canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

This is Our Writing 
by T.F. Rigelhof
Published by Porcupine's Quill, 2000

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

Who's in and who's out? This is the central question of T.F. Rigelhof's polemical collection of essays on Canadian literature, This is Our Writing. Who has made it to the big team and who should we relegate to the minor leagues? At the end of 1999, various publications produced "Best of the Century" lists. In Rigelhof's survey of Canlit, only nine books have earned the right to play with the immortals of world literature.

They are (in alphabetical order):

  • Margaret Atwood's Life Before Man
  • Leonard Cohen's The Favorite Game
  • Mavis Gallant's Selected Stories
  • Hugh Hood's Around the Mountain: Scenes from Montreal Life
  • Brian Moore's Black Robe
  • Alice Munro's Selected Stories
  • Mordecai Richler's St. Urbain's Horsemen
  • Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here
  • Rudy Wiebe's The Blue Mountains of China

Three non-fiction titles earn honorable mention:

  • Emily Carr's The House of All Sorts
  • Norman Levine's Canada Made Me
  • Brian Moore's The Revolution Script

These 12 titles (enough to ice two lines, a goalie, and one substitute) are obviously not the only Canadian books of the last century worth (re)reading. Indeed, from the point of view of the power of influence over younger writers (which is another way of measuring longevity), Alice Munro's shadow stretches longest, particularly her early 1970s title, Lives of Girls and Women. The gift of Rigelhof's book, however, is not to tell us which books ultimately matter. The gift of his book is its powerful argument on behalf of its point of view - its dare to take Canadian literature seriously, holding it up to high standards universally applied.

Thus, Rigelhof provides insightful comments on why The Friend of My Youth is Alice Munro's best book (despite the persistence of Lives of Girls and Women on university reading lists). Rigelhof blasts the pompous Robertson Davies, penning a searing essay that ought to leave Davies' hagiographic reputation in tatters. Rigelhof recovers Leonard Cohen's novels, and places them at the centre of his artistic achievement. Rigelhof also tells us a lot about himself, which is both rewarding and unnerving.

This Is Our Writing freely mixes the polemical with the personal. Rigelhof is confessional about his suicide attempt, his failed novels, and his love affair with Montreal. In fact, Rigelhof-as-narrator so pervades these essays that the ability of his arguments to remain objective is easily attacked. The Globe and Mail's review of this book noted that Montreal is such a dominant theme in This Is Our Writing that "Our Writing" very nearly means "Montreal's Writing." Or more specifically "Writing from Montreal Authors Born Before World War II."

The big claims of this book are easily attacked; the page-by-page insights, however, are not; and the cumulative impact of these insights are persuasive. Canadian authors have written books that matter. Canadian readers have been assisted by Rigelhof to identify the best of the best, and to argue deeply about what literature does and what it ought to do. This book is a valuable resource for the arguments it contains, but also for the sources it cites. Rigelhof has read widely in his subject, and he quotes many critics, often at length. This is not an academic tome, but a serious book for general readers. It is recommended reading for anyone with a love affair with its subject.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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