Understanding Canada - An Annotated Reading List

Two Solitudes by Hugh Maclennan (1945). Though dated in many respects, this classic novel about Montreal remains eminently readable today. Its title (actually taken from the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke) became a catch phrase for French-English relations in Canada. Mr. Maclennan was a realist in style but an optimist in his outlook. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence (1964). Many of English Canada's finest writers have come from the West, notably the late and greatly missed Margaret Laurence. A tough-minded portrait of old age, this deeply felt novel is also a memorable account of life in a small prairie town.

St. Urbain's Horseman by Mordecai Richler (1971). Mr. Richler is the great satirist and elegist of Jewish Montreal - a worthy contemporary of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow (himself a Montrealer until the age of seven). To read a Richler novel along with a book by Michel Tremblay (see below) is an almost-shocking experience: The languages, customs, and points of reference are so different, you wonder if they can really be writing about the same city.

Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (1972). This brief, ironic, and passionate work helped transform the way that English-Canadian intellectuals see themselves (and their American neighbors). Much criticized, it remains a key text, one which later studies of Canadian writing are obliged to take into account.

Who Do You Think You Are? by Alice Munro (1978). Ms. Munro's stories and novels linger in the mind like an experience you've had yourself but have never quite articulated. A quietly remarkable writer, she is to my mind the author who most completely sums up whatever ``the English-Canadian sensibility'' might be.

The Fat Woman-Next-Door-Is-Pregnant by Michel Tremblay (1978, translated by Sheila Fischman in 1981). A devout nationalist, Mr. Tremblay is generally recognized as the foremost French-language writer in Quebec today. While he's better known internationally for his plays (such as the marvelous ``Albertine in Five Times''), Tremblay is also a distinguished novelist. ``The Fat Woman'' forms part of a series of novels about life in working-class Montreal.

Letters to a Qu'eb'ecois Friend by Philip Resnick, with a reply by Daniel Latouche (1990). Published a few months ago, this short and troubling work of nonfiction encapsulates many of the tensions that now afflict the relationship between Quebec and the rest of Canada. If there was a reservoir of latent goodwill in the past, it seems to have been replaced by anger, weariness, and annoyance.

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