Saturday, February 02, 2013

Reader's Diary #944- Hugh MacLennan: Two Solitudes

Do you read more than one book at a time? I do, but I usually get gasps of either disbelief or disdain if that comes up in conversation. Most people seem to practice monogamy with their books, but then I don't hang out with any other book bloggers. Do the same people who only read one novel at a time also just watch one TV series at a time? If you can watch Modern Family and Parks and Recreation each week and not mix up the cast or plots, I'm sure you can separate the characters of Two Solitudes and Indian Horse.

I bring this up because, as I've already stated, I've been concurrently reading this year's Canada Reads contenders. For the most part it's worked out great and I can easily pick my favourites and compare them thoroughly, simply based on enjoyment and eagerness to switch to the next book. However it's not foolproof, and Two Solitudes may have suffered from my system. Basically I chose different times of the day or week for each book: February was my morning coffee book, Indian Horse and The Age of Hope were my weekend books, Away was my (ahem) bathroom book, and Two Solitudes was my bedtime book.

To be fair to Two Solitudes, maybe it was as boring or confusing as I thought, maybe I was just tired. But I will say that I've read plenty of books at bedtime before and many of them were compelling enough to keep me awake. Two Solitudes did not.

I found Two Solitudes to be too serious and too gloomy. Dealing with the whole French-English divide thing for over 500 pages was just about more than I could bear. I understand that for some people, especially in certain parts of the country, it was and remains a real issue, but it's never been a big factor in my life (and my kids are in French immersion, by the way). The way MacLennan presents it is as if it's all Canadians ever think about, as if Canada only has two cultures and those two cultures are in a constant struggle with one another.

It doesn't help that MacLennan seems to flounder about looking for a central character. It begins with Athanase Tallard, a Quebecois who marries an Irish woman and increasingly, through his business plans, disagreements with the Catholic church, and his politics, finds himself alienated in a community where he and his family before him, had been like royalty. This in and of itself could have made a strong point, but with still half a book to go, MacLennan kills off Athanase and toys briefly with making his oldest son Marius (from his first, now deceased wife) the star of the book. Unlike Athanase who learned a lesson about being two eager to adopt the ways of the "other side," through Marius we're to learn a lesson about being too resistant to the other side. There, another good point to end on. Nope. We also have to see this thing through with Paul, Athanase's second son, of mixed French and English heritage. He, of course, goes through the internal struggle, blah, blah, blah and I think he comes to the conclusion, or we're supposed to, that like Canada, his two sides are just going to have to appreciate that they live side by side, will never fully mix, but strengthen each other with their co-existence, just as the title promised us all along. Well, la-dee-da.

Lighten up already.


Kate said...

This book has the distinction of being one of the few books that I have started but never finished. For several years now, I thought that maybe I was too young to appreciate it (I think that I was about 16 or 17 at the time); but my impressions of it now echo your - serious, gloomy, and unfocused. I think that I will postpone indefinitely giving it another go!

(And to answer your question, I often have more than one book on the go - that way I can match my reading to my mood.)

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It might be telling that I can't remember very much at all about Two Solitudes, just that sense of serious gloominess.

I do read more than one book at a time, especially if I am reading non-fiction.

Melwyk said...

Oh my goodness, I disliked this book the first time I read it -- too gloomy and dull -- and am not bothering to reread. A better book published around the same time about the THREE solitudes in Quebec -- English, French & Jewish -- was Gwethalyn Graham's "Earth & High Heaven". In my opinion. And also in the Governor General's award people's opinion, as it won that year (1944)

Anonymous said...

Two Solitudes: I've stalled out about 20 pages in. I'm now completely ignoring the poor thing, reading anything else I can. I promised myself I'd read it for Canada Reads, but I dunno...

So it's nice to know I'm not alone. (Though some of you have at least finished it.)

It may pick up some. And some of the issues may be "physical". The copy I've acquired is an older poorly printed paperback, text way too close to the page margins, with yellowing pages & tiny type; I'm having a hard time with that; can't (literally) focus.

John Mutford said...

Well Kate, Barbara, Melwyk, and Leavesandpages, looks like I'm not the sole voice of dissent where this book is concerned. Still, it clearly has its share of fans. It was voted into the top 5 books to represent Quebec by this year's Canada Reads followers.

Shonna said...

I read Two Solitudes decades ago, and don't remember a lot. I loved his Barometer Rising however.

On the subject of reading more than one book at a time, that is my norm. I always have a book by the bed, a book by my chair in the living room, a book in my purse, an audiobook in the car, and another one to read wherever. I generally have a variety and don't have trouble keeping them straight.

Eric P said...

I have to admit I personally wasn't crazy about Barometer Rising (I reviewed it for the 5th challenge). I vaguely remember sort of liking The Watch That Ends the Night and will probably try to reread that in the next few years. I don't think I will like Two Solitudes, but I will give it a shot later in the year (perhaps aiming for the 7th Challenge).

Jules said...

I also read multiple books at a time. Commute book, lunch break book, after work relax book etc. And, I agree, it's no different than watching multiple TV series at once.

You made some excellent points here - especially about the characters, which is probably the books major down fall - characterization. I still enjoyed it more than Age of Hope and Indian Horse, but I also had a lot of issues with it.

John Mutford said...

Shonna and Eric: I didn't like Two Solitudes, but not so much that I won't eventually give Barometer Rising a shot. Also The Watch That Ends the Night.

Jules: I used to have a book left in the van for those occasions when I find myself waiting on my wife to run an errand. But then she cleans out the van on me and I'm missing my book so many times, that I've given that up. Now I keep one on my phone for that.