Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan

Inspiration for this read came from two directions: a month of re-reading in January on Heavenali’s blog and the books selection for this year’s Canada Reads competition as the representative from Quebec. I was pleasantly surprised that it read as easily as it did: it was not as ponderous or pedantic as I expected it to be for some reason. On the Canada Reads debates the symbolism was often spoken of and I came to expect something weightier and less enjoyableTwo Solitudes 220130402_123736 because of that weightiness. I did think that some of the changes over time (there are four distinct sections: 1917-1918; 1919-1921; 1934, and 1939) happened too abruptly and/or the last two sections covered too much in too short a space having captured the reader’s interest in the characters and then tidying up the loose ends in what seemed like a no-nonsense fashion. It is  worth reading for itself and to recognize its place in the Canadian lexicon. My edition was published in 1945 and that gave a special quality to the experience for me.

Because Paul became a writer there are some interesting thoughts about writing:

“There was so much self-flattery in the idea of writing books; it made him superstitiously afraid of telling anyone that this was what he wanted to do. His own voice had surprised him as he made the admission to a girl who was almost a stranger.” (page 279; the girl was Heather)

Also observations on being French-Canadian:

“..a French-Canadian is born in one ( a strait-jacket). We’re three million people against a whole continent.” (page 281; Paul speaking to Heather)

“You don’t have to be a French-Canadian to be born in a strait-jacket. Every girl’s born in one, unless you’re a girl like Daffy.” (page 289; Heather to Paul; her sister is Daphne)

On the title:

“He wondered if Heather had ever felt as he did now. Two solitudes in the infinite waste of lonliness under the sun.” (page 305; Paul)

On grief:

“Her mother felt prostrate with grief, not knowing that grief is always for the self.” (page 321; Heather on her mother Janet’s style of grieving for her grandfather, John Yardley)

On life:

“Yardley had always supposed that if people had been intended to know what they were doing, they would have been created with the faculties to make the knowledge possible.”

On love:

“She loved him so utterly he had become her way of life. For a man it could never be the same. He had his work, he had the ruthless drive inside that would never let him alone.”

Yes, the story is dated but the upside of that is the accuracy of the picture it presents of relationships and politics of the time. The strong characterizations of men like Athanase Tallard, Two SolitudesHuntley McQueen and John Yardley, along with Father Emile Beaubien give a cinematic richness to the story while Marius Tallard and Kathleen Tallard with the young Paul bring in the tension often associated with young men in conflict with their fathers, unhappy women and confused children. All ingredients that result in a strong story. In the later sections Heather Methuen and her sister Daphne and their mother Janet provide very different and interesting portraits of wealthy women in that era while Marius’ partner Emilie and their five children provide a balance to the Methuen family. In many ways, this story is timeless but it is simultaneously a snapshop in time of a period in Canadian history. It reads quickly and takes only a small adjustment to a style of an earlier period. Hugh MacLennan won the Governor General’s award for fiction for Two Solitudes in 1945: another good reason to read it .

Family Matters: Sightings in Grocery Stores

This posting is mostly about a childhood memory, one that is very clear after almost sixty years. My grandparents shopped on the same night every week after the work day was done for my grandfather. Before I was born I know the shopping was done differently because my grandmother told me how she would take the childrens’ wagon and one or more of the children and walk downtown. It was actually a long walk and went down a major hill and then up a major hill. It was definitely a mile and probably closer to a mile and a half. The groceries were brought home in the wagon, of course, and the children probably had to walk beside and prevent things from falling out. In the late forties and early fifties, however, the shopping was done by automobile on Thursday after work (5 p.m.) and I often went along. My aunt worked as a cashier at the A & P store so it was almost a family event. My grandfather carried all the money and always paid the cashier. I don’t recall any disagreements about what was purchased so that is a positive thing. I do remember the rolling hardwood floors in the store and the meat department men with blood stains on their white aprons.

The memory I have concerns my paternal grandmother. My parents had separated/divorced two or three years after the war and my brother, mother and I lived with my maternal grandparents. One day we had done all the shopping and brought our cart to the cash register to be checked out. And suddenly, my grandmother grabbed my sleeve and said in a rather loud whisper “Don’t look now but that is your other grandmother over there.” Of course, I looked.

I can still see her standing there in the grocery aisle. She was wearing a full length cloth coat with a partial fur collar and a hat of felt, perhaps with a veil attached over the front of it. I do not recall a colour although the coat and hat seem to be black in my mind. She was not smiling. She did not wear glasses. She was looking right at me. She had on black heels appropriate to a grandmother in those times. My maternal grandmother was heavier and wore black shoes with heels and laces. I am guessing this “other”  grandmother might have been about 60. If I could draw, I could reproduce the face because it is like a photograph in my memory.

The memory is like the picture of my father that I saw only once: it was like a passport photo and it fell out of a little green strongbox in which my mother kept papers of importance. One night she had it on the bed and was looking for something when I caught sight of the photo. It is engraved on my memory like the sighting of my “other” grandmother in the grocery store. My father had reddish hair, distinctly parted on the left side, a matching moustache well groomed, a medium high forehead and what seemed like blue or green eyes. He was young in the picture and his face was narrow but not too narrow. I think he was wearing a white shirt. I never saw the photo again and I never saw him either. With hindsight, there is a possibility that my mother was searching through her papers for something she needed to get remarried but I, of course,  was blissfully unaware of this at the time.

My father  had a sister and I recall her being outside my grandparent’s house one day; she wanted to see me I believe. Before my parents divorced I imagine she used to play with me and no doubt an attachment had developed. My cousin who was staying with us told me to get under the kitchen table and hide. The atmosphere was one of fear with a dash of excitement but my father’s sister never stepped off the front sidewalk towards the house.

What remains in our memory from our childhood years fascinates me. I can go through old photograph albums and, of course, the photos trigger memories of people and places. But these sightings like the one in the grocery store and that of the small photo lying on a bed amidst other papers or the one of myself hiding under the kitchen table are quite different: they are not concrete items in an album that I can go back to time and time again for verification. They are, however, more vivid than the photos, in fact, they are almost video clips. I have no actual photographs of my father or any members of his family.