Best Canadian …

(cross-posted to The Valve)

There has been a lot of CanCon around this week, what with the holiday formerly known as ‘Dominion Day‘ and all.* So, for instance, the Globe and Mail ran a story about revising the canon of great Canadian novels.

Thirty years ago dozens of scholars, critics, authors and publishing types gathered for four days in Calgary for what was billed as the National Conference on the Canadian Novel. Organized by the University of Calgary in association with publisher McClelland & Stewart and Dalhousie English professor Malcolm Ross, the conference, a raucous and controversial affair, became famous for two things. The first was the publication of the results of a ballot mailed earlier to participants in which they were invited to choose “the most important 100 works of Canadian fiction” according to three categories: “major,” “significant” and “secondary importance.” The second entailed the selection of “the 10 best Canadian novels yet written.” Critics decried (and continue to decry) its attempt to create a literary consensus as both a misguided nationalist holdover from the 19th century and a rank marketing/promotion stunt on behalf of M & S’s New Canadian Library, which Ross founded in 1958 and which, at the time of the Calgary conference, had more than 150 “classics” in print as paperbacks. (Ross later described Calgary as “the most painful experience” of his career.) The NCL still exists, winnowed down now to 110 titles. However, while the notion of “literary excellence” continues to hold sway, notions of a fixed canon or canons, of “shared literary values,” are pretty much in tatters. Even in 1978, as one participant in the Calgary conference observed, “we know that literary reputations are not built and perpetuated by any lists.”

Still, lists are fun. Or they can be, if undertaken in a spirit of play and gamesmanship.

And so, with this in mind, The Globe and Mail thought it might be, well, fun, or at least interesting, 30 years on from the Calgary conference, 50 after the creation of the NCL, to come up with a new Cancon semi-canon – or should that be Can-on? – for the first decade of the 21st century.

My colleague Dean Irvine was among those consulted, and there has since been some spirited discussion on our DalNews site, with lots of further nominations.

I’m not about to volunteer a competing list–first, because I’m not nearly as well-informed or up-to-date about Canadian fiction as any of those called on, and second because, like them, I find the process of canon-formation more interesting than the end result in any case (there’s nothing like having to choose between unlike alternatives to focus the mind). Still, as some evidence of my citizenship, I’m pleased to say that I could name a handful of Canadian novels I particularly like that I didn’t spot on anyone else’s list (though I wouldn’t necessarily make a pitch for any of them as one of the 10 best): Audrey Thomas‘s Intertidal Life, for instance, has long been a favourite of mine; though perhaps by now the novel has become cliched, I still have a strong visceral response to Timothy Findley’s The Wars; and I thought Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park was rather extraordinary. Now I definitely want to read Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Overall, though, I seem to consider the Canadian fiction I read as simply keeping company with my other books, rather than as a category (or canon) apart; I don’t feel a strong sense of my own identity being tied up in it either.

For no reason I can really think of, I have a more fiercely loyal relationship to a number of Canadian films. Maybe that’s because many Americans have read at least some Canadian authors, but very few have seen Canadian movies? I don’t know. In any case, here’s my list of my own idiosyncratic top 5 in this category:

Bye Bye Blues: This beautifully filmed, bittersweet film, one of my all-time favourites Canadian or not, tells the story of a woman who returns to her home town on the prairie while her husband is a POW; to support herself and her child, she begins singing in a blues band. The film deftly illustrates the challenges women’s wartime activities posed to conventional gender roles. It’s also a love story, sort of, with no Hollywood-style magical thinking at the end.

Jesus of Montreal: There are scenes in this film that have haunted me since I first saw it in 1989; no doubt the emotionally wrenching soundtrack featuring Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares and the Pergolesi Stabat Mater is part of what makes it so unforgettable. Courtesy of YouTube, here’s a teaser:


The Barbarian Invasions
: Sex, cancer, philosophy…what more could you want?

Who Has Seen the Wind: Is it because I’m not from the prairies that I am more moved by seeing them than by reading about them? This movie contains the saddest scene ever. I’ll just say it involves a birthday party and a large tray of uneaten sandwiches.

My American Cousin: I’m pretty sure this is not a great movie. My father spent youthful summers picking fruit in the Okanagan Valley, and we used to vacation there every year, usually at Lake Osoyoos, so one reason I feel attached to this film is simple nostalgia. But it has a certain naively quirky charm, plus there’s a girl in it who went to my highschool.

Finally, my top Canadian song, in an outstanding performance:

Would anyone else like to highlight any of their Canadian favourites, in any category?


*Gosh, I’m sure glad Wikipedia included that helpful disambiguation note; I would have looked a right fool toting those dominoes around.

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