canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Fiction of Douglas Glover: An Essay in Three Parts

Opens outward into mystery

by Michael Bryson

The South Will Rise At Noon
by Douglas Glover
Goose Lane Editions, 2004

The Enamoured Knight
by Douglas Glover
Oberon Press, 2004

The Art of Desire: The Fiction of Douglas Glover
Edited by Bruce Stone, Contributors: Bruce Stone, Louis I. MacKendrick, Claire Wilkshire, Lawrence Mathews, Phil Tabokow, Don Sparling, Philip Marchand, Stephen Henighan, Douglas Glover w/ Bruce Stone (interview)
Oberon Press, 2004

See also:

Douglas Glover won the Governor Generalís Award for fiction in 2003 for Elle. About that novel, the GG jurors said: "This headlong, intense interior monologue combines humour, horror and brutality with intelligence and linguistic dexterity to forge a revised creation myth for the New World."

Elle told the story of a 16th-century French maiden thrown off a ship in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence for sexual improprieties. Abandoned for dead, she manages to survive through the winter with the aid of local Native people. The following Spring, she is picked up by the crew of a passing vessel and returned to France, where she takes up with writer, monk and physician, FranÁois Rabelais (1494-1553), author of Gargantua and Pantagruel. Along the way, in the wilds of Canada and later, she [imagines she] is transformed into a bear.

And some people say Canadian literature is all about wheat fields and small town alienation. ĎTis not so. Some of our writers, thank ye quivering quills, have managed to escape Canlitís tradition of esthetic Calvinism: emotional restraint, naive realism, the victim-as-survivor metaphorical universe Northrop Frye called a "garrison mentality" and Margaret Atwood made popular in Survival, her "thematic guide to Canadian literature."

Sure, Elleís protagonist survives, but her struggle is not a quest for self-definition in opposition to the natural forces lined up against her (as per Atwoodís representation of Susanna Moodie in her 1973 poetry cycle The Journals of Susanna Moodie, for example). Rather Elle revels in the comedy of an unlikely life (Glover has based the story, in part, on historical record). Elle is among that category of Canadian novels distinguished because they are rare: Novels that stem from a tradition of novel-writing that brings together narrative and ideas in a way that shows less concern for mimesis, or any attempt to mimic so-called reality, and instead foregrounds the artifice of art. In recent decades, this tradition has been called post-modern. In fact, it is way, way pre-modern. There is also another word for it: Rabelaisian.

Qua? Letís look at the question from a different angle. In Survival, Atwood said Moodie in Roughing It In The Bush was determined "to preserve her Wordsworthian faith" in the beauty and bounty of the natural world despite "the difficulty she has in doing so when Nature fails time and time again to come through for her" (51). Atwood wrote: "If Wordsworth was right, Canada ought to have been the Great Good Place. At first, complaining about the bogs and mosquitoes must have been like criticizing the authority of the Bible" (50). Atwood gathered evidence to support her one-sided theory: To be Canadian is to be a victim, to be a Canadian writer is to struggle against imperial esthetics that are insufficient to communicate post-colonial reality.

A closer reading of Roughing It In The Bush, however, reveals that far from complaining about mosquitoes, Moodie inscribed herself as one who learned to "defy" the mosquitoes -- along with the "black flies . . . snakes, and even bears" (329) -- and milk a cow despite her fear of the beast:

Yes! I felt prouder of that milk than many an author of the best thing he ever wrote. . . . I had learned a useful lesson of independence, to which in after-years I had often again to refer (183).

If Canada isnít the "Great Good Place," neither is it a void that makes victims of all of us. All it is, is a place like any other: A complicated mix of the comic and the tragic, the ordered and the chaotic; bound together by high-strung ideals and pulled apart by the need to face reality with a pragmatic frame of mind. It is, to borrow a favourite word of Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin, "carnivalesque." Rabelais would have agreed; variety is more than the spice of life; it's reality. Promoting any particular pattern minimizes the influence of phenomena that falls outside the pattern. 

C'est Canada: A little bit of everything, as humourist Will Ferguson re-affirmed recently: "What I find most interesting about this country is its sheer variety" he told The National Post (October 20, 2004). In his works like Why I Hate Canadians Ferguson has probed this nation's popular mythologies. If Canada was build by giants, lumberjacks, courier de bois, railway men, arctic explorers, etc., who carved a country out of a wilderness (and, yes, pushed aside multiple First Nations in the process), why do Canadians at the turn of the 21st century tend to Canadians look back on their past and see midgets and victims? Why does Canadian history emphasize the countryís unimportance in virtually every area except international hockey?

Trolling the ĎNet of this subject, I found someone tackling similar questions: Our former Governor General, Romeo LeBlanc. Hereís an excerpt from a speech he gave while in office in 1996:

We all see Canada as a model of openness, tolerance, and generosity, a country of perseverance and progress. You have heard similar words before. Some would say they are clichťs about our national character.

But there is a rival clichť. People used to talk of Canada as inward-looking, timid, anonymous.

Margaret Atwood found in our literature, French and English, a "sombre and negative" tone, and a preoccupation with mere survival. Northrop Frye, and I quote the Canadian Encyclopedia, saw in our literature "a 'garrison mentality' of beleaguered settlers who huddled against the glowering, all-consuming nothingness of the wilderness." I am sure he was not speaking of Toronto.

So we may ask -- what is our true nature? Generous and open, or a garrison mentality hiding from the world?

What is our true nature? Conflicted surely. As the soul of every nation canít help but be.

An example from recent history. Some media commentators called George Bushís November 2004 re-election "a decisive victory," but the popular vote split 51 per cent for Bush and 49 per cent for John Kerry. Even in Texas, 40 per cent of the electorate voted against the conservative, home-town hero. The headline of a recent column in The Globe and Mail by William Thorsell said it plainly: "America is a country still at war with itself" (October 25, 2004), though Andrew Coyne pointed out in The National Post on the day after the election that talk of a "divided nation" may be overblown. Isnít that what elections are all about? Yes, but more importantly, thatís what the soul-life of a nation is all about. Itís our conflicts that unite us; the challenge to find common strategies to solve common problems that bond us; the impossibility of ever resolving all conflicts into a still point of unity that keeps our common story moving forward.

Which brings me (finally) to the book at hand: The South Will Rise at Noon, Douglas Gloverís 2004 novel that was also his 1988 novel (it has been re-released in a quality paperback edition by Goose Lane Editions).

As the title suggests, The South Will Rise at Noon is a novel about the American Civil War. Goose Laneís marketing copy calls the novel:

. . . the first full-length embodiment of Douglas Gloverís famous historical imagination. Here, the past is a crazy pentimento that the present never completely conceals. Disarmingly intimate and energetic, The South Will Rise at Noon is wild and sad, hilarious and cautionary, farcical and strangely moving.

The first two sentences of the novel are:

Looking back, I should have realized something was up as soon as I opened the bedroom door and found my wife asleep on top of the sheets with a strange man curled up like a foetus beside her. Right away I could see she was naked.

Gloverís publisher summarizes the rest of the plot thus:

Tully Stamper, just out of jail, stumbles home to Gomez Gap, Florida, and into bed with his sleeping ex-wife and her new husband, Otto Osterwalder. Otto, a flamboyant movie director, has cast the townspeople in his melodramatic re-enactment of a Civil War skirmish, the Battle of Gomez Gap. Tully, a failed painter, a bankrupt, a liar, a drunk, and a flagrantly deadbeat dad, is also a modern-day knight errant who tries to win back his loved ones in the midst of the supposedly imitation battle.

The phrase "a modern-day knight errant" is an obvious reference to Cevantesí hero, the mild lunatic of Don Quixote. Cerventes' life (1547-1615) overlapped briefly with the life of Rabelais (1494-1553). The former was Spanish, the latter French; however, their work has come down to us through the centuries mixed in spirit. If Elle is Glover's Rabelais novel, The South Will Rise At Noon is his Cerventes novel. Though if these broad generalizations mean anything at all, they only suggest that Glover draws inspiration from the broad tradition of the Renaissance humanists. Both Elle and The South Will Rise At Noon question how "story" (history) is constructed -- as does Glover's other novel, The Life And Times of Captain N., which takes place at the time of the American Revolution and incorporates the perspectives of the Loyalists, the Revolutionaries, and the First Nations in a swirling tour de force.

If Goose Lane is right -- that The South Will Rise At Noon is "the first full-length embodiment of Douglas Gloverís famous historical imagination" -- then we can expect to find across Glover's oeuvre patterns that were initially laid down in that 1988 novel. As I noted above, yes, those patterns are there.

To dig deeper, though, we must ask ourselves what that phrase means: What is Glover's "historical imagination"? What is he up to in these three novels?

The Enamoured Knight
by Douglas Glover
Oberon Press, 2004

"If you want to read the book, you have to read the book."

-- Douglas Glover

The above quotation comes from Douglas Gloverís book-length essay, The Enamoured Knight (Oberon Press, 2004), on Cervantesí great novel, Don Quixote. In his essay, Glover assails simple-minded critics who read the novel as an extended allegory that recommends reality over illusion, fact over fiction, the quotidian over flights of fancy. While Glover does say that Cervantesí work is that strange thing, a book against books, he is clear that it is not another thing, a work of the imagination against the imagination.

In The Enamoured Knight, Glover returns again and again to critics who look into Don Quixote and see a world of either/or and argues theirs is a view too simple to be credible. To some, Quixote, the mad knight, represents the danger of the dream world, while his trusty friend Sancho represents the sane simplicity of the solid (real) everyday world of facts and mortgages. Glover shows the irony of that position: "If you want to read the book, you have to read the book." The words (facts) between the first page and last page of Don Quixote reveal a far more complicated world than the sentimental critics would have us believe.

Two recent reviews will help with the illustration.

First, the January 2005 issue of Quill & Quire included a review by Sarah Ellis of Tales of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, retold by Barbara Nichol. (Thatís right, retold by Barbara Nichol.) Ms. Ellis wrote in her review that she

kept Nichol in abeyance for a week or so while [she] immersed [herself] in the original, a first-time read for [her]. As [she] meandered along with Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, [she] asked [herself] what was potentially appealing to children about this narrative.

Ellis finds two items potentially appealing to children:

  • "the Winnie-the-Pooh factor. Don Quixote is a knight of very little brain and in this story the reader is always smarter than the hero"; and
  • "humour. Like a comedy smorgasbord, this story has slapstick, satire, puns, farce, guys dressed up as damsels, scatological jokes, and a particular form of post-modern Monty Pythonesque absurdity."

Mitigating against Don Quixoteís appeal to children Ellis counts "its length, confusing digressions, and the fact that many of the incidents donít make any logical or emotional sense. [Her] most common reaction while reading was ĎHuh?í"

Well, well. Too bad so sad for Ms. Ellis that Gloverís The Enamoured Knight came too late. Though to be fair to Ellis, she does end her review advising readers "to consult the big fat original and have as good time as [she] did." Ellis also manages to identify in the big fat original "post-modern Monty Pythonesque absurdity" (a redundancy, surely). What she doesnít get is that the "confusing digressions" are part of the scheme. As Glover points out, Cervantes has the narrator in Part II, which was published a decade after Part I, comment on the fact that readers complained about the digressions in the first published volume. (In other words, the digressions are ultimately part of the joke, but you need to read the novel as a whole before you can be in on it.)

Don Quixote is a book that comments on the fact that it is a book Ė and the fact that it is actually two books in one (Parts I & II). But the narrator also comments that the story has been recovered from other texts. The story is a story about telling stories. Of course, the most basic reduction of the plot line is that Quixote believes he is a knight acting out the plot line of a Romance novel. He is deluded into believing he is the hero of a book. But he is the hero of a book! Just not the book he thinks heís the hero in! From this point forward, Glover points out, things become more complicated Ė and any attempt to reduce the novel to a simple plot can only be less than satisfactory. 

Reader beware: "If you want to read the book, you have to read the book."

The Enamoured Knight includes, among other things, one of the best summaries of the history of the novel you'll read anywhere. An excerpt has been included on The Danforth Review

Another excerpt is on The Globe and Mail website.

The second review I want to highlight here is The Globe and Mailís review of The Enamoured Knight by Darryl Whetter (January 15, 2005). Whetter lauds Gloverís book-length essay, but ends his review with what he considers the essayís paradox:

If, as Glover and company suggest, Don Quixote is indeed the progenitor of the novel, and if, as Glover assiduously points out, it is a novel more concerned with writing self-consciously about a fictional world than directly portraying that world, why has the vast majority of subsequent thinking about the novel preferred the latter to the former? If the novel didnít begin with a "realistic" rendering of the world, why is it expected to do so now?

In actual fact Ė one is tempted to say "as Whetter would have seen if he had read the book" Ė Glover explicitly points out:

the novel followed several historical trajectories at once. While one kind of novel followed the path of conventional realism, what we might call an alternative tradition of self-consciousness, complexity, experiment, elaboration and playfulness has flourished simultaneously, though perhaps with leaner commercial success (88).

In my reading of The Enamoured Knight, I found Glover careful not to claim Don Quixote as the "first novel." I donít believe this is the question that interests Glover. In an interview I did with him in 2001, I said I thought he was like Milan Kundera, in that he was "interested in the history of ideas." It was my attempt to ask him about "traditional" versus "experimental" novels. In response, he said:

My argument is mostly against anyone who takes one or the other as being definitive--how sick I am of all those turgid, log-rolling arguments about whether novels should have ethical messages or whether they should be purely aesthetic confections. Most writers strike a balance that somehow suits their particular temperament. Why some feel called upon to climb on soap boxes and campaign for the primacy of their particular brand of novel-writing is beyond me.

I believe The Enamoured Knight is consistent with the above quotation, and that Whetter has mis-read Gloverís book-essay on Cervantesí novel. Itís not a matter of preferring one over the other. Itís about recognizing the novel-writing universe for the complexities that exist within it. If you want to understand the solar system, you gotta get out there and take photographs up close of Saturnís moons. "If you want to read the book, you have to read the book." 

In Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, Glover has an essay ("Masks of I") that outlines two opposing theories of the novel: one championed by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction (1921) and one outlined by E.M. Forster in Aspect of the Novel (1927). Glover shows the opposites do not need to negate each other. Novels are about making up things. In the make-believe world, we can co-exist quite unremarkably. As John Lennon said, "All you need is love."

As for Whetter's second question: "If the novel didnít begin with a 'realistic' rendering of the world, why is it expected to do so now?" The answer to this is quite simple. The question is a red herring. The novel is expected to do many different kinds of things by many different kinds of readers. See quotations from Sarah Ellis's review above. Some readers are interested in how novels chart the history of ideas; others are more interested in the "Winnie-the-Pooh factor." This is also unremarkable. 

Another quotation, this one from John Barth: Traditionalist excellence is no doubt preferable to innovative mediocrity (but there's not much to be said for conservative mediocrity; and there's a great deal to be said for inspired innovation).

Finally on this quotation: "If you want to read the book, you have to read the book." What I think Glover is getting at is, read the book for what it is; don't try to impose one sets of expectations on a book that the book itself cannot sustain. Put another way: Dear Reader: Respect the author. Let the author take you on a journey. Surrender. Listen. Read with both calm and fury. . . . 

And consider this! Consider the challenge I have set for myself: To answer the question, "What is Glover up to in these novels?" 

I have read the novels, but have I read the novels? 

Dear Reader: This is for you to decide.

The Art of Desire: The Fiction of Douglas Glover
Edited by Bruce Stone, Contributors: Bruce Stone, Louis I. MacKendrick, Claire Wilkshire, Lawrence Mathews, Phil Tabokow, Don Sparling, Philip Marchand, Stephen Henighan, Douglas Glover w/ Bruce Stone (interview)
Oberon Press, 2004

The blurb on the back cover tells you what you need to know:

The essays collected here are meant to help readers navigate the complexities of Glover's literary terrain. Taken together, they deal with the total oeuvre, suggesting something of the scope of Glover's work and the range of his vision, which is limited only by the imaginative capacity of his audience. In Glover, readers are uplifted by being introduced to other possibilities of being, transcending the common, the ordinary and the familiar. 

In his essay, "The Problem of the Artist in 16 Categories of Desire," Philip Marchand, books columnist for the Toronto Star, writes: 

Glover, along with Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler, has been part of a threesome of English Canadian writers who have a very strong comic and satiric bent, and have spent a lot of time meditating on Canada. ... Glover's meditations ranked highest on the scale of intellectual sophistication (130-131).

High praise indeed: Glover more intellectually sophisticated than Atwood and Richler. Hopefully I've articulated some of Glover's complexity in comments and quotations in the first two sections of this essay. For a quick illustration of Glover's dexterity of mind, I quote from the interview with the author that concludes The Art of Desire:

GLOVER: ... Language, it seems to me, is this wonderfully elaborated symbolic system for modelling reality which doesn't work. That's the pathos of logos (172).

"The pathos of logos." The tragedy of logic, might be one way to translate that. Glover elaborates:

GLOVER: Think about this. Books, like sentences and words, chop reality into bits. They offer a fantasy of closure. A good book ought to do away with that particular lie and abolish the end. So in Elle, for example, I enclose the book in another story. The second story -- the one-eyed man, the children and their sand statues, the stolen boy -- implies that beyond the book there is something going on that is inexplicable, morally alien and strangely recursive. The outer story is bigger than the inner story (172).

"The outer story is bigger than the inner story." If you want to read the book, you need to read many books, might be one way to translate that. No story is ever complete, might be another paraphrase.

Northrop Frye begins The Educated Imagination (1963) with a series of questions: "What good is the study of literature?" "What difference does the study of literature make in our social or political or religious attitude?" Then he begins to answer these questions, saying "The kind of problem that literature raises is not the kind of problem that you ever 'solve.'" All of this occurs on the first page. What I remember from The Educated Imagination is Frye's assertion that the order you read books will affect how you read them. That is, for example, if you read Orwell's 1984 before you read Martin Amis's Money, then you will understand the allusion Amis is making when he refers to "Room 101." But it's not just that, as a reader, you will understand individual points of story or metaphor -- it's that the more you read, the more you ought to see the connections between all stories. "Intertextuality" is the lit crit word for this. Of course, Frye went on to argue that the Bible was The Great Code -- but we don't need to follow him there to see the common sense of his earlier position. Which I bring up because, it seems to me, having a sense of intertextuality is essential to grappling with what's happening in Glover's novels.

Incidentally, I can't swear that Frye actually does say what I've suggested in The Educated Imagination. I flipped through my copy (read 15 years ago) and couldn't find that passage underlined. What I did find in my ancient scrawl was a quotation from Aristotle I'd written inside the front cover: "What is impossible but can be believed should be preferred to what is possible but unconvincing." I have no idea where that quotation comes from. 

The Art of Desire: The Fiction of Douglas Glover: A quick overview:

  • 172 pages
  • Editor Bruce Stone "first encountered Douglas Glover's fiction at a public reading given by the Vermont College faculty, a regular component of the residency sessions for that institution's MFA program" (7).
  • The Art of Desire consists of six essays, a short interview with Glover, and two introductory surveys of Glover's work.
  • The first survey is titled "A Writer's Guide to Douglas Glover's Fiction" and is written by Bruce Stone (pages 11-67).
  • The second survey is titled "The Fictions of Douglas Glover: A Preliminary Survey" and is written by Louis K. MacKendrick (pages 68-81).
  • The six essays explore different aspects of Glover's fiction. Briefly, the topics are
    1. "voice," complexity of; Glover's innovative use of;
    2. "meaningfulness" in Glover's fiction;
    3. "ironic reconsiderations of Canadian/American stereotypes" in Glover's fiction;
    4. "historical fiction" and how that term may or may not apply to The Life and Times of Captain N.;
    5. "the problem of the artist" in Glover's fiction; and
    6. the influence of Don Quixote on Glover's fiction.

For the purpose of example, here's the beginning of "La Corriveau," the first story of 16 Categories of Desire, Glover's 2000 short story collection:

I wake up the next morning in my little rented tourist flat on rue des Ramparts with a really terrible headache and a strange dead man in bed next to me.

First, let me tell you that nothing like this has ever happened to me before.

In bed with a dead man -- never.

Often they may have seemed dead. You know -- limp, moribund, unimaginative, sleepy or just drunk to the point of oblivion. But until now I have avoided actual morbidity in my lovers (11).

This fragment, perhaps, is enough to suggest how the core of Glover's fiction revolves around the essay topics listed above. Okay, let's set aside "ironic reconsiderations of Canadian/American stereotypes" and "historical fiction" for now. Those two topics aside, we are left with a compelling fragment of a woman's voice. Here is what Claire Wilkshire, author of the essay on "voice" has to say about that topic:

Reading strategies that favour voice reveal aspects of fiction that might otherwise remain obscure: the ways in which direct and indirect speech function both in characterization and in constructing the oppositions that create narrative tension; the complexity of the relations among figures (for example, the author, implied author, narrator and characters) and the points at which they overlap or separate; and the broad range of languages that combine to form that strange and variegated thing that is called narrative voice (82).

In her essay, Wilkshire examines Glover's story "Red" and suggests "to pay attention to voice is to expose the opposite characteristics that create character, the tensions and contradictions between utterances, to uncover the multiple voices at work within a narrative voice" (90). If you want to listen to the voice, you need to listen to the voices. Think, for example, about Hamlet, perhaps literature's most famous internally conflicted character. His representation of himself to others is inconsistent. He becomes the centre of concern in the Royal court. What's up with Hamlet? Perhaps, even now, it's impossible to say. What we can say is, the Prince of Denmark is working through his issues. The play dramatizes his anxieties. Within the play, meaning is highly unsettled. So it is in Glover's fiction, and the way Glover constructs character through voice is one way to examine his approach to fiction. In the fragment from "La Corriveau" the voice says "this has ever happened to me before." The shock of the unexpected situation repeats in Glover's fiction. In Elle, the main character is thrust off a 16th century French vessel and deserted in the Canadian wilderness. Kafka is often cited as a postmodern percursor because of the predominance of "dislocation" in his fiction. Glover's work explores similar themes -- but I hesitate to link him too closely to the author of The Castle. Each is distinctive, also.

"Meaningfulness" and "the problems of the artist" are two other topics from the essays in The Art of Desire. They are closely related. Generally speaking, the problem of the artist is "how to make meaning" or "how to communicate something meaningful." But what is "meaning"? And if one understands meaning to be problematic, as Glover clearly does ("the pathos of logos"), then one's conception of art can only be problematic also. Though must ask, problematic for whom? the artist/writer? the audience/reader? all of the above?

In the "problem of the artist" essay, Philip Marchand looks specifically at the collection 16 Categories of Desire. He suggests:

the book's most salient theme [is] the figure of the failed artist -- a figure who showed up, in one form or another, in most of the stories. On re-reading the book ... I realized how much this failed artist motif was intertwined, in the stories, with Glover's characteristic meditations on Canada, and specifically on the relationship between English-speaking Canada and French-speaking Canada (130).

Here we might note that the themes of two of the other essays were "Canadian/American stereotypes" and "historical fiction." And also that the fragment from "La Corriveau" is spoken by an anglophone narrator in Quebec City. The title of that story is also, obviously, French, while the author is not. Again, we find ourselves talking about instability, the crossing of boundaries, and we are not far from discussing how language constructs realities which conflict in an innumerable variety of potentially dramatic combinations.

Indeed, Lawrence Mathews, in the "meaningfulness" essay, notes a 1991 interview of Glover:

Glover's conscious abandonment of "moral fiction" ... is neatly illustrated by Melissa Hardy's attempt to get him to talk about the significance of the fact that in many of his stories men leave women, or are about to leave women. Glover replies by saying that his primary concern is not thematic in this sense at all: "'s simply a kind of game-playing -- you have conflict, and you don't have conflict in the man and woman agree on everything... when I put men and women on the page, I am thinking of strategies for generating plots rather than symbols." This sort of attitude leads Hardy to comment, later in the interview, "I think if someone were to adopt a critical stance to what you're saying, I suppose he would say, if Douglas Glover is just playing games, he's not writing from the heart, he lacks sincerity." Glover replies: "It depends what you mean by sincerity, I guess. If you mean, Does Douglas Glover sincerely believes in the factual truth of his stories? Is he sincerely advocating some political or ideological line? then I'm not sincere. But if you mean, Is Glover sincerely trying to make the most beautiful piece of writing he can?, then I'm sincere" (93-94).

The pathos of logos. Glover's fictions do not represent reality because reality cannot be represented. Language is a system of arbitrary signs. Stories are language patterns that repeat through time. Literature = beauty.

The fragment from "La Corriveau" is clearly not "realistic." The voice is comic, the situation exaggerated, the verisimilitude stretched beyond credibility. It is, thus, clearly a fiction -- and a compelling fiction. Who doesn't want to know: What happens next? The situation is set; the voice clear, direct; the writer has his readers on edge; he has created dramatic tension; we're off to the races. 

One critical note: if you want to "navigate the complexities of Glover's literary terrain," to my mind, first read Glover's essay collection Notes Home From A Prodigal Son. Then read The Art of Desire. Notes Home... presents Glover on Glover. The Art... presents others on Glover. And if you only read one thing, read (as I noted above) read Glover's essay in Notes Home... "Masks of I" -- which outlines two opposing theories of the novel: one championed by Percy Lubbock in The Craft of Fiction (1921) and one outlined by E.M. Forster in Aspect of the Novel (1927). Glover shows not only that opposites do not need to negate each other and that novels are about making up things. He also says a lot about his own approach to fiction -- and his influences: notably Mikhail Bakhtin and Milan Kundera. Other influences noted in Notes Home... are East German writer Christa Wolf and Quebecois writer Hubert Aquin, suicide victim in 1977 and winner of the CBC's "Canada Reads" program in 2001 for his novel Next Episode.

In Notes Home... Glover says about Wolf's work: 

She is saying that to be oneself, to feel oneself, to discover oneself, amongst all the conflicting messages, prescriptions and prohibitions of contemporary culture, is difficult, if not impossible, anywhere (62).

One could easily say something similar about Glover's fictions.


And it is here, once again, that we turn ourselves to the questions: What is Glover up to in his novels? What is Glover's "famous historical imagination"? 


First, the territory under discussion, the novels:

  • The South Will Rise At Noon (1988)

    • In which a movie production invades a small Florida town to recreate a U.S. Civil War battle. Narrated by "a failed painter, a bankrupt, a liar, and a tippler of corn juice" (back cover, Goose Lane edition, 2004). The novel begins with the narrator recently out of jail bursting in on his naked ex-wife and her new husband: "Lust took me by the throat the instant I caught sight of those familiar tan lines" (3).

  • The Life and Times of Captain N. (1993)

    • Takes place at the time of the American Revolution in the Niagara Frontier. Partly based on real events. Henrick Nellis "a redeemer of whites abducted by Indians ... kidnaps his own son, Oskar, for King George's army. ... Oscar, haunted by dreams, ... tells this ambivalent tale of war and redemption" (back cover, Goose Lane edition, 2001).

  • Elle (2003)

    • Partly based on a true story. Chronicles "the ordeals and adventures of a young French woman marooned on the desolate Isle of Demons during Jacques Cartier's ill-fated third and last attempt to colonize Canada" (cover flap, 2003). The Island of Demons is Canada. The narrator, a teenage girl, is transformed into a bear. Or maybe not.

Now is the appropriate time to go back to the two essays in The Art of Desire that directly address historical elements in Glover's fiction. First, Phil Tabakow looks at "Canadian/American stereotypes" in Glover's story "Swain Corliss, Hero of Malcolm's Mill (now Oakland, Ontario), November 6, 1814." Then Don Sparling considers how the term "historical fiction" is commonly understood and how it may or may not relate to The Life and Times of Captain N..


Douglas Glover's apparently tongue-in-cheek postmodernist short story from his 1989 collection A Guide to Animal Behaviour about a skirmish in Ontario between American frontiersmen and Canadian irregulars during The War of 1812 deconstructs with a surprising blend of deadpan humour and poetic imagery the enduring myth of the Violent American and the Peaceable Canadian (109).


Glover uses the American Revolution as a kind of paradigm for when "the modern view of history" begins, with the separation of the individual from the past and community (history) and the present and the surrounding world (nature). This kind of history is discussed by Oskar, who sees it as "a hypothesis about past events, cast in terms of cause and effect, based on evidence and stretching back further and further in time." In contrast, there are the myths and legends of the Indians, which "explain the world as if it had formed just yesterday. They are organized like dreams and, in retelling, become the collective dreams of a people." Oskar goes on: "By writing history down, we try to extend the explanation of the present deep into the past. But the savage, in his dreams, seeks to extend the present laterally, as it were, across the axis of time" (128).

Sparling concludes: "This extending the present laterally, across the axis of time, seems to me to be a major part of Glover's understanding of how contemporary historical fiction should work" (128).

Indeed, this concept of time on two axes is key to grappling towards an understanding of Glover's "historical imagination." As is an understanding of the differences between written and oral cultures, and the narratives of the powerful and the dispossessed. 

Two of Glover's novels are set in the past (The Life and Times of Captain N. and Elle), but they are deeply concerned with concepts and "issues" that are starkly contemporary, while the other under discussion here, The South Will Rise At Noon, uses the conceit of a film set to pull the past into the present, or at least the 1980s, the present when the book was published.

Of course, any "historical fiction" could be said to work on two axes, since the reader always reads the book in the present and the action is always set in the past. But what Sparling is articulating about Glover's fiction is much more than the difference in time between the reader and the narrative action. 

For example, when Tabakow says Glover uses "a surprising blend of deadpan humour and poetic imagery [to deconstruct] the enduring myth of the Violent American and the Peaceable Canadian," he's saying (wink, nudge) that Glover is writing against the Canadian Nationalist Impulse (CNI) that encrypts all Canadians at birth with the knee-jerk reaction: Canada, good; USA, bad. The CNI has been broadly credited with being a positive life force, especially post-1967, though it has waned since the Free Trade Election (1988), and flared in spikes now and again, most notably perhaps in the broad consensus against the U.S.-led War in Iraq II. CNI as a literary influence was cooled considerably since the 1970s, but there remains remarkably little Canlit that "complicates" the mythology of the nation's mother-milk. Glover's fictions, if they do nothing else, complicate inherited narratives. His stated influences (Aquin, Wolf) are dissidents, and Glover is perhaps Canada's leading dissident writer. While Atwood rails against the US Empire (an astonishingly easy target), Glover better than anyone holds up the mirror to our national camp tales. He is the mirror-holder, Canadian nationalism the smoke. Glover questions. He "deconstructs." He tells us "language ... is this wonderfully elaborated symbolic system for modelling reality which doesn't work." 

Is this getting too complicated?

In The Last Honest Man: Mordecai Richler (An Oral Biography) ["by" Michael Posner], Richler is quoted saying, "The novelist's primary moral responsibility is to be the loser's advocate" (41). Richler surely believed that during the early stage of his career, when he was a loyal socialist, or at least well-schooled in Marxist influence (see The Acrobats). Marxism defines society as a narrative of class struggle. President Bush could have been an adherent when he said, "You're with us or you're against us." The Cold War was a Marxist construct, one the world is rapidly recreating. (Okay, bi-polar politics go back before Marx -- but the point here is simple: one can see the world as "us" and "them", or one can see a world awash in ambiguity, measured by tools that don't seem to reflect the "reality" we experience or behave in the ways we expect.) Plato spoke of philosophy as a means to truth; Aristotle spoke of rhetoric as the available means of persuasion. Is there eternal truth? Or is there only the passing sands of time? Certainty versus uncertainty. The "moral responsibility" of the novelist versus "the pathos of logos." 

Or as Glover wrote in Notes Home from a Prodigal Son

My apprenticeship ended with the realization that the goal of literature is not simply truth, which is bourgeois and reductive, but a vision of complexity, an endless forging of connections which opens outward into mystery (166).

Glover follows Nabokov in rejecting the moral responsibility of art. But that doesn't mean he is on the side of the owners against the workers. He rejects the bi-polar nature of the proposition. As he told Melissa Hardy, his approach to his writing is to "sincerely try[] to make the most beautiful piece of writing he can." His approach, within Canadian letters, has caused confusion. Is he one of us or not? Is he picking fights or not? Specifically, Glover is not picking fights. He is respectful of different aesthetic approaches -- he also challenges his readers to move beyond the over-simplification of categories most commonly accept as fact (e.g. Canadian nationalism is an unalloyed good). He is speaking from a high vantage point, articulating a historical perspective of the novel too seldom heard in Canadian literary discussions. As quoted above, here is Glover again on the history of the novel:

the novel followed several historical trajectories at once. While one kind of novel followed the path of conventional realism, what we might call an alternative tradition of self-consciousness, complexity, experiment, elaboration and playfulness has flourished simultaneously, though perhaps with leaner commercial success (The Enamoured Knight, 88).

Glover's book-length essay on Don Quixote makes clear not just his interest in, but his knowledge about, complicated narrative techniques, devices, patterns -- and his engagement in the eternal struggle between the quotidian and the way people use language to create both the functional and dysfunctional mythologies that enable and disable their lives. Cervantes great protagonist might be history's greatest and best example. Though Glover's characters are superb contemporary Canlit examples, too.

What is Glover's "famous historical imagination"? Our histories are our stories, our stories are us, our stories make no sense, and neither do we. At least, our stories don't make sense in the ways we normally think that they make sense. (How does one "make sense"? Take a large pot, fill with water .... double, double, toil and trouble ....). (Is Glover our Shakespeare? No, that's someone else's essay. ...).

What is Glover's "famous historical imagination"? To my mind, it is most alive in The Life and Times of Captain N. , which convinced me that if Glover is not our Shakespeare, he is at least our Faulkner.


An interlude, as we sputter towards the conclusion (from my 2001 interview with Glover):

TDR: I have been reading backwards through your catalogue, and it seems to me that your narratives often articulate the boundaries of different conflicts political, aesthetic, sexual, sociological, etc. simultaneously. You seem to be both seeking the appropriate terms to define a certainty and also never arriving at one. For example, in Notes from a Prodigal Son, you say about East German writer Christa Wolf: "She is saying that to be oneself, to feel oneself, to discover oneself, amongst all the conflicting messages, prescriptions and prohibitions of contemporary culture, is difficult, if not impossible, anywhere" (62). Similar sentiments repeat in The Life and Times of Captain N., which takes place in the context of the backwoods warfare of the American Revolution ("We Rebels & Tories & Whites & Indians are having a violent debate whose Subject is the Human Heart" (162). Your approach appears to be both sensible and relatively unique on the Canadian literary scene, which often frames its purpose in sociological terms (i.e., Canadian culture is necessary for national identity). Are you self-conscious about working against popular conceptions about what it means to be a Canadian writer? Is Canadian literature all it's pumped up to be?

GLOVER: The setting up of opposites as a mode of conjecture is, of course, the form of the aphorism. Kant uses a version of this in the sections of the Critique of Pure Reason called the Antinomies and the Paralogisms, where he juxtaposes apparently true but contrary propositions about the nature of reality and argues for both. Nietszche wrote aphorisms. Adorno's gorgeous Minima Moralia is all aphorisms. The aphorism is an ancient ironic form, highly artificial, but with a bite. You can only write aphorisms in the attack mode, with a tone of arrogance. Here's one I wrote to a student who was complaining about having to learn aphorisms: There are two kinds of readers--the adventurers who glory in the breathtaking audacity and risk of a well-turned aphorism and the wienies who, lacking courage themselves, find it an affront in others. The Life and Times of Captain N. contains passages of extended aphorism called "Oskar's Book about Indians" in which oral cultures and literate cultures are opposed on a variety of verbal torsion points: e.g. history, memory, names, ritual, story-telling, books. Nietszche called his aphorisms "Versuch" -- "trials" or "experiments" -- much the way Montaigne called his essays "essais". I think a person who writes from this rhetorical position is always on the outside of received opinion and traditional knowledge because nothing is taken for granted and all thought is conjectural rather than descriptive.

Whether Canadian literature is all it's pumped to be is not a question that interests me. On the other hand, there are some books written by Canadians I love.

Ah, yes. What was I trying to get at there? A long preamble, followed by two quick questions. The second question got a short quick answer. The first question got an answer that is dense, though interesting, and, on the surface at least, beside the point. What was the point? The study of Canadian literature has tended to focus on definition ("what is Canadian literature?") and it has tended to canonize books that assist with the definition of Canada ("what does it mean to be Canadian?"). Glover's fiction, at times, seems to be intensely interested in these questions -- Elle's narrator, for example, makes off-hand comments about the troubles of Canada, comments rife with complex humour -- but, at the same time, Glover's narratives often (always?) resist reductive or definitive readings. "That's the pathos of logos." Glover's narratives are, to borrow his own words, positioned "outside of received opinion and traditional knowledge because nothing is taken for granted and all thought is conjectural rather than descriptive." 

If Canada is the world's most post-modern country, a con-federation (a country conned into believing it's federated) -- a country that not only embraces multiculturalism, but is made up of multi-nations -- (and it is) -- then Glover's fiction, more than the fictions of anyone else to date, entrances us with beauty, opens us into mystery, shows us that we can be our stories and take them apart, too. But we must take them apart, if we are to keep them alive, if they are to keep us alive.

The book is called The Art of Desire for a reason. Desire is the affirmative response to life. It is also the cause of heartbreak and misery -- and the core of stories. Desire sets up expectation, narratives fulfill or deny that expectation. In The Enamoured Knight, Glover wrote powerfully about the role of desire in Don Quixote and other novels. Desire provides the narrative stickiness in Glover's work that verisimilitude, perhaps, might provide in the work of other writers. In a world where, as Glover says of Christina Wolf's fiction, "to be oneself, to feel oneself, to discover oneself, amongst all the conflicting messages, prescriptions and prohibitions of contemporary culture, is difficult, if not impossible" -- is a world where language does not work -- desire is perhaps the universal glue. It is the still point around which all else turns.

Glover on desire: 

It's occurred to me that human nature is paradoxical in relation to difference and identity. We all want to stay home and be comfortable and yet we're also drawn to love, exploration and translation. We go back and forth, or some of us are more one way than the other. Change can be awfully irritating. ... And if you're not ready for it, you curl up and die. ... Sometimes redemption is just an intrusion. ... And sometimes, when you crack out of yourself and really see the other, you become a better person (The Art of Desire, 172).

Glover defines redemption as "being brought back, pulled out of, rescued -- it gets you out of one place and into a different place. Difference is the operative word. Redemption means changing yourself" (169). It means, I think he's saying, to be made interesting. Staying within oneself, never challenging oneself with the stories of others; this is not interesting; this is heat-death; this is "the end of history;" this is ideological purity and the NHL lockout and all things wrong with the world. Desire forces us out of ourselves, to confront others, to live, be made interesting, redeemed. This is the core of Glover's famous historical imagination. The past is never past, said Faulkner. Glover goes one better. Not only is the past in the present, but the present is in the past. The confrontation between the two is to the redemption of each. Hallelujah!

More Glover (from the story "16 Categories of Desire" from book of same title): 

Mama, I say one time, why it so hard to get a man to do you? Seem like it ought to be a simple thing. Say come here fella and bathe me in your jets of sperm. Mama pretend she don't hear me. And I ain't found a man yet man enough to respond to that particular request. I miss Sister Mary Buntline, who would be laughing now. She say her snatch was a miracle, the eighth effing wonder of the world and a proof of God. I say, Mama, Sister Mary Buntline some kind of saint. And Mama sniff and say Sister Mary Buntline end up married to an ex-priest named Leonard Malfy and three rat-face apostate children running a AIDS clinic in Seattle. Boys, I say, that sure sound bad all right. Sound like Hell on earth. It sound like pure-d evil all right. Jesus. Married with kids and a job. What sane decent woman would want that?

This passage is not only terrific prose, it shows how Glover uses desire to set up expectations in the reader, then confound those expectations in interesting ways. At the beginning of the third section of this essay, I quoted Glover -- "The outer story is bigger than the inner story" -- and suggested intertextuality was key to understanding his approach to fiction. In the end, I didn't say much about that, specifically, but I want to reinforce that point here: "What sane decent woman would want that?" Why is this funny? Because we've heard echoes of it before. If we are readers, we hear echoes of all stories in all other stories. As readers, we are open to the mystery that fiction invites us to participate in. In The Enamoured Knight, Glover showed how stories fit within stories in Don Quixote. The process of story-making, in Glover's fictions, in all fictions, has no end. If you want to read the novels, read the novels. Read all of the novels. All novels. Turn off the computer. Read.


Have I read the novels? Really, I'm not quite sure. Maybe I'll go back. Start again. ...

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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