I mistakenly noted that I received this book “from the publisher” in my 20 Books of Summer list. Actually, I received it as part of a promotional push for Douglas Gibson’s 2011 memoir, Stories About Storytellers. The memoir is centered on his lengthy career in publishing, during which he oversaw and edited CanLit classics from luminaries like MacLennan, as well as Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Robertson Davies, and Alastair MacLeod.
In 2013, Gibson set up “The Storytellers Book Club“, with lengthy discussion questions for a selection of books covered in Storytellers. Bloggers were invited to review those books for chance to win the whole selection. I submitted this review of Alice Munro’s The Progress of Love and won, then proceeded to neither read nor review the rest of the books, because I suck. I also just realized, nearly six years later, that Gibson responded to my blog post about the contest (see his comment here), and I never responded. Now I feel really bad!
So in the style of that Munro review, I’ll give you a few quick impressions, then attempt one or two of Gibson’s discussion questions. As I noted back in 2013, Gibson’s questions are a bit biased, but I’ll work with them.
Personal vs Political
You could look at this book from two angles: a tragic love triangle, or portrait of the social and political upheaval in the first half of the 20th century in Montreal. Of course it’s both, and the love triangle reflects the political tension.
This book didn’t quite work for me because the personal parts, the story of George’s quiet love for Catherine and Catherine and Jerome’s rocky marriage, were so overwrought. Everything was profound so nothing was. The political landscape was more nuanced, somehow, I liked how the young people drinking beer and discussing politics during the depression slowly ramped up to rallies, riots, and finally war.
Twitter circa 1935
If you need more evidence that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, or plus ça change if you prefer, consider some of these quotes in light of our current political and social media situation:
“Can you keep politics out of anything these days?”Basically Twitter
“You people rot your minds with all this stuff you read and repeat it to each other. I suppose you think I’m a reactionary.”
The names and phrases of the time cascaded learnedly throughout the room: Laski, Keynes, Marx, Selassie, Lenin, Ras Desta, Trotsky, Hitler, Mussolini, Blum, Azana, Hitler. Mussolini, Litvinov, Goebbels, Suner, Samuel Hoare, Hitler, Mussolini, Baldwin, Stavisky, Chamberlain, Lansbury, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler…Substitute the names of politicians you’re sick of hearing about
“This damned Spanish War, you’d think it was happening here. All these meetings where the same people tell each other the same old things. What do they know about Spain? How the hell do they know whether what they say is true or not? At best they’re guessing, at worst they’re saying what they like to hear.”Fake News
Of course, the difference between now and then is that then, if you really felt strongly about socialism or a foreign war, you could go fight, like Jerome did when he went to Spain. These days…
Me and Jerome and the Dying Girl
As in my first 20 Books of Summer review, two books I’m reading seem to be in conversation. In this case, I will not dignify Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with a full comparison, but, Catherine is indeed a dying girl and the book is mediated through men’s reaction to her, and often those men are dicks.
We see the world through the eyes of George, a lonely man, lacking self confidence, with parents who would be lovable if they weren’t so embarrassing. His only close friend Jerome comes from a tragic background and is a much stronger personality, passionate, sometimes violent. If you’ve seen or read Me & Earl, the parallels are obvious, though The Watch has much more to say about, well, everything, except perhaps the girl, who’s main feature in both books is that she’s dying.
Then there are the parallels to the teen cancer book that rules them all, The Fault in Our Stars. Catherine gives a version of Augustus’ “grenade” speech several times, and George even paraphrases that Shakespeare line that inspired John Green sixty years later:
I thought of Waterloo and despised myself for having squandered so many years there. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars if we allow the Bigbees to bluff us.Bigbee is the school master at Waterloo, where George hid out from his problems for a while
Discussion Questions (see the whole set here)
15. The book gives us a wide-ranging survey of European and North American politics through the ’30s and ’40s. During the writing Hugh re-read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with the greatest admiration, and with hopes of also being able to deal with the great eternal themes. To what extent do you think he succeeded?The Storytellers Book Club
Not to the extent of War and Peace, which made the love triangle (Pierre – Andrei – Natasha, which somewhat matches up with George-Jerome-Catherine) just as compelling as the war. Maybe if MacLennan has included some battle scenes? By using a first person perspective and seeing the world through George’s eyes, we missed out on the battlefield action Jerome saw, and the domestic drama of Catherine’s life.
5. When I was compiling Hugh MacLennan’s Best, I selected the episode of Jerome escaping in his canoe from the murderer in the New Brunswick logging camp. I found it a superb, self-contained story, a wonderful piece of writing. Did you? If so, what impressed you most?The Storytellers Book Club
I did indeed. We do get one chapter of Jerome’s life in detail, recalled by George, and it’s a strange, stand-alone short story plunked in the middle of a novel.
19. If I had been the editor, I think that at the end I would have asked Hugh to add a scene where Jerome confronts his daughter Sally. As you notice, they never meet, and I regret that. Do you agree? And I would have asked Hugh to take us all the way to Catherine’s death for the book’s ending. Would I have been wrong? Do you prefer Hugh’s gentle ending?llers Book Club
Hard agree. The ending becomes very philosophical and religious, and it makes sense, tying together a lot of the themes and reflecting George’s maturity, but I thought Sally was under utilized in general.
I’ll end this rather disjointed “review” with another Canadian classic, “Courage” by the Tragically Hip, which was inspired by this book: