canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Life and Times of Captain N.
by Douglas Glover
Goose Lane Editions, 2001 (first published by McClelland & Stewart, 1993)

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Early last fall, TDR ran an interview with Douglas Glover. This review was meant to accompany that interview. However, it didn't get written until many weeks later. Life intervened (as life does), but something else happened, too. A kind of writer's block. Something closely related to fear. Fear of what? Fear of failure, yes. Fear of forgetting, also. Fear of forgetting something important. Fear of failing to say the right thing. Fear of not "getting it right."

More than perhaps any other, this is a review I wanted to "get right". In the end, I didn't get it done. And now I can only offer notes towards the review that should have been, but never was.

In short, I think this is more than a fine book. It is one of those books that sent a shock down my spinal cord. Readers should always approach books with high expectations, even though that usually means we are disappointed. Less often we are merely satisfied. Rarer still, we can say we read a book that startled and shocked us. This is the experience I had with The Life and Times of Captain N. I believe it is a rare book in the Canadian canon - and deserves a much higher profile that it currently commands.

Writers are often asked about influences. My thought is you find your influences through diverse reading. More specifically, the linear progression commonly implied when writers are asked about influences is misleading at best, and at worse, false. Your influences are the writers you are attracted you; they are your family of origin, even though you may not find them until you are well on your way to developing your own outlook on life - and your own literary "voice". 

Such was my experience when I read Glover's essay in "The Masks of I" in The New Quarterly in 1999 (reprinted that same year in Glover's nonfiction collection Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, Oberon Press). Glover said things I had been struggling to articulate for my own. He referenced other works I had found important. And he used The Life and Times of Captain N. as an example:

The following is an example of precisely this kind of Procrustean pseudo-Jamesian criticism taken from a review of my own novel The Life and Times of Captain N. (my God, Percy! - four points of view, two of them the same person only years apart, interpolated essays on history and anthropology, dream images traveling back and forth between characters - absolute bloody chaos!).

What is "Procrustean pseudo-Jamesian criticism"? According to Glover, it's the kind practice by literary critics who hold that the novel ought to reflect a singular point of view, as articulated by Percy Lubbock in 1921 in a volume called The Craft of Fiction. As Glover notes (and as Glover practices), there is another school of thought that celebrates novels with multiple points of view, as articulated by E.M. Forster in 1927 in Aspects of the Novel. Milan Kundera's The Art of the Novel is a later proponent of this school, as is the work of the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin.

In an earlier editorial in The Danforth Review I made reference to Glover's TNQ essay. At the time (March 2000), I was ticked off by a review Andrew Pyper had written about Michael Turner's The Pornographer's Poem in The Globe and Mail. To use Glover's terms, I saw Pyper as a "Procrustean pseudo-Jamesian":

For Pyper, reading experimental prose is like a "wrestling match between 'straight story' and 'pure idea'." Pyper's use of the term "narrative pleasure" is a hint about the assumptions he brings to reviewing (and his own fiction, like the recent popular novel, Lost Girls). Another hint is the false conflict he sets up between "story" and "idea". Contrary to the assumption in Pyper's argument, stories and ideas are rarely, if ever, separated. Stories have been embodying ideas for millennia. In fact, it could easily be said the stories with the deepest ideas are the ones that survive the sands of time, while "narrative pleasure" reeks of Hollywood blockbusters, special effects, manipulative music scores, and plotting rigged to trigger the heartstrings of the sentimental.

Well, whatever. All of this is a lead up to say that making a case for raising the profile of The Life and Times of Captain N. also requires the promotion of a way of reading that is outside of the mainstream. Glover makes the case firmly in "The Masks of I". I won't make it again here - only reaffirm it. The Life and Times of Captain N. does represent four points of view, but it is not "absolute bloody chaos!"

What about the story? Here's an outline: The setting is the back country of upstate New York at the end of the American Revolution. War is raging, and Glover presents a multi-sided narrative that takes inside the hearts and minds of many of the players. One of the dominant players is Oskar Nellis, a young man who writes admiring letters to George Washington, but who is kidnapped by his father and forced to fight for King George's army. Oskar lives into old age, and the narrative includes parts of his "Book on Indians." Through Oskar, readers see snapshots of the multiple conflicts of that age (and ours?).

This is the point where I wish I had more to say, but I can only point to the book. Go there; find out for yourself. If you are a reader of literary books, please do yourself a favour and read this one. It ought to be a touchstone for a new generation of Canadian readers - and writers. Share the wealth. Pass it on.

Michael Bryson is the Publisher/Editor of The Danforth Review.







TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 


We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.