Two Solitudes, Old and New

Two new opposing takes on two old opposing teams 
by Jack Hanson

A 1797 engraving of the taking of Quebec. Courtesy of the Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence. 

A 1797 engraving of the taking of Quebec. Courtesy of the Library of the Canadian Department of National Defence. 

TWO ENTITIES WITH intertwined histories and competing claims to preeminence don’t generally make for good bedfellows—at least not for very long. Two such rivals are the French and English languages, and though the highlights of their cultural and political exchanges took place in medieval and early modern Britain and Normandy, the difficult relationship between the two has long been active in a certain former colony of both Britain and France: Canada. Hugh MacLennan named his landmark 1946 novel after this uneasy status quo, calling it, Two Solitudes.

Cue the entrance of modern publishing, with its increasingly corporate business practices. In Canadian literature, one of the two languages was bound to suffer neglect and, surprise, the language that declined was not the one spoken by the world’s leading superpower, which happens also to be just to the south. This linguistic imbalance, despite the 1970 Official Languages Act securing the legal equality of the two languages, precipitated the political decline of the predominantly Francophone province of Québec, which in turn spurred renewed calls for Québécois independence. In this narrative, the literary reflects the political with remarkable symmetry.

Two recent articles, themselves two solitudes in their opposing prognoses, survey the state of French-Canadian literature, and particularly Franco-Québécois literature, a subject many in America would find surprisingly contentious, given the generally amiable impression we have of our snowy neighbors. (I, myself, being a descendant of Canadians, and specifically Canadians who occasionally like a drink, am less taken aback by instances of northern antagonism.)

Pasha Malla, writing for the New Yorker website, has a rather sanguine view of the future of these two solitudes. In reviewing Raymond Bock’s Atavismes: Histoires, he cites an increased number of prize winners, attention from the CBC, and a Canadian Council for the Arts initiative focused on encouraging translation between the two languages. He even mentions a possible connection between Bock and Roberto Bolaño, the go-to figure for successful foreign-language breakthroughs into the Anglophone market.

Carmine Starnino, on the other hand, is less optimistic. Writing yesterday in these pages, Starnino finds an increasingly sequestered French Canadian literature, a response to long-term neglect by the mainstream literary world, and a negligible interest in translations. But the lack of openness affects both sides, according to Starnino, with English poetry straining against the unspoken awareness of a parallel literary culture. “We are creeping toward a protectionist stance,” he, an Anglophone poet and editor, writes. “Our exclusive interest in English, and our obliviousness to its poverties, is making our poems undislodgeablely insular, afraid of otherness, purebreed, tinny.” For Starnino, an end to the isolation, such as the one Malla foresees being spearheaded by Bock, is a remote possibility at best.

One potential outlet for exposing these French-Canadian writers to the wider public which neither Starnino nor Malla seem to address is, of course, the Internet. The strong emphasis on translation from popular sites like The Quarterly Conversation and Words Without Borders might well turn next to Canada, which could lead, if not to an end of the isolation, at least maybe to a salon des refuses.

JACK HANSON is a contributing editor for Partisan