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Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I

By Neta Gordon

Review By James Gifford

April 8, 2014

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 209-211

Neta Gordon’s Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I is a firmly contemporary study of the notion of the Great War in modern memory: that is, the First World War’s imaginative reconstruction or figurative operation in Canadian literature since Timothy Findley’s The Wars in 1977. In many respects, Findley is the continual touchstone of Gordon’s work, marking a rupture in Canadian thought between an emerging pacifist vision of wartime horrors and a lingering patriotic understanding of the First World War as the birth of the nation or, in the language of the text, its crucible. As a survey of Canadian representations of the war from the 1990s to the present, Gordon is on firm ground (most frequently on Broken Ground), and the volume’s value is indisputable in this respect. Readers should, however, note that Catching the Torch is not concerned with the First World War nor the literature of the war itself. Small issues remind the reader of this, such as the mis-spelling of Robert Graves and, apart from John McCrae, the absence of First World War works with an influence on contemporary Canadian writers.

The most compelling chapter, and probably the most important for Gordon’s stated aim to rethink presentations of the war after Findley, is “Abandoning the Archivist,” in which she contrasts “The Wars as a historiographic metafiction” (86) against Alan Cumyn, Jane Urquhart, and Jack Hodgins’ “relative disinterest in sorting through the problem of how to confront a historical record” (86). The work is also highly convincing in its analysis of the function of depictions of the war in shaping concepts of the nation and authorial resistance against essentialist understandings of national characters. In some respects this reflects an impassioned belief in cultural pluralism perhaps best described here under the moniker of multiculturalism. Gordon presents this pluralism as deeply bound to the operation of the war in literature as transformed after Findley, such that the “crucible” that bore the nation is displaced by a recognition of “the essential nation as a fraught, possibly misguided, and ultimately failed venture” (61).

The book’s opening literature review will be helpful for many scholars, and as a narrative development of critical understandings of the figuration of First World War in contemporary Canadian literature, Gordon is unlikely to be superseded any time soon. Critically, Evelyn Cobley’s Representing War: Form and Ideology in First World War Narratives is the strongest influence here, and for good reason. Gordon’s work is convincing in its addition to Cobley by bringing the analysis forward to the twenty-first century. There is passing mention of the parallel resurgence of depictions of the First World War in British literature, particularly Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, but Gordon does not explore the comparison nor offer a sense of how Canada’s recuperation of such materials at the same time is unique. In some respects, the literature review continues across the book as a whole, with moments in some chapters functioning as a sequence of responses to various articles or chapters – my impression is that Gordon has, of necessity, responded to calls for inclusion of existing critical works. While the survey component is useful, at points it distracts from the “red thread” of her compelling interpretive efforts. Similarly, the theoretical frame is unclear and perhaps not needed. The opening literature review invokes Georg Lukács that “the historical drama necessarily presents the activities of figures to be taken as exemplars of dialectical historical forces at work,” while “historical novels depend on… the sense that historical forces are producing conflict and change” (4). Nevertheless, the Marxist analysis does not resurface, despite the natural moment in which she (again, compellingly) contends “[nationalist] myth as a product of imaginative energy is something that has long proved to be an amazingly powerful, even dangerous, motivator” (60). The operations of ideology and the contemporary historical forces producing the historical drama or the historical novel in the final decade of the twentieth century and first decade of the twenty-first would be helpful in this regard.

A related frustration is the relative absence of a cultural studies approach to the function of the Great War in literary works emerging at the same time as other contemporary conflicts — it would seem no accident that the flowering of Canadian responses to the topic of the war that she identifies came during the end of the Cold War and Canada’s involvement in other conflicts for which nation-love would be more complex or discomfiting, ranging from Oka and the first Gulf War to Somalia and the Yugoslav Wars across the decade. Much as John Storey has explored the differences between the American war in Vietnam and its afterlife in popular media as a tool for use in other later conflicts (Bush Sr.’s feeling amidst the Gulf War that America had kicked a “Vietnam Syndrome” best understood through Hollywood not history), a relationship seems to exist in the various works under examination between the image of one war and its representation during another. It is, for this reason, a surprise to find no exploration of contemporary military conflicts or service. This is perhaps most notable in relation to Gordon’s very much needed discussion of Vern Thiessen’s play Vimy, which has been inescapably related to Canada’s role in the War in Afghanistan in reviews, media, and marketing.

Despite these critiques, Gordon’s monograph is excellent work and will be a vital part of understanding contemporary literature of British Columbia and Ontario. BC Studies readers will find her analysis of Hodgins’ Broken Ground of particular merit.

Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Responses to World War I
Neta Gordon
Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2014. 222pp. $65.00 cloth