Sunday, December 16, 2007

Absorbed in CanLit

The Canadian Book Challenge run by John at The Book Mine Set has sent me off onto a side path; after beginning a number of novels set in varied Canadian provinces, I've left them all half done and sadly unattended as I take a detour into three books about the beginnings of CanLit. I'm reading through them, fascinated by the glory days when Canadian literature started becoming more than an oxymoron. They are all by or about men - I'll have to search out a few others soon - but for now I am finding them oddly riveting.

The first is Robert Lecker's Dr. Delicious. (Montreal : Vehicule Press, c2006) Now, I have to say that I found the title weird and uncommunicative of content, but upon reading the first pages, it is explained that "Lecker" can be loosely translated from German as "Delicious". Professor Lecker sees himself as a serious scholar, with all the attitudes and actions that entails, but when he thinks of himself as Dr. Delicious, a whole new and much hipper persona arises. Lecker is a professor at McGill University - I myself used many of his books as texts in my lit classes at McGill although I never did have him as a professor. Alongside this 'respectable' professorial life, he was also a co-founder of ECW Press, and much of the memoir deals with the down and dirty details of running a small press in a small country with small amounts of cash. If you have any interest in small presses, or in Canadian literature's very existence, or in how a man shaped a literary life for himself in this country, give this one a try.

Next is a book of reminiscences and interviews with and about a giant in the creation of a Canadian literature, Robert Weaver. Strangely enough, it is called Robert Weaver : Godfather of Canadian Literature. (also published by Vehicule Press, 2007) Weaver is a fascinating figure, a generous man who gave many current CanLit stars their beginnings; for example, Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood. He worked for CBC Radio(based in Toronto) and co-founded the Tamarack Review, and in all these ways influenced the development of a national literature. The paeans to him by many different authors included in this book show how vital his role was.

And last is Matt Cohen's posthumous memoir Typing: a life in 26 Keys. (Toronto : Random House, c2000.) He mentions Robert Weaver in this book, and apparently in not so saintly a way as the previous book I listed. (this is hearsay; I haven't reached that point yet.) However, considering the very small community of writers, editors, publishers, and general book people in the Canadian inner circles, as well as Cohen's famed irascibility, I am not surprised that there are strong and diverse opinions about all the same people. All the same, I am finding that reading all three concurrently makes me think about what it meant to try to be a writer in a country that was focused outside itself, and what it meant to try to illuminate the possibilities of a integral Canadian literature. And it makes me grateful for the vibrant and exciting literary world we inhabit today.


  1. These sound very interesting (and I agree that the 2nd title is a little more descriptive of the book than the 1st). I wonder if they'll change your view of Canadian novels. Are you including these three towards your Canadian Book Challenge?

  2. John - I'm not counting them, as I really do want to read 13 Canadian novels. Plus they are all really focused on Ontario (and partly Quebec) as the source of CanLit. I need to read some Prairie fiction as antidote...

  3. If I may come out of the blue and say something about the word "Lekker". It's also a Dutch word and in that language it's much more nuanced than "delicious", depending on the context. You can say a meal is "lekker" and mean that it's delicious. But it also has connotations of comfort, coziness, enjoyment (and more, I assume), so you could also use the word "lekker", at least colloquially, in association with sitting down on the couch and reading a book.

    This probably has no bearing on anything, but Dixie pointed this out to me and I felt like getting on the proverbial soap-box.

    I've never read your blog before, but I think I will add it to my RSS feeds.

  4. Thanks, Marc, for your illuminating remarks on "Lekker". I like the connotations of coziness and enjoyment; that does make it seem much more bookish somehow. Any time you want to favour us with some etymology please do!

  5. What a fascinating trio of books. I've already read the Cohen, and Dr. Delicious is on my TBR pile, but I hadn't heard about the Weaver book and I must track down a copy! Another pair in a similar vein (ie. male memoirs of early CanLit) that you might find interesting are George Fetherling's Travels By Night: A Memoir of the Sixties and Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast: A Memoir of the Seventies. I read those alongside Cohen and they provided an interesting counterpoint. Same place and time, and often the same people, but a different perspective. An absolute must-read in a more measured historical vein on Canadian publishing, large and small, and Canada-wide, is Roy MacSkimming's The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada, 1946-2006. Truly one of the best books I've read in recent years. It's one of those books that I bought after reading a library copy because I felt that I must have a copy permanently on my bookshelves.

  6. Kate - thanks for the recommendation. I've picked up "The Perilous Trade" from the library for some light holiday reading. Can't wait to dive in.


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