canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Sarah Bastard's Notebook

by Marianne Engel
Insomniac Press, 2006

Reviewed by Anne Borden

Insomniac Press has re-released Marianne Engel's first novel Sarah Bastard's Notebook, originally published in 1968.

Best known for her groundbreaking 1976 novel Bear, Engel quickly established herself as a feminist writer who crossed into the mainstream with a prolific body of novels and children's books. Engel's writing developed profoundly in the eight years between Notebook and Bear. The latter won the Governor General's Award; the former received only mixed reviews. Nonetheless, Sarah Bastard's Notebook is a fascinating read for students of Engel's life and work. It is also a compelling character study of a writer in 1960s Toronto, enchanted by Europe's literary traditions and embroiled in the personal/political battles of the sexual revolution.

Sarah Bastard's Notebook was originally titled No Clouds of Glory, an apt description for narrator Sarah Porlock's situation. Thirty years old and alcoholic, Sarah was once a promising academic whose downward spiral is precipitated by her father's death and five rounds of drinks with a Toronto Star feature writer the next morning before class. Sarah's comments, critical of the university, are published in the paper and she receives a warning from her department chair. Her lawyer and good friend exhorts her: "Sair, don’t drink in the morning!" But a few days later, after another breakfast cocktail, Sarah resigns from her position at a college in Toronto. Now what? To Europe! she cries. To become a great writer. Farewell! But, she wonders, where are the clouds of glory in her wake?

Much of the story revolves around the few days before Sarah is set to head across the pond, as she meets to say goodbye to her ex-lovers (emotionally distant male writers, all), and her family and friends. Everyone, including her department chair, tries to convince her to stay in Toronto. She contemplates her failed past relationships, an abortion she now regrets and her relationship to her mother ("Now that I am grown up, I weep to see her from the outside, frail and opaque. You could light candles to her and make incantations. Now we have all expiated her, like a sin."). Finally, she takes a bleak, midnight walk through the streets of TO ("hoping every passing car contains a friend"), which leads to a dramatic turn in her fortunes.

Engel's daughter writes in the book's afterword: "Sarah desires beauty, inspiration and love, but cannot overcome her own insecurities," nor can she reconcile the gender gap in Toronto's literary scene. As hard as she argues and as hard as she drinks, Sarah's sexual/romantic relationships with male writers never translate into that creative, professional simpatico she yearns for. Sarah, according to Engel's daughter, was "a vehicle for my mother's frustrations with Toronto." We catch a glimpse of this in Engel's early journals as an emerging writer: "Men will give me hell, [Master's Advisor Hugh MacLennon] said, because I have talent. They will want mothering I can't give."

Sarah Porlock makes dramatically different choices than her author, who married Canadian mystery writer Howard Engel in 1962, had children shortly thereafter, and spent the bulk of her career turning out successful novels in Canada. As Engel's collected letters and half-century of journals illustrate, she was both determined and effective in dealing with the literary establishment.* In many ways, Engel – wife, mother, working writer – appears to have avoided the self-destructive pitfalls of her generation, while fostering the feminist values that informs her rich literary legacy.

*Christl Verduyn and Kathleen Garay, eds. Marian Engel: Life in Letters. University of Toronto Press, 2004. Christl Verduyn, ed. Ah Mon Cahier, Ecoute, Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1999.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto.







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