- Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Responses to World War I by Neta Gordon, and: Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts by Sherrill Grace
A set of literary matryoshka dolls sits on my windowsill as I write. Along that row, Tolstoy fits into Dostoevsky, and Dostoevsky into Chekhov. Neta Gordon’s study of Canadian fiction and drama about World War I published in 1995–2007 fits easily into Sherrill Grace’s discussion of virtually every Canadian imaginative treatment of the two world wars published from 1977 to nearly the present. I will consider the two of them from the inside out.
Catching the Torch appears stylistically to be a thesis book. Where else can a reader be faced with a sixty-five-word sentence that concludes with “personal speech voiced prosopoeically”? Its central and intriguing thesis is that the novels examined, despite an often adversarial stance, cannot help but advance the popular myth that government and media alike drum into us. That is, the texts often implicitly advance the notion that the war made us a nation and evolved into “a site of cultural progression.” I am myself sick enough of what Franny Nudelman terms a “battlefield nationalism”6 to be saddened at the prospect that Gordon places before us, but by and large she deftly advances her proposition. At the very least, she displays a set of significant novels and plays that seem ambivalent in their message. Alongside their images of war’s terrible costs festers an acknowledgement of combat’s nonetheless evolutionary social role. To receive a message from the literary imagination that is supportive of the bromide that Canada somehow came of age in the [End Page 429] trenches is to encounter bad news. But one must applaud the messenger for her courage in delivering it. It is always sobering to realize how seductive—from both narratological and social-memory standpoints—is the appeal of a neatly wrapped ending in which social and familial life resume their timeless rhythms after war’s disruption of them. It is part of the same mentality that finds “the fallen” and “the heroes” so much easier to deal with than the traumatized and disgruntled survivors. While I disagree at times with Gordon’s squeezing of Joseph Boyden’s Three Day Road and Jack Hodgins’s Broken Ground into this pattern, her case appears arguable and worthy of consideration by future commentary. I do not foresee any significant slackening of reader interest in war stories, fictional or otherwise.
It is a sad truth that is far from universally acknowledged that from Homer onward the western imagination has been obsessed with combat as a model for social relations. This simple but uncomfortable fact (William James recommended a moral equivalent of war; I’d be content with a marketing one) gives an added weight to Grace’s magisterial and inclusive treatment of the subject in novels, plays, paintings, memoirs, documentaries, and feature films during her period. I suspect that she has left out a work or two, but any engaged reader has to marvel at just how much she has included. I suggest that the single-volume work would have better appeared in two volumes; such a format would give a physical weight to the fact and argument that the two wars (so very different in fact) called forth dissimilar responses from our cultural workers. The work on World War I still cannot shake the sense of disillusionment and savage revulsion expressed first in past time by Fred Varley’s paintings and then (at the start of the period that Grace treats in detail) in our own with Timothy Findley’s The Wars. World War II, on the other hand, has generated work dealing with two of its unshakably terrible aspects, the inclusion of civilian populations within the arc of destruction and, within this, the sheer fact...