Writing Montréal

February 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

I am reading Kim Echlin’s beautiful novel, The Disappeared, right now.  It was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in Canada, and it won a Barnes & Noble award down here in the States.  The awards are very much deserved, Echlin’s prose is beautifully constructed; sparse, taut, sensual sentences follow the heroine, Anne Greves, from the cold streets of Montréal to the scarred streets of Phnom Penh in the wake of Pol Pot and genocide in Cambodia.  It is compelling reading.

But (and you knew this but was coming), I find myself fascinated with the problems in writing Montréal, as The Disappeared is full of them.  I have sometimes wondered if Montréal, being the complicated, chaotic, bizarre city it is, can even be successfully written, especially en Anglais.  But, of course it can.  Mordecai Richler.  Rawi Hage.  Occasionally, even we academic types get it right, most notably, Sherry Simon in her brilliant book, Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City.  Montréal is not your average city.  Your average city is a huge, complicated, seething multitude of humanity.  Your average city is complicated, it is corrupt, it is beautiful and it is dirty and savage.  Montréal is all that and more, in large part because it is, as Simon argues, a divided city.  Divided cities, of which there are many in the world, are necessarily more complex and complicated.  There are competing historical narratives and political realities battling for space on the cultural and political landscape of the city.  Derry, Northern Ireland, is a small divided city, but the city is caught between two competing narratives of the city’s past, one Catholic, one Protestant, fighting for dominance.

Montréal, of course, is rent between the francophone version of the past and vision of the present and the anglophone equivalent.  Historically, the city is split down the middle, blvd. Saint-Laurent, the Main.  To the east, francophone and Catholic, to the west, Anglophone and Protestant.  But this dichotomy doesn’t really work in reality, as the Irish complicated it, they were Catholic and lived in the west end, they were English-speaking and lived in the east end.  Then the Jews came around the turn of the last century and settled in between the French- and English- speakers.  And then the rest of the world came, and the city became multicultural in the last third of the 20th century.  Then there’s the question of class.  Montréal today is a city that holds a history for all these diverse populations, speaking their own languages, going to their own houses of worship, patronising their own businesses.  But Montréal also holds a history of these people crossing their divides, and working together, shopping together, sharing their food and their language across these divides.  We historians are left to find all these disparate strands of Montréal and attempt to unravel the complications, to look at how the complications arose, to see how all these peoples co-operated, and how they conflicted.

To return to The Disappeared, Echlin gets caught up in all of these complications.  For example, the main character, Anne Greves, an Anglophone teenager in the 1970s, whose father teaches at McGill, lives on avenue du Parc.  Anglos in Montréal today tend to call it Park Ave.  Even bilingual ones.  In the 1970s, Anglos did not call it av du Parc.  But Anne also uses the English names for nearly everything else in the city.  Bleury Street.  The Oratory.  Mount Royal.  Old Montréal.  And of course Anne would, all my cousins who are Anne’s age, who still live in Montréal, use the Anglo names.  The only other locale in Montréal that gets called by its French name by Anne is the bishop’s cathedral downtown, Marie-Reigne-du-Monde.  Being the Montréal purist and historian, I find these kinds of misnomers distracting.  Perhaps it’s because Anne is caught between these various Montréals, perhaps it’s because she came of age in the late 1970s and the 1980s, when we fought about all of this, what to call things, what language we must speak and so on.  And maybe it’s because Montréal is just here in passing, it’s where Anne is from.  Soon, we are in Phnom Penh with her, sifting through the aftermath of Pol Pot’s psychotic reign.

But Echlin’s problems with nomenclature in Montréal really only speak to the general day-to-day issues on the street there.  What you call av du Parc (OK, I admit, I’m an Anglophone who tends to use the French names) reflects a lot on who you are, where you’re from in the city, what your politics are.  The same is true of Saint-Viateur, Mary Queen of the World, the Oratory and so on and so forth.  And it is exactly this nature of the divided city I adore about my hometown.  And I have to admit, I kind of miss it.

The Strange Anglo Fascination with Québécois Anti-Semitism

December 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

I am a reader.  I read pretty much anything, fiction and non-fiction.  As I have argued for approximately forever, reading, and especially, literature, is what keeps me sane.  So I read.  It’s also the end of the semester, so what I read devolves in many ways from lofty literature to murder-mysteries.  I would argue, though, that a good murder-mystery is full of the basic questions of humanity, right down to the endless push/pull of good v. evil.  I came to this conclusion when someone once tried to convince me that Dostoyevsky’s Crime And Punishment was, at the core, a murder-mystery.

So, it is that I came to find myself reading the third in John Farrow’s so-far excellent series of murder mysteries set in my home town, Montréal, and featuring the crusty old detective, Émile Cinq-Mars.  The third novel, however, centres around Cinq-Mars’ early career in the late 60s/early 70s.  And Farrow, who is really the esteemed Canadian novelist, Trevor Ferguson, took the opportunity to write an epic, historical novel.  It’s also massively overambitious and falls under its own weight oftentimes in the first half of the book.  The novel opens on the night of the Richard Riot in Montréal, 17 March 1955, with the theft of the Cartier Dagger, a relic of Jacques Cartier’s arrival at Hochelaga in the 16th century.  The dagger, made of stone and gifted to Cartier by Donnacona, the chief of Stadacona, which is today’s Québec City, has been central to the development of Canada.  It has ended up in the hands of Samuel de Champlain, Étienne Brulé, Paul de Chomedy, sieur de Maisonneuve, Dollard des Ormeux, Médard Chouart des Groselliers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, and so on.  But it has ended up in the hands of the Sun Life Assurance Company, the very simple of les maudits Anglais in mid-20th century Montréal.  Worse for the québécois, Sun Life has lent it to that mandarin of ‘les maudits anglais,” Clarence Campbell, president of the National Hockey League, and the man responsible for the lengthy suspension to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard.  Clearly, Farrow subscribes to the theory that the Quiet Revolution really began in March 1955 (I do not agree with this one bit, thank you very much).

Farrow then takes us through the history of the dagger, from Cartier until it ends up in the hands of  Campbell, to its theft on St. Patrick’s Day 1955.  And from there, we move through the next sixteen years, through the Quiet Revolution, Trudeaumania, and the FLQ, as Cinq-Mars finally solves the mystery of the theft of the Cartier Dagger in 1971 (which was also the year that an unknown goalie came out of nowhere to backstop the Habs to the Stanley Cup).

All throughout the story, Farrow, in true Anglo-Montréal style, is obsessed with franco-québécois anti-semitism.  This is especially the case from the late 19th century onwards.  We are brought into the shadowy underworld of the Order of Jacques Cartier, a secret society hell-bent on defending French, Catholic Québec against les Anglais and the Jews.  Characters real and fictive are in the Order, including legendary Montréal Mayor Camillien Houde, and Camille Laurin, the father of Bill 101, and others.  And then there’s the Nazi on the run after the Second World War, Jacques Dugé de Bernonville.  We also meet Pierre Elliott Trudeau and his nemesis, René Levésque.

Outed as anti-semites are the usual characters: Maurice Duplessis, Abbé Lionel Groulx, Houde, Laurin, and, obviously, de Bernonville.  Also, Henri Bourassa and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.  And so on and so forth.  And, ok, fair enough, they WERE anti-semites (though I’m not sure you can call Bourassa and Lafontaine that).  Québec, and Montréal in particular, was the home of Adrien Arcand, the self-proclaimed fuhrer of Canada.  These are disgusting, dirty men.

But all throughout the novel, only French Canadian anti-semitism matters.  This reminds me of a listserv of policy wonks, academics, and journalists I’ve been a member of for a decade-and-a-half.  Years ago, we had one member who liked to rail against the sovereigntists in Québec, accusing them of being vile anti-semites (sometimes he was right).  But, whenever evidence of wider Canadian anti-semitism was pointed out, he dismissed it out of hand.  In his mind, only the French are anti-semites (to the point where he often pointed to the Affair Dreyfus in late 19th century France as proof the québécois are anti-semites to the core).

I am not suggesting that anti-semitism should not be called out for what it is: racism.  It must and should be.  But whenever we get this reactionary Anglophone obsession with Franco-québécois anti-semitism, I get uncomfortable.  This is a bad case of the pot calling the kettle black.  Anti-semitism has been prevalent in Canada since the get go, in both official languages.  The first Jew to be elected to public office in the entire British Empire was Ezekiel Hart, elected to the Lower Canadian legislature in 1807.  But he was ejected from the House almost immediately upon taking his seat because he was Jewish.  The objections to Hart taking his oath of office on the Jewish Bible (which was standard practice in the court system for Jews) were led the Attorney-General, Jonathan Sewell.  But the people of Trois-Rivières returned him to office nonetheless.  He was again refused his seat. Opposition came from both sides of the linguistic divide in Lower Canada, and you will surely note Sewell is not a French name.  Lower Canada, however, was the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to emancipate Jews, in 1833.  The leader of the House, and the Parti patriote? Louis-Joseph Papineau.

At any rate, this isn’t a defence of the franco-québécois record on anti-semitism. It’s not good.  But it is to point out that Anglo Canada isn’t exactly pristine.  Irving Abella and and Harold Troper’s book, None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe, 1933-1948 makes that point clear.  Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s immigration chief, Frederick Blair, made sure that Jews fleeing Nazi Germany weren’t allowed into Canada.  Jews had been coming to Canada since the late 19th century, and there, they met an anti-semitic response, whether it was Montréal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. Even one of our great Canadian heroes, Lester Bowles Pearson, Nobel Prize-winner for inventing UN Peacekeepers and Prime Minister from 1965-7, was an anti-semite, at least as a young man before the Second World War.

And anti-semitism has remained a problem in Canada ever since.  While anti-semitism is relatively rare in Canada, B’Nai Brith estimates that, in 2010, upwards of 475 incidents of anti-semitism happened in Toronto alone.

So clearly Canadian anti-semitism isn’t a uniquely franco-québécois matter.  Indeed, one of the few Anglos to feature in Farrow’s book, Sir Herbert Holt, was himself somewhat of an anti-semite himself.  And I am left feeling rather uncomfortable with this strange Anglo Québec fascination with the anti-semitism of francophone québécois, especially when it’s presented out of the context of the late 19th/early 20th centuries.  This was a period of pretty much worldwide anti-semitism.  It was “in fashion,” so to speak, in the Euro-North American world, from actual pogroms in Russia to the Affaire Dreyfus, to the US and Canada refusing to accept refugees from Nazi Germany thirty years later.

Bloomsday Montreal 2012

June 13, 2012 § Leave a comment

Montreal’s first annual Bloomsday gets underway tomorrow at 12.30pm at the Atwater Library, with a a reading and music inspired by Joyce’s Ulysses, hosted by Dana O’Hearne.  And also tomorrow night, 5pm, at Hurley’s Irish Pub on Crescent, we will be hosting a Trivia Night, so come on down and check out both events.

The full schedule for the 3-day event can be found here.

Highlights, aside from what I’ve already noted:

4pm, Friday 15 June, Bombardier Theatre, McCord Museum, Official Launch, featuring Prof. Michael Kenneally, Principal of the School for Canadian Irish Studies at Concordia, who will speak on “The Achievement of Joyce’s Ulysses.

8.30am, Saturday, 16 June at Le Vieux Dublin Pub on Cathcart, I will be hosting a breakfast event featuring the indomitable Don Pidgeon, who will tell stories about Griffintown.  Don’s ALWAYS entertaining, a natural-born story-teller, this is not to be missed.

9.45-11.30am, Saturday, 16 June: Prof. David Hanna of UQÀM will be leading a tour of Griffintown, which will meet at Métro Square Victoria.

10am-5pm, Saturday, 16 June: Our main event at James Square on McGill’s Campus (the entrance on University), where we will have daylong readings from Ulysses, as well as performances by the Bernadette Short Dancers, and Irish and classical music performances.

1pm-3pm, Saturday, 16 June: I will be screening a viewing of William Weintraub’s 1970s documentary, The Point, at the McGill Community for Lifelong Learning, which is located at 688 Sherbrooke Ouest, I’ll be in Room 1041.  I will also talk about Pointe-Saint-Charles, my favourite Montreal neighbourhood (and also my home).

2.45pm-4.45pm, Saturday, 16 June, in the Bombardier Theatre of the McCord, film-maker Brian McKenna will present his new film, The Coffin Ship Hanna.

On the Difference between being a Reader and a Writer

June 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

Upon the recommendation of the fine people at Argo Bookshop, I read Italo Calvino‘s If on a winter’s night a traveller, which was in and of itself an excellent read, a meditation on the multiple meanings of reading, amongst other things. I was struck by a discussion between the protagonist, The Reader, and The Other Reader, who at least got a name, Ludmilla.  Both The Reader and The Other Reader have been continually frustrated in their attempts to read a book, any book, as they are continually met with incomplete manuscripts, so they get into their novel, only to have it end.  Up to this point, it has been due to publisher’s errors and problems in the actual process of printing and binding the books.

But The Reader has made a contact within the publishing firm, who has given him reign to peruse the completed manuscripts, and he excitedly tells The Other Reader when they meet in a café.  He then wants to rush back to the publisher to continue their investigation.  But she refuses.

Why don’t you want to come?

On principle.

What do you mean?

There’s a boundary line: on ne side are those who make books, on the other those who read them.  I want to remain one of those who read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line.  Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends, or at least is transformed into something else, which is not what I want.  This boundary line is tentative, it tends to get erased: the world of those who deal with books professionally is more and more crowded and tends to become one with the world of readers…I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by chance, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for yourself.

It is clear that for The Other Reader, this is her own stance.  Of course, within a few chapters, she has violated her position.  But that’s irrelevant.  What is relevant is the point she raises, and the separation between authors and publishers and readers.  I had a thought similar to this last week when I was in Archambault looking for a book.  I didn’t find what I was looking for, a history book, but I did see my friend Simon Jolivet‘s book on the shelf.  Now, this is not surprising, Simon wrote a book, based on his PhD dissertation, and it got published.  That’s the way it’s supposed to work in academia.  In fact, that’s the very process I am presently engaged in myself.  And certainly I have known many, many authors throughout my academic career (to say nothing of the fiction writers I know).  And certainly, books get treated differently in academia than in the general public: we have to publish them if we want to survive in our field, it’s part of the job (which is why I find it obnoxious when people presume that because it’s summer I’m doing nothing if I’m not teaching).

And yet, it’s one thing to see my professors’ books on the shelf in the bookstore, it’s another to see a friend’s, especially when we did our PhD’s together.  It’s not an incredibly profound statement, I realise, but there is still something rather exciting about seeing your friend’s book on a shelf in a busy downtown Montréal bookstore, to know that people have bought it and read it and will continue to do so, and to finally have it sink in that this will also happen for me, my book will be on these same shelves and people will buy it and read it, beyond the academy (I hope).

But does that change my relationship with reading, both fiction and non-fiction? I doubt it.  And, of course, The Other Reader eventually realised that herself when she started to get mixed up in book production and forgery rings.

The Names and History

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

[Ed.’s note: I wrote this about a year ago, it’s already been published. But it’s been front and centre in my mind of late as I read more history, more Don De Lillo, and as world events continue to unfold. It’s often been said that history repeats itself. It’s a trite comment, but there is some truth to it. Anyway, I like this piece. So I’m republishing it.  Enjoy.]

Historians take the long view when examining global affairs. I was recently reading microfilm of newspapers from the early 1920s, doing some last research for my book. The countries that dominated the headlines then were the same ones that dominate them today. The Third Anglo-Afghan War had just concluded with the Treaty of Rawalpindi, ostensibly settling boundary issues between India and Afghanistan. The Levant was under British and French mandate following the First World War. The Republic of Turkey was in its infancy under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and the British had just revoked Egypt‘s independence.

I had the same sense of déjà-vu in reading Don DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names.  It’s set against the geopolitical backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, the rescue of the American hostages in Tehran, the Lebanese Civil War, the 1980 Turkish coup d’état, chronic Greco-Turkish tensions over Cyprus, and the instability of Greek democracy. The Names centres around a group of expats involved in various shadowy activities  involving international banking, risk analysis, security, and archaeology. Its hero, James Axton, is a risk analyst for a mysterious American group found to have ties to the CIA. David Keller, another American, is based in Athens. He works for a bank that has heavy ties to the Turkish government, and becomes the target of an assassination attempt in Greece. Charles Maitland, a Brit, is a security specialist. The men spend their time flying around the Middle East attending to business in dodgy locales: Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut in particular.

Control is a central theme of the novel, whether it’s states trying to manage their politics or DeLillo’s characters handling their personal affairs. Axton loses control in his marriage as his wife, Kathryn, slips further and further away from him (she moves from a Greek island to Victoria, British Columbia – about as remote and obscure a locale from Greece as possible). He loses control over his own reality, holding on desperately to his job, revelling in mundane office paperwork as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a mysterious, murderous cult. He eventually travels to the Pelopennese and as far as Jerusalem, Damascus, and India in an attempt to learn more about it. Along the way, something interesting happens: language, the means by which people order and make sense of their mental worlds, takes on a new importance for Axton; religion, as exemplified by the mystery cult, is what orders the meaning that he finds through language. The connections they establish and the control they represent suggest a world made in the cult’s own image, which Axton sees painted on a rock on the outskirts of an abandoned village in the Pelopennese: Ta Onómata, The Names.

As the novel closes, Axton is back in Athens. After the CIA revelations, he resigns from his job. Rootless, his wife and son on the other side of the world. He regains control of his life, while the world around him continues to spin out of control; he witnesses the assassination attempt on Keller. Geopolitics and the personal chaos caused by the characters’ involvement in it are useful allegories these days. In the continuing drama of the Arab Spring, states and their residents, the masses and their leaders, are locked in a competition over who gets to dictate the terms of order. The newspapers of the 1920s were clear about who was meant to maintain control over the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Today, questions of empire, language, religion and politics, domesticated and boiling over, are much more complex. For that we should probably be grateful.

New Bloomsday Montreal 2012 website

February 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I will have much more to say shortly, but for now, I just want to update my previous Bloomsday Montreal post with our new website.  Everything is coming together nicely for our celebration of Joyce’s masterful Ulysses, 14-16 June.  We’ll be updating the site soon.  In the meantime, you can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

New Adventures in the Arts, or, Art, History, and “Authenticity”

September 3, 2010 § 1 Comment

Yesterday I met with a stage and set designer for a new play being produced at the Hudson Village Theatre in Hudson, QC (just off the Island of Montréal), opening Thursday, 28 October, entitled Wake of the Bones, written Montréal playwright David Gow.  Wake of the Bones centres around the discovery of a mass grave of Famine victims on Pointe-Saint-Charles in Montréal by Irish labourers constructing the Victoria Bridge a decade later.  The labourers were from Griffintown, at least in this version, and they decide that a wake needs to be held to send the dead souls off to their eternal paradise.

The Black Rock, erected in the memory of the mass grave. Today it's located on Bridge St. in Pointe-Saint-Charles, on the approach to the Victoria Bridge

The designer, Anouk Louten, contacted me as she attempts to get a handle on Irish culture and life in Griffintown in the mid-19th century, attempting to re-create a set as authentic as possible.

This, of course, got me thinking about the usual intersection of history, memory, and the public.  Because of course Gow is taking licence from the historical record for the purpose of creating art.  It is true that the mass grave of Irish Famine victims was found by the bridge workers, who were also Irish.  But the workers probably lived in Goose Village, not Griffintown.  A minor quibble with the historical record, to be sure, but still one that those who argue for ‘authenticity’ get their knickers in a twist over.  And, I’m sure Gow will also take artistic licence with the characters, their setting, and so on and so forth.

This week, in class, I was teaching the Persian Wars, including the legendary battle at Thermopylae in 480 BCE.  Of course, pretty much the entire Western world has seen the movie, 300, which fictionalises what actually happened at Thermopylae some 2,490 years ago.  The movie over-dramatises the valour of the Spartans, distorts and obscures the rationale for battle decisions made by the Greeks (including the Spartans, who are conveniently left out of the decision to withdraw 6,700 Greek troops from Thermopylae to avoid being caught in a pincer movement by the Persians), leaving the brave Leonidas and his 299 Spartan warriors to hold off the Persians.  As much as I love this film, I always find myself somewhat troubled by it, I kind of feel the film-makers made like the cops in the OJ Simpson case with the glove.  Recall that the glove didn’t fit Simpson, who more than likely got away with murder at that trial.  At the time, a friend of mine, a law student, opined that the cops may’ve planted the glove, so desperate they were to secure a conviction.  If this is true (and really, who knows?), the over-zealousness of the cops allowed Simpson to walk (though, as they say, karma is a mother, and Simpson is in the slammer for other crimes right now).  In the case of 300, the film-makers took an already dramatic story about Leonidas and his warriors and over-shot, they over-dramatised something which could’ve stood on its own.

So, as an historian, films like 300 bother me.  Not because they take licence with the historical story, but because they pull an Oliver Stone.  Stone, of course, once said that you had to hit American film audiences over the head with a mallet in order to get their attention.  I think he’s wrong, people aren’t that stupid.  But sometimes it makes great art, sometimes, most of the time, it’s just superfluous.

But artistic licence, I fail to see what’s wrong with that, it can make the story more interesting, it can allow the artist to make their point more effectively.

As for authenticity, I’m not sure it matters so much in the larger sense.  Certainly, I like Anouk’s attempts to create an authentic set.  That, for whatever reason, matters to me.  The setting of historical novels, plays, films, this is the detail, the background of people’s lives.  Take, for example, The Gangs of New York: a wildly fictional account of the goings-on in the Five Points of Manhattan in the early 1860s.  The story itself may be a load of bollocks, but the setting of it in the Five Points, from what I can see, that’s authentic, that reflects the reality of life in what was probably the worst slum in the world.

But authenticity of story or experience (in the case of museums, etc.), I’m not so sure this is desirable or even possible.  I think it is impossible to completely re-create the ‘authentic’ historical experience.  For one, there’s the obvious problem: it’s impossible, because it is no longer 1861, or whenever.  The physical setting is just that, a re-creation of the historical, it can be an authentic re-creation, but that’s as far as it goes.  And I think that by itself is a laudable goal, but that should be the end goal.  There is no need to go any further, because it is impossible to go any further.

And, so far as I’m concerned, if the story is based in this historical record, that it aims to reflect the setting, then that’s fine.  Artistic licence needs to be taken, at least most of the time, maybe not so much in the case of Leonidas’ last stand.

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