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Reviewed by:
Philip Stratford. All the Polarities: Comparative Studies in Contemporary Canadian Novels in French and English. Toronto: ECW, 1986. 109 pp. pb. $11.95.

The modish-sounding title of this study does not presage an attempt to deconstruct difference between the two main literatures of Canada. The author's objectives are both more modest and more old-fashioned. After sketching the similar yet different histories of both literatures and briefly considering attempts to conjoin them fully (Ontario provincialism?) as well as to dissociate them totally (Quebec provincialism?), Stratford argues, rather safely, for "not sameness [nor, for that matter, difference] but qualified similarity." In such an argument qualifications are everything. Stratford qualifies first by making his comparisons through six pairings of a major English-Canadian novel with a major French-Canadian one to give different perspectives on the interconnections (in other words, all the polarities) between both literatures and on the overall accomplishments of each. He qualifies, too, through the care with which he traces out the play of similarity and difference in his individual comparisons. His readings are convincing. And two chapters are particularly impressive, one on "Portraits of the Artist" (both, incidentally but not surprisingly in Canadian literature, by women) and the other—"The Uses of Ambiguity"—on two of Canada's most challenging writers, Margaret Atwood and Hubert Aquin.

Some questions, however, might still be raised. First, can any six texts constitute an adequate sample of either side's fiction? Or is each literature itself [End Page 655] defined by the texts chosen? And do six comparisons give us ample cross sections of the double helix figure Stratford visualizes in his Introduction and hence the structure of that twinning and twining, or is it itself again a product of the particular comparisons made? Furthermore, Stratford himself notes " 'the bind of binarism' [in E. D. Blodgett's phrase] that plagues the French-English comparitist" and tries to diffuse this charge by conflating it with the "binary bind" that characterizes "our joint cultural history." But is not raising the stakes still playing the same hand?

In short, Stratford's self-confessed impulse to simile as well as a certain geometric cast to his thinking are both obvious in the design and argument of the book. But even though his overall portrayal of two interconnected literatures does not take us much beyond Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau's century-old comparison of the two cultures of Canada to the famed twin spiral staircase of the Château de Chambord, that is no real criticism. The two literatures are still mounting and circling without seeing very much of each other, which is a tribute to Chauveau's prescience and is, too, the ground for Stratford's study. What Stratford especially allows the reader to see—and this is the view that counts—is the recent accomplishment of each literature. Everything that rises, to alter Flannery O'Connor, eventually comes into its own, even if that own is defined by something other.

Arnold E. Davidson
Michigan State University


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pp. 655-656
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