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 .

One thought on “Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan”

  1. I wish I’d had your lovely Collins edition for re-reading; I had one of those too-small-print General paperbacks. (Of course I could have borrowed or found another, but I like the idea of re-reading the same edition that I had first read anyhow, though that didn’t stop me from complaining about the tiny print all the way along!)

    I shared your hesitations about how quickly the story would take hold, but I ended up falling in myself, too. Particularly in the second half, when I began to understand that the female characters (some, anyway) were going to press against the various limitations they perceived on their own identities as the years passed.

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