Daily Archives: April 5, 2010

Frye and Helen Kemp on A. Y. Jackson


Further to Michael’s post, Frye and Helen on Jackson in the Correspondence.

Canadian landscape painting has to deal with a sharp hard light and solid blocks of clear colour: consequently a tendency to conventionalize outlines has been inherent in it from the first. Thomson, being interested in problems of linear distance and in the breaking up of light which they suggest, dodged this tendency, but it is strong in Jackson and Emily Carr, and of course far stronger in Lawren Harris, who saved himself from dropping into a facile formula (like Rockwell Kent) by turning to out-and-out abstract painting. (CW 12, 12)

The Group of Seven felt that they were among the first to look at Canada directly, and much of their painting was based on the principle of confronting the eye with the landscape. This made a good deal of their work approach the flat and posterish, but that was a risk they were ready to take. Jackson, Lismer, and Harris all found this formula exhaustible, and have all developed away from it. Thomson and Emily Carr represent a more conscious penetration of the landscape: they seem to try to find a centre of rhythm deep within their subject and expand from there. Milne combines these techniques in a way that is apt to confuse people who look at him for the first time. (CW 12, 73)

I am, of course, deeply appreciative of the honour that Carleton University has done me. It is particularly an honour to receive this degree in the company of Mr. A.Y. Jackson, as well as a great pleasure, because Mr. Jackson is an old friend. (CW 12, 272)

Writers don’t interpret national characters; they create them. But what they create is a series of individual things, characters in novels, images in poems, landscapes in pictures. Types and distinctive qualities are second-hand conventions. If you see what you think is a typical Englishman, it’s a hundred to one that you’ve got your notion of a typical Englishman from your second-hand reading. It is only in satire that types are properly used: a typical Englishman can exist only in such figures as Low’s Colonel Blimp. If you look at Mr. Jackson’s paintings, you will see a most impressive pictorial survey of Canada: pictures of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior, pictures of the Quebec Laurentians, pictures of Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie River. What you will not see is a typically Canadian landscape: no such place exists. In fiction too, there is nothing typically Canadian, and Canada would not be a very interesting place to live in if there were. Only the outsider to a country finds characters or patterns of behaviour that are seriously typical. Maria Chapdelaine has something of this typifying quality, but then Maria Chapdelaine is a tourist’s novel. (CW 12, 275)

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A. Y. Jackson


Wilderness, Deese Bay

On this date in 1974 A. Y. Jackson died.

Frye in “Culture and the National Will” (regarding the way in which artists — literary ones included — create the national landscape):

If you look at Mr. Jackson’s paintings, you will see a most impressive pictorial survey of Canada: pictures of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior, pictures of the Quebec Laurentians, pictures of Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie River.  What you will not see is a typically Canadian landscape: no such place exists. (CW, 12, 275)

Vintage CBC report on the Group of Seven and the Rheostatics after the jump.

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Update from the Frye Festival


The child sex abuse scandal that’s rocking the Roman Catholic Church guarantees that Linden MacIntrye’s The Bishop’s Man will continue to chart the bestseller list for a while longer.  Winner of the Giller Prize last fall, it’s well worth the read, topical or not.  In an interview last fall, in connection with his winning the Giller, MacIntyre talked about what draws him to the novel.  As a journalist with CBC’s ‘The Fifth Estate’ he has covered the story of the church’s attempts to cover up incidents of sexual abuse.  The novel allows him to do something that he cannot do as a journalist.  It allows him to go inside the minds of his characters.  It allows him to inhabit his characters and bring them to life as full human beings, with all their virtues and vices.

In his book This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, Noah Richler takes up this same question as to what makes the novel special and seemingly immune to constant threats to kill it off.  “What sets the novel apart is the ‘imaginative leap’ that its author makes in order to create and then inhabit a character, and that its readers make in turn.  This simple dynamic is what gives the novel its identity. … And in this assumption that readers make – that we are all, at some base level, alike – lies the magnanimity, but also the aggressive and even colonizing impulse of the novel.   For the novel is a hegemonic thing, righteous on behalf of a certain conception of humankind’s place in the world.”

The novel does what other forms of storytelling (such as the epic and the mythic stories that we associate with “oral” societies’) cannot do.  Again quoting Richler: “The novel says, ‘For me to know you and portray you in good faith, I must remember that you and I are fundamentally alike.  Perhaps only circumstance is what has made us different’.”  Novelists do their work by “putting themselves in their protagonists’ shoes and making that imaginative leap, no matter their creations’ extremities of character.”  There is no absolute evil in the novel, as there is in the epic and in creation myths.  The worst characters in a novel are still human beings, like all the rest of us.  “This quality puts the novel close to be an ‘end of narrative,’ if you like – a form of story that is as versatile and enduring as the belief in human rights that it reflects.”

Others have less faith, or no faith at all, in the novel’s versatility and endurance.  Books heralding the death of the novel are nothing new, and the latest is David Shields’ Reality Hunger.  The novel as we know it, with its linear plot and defined character, is, Shields believes, dead – or worse, irrelevant.  “Conventional fiction teaches the reader that life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in a neatly wrapped-up revelation.  Life, though – standing on a street corner, channel surfing, trying to navigate the Web – flies at us in bright splinters.”  Our reality is fragmented, chaotic, asymmetrical, elusive and noisy, and since reality is what we hunger for, the conventional novel is obviously inadequate for the task.  It’s a throwback to a bygone era.  We need something new.  Shields’ prescription is what he calls the ‘lyric essay’ – based on the collage technique, the structural equivalent of our splintered reality.

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