his fictional people from being mistakenly identified with anyone in real life. His characters are products solely of his creative imagination. Canadians are still unaccustomed to meeting their contemporaries in print as types. They make the mistake of assuming that a novel about Canada must be a documentary study of Canada. In time it may even be possible to state that a character in a Canadian novel is the president of a railroad, as one could in the United States, and have him accepted as a man typical of that position rather than a caricature of a specific person.
One reaction of the Canadian public to his books that MacLennan can never understand is the embarrassment among members of the older generation over what they choose to term his use of “too much sex.” What have they been reading for the past 25 years, to find his books so shocking?
His explanation for this phenomenon bases itself on the strong background of religious training in Canadians. My answer is different. I contend that they have been reading Steinbeck and Dos Passos and Hemingway and dozens of other modern writers and finding their frankness, about matters of which Canadians must be quite as well aware as the next man, tolerable because they can call such candor American, and so disapprove of it on the wide grounds of a national characteristic. But when they read a modern Canadian novel with prototypes of themselves in it, and find the characters behaving in much the same way as Americans do in print, they are mortified.
Because the bulk of Canadian literature has, until recently, concerned itself with stories of wild life and historical romance, few writers have suggested in print that Canadians are equipped with the same kind of human instincts as other people, and are quite apt to follow those instincts in normal human ways.
The shock of many of MacLennan’s readers is as nothing compared with his own when he is faced with their uneasy response, for he considers his books to be free of any suggestion of the consciously vulgar or spectacularly obscene. It is his classical training, of course, which has given him his straightforward, honest approach to human behavior, whether it happens to be called Canadian or Hindustani or Greek.
Unreal Nudges the Real
I remember the first time MacLennan happened to pass a bookstore window filled with copies of his first published novel and a blown-up photograph of himself. He pulled the brim of his hat low over his eyes, hunched up his collar around his chin and walked past as rapidly as he could.
One day ä girl directly opposite him in a streetcar was reading a copy of “Two Solitudes,” and his own face stared at him from the cover. Without thinking he grinned at her. She returned his smile with an indignant shrug and raised the book in front of her, trying to show that she was no pickup. Nothing has amused him so much in a long time.
So the real Hugh MacLennan continues to hump into the unreal, and I stand between and attempt to explain the one to the world that has created the other. To ourselves we are completely normal, and I rather think we appear fairly normal to our friends. But we seem to be the despair of people who must interview us for the press. I don’t know why, except that succeasful writers are expected to combine the glamour of Hollywood cheesecake and the tempers of orchestra directors. Without these attributes we probably seem, hy contrast, as plain as cold porridge.
Not too long ago a sweet young female reporter from a daily paper came to call. She had read neither of our recent books, but she had a scribbler full of questions to he asked and answered. I had agreed to give her as much information as I could. So she began with question number one: “Are you and your husband rivals?”
“No,” I said. No further qualification seemed necessary, but she was obviously disappointed.
“Do you mean that you help write each other’s books?” she said.
“Certainly not. Our points of view are different, our experiences are different and so are our subjects. I write in my own way and he writes in his.”
“But it would make such a good story if I could say you are rivals,” she said.
“Well, you can’t,” I replied. And then 1 relented and said that we sometimes user! each other for sounding boards, if that was any help. But she didn’t know what I was talking about.
Her next question: “Do you suffer
when you write?”
“Does your husband?”
“No. He works very hard for very long hours, and he’s never satisfied or happy until he has his final draft finished the way he wants it. But he likes to write books better than anything else on earth. If he didn’t he’d do something else.”
I gathered that the interview w'asn’t going as she had hoped. Her next questions related to MacLennan’s character and habits. I found myself trying to give her a summary of his basic characteristics and in the process I got involved in an explanation of his refusal to drop any problem once he has picked it up and undertaken its solution.
“I have never encountered a mind with greater tenacity,” I explained. “And by that I do not mean that he gnaws at trouble the way a dog worries a bone. I mean that he has infinite patience in facing the truth about himself or anyone else. Not that, he ever looks for trouble. His shoulders aren’t made to carry chips. But there’s no point in dragging trouble past his nose too often if you don’t want him to take it apart and try to set it straight.
“He hasn’t the remotest interest in obtaining power over men, but when it is occasionally thrust upon him, he is quite willing to use it for the purpose of setting things to rights so he can be free to think his own thoughts without interruption. He hardly understands the meaning of envy, and jealousy is another characteristic that was left out of his make-up.”
By the time I had finished all that the poor girl was ready to give up. Har last-question was a request for advice to young writers.
My own was fairly simple: “Decide w'hy you want to write, and if it is chiefly because the idea of being an author appeals to you as a means of catching public attention, give it up and go in for something easier and less lonely. A long weary length of time elapses between the beginnings of an inspiration and the moment when that caught-and-molded idea reaches the public in the form of bound books full of carefully chosen words. And during those months and years no one has a scrap of interest in your potential best seller.”
Again, MacLennan’s answer was different from mine. When he thinks about people, and when he thinks about institutions or situations or anything else with life at its roots, he can’t help trying to see them all in their relation to universal truths, each with its individual meaning modified by its relationship to the whole. That is why he does so much rewriting, and why he tries always to add a sense of time to the ordinary three dimensions.
He believes strongly that a writer can seldom be successful unless he writes out of his own background; he can never be good unless he is entirely himseLf. As a result of this conviction the sights and sounds of Canada, her peculiar texture, her scenery and people, as well as some of her local problems, have found their way into his books. Yet he is always trying to view Canada as part of a continuous whole which moves out of history into the present, still pregnant with seeds of the future.
When the girl had gone away and her article appeared in the paper on the following day, it occupied three inches of space, and its second of two paragraphs told the world that I had begun to write, after marrying Hugh MacLennan and moving to Montreal, because I was bored.
A lot of strange things might well be said about two writers who live and work together. But one essential point should not be omitted from the tale of these particular two. Every minute of every day since I’ve known Hugh MacLennan has been filled with the color of his enthusiasms, tempered by his willingness to learn and grow and mature. It is true that we differ greatly in the nature of our work, but I have still to write a book in which he does not appear.