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Reviewed by:
David Williams. Confessional Fictions: A Portrait of the Artist in the Canadian Novel. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 270 pp. $45.00 cloth; pb. $17.95.

As its title suggests, Confessional Fictions attempts to collect several representative Canadian texts under the rubric of modernism—more specifically, to link the Canadian novel of "autogenesis" (a derivative of the Kunstlerroman, the artist-novel) with its chief English predecessors, Wilde's Dorian Gray and Joyce's Portrait of the Artist —and to consider the presence of modernist tensions in the context of a contemporary, North American literature. David Williams states, the "aim of this book is to explore the assimiliation in the Canadian novel of an 'intelligible goal' which has not been as readily available to belated modernists and postmodernists as it was to Americans . . . who wrote as contemporaries of Joyce." This "intelligible goal" is an understanding of the artist's relation to his art in a country that ostensibly lacks a literary tradition to offer guidance toward such aesthetic self-revelation.

The difficulty of this endeavor, however, becomes evident early in the introduction that, drawing on several centuries and various brands of literary theory, insists on a distinct identity to the artist-novel but never fully explains how that identity is understood by novelists or critics, not even for the handful of books about to be discussed. This confused and often peripheral use of theory persists through the first several chapters, where the book waivers between apologies for the "absent" Canadian literary tradition, stilted attempts to force Canadian texts into a convenient British or American literary history, and disjointed hypotheses about the Canadian writer's ability to develop self-signifying and reflexive art. Nonetheless, the work's three principle sections (starting with the chapter on The Stone Angel) move lucidly through considerations of the artist as self-(re)creator, as self-analyst, and as self-parodist or deceiver, respectively. From Laurence's Hagar Shipley to Munro's Flo and Rose or Kroetsch's Anna Dawe, Williams traces the development of the "individualist"-protaganist in fictional autobiography and makes [End Page 772] a convincing argument for the growing concern in these characters (representative of the artists themselves) over artistic and aesthetic, self-signifying, issues and how these issues necessarily impact socio-historical reality.

The anecdotal (and brief) postscript, therefore, illuminates much more clearly the intention of the work than the dense and lengthy introduction. Williams, a fiction writer himself, talks of his problematic reconciliation between self and art, especially in a nation like Canada ripe with literary dichotomies: "Quebec/Canada; East/West; Wasp/Ethnic;" identity/assimilation; "tradition"/experimentalism. The problem of the Canadian author trying to inscribe himself in terms of his art merely underwrites the problem of Canadians, as individuals and collectively, coming to grips with the distinctiveness of their national experience, historically, politically, and artistically. This paradigm makes the self-creating, self-conceiving, and sometimes self-betraying quest of the artist-novel's protaganist of vital importance to the postmodern as well as modernist critic (and, by extension, links the modernist period that "Canada never had" with the vital and intensive period of postmodern writing and criticism that Canada presently experiences). Of course, such a connection raises numerous, enigmatic questions about the rubrics of conventional criticism, but, as Williams admits, the task of inventing and reinventing one's self, one's fellows, is not an endeavor to provide ready-made or permanent answers. The best we can presume in our enduring confessional fiction is that our experience is one we continually reconfigure, that the answers are as malleable as the questions, that we are "continually becoming [our] own ancestor: the heart of the story. Not to enclose the world inside the self, but to re-create the whole work of time."

J. David Stevens
Emory University
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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 772-773
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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