Photo source: Dave McFarlane
Spacing Montreal present’s this regular column exploring Montreal’s literary landscape, written by Gregory McCormick, Director of Programming for the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival.
I’ve always thought that therapy is a natural kind of job for a writer. It’s through telling stories, after all, where we come to understand our own history, our own problems. And it’s through these stories, through the gentle guidance of a good therapist that we can find the solutions, too.
A writer friend of mine has recently become certified as a therapist and in the few times I’ve seen her in the last several months, stories seem to form the core of what she’s been doing: stories we tell ourselves, stories we tell our families, our lovers, our friends, stories we tell our therapists. And almost like an editor, a therapist is tasked with deciphering these stories, seeing the weaknesses in them, the missteps, the bits that challenge credibility or believability.
I was struck with the thoughts above recently while reading Alix Ohlin’s excellent 2012 novel Inside. Starting out in Montreal in the late 1990s, the novel is told from the point of view of a recently divorced therapist who comes to the aid of a young man who’s attempted suicide on the Mountain one afternoon where she discovers him unconscious:
At first glance, she mistook him for something else. In the fading winter light he could have been a branch or a log, even a tire; in the many years she’d been skiing on Mount Royal, she’d found stranger debris across her path. People left behind their scarves, their shoes, their inhibitions: she’d come across lovers naked to the sky, even on cold days. In spite of these distractions, the mountain was the one place where she felt at peace, especially in winter, when tree branches stretched empty of leaves and she could see the city below her – its clusters of green-spired churches and gray sky-scrapers laid out, graspable, streets rolling down to the Old Port, and in either direction the bridges extending over the pale water of the St. Lawrence.
Most of us can relate to this sense of peace that we associate with the mountain. Though I don’t ski up there (or, at least, haven’t yet), for me the mountain offers an escape from the cement and concrete of the city, a place where I am reminded of the enormity of nature without having to leave the city. And, like the stories we tell our narrators, the stories we recall about our experiences on the mountain come to signify that landscape in countless ways: the picnics, the adventures, the rainstorms we’re caught in, the love affairs we start or end, the friends who tell us momentous stories of their own lives. Nearly every trail has some memory associated with it for me and after years of experiencing that, all these stories create a highly personal Mount Royal unique to me.
The narrator adopts this man as he attempts to heal and though the book and characters move on to other places (New York, California, Africa), it is in Montreal, with the mountain at its centre, it’s in the telling and the retelling of stories, where these characters find their redemption.