I first read Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes in high school. At that time, while Trudeaumania raged and de Gaulle thumbed-up Quebec separation, I sank into the ill-fated nationalistic love story from my parents’ home on the ravine of the Humber River in West Toronto, several metres above Étienne Brûlé Park.
Étienne Brûlé was the first Coureur de Bois to journey along the St. Lawrence River and the Humber River with Native guides in the 17th century. But that name meant nothing to me at the time. It was only a historic marker stabbed in the dirt.
I’d ignore it then toss down a blanket, slip the bookmark from between the page and maybe lose a few hours. Or I’d settle into someone’s story while on a dinner break from my job as serving wench at the Old Sod up the hill on Bloor Street. I read to a gurgling stomach.
I opened MacLennan again last summer as a passenger on a VIA Rail train, while moving my 18-year old son from Toronto to Montreal, where he was beginning a five-year term in mechanical engineering at McGill.
Maybe I wanted to be reminded of the two solitudes and note any changes. Maybe I wanted to impress culture and nation upon my child, fearful that his future might be bereft of books.
The other day I stumbled upon MacLennan once again, this time in Canada From Afar: Book of Canadian Obituaries. In three tiny pages I learned that the title of his book came from Rilke: “Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch each other.”
Thinking back to that train ride, the line also echoes my love for my son. Less solitudinous though, I hope.
I learned that MacLennan was the first major Canadian novelist to explore Canada’s national character. I learned that he moved quickly into cynicism but that he also had a great sense of humour.
I learned that he wrote essays. He wrote one about the difficulties facing Canadian authors in finding an audience: He called it: “Boy Meets Girl in Winnipeg, and Who Cares?”
I learned that he taught English Literature at McGill. And that he knew about the dividing line between French and English on Sherbrooke Street.
I learned he was appalled to discover that the cinematic version of Two Solitudes, filmed on location in Montreal in 1978, was directed by British-born Lionel Chetwynd and starred a British actor and a Parisienne actor.
MacLennan’s best-ever book, according to this obituary writer, was The Watch That Ends the Night, a strongly autobiographical novel about a couple coming to terms with the wife’s terminal illness.
I’ve ordered it from the library. Hope to get it, to read it, to return it, before Toronto mayor Rob Ford makes reading in this city obsolete. On that note, please check out and sign this petition.
Save culture. Save Canadian literature. Do it for Hugh MacLennan.