Editorial

Hugh MacLennan as Canada’s Boswell: a voice unwavering, tender and clear

Peter C. Newman November 6 1978
Editorial

Hugh MacLennan as Canada’s Boswell: a voice unwavering, tender and clear

Peter C. Newman November 6 1978

Hugh MacLennan as Canada’s Boswell: a voice unwavering, tender and clear

Editorial

Peter C. Newman

If the Canadian experience boasts a spiritual town crier—the Boswell of our aspirations and afflictions—it has to be Hugh MacLennan, the Montreal novelist whose latest collection of essays will soon illuminate the fall reading lists. His writing is saturated with wisdom, humor and tenderness, setting down the awesomely terrifying truth about people discovering each other too little and too late. MacLennan is at his best chronicling slow lives. His books are almost pathological examinations of men’s and women’s feelings, portraying their distances, their subconscious protection of each other, the kindness and the pain that accompanies their separateness. The truth he reveals is not in the least sensational. Just truth.

His unfashionable view of literature is that it must do more than assert life as a meaningless accident. Once asked how he picks his themes, MacLennan replied: “They pick me. You get things through the pores.” Released from the novelist’s bonds of plot and characterization, MacLennan the essayist succeeds in portraying what Edmund Wilson, the dean of U.S. literary critics, once called “a point of view surprisingly and agreeably different from anything else I knew in English: a Canadian way of looking at things.” The 35 essays in this valuable new collection encapsulate MacLennan’s views of such phenomena as the Reader's Digest (“the Kraft cheese of literature”); Mackenzie King (“this sly, ponderous, soft-footed Presbyterian leprechaun with the emotional develop-

ment of a 10-year-old mother’s boy and the political vision of the Vicar of Bray”); the American take-over of Canadian rescources (“it has been like a seduction in which the lady keeps murmuring that she can’t help herself”); and Pierre Trudeau (“the light in his eyes was a Gioconda light of such subtle and curious intensity, I doubt if even the painter of Mona Lisa herself could have captured it”).

Now 71 and completing his eighth novel, MacLennan still teaches literature at McGill, dividing his days between a modest downtown Montreal apartment and his country retreat in North Hatley. Haunted by human transience, he jealously guards his anti-British bias by viewing the world through a staunchly Celtic heritage. “A Celt,” he explains, “has a dog-whistle sound that an Anglo-Saxon simply doesn’t get.” Contemptuous of Ivory Tower esthetes whose books he dismisses as “poetry of the menopause,” he believes that a writer must be engaged with the issues of his time, echoing D.H. Lawrence’s dictum that “the novel treats the point at which the soul meets history.”

The author of Two Solitudes is not optimistic about Canada’s future: “Politics are very advanced if they’re 40 years behind the reality of the times. What’s happening in Quebec now is very possibly part of the decline of the West. Civilizations just die. The ’60s was the first decade when the West consciously entered the post-Christian era. Some fibre went out of us.”

Perhaps. But these essays establish that nothing has gone out of Hugh MacLennan. He is the master of Canadian prose.