Feb. 8th, 2016

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Currently at Havelock: -5.7. High today: 1.4. EC has a high of -21 in Bancroft for Saturday, which would be colder than any high temperature last winter. To this point there have been nine days this winter in which the temperature has gotten below -20 in Bancroft, and one in which it has gotten below -30; last year there had been twenty-five and seven. So far there have been twelve days this January and February in which the temperature has gotten above freezing in Bancroft; last winter there was one day it got above freezing between December 29 and March 9.

Here is an Interesting Fact: in the thirty-team NHL, the Canadian teams currently rank 19th (Montreal, which was recently 22nd), 23rd, 24th, 25th, 26th, 28th, and 30th. The four Canadian teams in the Western Conference occupy the last four places. Funnily enough, the 27th-place team is Buffalo, which last I heard was one of two American NHL cities (along with Pittsburgh) where hockey TV ratings are similar to those in Canadian NHL cities. (Also funnily enough, both the Sabres and Penguins have filed for bankruptcy in the last couple of decades.)

Since last report I've read Al Purdy's one novel, A Splinter in the Heart, which was published in 1990, which was three years after Margaret Laurence died, which I suspect was not a coincidence, because a lot was made (though more by her than by him) in their letters of him being a poet and her a novelist and these being separate species of writers. A surprising amount of the novel is borrowed from Laurence, in terms of various aspects of its writing, most generally in its drawing a lot of its personal detail from the author's own life. Obviously this is more noticeable than it would be if I hadn't read the letters and Purdy's autobiography--obviously it wouldn't be noticeable at all if I hadn't--and obviously there is some point to be made that all novelists work their own experiences into their fiction, but I have to believe that Laurence and Purdy do this far more than most. (I have to wonder whether Al learned from Margaret that you can do it that much ... which reminds me of how hard it often was to get my students to see how easy what I wanted them to do in my typical assignments was: I wanted them to write about something that actually happened to them. They had a hard time believing I didn't want them to do something harder. (This false equation people make between the harder and the better is something I gave up writing something about weeks ago and may come back to, though you get the point and I'm not sure there's much else to be said about it.)) Laurence even kind of jokes about it in The Diviners: Morag's Scottish lover tells her he got a couple of her books out of the library (Morag being a novelist--Margaret tells Al in a letter that she had given up trying to make Morag a painter) and it was funny to see how the main characters both were and were not Morag ... and Morag is tickled that he noticed, which, geez, if Morag's novels are anything much like Margaret's, and you knew the author personally if not intimately, how could you not notice! In another bit, Morag writes a letter to that Scottish lover that sounds an awful lot like her letters to Al; if some of it isn't quoted verbatim, it's pretty closely paraphrased.

Speaking of the letters ... one of the things Al and Margaret like to complain to each other about is the physical construction and appearance of their books. One thing in particular Margaret complains about is the cover of the North American first edition of the short story collection A Bird in the House (which is the one part of the "Manakawa cycle" I haven't read yet): she says the bird they've put on it "looks like a crippled seagull" ... and "Okay, so we had land gulls in the prairies, but when did one ever get caught in a house?" So here's the thing: near the end of The Stone Angel (which is the first book in the Manawaka cycle), a gull is flying around in the building Hagar is hiding out in, and it reminds Hagar of the saying that "a bird in the house means a death in the house", and Hagar somewhat-accidentally cripples it. So that reminded me of Margaret's complaint about the cover of A Bird in the House, so I looked it up, and, yeah, it's a white bird, but to me it hardly looks like either a gull or crippled--looks to me like they were aiming for dove. Now here, for me, is the kicker. Al and Margaret pretty much stop writing letters in the mid-'70s, after the publication of The Diviners. The editor of the letters book (who I used to be acquainted with at York, and I wish I was into this stuff when I knew him!) I think suggests that the gap was due to Margaret's moving back to Canada from England, which, sure, maybe. But there's also this: they start writing to each other regularly again in 1977 after Al sends Margaret a letter in which he tells her that he's read The Diviners. Margaret writes back two days later (presumably the day she got his letter) and says (among a lot of other things), "Why didn't you tell me before that you had not previously read The Diviners? If I'd known you hadn't read it before, I would not have taken on so, in bygone times. It's okay not to read a book, but to read it and not say anything ... well, let's not go into that again. That is over." Which ... contributes to the disquieting feeling that that thing back there about the gull was a test.

I said before that I was inclined to go easier on myself for hating The Stone Angel in highschool ... the thing is, at the time I read it I was around the beginning of my Ayn Rand thing and The Stone Angel happened along as just the kind of dismal novel that you have to hate if you're into the Ayn Rand thing. Margaret complains to Al about people saying she's gloomy and death-obsessed, but good Lord. She may not be, but the author of her novels sure seems to be ... or at least her novels dwell endlessly on the petty horribleness of life until its always-impending end, and what are you supposed to infer from that?

Well: what are you supposed to infer from all that is really the question for me about Margaret Laurence. I think The Stone Angel is a really good novel, the best of Laurence's Canadian four (and the one that's least about Margaret Laurence--the only one where it doesn't seem like the main character is Margaret Laurence in some possible world (and as far as that goes, Hagar is 90, and Margaret tells Al she doesn't want to see 80, and she didn't (and, as I found out in The Diviners, killing yourself to keep from dying of cancer was an idea she'd had on her mind for a long time)), and Hagar is an endlessly pettily horrible woman, and I wonder what Laurence thinks of her. I'm afraid of what a lot of readers might think of her, given Laurence's reputation as a feminist writer. Near the end, Hagar overhears her son calling her a "holy terror", which is something you're supposed to like being called if you're an old woman, because it means you're not ... a feeble old woman. I'm afraid that for a lot of women Hagar might be a role model. Look, I guess it's better for you if you're a holy terror and not a feeble old woman. But Hagar hurts people. (And a seagull, which, typically, results in her briefly feeling bad about it and then resenting the maimed seagull for upsetting her ... she does from time to time have these moments of self-awareness and conscience, and you think, especially as you get near the end, that now Laurence is giving her her redemption, but nope, she slides right back into horribleness again. (The best bit on Hagar's lack of self-awareness: she says of someone that it's a pity she's such a weak person as to care so much what others think about her. Hagar is generally obsessed with what others think about her. You can imagine her as the nastier doppelganger of Mrs. Bucket (as in Keeping Up Appearances, not Charlie).)) You might try to justify her horribleness, or more plausibly you can excuse it, based on whatever you suppose has been done to her, but this is not a good way for anyone to be. (I feel uneasily again like I'm being too hard on all this ... but it all feels really rotten to me. But, uh, yeah, it is a really good novel, and I recommend reading it. Heh.)

There's more I want to say about Laurence and Purdy and Al and Margaret, but I gotta pack it in for the night and, uh oh, Lent starts the day after tomorrow!
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