Two Solitudes, by Hugh MacLennan

So far, every book I’ve read as part of my Canada 150 project has felt archetypal in some way.1 Two Solitudes, a novel whose title has become shorthand for the the complex relationship between French and English Canada, is no exception, although it’s the weakest of the bunch, and lacks the relentless narrative drive of Barometer Rising. It’s a multi-generational novel, and while it’s hardly the first of its kind, it mostly takes place between and around periods of great significance, beginning at the end of World War One, ending at the outbreak of World War Two, and mostly skipping the Great Depression. In that way it seems almost stereotypically Canadian; present for the big moments, but more comfortable in the spaces between. It’s interesting to me that this is the first book I’ve read for the project that deals with the middle class or the wealthy instead of the poor.

The plot feels a bit piecemeal. The novel begins with John Yardley, an Anglo sailor from Nova Scotia, moving to the rural Quebec village of Saint-Marc to take up farming after retiring from the sea. Yardley is both the wisest and most likeable character in the novel, and while he loves and settles fairly easily into a community that is openly hostile to both change and the English, his arrival is the catalyst for catastrophic change. He introduces the community to Huntly McQueen, the powerful, if pedestrian, English capitalist from Montreal, and to his own daughter Janet, whose grief over her husband’s death pushes her into making a decision that tears the small town apart. And yet none of these people is what you’d think of as a main character. There are a few who could qualify. There is Athanse Tallard, the aristocratic landowner who holds nearly all the economic and political power in Saint-Marc, though he divides the social power with Father Beaubien, the parish priest. There is Kathleen Tallard, Athanse’s Irish wife who never learned to speak French and whose vibrant spirit is being crushed by the strict adherence to the traditional social structures of rural Quebec. Or perhaps Marius Tallard,2 the aggressive Quebec nationalist who is full of fire and hate and virtually nothing else. None of them qualify; they all move in and out of focus, flaring up as the centre of the narrative and then fading out, becoming virtually irrelevant.

Eventually it’s Paul Tallard3 and Heather Methuen4 who take centre stage as they try to break away from lives and structures that they find suffocating. Neither character feels particularly important for most of the first half of the novel, Paul only because Yardley takes a liking to him, and Heather hardly at all. They both eventually take on a quality I can’t name but have come to associate with mid-20th-Century American novels looking to throw off the conventions of the 19th Century. They are independent, and passionate about their independence in a way that seems less about their specific goals5 than about valuing the process, the right to determine their own way of living. I don’t want to imply that these characters are rejecting the middle class, although I see how it could seem that way to some readers, only that they want to live in it in their own way.

By the time I was born Montreal had already lost its status as Canada’s preeminent city on both the economic and cultural fronts, and it can be hard for me to remember that it was at the heart of both when Two Solitudes was written.6 There are frequent background references to Toronto, which both the English and French characters seem to disdain as a city of little importance to anyone excepts is own residents, but beyond some references to Ottawa and a few scenes that take place in Halifax, there may as well be no Canada in this book outside of Quebec. Quebec and Montreal are Canada to these characters, both French and English. It surprised me that the title of a book so focused on specific, regional issues has therefore become such an important phrase in how people understand Canadian culture.7

Another surprise for me, though I was aware of the history of Quebec’s relationship with the Roman Catholic church in an abstract way, was how powerful Father Beaubien was in the community. I can’t decide what MacLennan thinks of him. Beaubien seems, at first, like a principled man, concerned about the well-being of his community, but despite being the first character the reader encounters, he makes few appearances and is difficult to feel any sympathy for or connection to. He’s deeply invested in maintaining Saint-Marc’s quasi-feudal social structure, not only refusing to see any economic potential beyond subsistence farming for most of its citizens, but actually rejecting the idea that any sort of movement out of poverty or ignorance is desirable. He presents it as a concern for their immortal souls, but it becomes increasingly clear that his opposition to any change in the community is mostly about protecting his own outsize power, and he is willing—and able—to make use of extra-legal social power to destroy the Tallard family and thereby prevent any change from happening.8 The tragedy there, of course, is that by destroying Athanse Tallard he not only fails to block the building of a factory in Saint-Marc, he guarantees the economic destiny of the community will be taken out of the locals’ control and handed over to the English.

I know I shouldn’t be surprised anymore,9 but I always find myself taken aback when I see racism or other discrimination presented as so… normal in older books. I get the overwhelming urge to hiss what the fuck is wrong with you? MacLennan throws around the n-word pretty freely, and the casual contempt for Jewish people10 seems doubly appalling, given that it was written 1945. I cringed a lot. It was stupid and unnecessary.

MacLennan is slightly better with women; Kathleen and Heather are both great characters, one swallowed up by expectations she can’t possibly meet, the other defiant in the face of them. One of my favourite moments in the book, which I will end with by quoting at length, is Heather’s laser-accurate assessment of books by male writers like Hemingway:11

What a world! Everything was so lousy there was nothing you could do but take it; you could be a socialist and then the police proved their brutality by beating you up; you got some kind of venereal disease but you could take it; you seldom had a job and if you did you hated it, for everything was lousy, the men bitter, close-mouthed and inarticulate, with chips on their shoulders but sexually as potent as Hercules; to hell with everything because everything was so lousy you took a drink and kept on with it. But every girl you met rolled into bed with you if you were a man. Straight between the sheets. You were born with two strikes on you and the third was coming up. But if you were a girl in their man’s world you were struck out before you reached the plate unless you were a bitch. If you were a bitch you got by. If you were a nice girl your only way of proving it was by being good in bed, smooth and lovely under the cool sheets with rain on the windows in the dark. And then afterwards they got you for it. You died in childbirth or you died from something else because that was the way it was. And always it was tough for the man, standing by your bed close-mouthed and too manly to say anything while you died, but before the lights faded out you at least knew he could take that too.

August

Writer. Editor. Critic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *