Montréal Lit: MacLennan’s subtle, intricate city

Spacing Montreal is pleased to present a new bi-weekly column exploring Montreal’s literary landscape, written by Gregory McCormick, Director of English Programming for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.

I was thrilled to see McGill-Queen’s Press re-releasing some of Hugh MacLennan’s most well-known books the last couple of years. MacLennan, though his reputation has somewhat dimmed since the height of his career, is certainly one of Canada’s brightest literary stars, and the neglect that befell his work into the sixties and seventies was a testament to the issues of the day that required intellectuals to look forward and not backward.

His work, The Watch That Ends the Night, is set in the “Golden Square Mile” area of downtown Montreal. The term itself is anachronistic and refers to the fact that some of Canada’s wealthiest families built mansions along Sherbrooke Street – few of which are still standing today, in fact. By the 1930s and 40s, most of these families had gone, taking their wealth and ostentatious lifestyles with them. There are few remnants of this world of privilege and class left though on the street one can see traces in the few remaining stone houses and the occasional church.

The book, assumed to be highly autobiographical, tells the story of an academic, George Stewart, and his dying wife, Catherine and the sudden reappearance of Jerome Martell, Catherine’s first husband and George’s closest friend after his swallowing up into the chaos of Europe during WWII. When he returns to Montreal (everyone assumes that he has perished in a death camp like so many others have), the Stewarts’ lives are thrown into disarray. MacLennan reflects on Montreal in a passage that over fifty years later, still sums up life in our city:

It is a curious city, Montreal, and in this story I keep returning to the fact that it is. Strangers never understand its inner nature and immigrant families, even from other parts of Canada, can live here two generations without coming to know it in their bones. I am absolutely certain that Montreal is the subtlest and most intricate city in North America. With her history, she could not have been otherwise and survived, for here the French, the Scotch and the English, over two centuries, have been divided on issues which ruin nations and civilizations, yet have contrived to live in outward harmony. This is no accident. They understand certain rules in their bones.

The nature of the “immigrants” have changed since this was written (now it’s Vietnamese, Chinese, Haitians and Africans instead of European), but the principle is still largely unchanged. It’s also true that Montreal’s complexity is one of its undying charms (and most frustrating barriers for those new to the city) and this continues to be true today.

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