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Marta Dvořák
Jane Koustas

II. Réception et démarches créatives

Big, Bad, and Little Known: The Anglophone-Canadian Nancy Huston

Frank Davey

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1In 1993 Nancy Huston had published ten books in France and one in Britain, when she wrote Cantique des plaines and Plainsong, French and English versions of one novel, publishing the latter in Toronto — her first novel written in English and first book published in Anglophone Canada. Three years later she described Plainsong’s reception to David Homel: “It was as if the prodigal son had come home and his father said to him, ’Go fuck yourself.’ I, of course, had imagined something quite different” (2). While the French-language version, Cantique des plaines, went on to win Canada’s Governor-General’s Award as the year’s outstanding French-language work of fiction, and to be both a literary success and a minor scandal in Quebec, the English-language version was ignored by Governor-General’s Award jurors and reviewed in Anglophone-Canadian literary journals only after the French version had become controversial. My title, “Big, Bad, and Little Known,” alludes to one of the central texts in that controversy, Christian Rioux’s “Qui a peur de Nancy Huston,” published in the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir approximately four months before the first review of Plainsong.

  • 1 The concept of belatedness, of course, does not take into account whether social injustices have b (...)

2Why Plainsong was greeted so quietly by Anglophone-Canadian reviewers and readers is difficult to establish. Possibly its title — with its obscure pun on medieval monastic music and on Christianity’s reduction of aboriginal culture, and with its connotations of dullness — compromised its reception. Possibly the seeming belatedness of its criticism of white repression of Natives made some reviewers perceive it as awkward and didactic. “Specific references to political events may serve to keep the chronology in focus,” wrote Matthew Manera in the Canadian Forum, “but Huston’s use of them always seems to stand outside of the flow of the narrative.... They seem too researched, too carefully placed” (38). Jeannie Marshall declared in Paragraph that she “felt that [Huston’s] finger was wagging in my face, offering to teach me a lesson” (36). The reviewer in Matrix, Jill Rollins, wrote with perhaps unconscious condescension that “Huston’s greatest achievement in Plainsong is the tandem telling of Alberta’s twentieth century history. She poses again, as have Prairie writers like Sinclair Ross and Sheila Watson, some moral questions about ’progress’ accomplished through assumed white superiority” (77-8).1

3Plainsong’s title also somewhat unhappily foregrounded the novel’s ambivalence about whether Alberta’s landscape is “plain” or whether it is worthy of song: whether it is flat and ugly, as it is to its Europhile character Paddon, or whether it is rich and beautiful, as it appears to the Métis artist Miranda, with whose energies Paddon attempts to affiliate himself. That ambivalence seems to have troubled reviewer Don Gillmore, who described Plainsong’s “physical and spiritual landscape” as bleak, quoted Huston as saying, “I wanted to tell a story of a country that was flat,” and wrote sardonically that the novel’s French-language version, Cantique des plaines had “made the best-seller lists in France, catching the imagination of a culture that has embraced the Marlboro man with such vigor, while continuing its often ugly affair with America” (86).

  • 2 See my discussion of the controversy in my Canadian Literary Power, 28-30.

4In a much later article, “Tempest Plainsong: Retuning Caliban’s Curse,” published in an American collection devoted to women’s rewritings of Shakespeare, Diana Brydon has speculated that Plainsong’s less-than-enthusiastic reception may have been due to Miranda’s being readable both as “an attempt to imagine a fuller entitlement for native peoples by recognizing the legitimacy of their past claims to ownership and the ’wonder’ of their survival,” and as “a manifestation of invader-settler society wish-fulfillment and guilt” — a desire to be loved and forgiven by the Native other. Brydon examines the racial implications of Plainsong, arguing that there is a troubling ambiguity in the novel toward the white appropriation of Native land and culture, an appropriation that it condemns and — in its narrator’s seemingly unironized idealizations of Native otherness, in her “utopian longings” for reconciliation with it (213), and in her implicit stealing of what Brydon calls “Miranda’s story” (207) — also re-performs. She suggests that when Plainsong was published “[t]he politics of the debate concerning the appropriation of voice in English Canada made English critics uneasy about a white author creating a native character” (204) — an argument that, however, she also notes is difficult to document: “This unease is seldom expressed directly in reviews.” Plainsong, indeed, was published near the height of Anglophone Canada’s “appropriation of voice” controversy, a controversy that in 1988 saw Women’s Press split in two, and that in 1990 spilled over into Canadian newspapers with writers such as Rudy Wiebe, Lenore Keeshig-Tobias, William Kinsella, Ann Cameron, and Maria Campbell playing major roles.2 But the reviews of the novel, all written by minor white critics on the fringes of the literary scene, imply “unease” only in their tendency to resist the idea that white people should feel guilty for “the sad history of Native people in Canada” and to occasionally resent the “wagging” of Huston’s finger (Marshall, 36). Most, in fact, read Plainsong not as cultural appropriation but as white apology. Huston herself hasn’t speculated about the reason for the different receptions of Plainsong and Cantique des Plaines, except to write that their cowboys were mundane “au Canada” (by which she often seems to have meant Anglophone Canada) but had “le pouvoir de l’exoticisme” in France (Nord Perdu, 52).

5Anglophone Canada’s low level of interest in Huston’s books has continued through the English-language publication of five more novels — in contrast to her steadily growing reputation in France, where in major bookstores her novels enjoy shelf space equivalent to those of Victor Hugo, whose name usually appears directly above hers on shelf labels. Several of her novels have been both bestsellers in France and winners of prestigious prizes, including the Prix Contrepoint (Les Variations Goldberg, 1981), the Prix Goncourt des lycéens and Prix du Livre-Inter (Instruments des ténèbres, 1996), and the Grand Prix des lectrices de Elle (L’empreinte de l’ange, 1999). In Anglophone Canada, Plainsong eventually attracted five reviews, most of them in relatively obscure journals. The Goldberg Variations was also greeted with five reviews, two in newspapers, one each in the book trade publications Quill and Quire and Books in Canada, and only one in Anglophone Canada’s numerous literary, scholarly, and cultural journals. Instruments of Darkness received five reviews, all in Toronto, and none in a literary journal. Slow Emergencies appears to have received only two reviews, in Quill and Quire and the Montreal Gazette. The Mark of the Angel received six reviews — the predictable ones in Quill and Quire and Books in Canada and three in mass-media publications (the Canadian edition of Time magazine and The Globe and Mail and National Post newspapers), but only one in a literary journal, the Internet arts journal Eye. Indexing services have to date reported only two reviews of Prodigy — in Quill and Quire and the National Post — although there could be recent ones yet unreported. Sorting these reviews from a slightly different perspective, one finds that Anglophone-Canadian literature’s principle scholarly journal, Canadian Literature, has reviewed only one Huston novel; Canada’s self-proclaimed national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, has reviewed two; the National Post, two; the Montreal Gazette, two; and Maclean’s magazine, the Toronto Star, and The Vancouver Sun one each; and that collectively Anglophone-Canadian scholarly and literary journals have published only six reviews — with four of these being of the controversial Plainsong. This dispersion of response has meant that many parts of the Anglophone-Canadian reading audience have experienced Huston as a one-or two-novel novelist.

6But this lack of interest in her books has not necessarily meant a lack of interest in Huston herself. Beginning with Don Gillmore’s review article “Even Cowgirls Get the Boos,” subtitled “Nancy Huston’s literary success has provoked an ugly international debate,” published in 1994 in the middle-brow Toronto magazine Saturday Night, there have appeared more feature articles about her in magazines and newspapers — at least seven — than there have been journal reviews of her books. Many of these articles have been based implicitly on Alberta’s legendary dislike of Canadian bilingualism, and on the irony of a young Anglophone woman born in Calgary becoming a French-language novelist. Others — Robert Fulford in The Globe and Mail in 1995 and Scott Lawrence in the Montreal Gazette in 1996 — have focused on Huston’s 1995 “I’m beautiful ” article in Salmagundi (“Dealing with What’s Dealt”), and on the apparent irony, as Fulford phrases it, of beauty being declared “in the groves of academe.” Most of the writers of these articles appear not to have read her novels and to be more interested in her as a cultural curiosity, or as an intriguing photograph, than as an author. Such articles, of course, are part of contemporary literary marketing, but what has been unusual about these is that — unlike similar articles about Margaret Atwood or Jane Urquhart — they have not been paralleled by scholarly attention. The effect of this has been to construct Huston to Anglophone-Canadian readers as commercial, as one who belongs with Céline Dion and Madonna on newspaper entertainment pages rather than on university course lists or academic conference programs. And indeed, as far as I’ve been able to discover, there have been no scholarly articles on Huston’s work published in Anglophone-Canadian journals, and only one presented in English at a Canadian academic conference — Diana Brydon’s “Tempest Plainsong: Retuning Caliban’s Curse,” noted above, presented in a “Postcolonial Shakespeare” session at the 1997 Learned Societies meetings, and later published in the United States. Nor have Huston’s books appeared on any of the university course descriptions that I have collected.

7One possible reason for this continuing muted reception is the communal and regional structure of contemporary Anglophone-Canadian literature. Most of novelist Bernice Morgan’s readership is in Newfoundland; most of that of Robert Kroetsch, Aritha Van Herk, and David Arnason is in the prairie provinces; most of that of Susan Swan, Lynn Crosbie, and Barbara Gowdy is in Ontario; most of poet Robin Blaser’s is in British Columbia; most of Daphne Marlatt’s is among scholarly or lesbian feminists. Literary journals such as the feminist Tessera, the Toronto-based quarterly Brick, the Vancouver-based West Coast Line, the Saskatchewan-based Prairie Fire, Toronto’s radical cultural-studies journals Fuse and Borderlines and on-line journal Eye, and the Nova Scotia-based Antigonish Review for the most part have no common contributors between them. Membership in these real and virtual communities is both fluid and tight, and is based partly on the affiliations that a writer does not have, or on the ideological alliances — as between racial and regional politics in the case of West Coast Line — that a journal or writer may wish to declare. Almost all of these communities, except for those around Linda Spalding and Michael Ondaatje’s journal Brick, have been wary of the commercial globalization of literature and skeptical about writers who seem linked to multinational literary marketing. Kevin Connolly’s review in Eye of Huston’s internationally promoted The Mark of the Angel, for example, described it as a “commercially convenient lovers-in-a-dangerous-time narrative.”

  • 3 Such a split is much less visible in Francophone Quebec, where all cultural production is on a rel (...)

8Huston’s only Canadian literary publication has been in Brick. She has published general articles also only in Toronto — in corporately financed magazines such as Saturday Night, Books in Canada, and Air Canada’s in-flight magazine En Route. While her potential literary affiliations might appear to be with the bilingual feminist journal Tessera, or with western Canadian publishers such as NeWest Press, Red Deer College Press, or Turnstone Press, none of her work has appeared in such places. The division that Bourdieu describes between “symbolic goods specifically destined for the market” and “art-aspure-signification, produced according to a purely symbolic intent for purely symbolic appropriation” (114) is in Anglophone Canada particularly sharp, partly because it overlaps with the more agonized split between Anglophone-Canadian cultural production, which is self-constructed as rarely profitable, and thus a work of idealism, and American cultural production, which is constructed as unremittingly commercial and cynically opportunist.3 To date, Huston’s affiliations — from an Anglophone-Canadian point of view — have been with the wrong side of this binary: she re-enters Anglophone Canada in 1993 via the American multinational capitalism of Harper-Collins, and later affiliates herself with corporate Canada through her publishing in Conrad Black’s Saturday Night and Air Canada’s En Route, and with multinational Canadian literature through her publishing in Brick. These affiliations also place her to the right in terms of the left-right orientations of Canadian literary politics — which is somewhat ironic, since in France her links to Barthes and Todorov, her early books (such as her co-authored ones with Leila Sebbar, Lettres parisiennes [1986] and Une enfance d’ailleurs [1993]), and her implicit criticism in L’empreinte de l’ange of France’s attempts to suppress Algerian rebellion in the 1950s all place her firmly to the left on many issues.

  • 4 For similar reasons, The Mark of the Angel, with its oblique attention to the Holocaust, appears t (...)

9These various institutional factors, however, may not be the only causes of Anglophone-Canadian indifference to Huston. The reviews and articles that have appeared suggest other matters, including some properties of the novels themselves. Most refer in some way to a contradiction in Huston between her Canadianness, usually figured as “Calgary,” and her life and her writing, and then go on not to mention Canada again. Literary valué, of course, is not an absolute; it is — as John Guillory, Gerald Graff, and others have shown — a value to particular people in particular social, linguistic, and class circumstances. Apart from Plainsong, Huston’s novels do not give Canadian readers any cause to prefer them over similarly well-written fiction. French readers may be drawn to read Instruments des ténèbres or L’empreinte de l’ange because of their constructions of French history; women readers may be drawn to Slow Emergencies and Prodigy because of their explorations of conflicts between motherhood and professional ambition.4 But specifically Canadian readers encounter in Huston novels few signs that allow them to link and compare their own cultural positions to positions represented in the text. Most resident Canadian writers provide such signs even in fiction that they set abroad — Ondaatje makes the Canadian-born Hana a major character of The English Patient; Atwood depicts Canada as the goal of female fugitives in The Handmaid’s Tale, and makes the Canadian Arctic the site of the conference that concludes that novel; Anne Michaels makes Canada the home base of the researcher who narrates much of Fugitive Pieces.

10The national signs offered in Huston’s fiction are usually French or American. I suspect that the American signs may index marketing decisions more than artistic or cultural ones. Instruments of Darkness, for example, would be equally plausible if the narrator were Canadian rather than American. In fact, this narrator’s Americanness is so vaguely sketched that she would also be plausible as an Australian.

11There are other things presently ’un-Canadian’ in Huston’s fiction that the reviews and articles hint at. Novelist Katharine Govier in Time describes The Mark of the Angel as “a morbid tale,” “a somber novel” that “ends in the circles of hell.” Kevin Connolly in Eye calls it “bizarre.” Judith Timson in reviewing Instruments of Darkness finds it marked by “morbidity.” Jeannie Marshall in reviewing Plainsong finds it “a grim picture of humanity that is painful to look upon.” Most venerated Canadian works of fiction of the past three decades have been politically progressive and socially optimistic, either — like Laurence’s The Diviners — celebrating the victory of creativity and generosity over privilege and repression or — like Kogawa’s Obasan, Armstrong’s Slash, or even Findley’s The Wars — presenting themselves as catalysts for the achievement of a more just national society. When Huston’s Canadian reviewers find her work “morbid,” what they are likely noticing is the cynicism that it implies about political action. Huston’s novels are currently ’un-Canadian’ in being politically conservative and theologically Augustinian, in that they offer little possibility for collective human improvement. In each, the struggle is individual and private — a struggle to have the least painful private life within a social order of repetitive violence and misogyny.

12In his posthumously published autobiography, novelist Matt Cohen writes about what he calls the “protestant” sensibility of “the Canadian cultural mainstream” and of the risk writers take in revealing dissenting sensibilities. The social optimism that has characterized so much of recent Canadian fiction, with its denial of original sin, and its faith — as at the end of Bowering’s Caprice — that aboriginals, Chinese, Italian, Austrian, British, and Québécois men and women of various classes can construct a benevolent community — is arguably profoundly protestant in its echoing of Luther’s hope of improving Christianity’s institutions. Such optimism is vastly different from the vision in Huston’s fiction of a dark, fallen, passionate, imperfect, and recurrently violent humanity. Moreover, although the ideology of Huston’s novels may be skeptical and atheist, the sensibility is definitely non-Protestant — a sensibility that delights in mystery, sensuousness, and the unexplained, such as Paddon’s obsessions in Plainsong, Maya’s extraordinary musical talents in Prodigy, and the spiritual link between Barbe and her brother Barnabé in Instruments of Darkness.

13Elsewhere in his autobiography Matt Cohen writes,

... those writers now considered to be our greatest — Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro... all of them were writing out of a conservative, small-town, restrained, Protestant tradition that found a tremendous echo of self-recognition across the country. These writers were, in effect, writing the secret diaries of their readers, finding words and images for their experiences. (158)

One of the strange things about being a writer in Canada — or at least, being this writer in Canada — is the realization that if one is not writing books that represent the white, conservative, middle-class and Protestant values of the literary establishment, one is forever destined to be seen by that establishment, in terms of the recognition, rewards, and prizes it has to offer, as unimportant and marginal — at best a friendly mascot from another planet... (231)

  • 5 Cohen’s use of “conservative” in the above quotation differs from my use of the word earlier in th (...)

14One of the implications of Cohen’s remarks is that the work of Canada’s establishment writers can be read as realism, in that it reflects back the beliefs and experiences of its readers.5

15Quebec novelist Gail Scott, who, like Huston, writes in both French and English, makes a somewhat similar comment, though in a much different discourse, in her essay collection Spaces Like Stairs:

My texts leave Quebec, where they are read in (French) translation by my québécois peers, to “visit” Canada where they are read in English. And these Canadian readers, without thinking, because they live in the house of their language, expect my work to have a direct rapport with the concerns raised in their community. Assume... things they do not expect of a translation from French. For example, that it be coloured more by readings of the narratives of an Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, even an Audrey Thomas, than by the experimental forms of a Louky Bersianik or a Nicole Brossard. (52)

16The issue of realism, of whether or not Huston’s novels reflect back a reader’s expectations or assumptions of experience, is raised often in the Anglophone-Canadian reviews. Marianne Ackerman in the Montreal Gazette, reviewing Slow Emergencies, finds the characters “thin”: “For all the fancy writing,” she says, “it [Slow Emergencies] has that generic aftertaste of a movie-of-the-week, thin characters, an issue explored, no more no less.” Charles Foran, reviewing Instruments of Darkness for The Globe and Mail, complains that Huston “makes only faint, indifferent stabs at [creating a New York City] setting,” and that the narrator, rather than being convincing as an American, comes through as a “card-carrying Parisian intellectual.” He adds the sarcastic comment that Huston “is too skilled by far at portraying a contemporary French author.” Kevin Connolly in Eye finds The Mark of the Angel filled with “horribly contrived flashbacks” and “preposterous, anachronistically stylized sex scenes.” Gregg Betts, reviewing Prodigy for the National Post, writes that the book has “prodigious problems” because neither its monologues nor dialogue are “credible as thought or speech.”

17Many of the reviewers use the word “lyrical” to describe the novels — a usage in which the word appears to operate within a poetry/prose unreliable/reliable binary. Huston’s French background is sometimes invoked to explain both the lyricism and the unreliability. Ackerman begins by describing Huston’s style as “lyricism with grit” and as “a lyrical almost breathless mode,” and then adds the apparently clarifying note that the “imprint of a French sensibility is everywhere.” She concludes by noting Huston’s “penchant for the lyrical swoon so cherished by French writers.”

18This accusation of unseemly lyricism, with its quaint portrayal of French culture, coexists in these reviews with suggestions that the novels are also contrived and overly intellectual — “clever” or “virtuosic,” as reviewers Olga Stein and Bryan Gooch describe The Goldberg Variations. Gooch laments that the personalities of Huston’s characters do not seem “particularly linked” to “the [Bach] variations with which they are associated.” Often the complaint seems to be that the novels are overly literary, that by foregrounding their formal architecture Huston has prevented a reader from constructing an illusion of reality. After commenting on the lyricism of Slow Emergencies, Ackerman writes that “still... there’s a strange coldness to this story.” Barbara Leslie in reviewing Prodigy, which she calls a “strange, lush little tale,” lingers over what she describes as Huston’s “conceit of alternating points of view in short bursts.” Lorna Jackson, in writing an otherwise positive review of The Mark of the Angel for Quill and Quire, remarks that “in other novels Huston’s braininess has sparkled at the expense of emotion,” that she has tended to write “cool, cryptic plots,” and that her writing has seemed “chilly and hard.”

  • 6 In Nord perdu Huston suggests that she has two aesthetics — an emotive, expressive one when she wr (...)

19Certainly, many of Huston’s novels display some regularity of intellectual architecture, from the thirty-two sections of Goldberg through the parallel narratives of Instruments of Darkness, the double life and personalities of Saffie in The Mark of the Angel, to the mysteriously coordinated ascending and descending lives of Maya and Lara in Prodigy. Thematically they display a recurrent concern with abstract pattern — Paddon’s efforts to understand time in Plainsong, Lin’s fascination with “making bodies move through space” in Slow Emergencies, Liliane’s preference for the regularity and refusal of emotional expressiveness of the harpsichord in Goldberg, and Maya’s similar refusal in Prodigy to play Chopin expressively, preferring instead to create a version that is “implacable,” to play “flatly, soberly, allowing the notes to say what they’ve got to say, without being coerced by the suffering soul, swept along by torrents of tears, underscored by the pedal” (61). In light of the foregrounded geometries of these novels, such passages could be read as covert declarations of Huston’s narrative aesthetics.6

20Again, this is not an aesthetic that has succeeded recently in Anglophone Canada, although it has in Quebec, notably in French-language novels by such as those by Brossard, Madeleine Gagnon, and Genevieve Amyot, and in English in Gail Scott’s Main Brides. When Anglophone-Canadian novelists have foregrounded abstract patterns, they have tended to embed long passages of realism or parodic realism within them, so that readers are given both Maya’s “suffering souls” and a flat, “implacable” narrative that contains them. This is how Kroetsch uses the Odysseus myth in The Studhorse Man to contain Hazard Lepage’s frantic wanderings, or Bowering uses the genre of the Wild West to diminish and contain and render sombre his characters in Caprice, or Atwood uses the conceit of the edited tape-recording to frame and ironically contextualize Offred’s emotions in The Handmaid’s Tale. Or how David Adams Richards uses a detached allknowing narrator in Nights Below Station Street to reduce the struggles of his illiterate and impoverished rural New Brunswick characters to absurd and futile pattern.

21The third element in this negative portrayal of Huston’s novels is a subtle linking of the concepts of unpersuasive lyricism and cold technical virtuosity to the image of “naughty girl” that populates many of the general articles about her in both the English-and French-language media. Here Huston is portrayed as naughty both because of unpredictable “lyrical” subversion of literary and social norms — as in various angry responses to her approval of teacher-student sexuality in the Salmagundi article — and because of her apparent “coldness” toward the sublime. In 1996 Monique Roy, writing in the French-language edition of the homemakers’ magazine Chatelaine, presented Huston under the title “Celle par qui le scandale arrive.” The same year David Homel, in a feature profile of Huston in Books Canada, expanded the sexual innuendo with his punning title “Once abroad, always abroad” (the pun, however, was Huston’s — she had given him this phrase as her possible epitaph during the interview which precipitated his article [4]). The magazine’s editors contributed another sexual pun in their front-cover subtitle “Nancy Huston on living around.” In 1999, in a review of The Mark of the Angel that was juvenile in tone even for the National Post, Noah Richler enthused that “Ms Huston is a good writer of sex,” and in Time magazine Katherine Govier titled her review of that book “Sex and Violence.” In Kevin Connolly’s review of the novel, it was a sex scene that he quoted at length and — exclaiming “Gads” — found “preposterous” and commercial. And indeed I think it can be argued that the depictions of sexuality in Huston’s novels do differ from most of those in well-known contemporary novels by resident Anglophone Canadians — they are longer, and often richer in physiological detail, and given more importance in the characters’ lives. Huston’s lovers rarely understand or care to understand the psychology of the other’s pleasure; sex is an individual quest rather than the shared one which most canonical Anglophone-Canadian novels imply. Sexual pleasure in Huston is often constructed as a cause of emotional attraction, whereas in Atwood or Bowering or Laurence it is more often constructed as a consequence — perhaps, as Matt Cohen might argue, also a protestant understanding. Overall, it would appear that Canadian readings of both Huston’s portrayals of sexuality and her mischievous and often hyperbolic humour have said at least as much about Canada as about her.

22There is one other difference between Huston’s novels and canonical Canadian fiction that may also have influenced their reception. Their main characters are for the most part intellectuals, would-be intellectuals, or accomplished artists, who often — like Raphael in Angel, Nadia in Instruments, Lara in Prodigy, Lin in Slow Emergencies, and most of the characters in Goldberg — live in narrow multinational communities of similar people. They often have variously rejected a culturally wider, locally situated, social world as vulgar, common, bland, or philistine — the same middle-and working-class world in which Atwood, Kroetsch, Bowering, and Laurence often seek humanity and value. The most successful of these characters — Lin, Nadia, Rafael — are artists of the new global economy, performing one month in Mexico, another in Stockholm, another in New York. Anglophone-Canadian writers tend to treat this global view of the world with irony and parody, as does Bowering in his satiric spy novel Harry’s Fragments, or Findley in Famous Last Words, Hiromi Goto in A Chorus of Mushrooms, or Kroetsch in Alibi. Apart from the eighteenth-century French villages of Instruments, there is little sense of the local in Huston’s fiction, or affection for it, or of the local-vs.-global dichotomy in which, in much contemporary Anglophone-Canadian fiction, “local” is the valorized term. Quite possibly, lack informs the “coldness” that many of her viewers experience. For behind it lies the profound alienation — from place, family, and historical continuity — that most of Huston’s novels document. Again, contemporary Canadian fiction has been more preoccupied with the re-establishing of connections — Rennie grasping Lora’s hand at the end of Atwood’s Bodily Harm, the elderly Naoe running off with a Calgary Stampede cowboy in Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms, Morag finding McConnell’s Landing to be a supportive community in Laurence’s The Diviners, a grateful British Columbia village giving their Québécoise benefactress a prize stallion in Bowering’s Caprice.

23It could be inviting to characterize these somewhat sharp cultural differences between Huston’s work and canonical Canadian fiction as a Jamesian contrast between European experience and New World innocence, or — as Huston has in Plainsong and in some of her public comments about Calgary — as one between multinational knowledge and historical depth, on the one hand, and Canadian philistinism and historical amnesia on the other. However, Alberta is where Rudy Wiebe wrote The Temptations of Big Bear and The Scorched Wood People, historical novels that anticipate many of Plainsong’s observations about white Canada’s treatment of Native peoples. It’s also where Sheila Watson in the late 1950s wrote The Double Hook, the Anglophone-Canadian novel that most openly displays the terse, understated architectural qualities that one finds in Huston’s work. Moreover, Calgary is where black writer Claire Harris has contemplated Caribbean immigration to Canada (a counterpoint of sorts to Huston’s images of Haiti in Plainsong), where poet Fred Wah has written to preserve memory of the Canadian government’s abuse of its Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where Goto has written her Alberta childhood as a Japanese-Canadian into the Canadian cultural record, and where novelist Aritha Van Herk has written her geographically rooted meditation on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, her “geograficcione” Places North of Ellesmere. Such texts suggest that the distance between petit-bourgeois Calgary and conditions favouring cultural productivity is not as great as Paula, the narrator of Plainsong, often imagines. They also suggest that the “howyou-gonna-keep-’em-down-on-the-farm-after-they’ve-seen-Paree” marketing approach that Huston has occasionally used in Canada, as when publishing articles like “Bucking Nightmare: a wayward Calgarian comes home to the emptiness of bronco country,” or when telling journalist Don Gillmore that Alberta’s “New World Protestantism is the most imagination-throttling thing” (86), has done her a disservice, giving her a much less nuanced position among European, Quebec, aboriginal, and Anglophone-Canadian signs than that which she gives Paula, as well as associating her with eastern-Canadian media clichés about Alberta as politically unsophisticated and culturally banal.

24Huston has offered other constructions of Canada and of her Canadian self, but not in English, and not to Anglophone Canadians. In Lettres parisiennes, an exchange of letters with the French-Algerian writer Leila Sebbar, published in Paris in 1986, she declared ambiguous, mixed, and often conflicting feelings toward Canada. One can only speculate on how different her reception might have been if she had positioned herself in this manner in Canada. In her second letter, she tells Sebbar that to travel back to North America, “c’est rencontrer l’Ambivalence en personne,” that at first she experiences her “propre pays comme un pays étranger — ou plutôt, j’éprouve la sensation troublante, comme dans un rêve, que tout m’y est absolument familier et en même temps légèrement ‘déplacé’” (24). But when she must return to France, she writes, “Je pleure. Je pleure d’avoir à quitter ces êtres qui me connaissent et me comprennent, au fond, mieux que les Français ne le feront jamais; je pleure l’immense, l’incomparable ciel canadien; je pleure la langue anglaise qui m’a accuellie avec tant de naturel” (24-5). In her twelfth letter she remarks that to witness the seemingly spontaneous, guileless speech of her Canadian parents makes her feel that, by contrast, she does not live her own experiences — that her “fixation sur la langue française a (entres autres) pour résultat que, la plupart du temps, j’ai l’impression de vivre entre guillemets” (168). In her fourteenth letter she writes to Sebbar that while French had enabled her to begin writing, by giving her the distance and detachment she found personally necessary for writing, she has irrational misgivings about having chosen it: “Si, en renonçant une fois pour toutes à mon héritage maternel, je n’ai pas renoncé à l’essentiel.” Yet, she writes, she also has a recurrent nightmare in which she loses her French.

Peu à peu je commence à faire des fautes de grammaire. Mon vocabulaire s’amenuise. Mon accent devient épais à couper au couteau. Mon “vrai moi” transparait de plus en plus à travers le masque du “moi” français. Et l’on me condamne à retourner en Alberta. Il s’agit d’une condamnation. Rentrez chez vous, vous n’avez rien à faire ici, vous ne parlez même pas la langue. Toutes ces années n’ont été qu’une immense duperie. Maintenant c’est terminé. On vous a découverte. Retournez à Calgary et n’en repartez plus jamais. Assumez votre destinée. Reconcez à vos ambitions grotesques. Soyez la petite prof de secondaire que vous auriez dû devenir...

25“J’ai honte de ce rêve,” she continues, “parce qu’il trahit ma honte de mes origines; et quel mépris à l’égard de mes parents, de mes concitoyens, tout un milieu, tout un monde” (194-5).

26In her final letter, she writes of her joy at a Paris snowfall, and how her joy felt so Canadian in contrast to the complaints of her Paris neighbours. She quotes Gilles Vigneault’s “Mon pays, c’est la neige” (although she appears to forget Vigneault’s authorship), and observes that the snow forms a link “entre le Canada et la France, entre mon passé et mon présent, entre ma vie anglophone et ma vie francophone” (206). This “Canadian” snow image leads her back to viewing her exile as empowering, as being the source “d’énergie et d’émotion” (209) and to the Shklovskian theory that “[v]ivre en France, pour moi, c’était choisir d’‘étrangéïser’ toutes mes habitudes: ma vie sociale, ma vie intime, et même, plus tard, ma relation à ma propre fille; c’était faire de toute ces choses une source d’étonnement perpétuellement renouvelée” (212).

27Such autobiographical and confessional writings as Lettres parisienne and Nord perdu, with their richly ambiguous contrasting of France and Canada, form a significant part of Huston’s public profile in France, and a significant part also of the author image which the French public has received with such fascination and generosity. The French “Nancy Huston” has been a more nuanced, complex, and more widely circulating image than is the “cold” and remote “Nancy Huston” that has been directly and indirectly produced by the texts she has offered to Anglophone Canadians. The French Huston has been not only one of more texts, but also one of a greater generic variety. While Anglophone Canada as experienced her only as relatively architectural (or “clever”) novelist, France has experienced her as a scholar (Dire et interdire, 1980), a social critic and commentator (Mosaïque de la pornographie, 1982; Tombeau de Romain Gary, 1995), a collaborative author of social analysis and self-reflection (À l’amour comme à la guerre, with Sam Kinser, 1984), Lettres parisiennes, with Leïla Sebbar. 1986), an activist editor (Une enfance d’ailleurs, with Leïla Sebbar, 1993), a diarist and autobiographer (Journal de la création, 1990; Nord perdu, 1999). This generic range includes tones, discourses, degrees of intimacy, and self-constructions utterly absent from the relatively few texts that constitute the Anglophone-Canadian Nancy Huston.

28This absence in turn may reflect Huston’s own reluctance to produce herself more fully in Canada. She jokes to Sebbar in Lettres parisiennes that her use of another language than English has given her the illusion of privacy, rendering most of her texts “illisible à ma famille,” and placing herself beyond reproach (“hors d’atteinte”) (212). The extent to which she has written of Canada as her “pays maternel” and of English as her “langue maternelle,” and her self-construction to David Homel as prodigal child, suggests that this reluctance to risk revealing herself to family may extend to her more generalized Canadian “family” as well. The critical reproaches that her partial textual return to Canada have brought her can only be regarded, in this context, as ironic and unfortunate. In a sense, Huston’s uneasiness about claiming and re-entering a culture that has partly produced her, and ambivalence about its complexities, have been reciprocated by an Anglophone Canada that has been similarly wary about claiming her.




Huston, Nancy. “A bucking nightmare.” Saturday Night 110, June 1995: 83-88.

——. Cantique des Plaines. Aries: Actes Sud; Montreal: Leméac, 1993.

——. “Dealing with what’s dealt,” Salmagundi 106/107 (Spring/Summer 1995): 257-69.

——. “Decline of identity?” Books in Canada 26, no. 6 (September 1997): 7-10.

——. Désirs et réalités: textes choisis 1978-1994. Arles: Actes Sud, Montreal: Lemeac, 1995.

——. Dire et interdire: éléments de jurologie. Paris: Payot, 1980.

——. L’empreinte de l’ange. Arles: Actes Sud, Montreal: Leméac, 1998.

——. “From exile with love.” En Route, September 1997:15-17.

——. The Goldberg Variations. Montreal: Nuage, 1996.

——. Histoire d’Omaya. Paris: Seuil, 1985.

——. Instruments des ténèbres. Arles: Actes Sud, Montreal: Leméac, 1996.

——. Instruments of Darkness. Toronto: McArthur & Co., 1997.

——. Jouer au papa et à l’amant. Paris: Ramsay, 1979.

——. Journal de la création. Paris: Seuil, 1990.

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——. Tombeau de Romain Gary. Arles: Actes Sud, 1995.

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——. La Virevolte. Arles: Actes Sud, Montreal: Leméac, 1994.

Huston, Nancy, and Sam Kinser. À l’amour comme à la guerre: correspondance. Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Huston, Nancy, and Leïla Sebbar. Lettres parisiennes: autopsie de l’exil. Paris: Barrault, 1986, J’ai lu, 1999.

Huston, Nancy, and Leïla Sebbar, eds. Une enfance d’ailleurs: 17 écrivains racontent. Paris: Belfond, 1993.


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1 The concept of belatedness, of course, does not take into account whether social injustices have been addressed once they have been brought to notice, or whether a new construction of them may have its own intrinsic power.

2 See my discussion of the controversy in my Canadian Literary Power, 28-30.

3 Such a split is much less visible in Francophone Quebec, where all cultural production is on a relatively small scale and where American cultural production must pass through translation; here to a large extent the “commercial” vs. “pure” dichotomy is dissolved into the larger English-language vs. French-language struggle, in which French-language cultural production is constructed as pure and authentic and English-language cultural production as commercial and predatory.

4 For similar reasons, The Mark of the Angel, with its oblique attention to the Holocaust, appears to have a growing readership among Jewish “reading circles” — literary clubs with mostly women members — in both Canada and the United States. Several Web sites currently present the book as one of interest to Jewish readers.

5 Cohen’s use of “conservative” in the above quotation differs from my use of the word earlier in this essay to describe the political implications of Huston’s writing. Cohen appears to mean both aesthetic conservatism, implicit in realism, and a desire to conserve and widen communal process, something that I read as socially progressive because of its affirmation of the individual’s participation in the political.

6 In Nord perdu Huston suggests that she has two aesthetics — an emotive, expressive one when she writes in English and a controlled, intellectual one when she writes in French, “ L’anglais est le piano: instruments maternels, émotifs, romantiques, manipulatifs, sentimentaux.... Le français est le clavecin: instruments neutres, intellectuels...” (64-5). This passage raises a difficult question about what aesthetic governs her writing when she is rewriting in English a text she has first written in French, as in the case of Goldberg, Slow Emergencies, The Mark of the Angel, and Prodigy. The reviewers’ comments imply that Huston’s French-language aesthetic may prevail. Instruments of Darkness becomes problematic in both language editions, since it appears to have been first written in alternating chapters of English and French (Homel, 3).


Titulaire de la Chaire Carl F. Klinck de littérature canadienne à l’Université Western Ontario (Canada), fondateur et directeur de la revue Open Letter, directeur de la collection «The New Canadian Criticism» de Talonbooks, auteur de vingt et un livres de poésie et de onze ouvrages de théorie et de critique littéraires et culturelles, y compris Post-national Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel since 1967 (University of Toronto Press), Canadian Literary Power, Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics (Talonbooks), Surviving the Paraphrase et Reading Canadian Reading (Turnstone Press)

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