- Divining Margaret Laurence: A Study of Her Compete Writings
'Life is more important than art,' Margaret Laurence claimed, but as Nora Foster Stovel shows in this detailed, scrupulous, well-informed study, for Laurence the importance of life appears most subtly and sympathetically in art. Her writing illustrates the rival principles of fiction: first, the belief that life is messy but art arranges its vital disorder into meaningful, graceful patterns; and second, that life is neat (routine, conventional) but art disrupts its regularity through imaginative daring. Authors explore the [End Page 499] competition between these two principles through styles that are themselves neither neat or messy. Laurence's approach is to assert artistic authority in order to expose moral uncertainty. She called herself a 'Method writer' in the sense that she identified closely with her characters, even the nasty ones, but she is also methodical in her craft. Her precisely designed stories reveal that we learn only by making mistakes. They are always about learning, discovering, maturing, correcting, usually by reassessing past errors self-critically. In this sense they are progressive, and while they do not reach conventional happy endings, they offer a final sense of hopefulness to the reader: they 'affirm the possibility of a future.' Like Hardy, Laurence is a wary meliorist.
These same principles inform Stovel's neat account of Laurence's life and works, as if the scholar has discovered a kinship with her subject. She analyzes 'Laurence's lifelong quest for her true place of belonging' by reading her life as if it were one of her novels, and reading the novels as a riper expression of her life. Her life, which Stovel describes at length, seemed haphazard at the time as she wandered through Canada, Africa, and Britain; but it inspired fiction and essays whose 'artistic alchemy' distilled a grand vision of human instability, which can be redeemed only by honesty and compassion. Individually each work reveals a scrupulous order; collectively they are united by a network of correspondences, 'presages,' and echoes, drawing them together in recurring patterns that culminate in her last novel, The Diviners. Stovel is adept at showing how the African writings stand on their own as early, postcolonial studies but also prefigure the Manawaka cycle in their characters, images, and themes (ancestors, survival, spiritual freedom, empathy, feminism); how the Manawaka novels enhance each other and are illuminated by Laurence's personal essays; andhowthe essays in their turn 'fictionalize memory' according to themes familiar from the novels.
Laurence has been so celebrated and so carefully dissected as a Canadian author that it is unlikely there are many startling facts to discover about her life or new interpretations to give of her writing. Stovel's aim is not to be startling but to be thorough. Like Laurence, she is a great learner. She is studious to the point of excess, for example, rarely offering an interpretation without citing corroborating testimony from several other critics, and she has read them all. The effect is to swell her pages with quotations when her own judgment would suffice. She is also studious in her research, consulting archives, letters, and manuscripts. This produces some welcome results. She gives an insightful analysis of the manuscript of The Diviners, which was rigorously pared down following the editorial advice of Judith Jones at Knopf. It is hard to judge if the longer version would have been superior, but its very length suggests that Laurence's tendency to assimilate her earlier works was growing onerous. Given this cumulative pattern, it is no wonder [End Page 500] that she felt unable to write another novel. She tried, but as Stovel shows, the final attempt, Dance on the Earth, staggered under the weight of its ambition. Eventually Laurence turned it into a memoir in which she 'chose to choreograph her own life.' The phrase evokes nicely the artistry of her novels and of Stovel's study, which is an intricate dance through Laurence's writing career.
Jon Kertzer, Department of English, University of Calgary