Ricci, Nino. The Origin of the Species. Toronto: Doubleday, 2008.
I find it difficult to describe works of Canadian literature. I’ve grown up with so much of the stuff: there was the traditional childhood diet of Mowatt, Leacock and Richler, to be followed by the “usual cabal” [i] in my early adulthood: Hugh MacLennon, Gabrielle Roy, Margaret Lawrence, Leonard Cohen, EJ Pratt, Aldan Nowlan, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley, Carol Shields, and of course, Michael and Peggy[ii].When you live in, and read about, a place for your entire life, you grow accustomed to the language patterns, the imagery, and the questions posed; the task of describing those patterns, images and questions however, can prove frustrating.
A work like Nino Ricci’s The Origin of Species, is then, fascinatingly helpful. The novel could almost be used as a textbook for identifying the characteristics of Canadian literature. The theme of “survival,” as made infamous by Atwood’s book of the same name[ii], appears (among others) in the form of Esther, a young woman dying of MS, Amanda, a depressed university student, and Jiri, whose questionable professional ethics seem rooted in a compromising political decision made by his father on behalf of his children. There’s also the Canadian obsession with the “campus novel,” Protestant guilt, and psychoanalysis (our protagonist, Alex, passes a Unitarian church on his way from Concordia University to the hospital where he has his daily sessions with the “Freudian” doctor Klein). [iv] Finally, Ricci’s text includes the standard question of “place” and identity: between his travels around the world, and his studies of his family’s history, the Italian-Canadian Alex returns home to Montreal to puzzle over the problem of who he is, exactly: “He took his […] letters out of his […] drawer, as if to assure himself not so much that the boy was real but that he was” (447).
Ricci’s work is not only paradigmatic of Canadian literature, it’s also a confrontation of this literature, and a confrontation that is itself inextricable from the problem of “place”: the two major cities that form the backdrop to Alex’s narrative are Toronto and Montreal. These cities are sites that are haunted, both metaphorically and literally, by those same writers I’ve listed above, writers whose work has characterised Canadian geography, history, and politics (“Up Alymer was the Yellow Door, a basement-hole in the wall: Margaret Atwood had read there, and Leonard Cohen had played” 441).
The Origin of Species meditates on the role that literature (particularly Montreal-based literature) has had in shaping Canadian’s memories of its own historical and political identity: references to literary theories of Northrop Frye and Margaret Atwood, and post-World War Two novels like MacLennan’s Two Solitudes [v], are paired with meditations on the anti-Semitism in Montreal during the second world war, and the racism, Separatism, and the Constitutional disagreements between Trudeau and Levesque during the late 1960s through 1980 (arguably, many of the “defining” works of Canadian literature come out of these two periods ).
The book also offers a history of the Canadian university: Alex, working on his dissertation, comments on most of the major literary critics in Canada during the 1980s: Frye and Atwood, Freud and Jung, and even Foucault, are commonplaces Alex throws around almost in boredom when describing his research and teaching. Fascinatingly (to me), is the way Alex also irreverently uses (abuses?) the names of the contemporary (in the 1980s) theorists: Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Derrida, and Kristeva, theorists whose writings remain influential in North American literary theory (Baudrillard only recently died in 2007, Derrida in 2004; Kristeva, of course, is still writing). The selection of these particular names is fascinating, partially because it reminds the reader of the role hindsight plays in historiography (I imagine it is easier to identify the “defining” theorists of the age when twenty or thirty years have proved their continuing relevance).
The decision to identify theorists who are not even “Canadian” as pivotal figures (though not figures who escape critique) in Canadian literary and historical narratives, also suggests the importance of the university in defining Canadian cultural identity. Though I’ve been aware for some time that the campus novel seems rather more prevalent in Canadian literature than American lit.[vi], Ricci’s text, and its reflections on the history of Canadian literature, reveal that even literature not strictly thematising the university environment (all of Davies’s works, Urquhart’s Changing Heaven, Lawson’s Crow Lake, or Bowering’s title story in Standing on Richards), is often closely linked to the university: it’s almost impossible to discuss Montreal or Toronto without references to U of T, McGill, and Concordia: these universities re-appear in the novels of Richler, Findley, Atwood and Ondaatje, as well as in Canadian poetry (Erin Mouré’s recent “trans-e-lation” of Pessoa’s “A Keeper of Sheep” is reworked to characterise Toronto, and includes references to the university as well as to the post-structuralist theory in Ricci’s book). Many major contemporary Canadian writers are also presently affiliated with the university, either as professors or writers-in-residence (though perhaps this situation is not uncommon in other geographies).
Much as noticing the presence of the university in Canadian literature gave me the happy (and probably disproportionate) sense of being included in the literary community, I must also admit I’m relieved to have read this book now, having finished my undergrad thesis, and before embarking on MA and PhD level research. Reflecting on the role of the university also means reflecting on the importance of the university to the individual: Alex’s frustration and, at times, loathing for the work that consumes his life, the resulting self-doubt and inability to engage in seemingly important personal and social relations (though not all of that can be blamed on his preoccupation with his work), the competitive, and potentially destructive[vii], attitudes which can attend academic pursuits: Ricci faithfully portrays all of these at the same time that he suggests the importance of the university and the work involved there. I’m not certain I’d want to re-experience these frustrations in novel form while concurrently experiencing them first-hand.
[i] “usual cabal”. A phrase I borrow from Robertson Davies’s Fifth Business.
[ii] Michael and Peggy. Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood.
[iii] of the same name. The narrator, Alex, refers to the book from which he cadges all his notes for his “Introduction to Canadian Literature” lecture.
[iv] Doctor Klein. Most of these sessions involve working through his guilt at a questionable sexual encounter with his ex-girlfriend Liz, and the fate of a doctoral student he meets on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, until he eventually realises he is plagued with guilt at “the niggling sense that he didn’t feel remorseful at all” (372). Feeling guilty about one’s lack of guilt is pretty standard for Canadian literature.
[v] Two Solitudes. A reference to Canada’s Anglo-Franco identity.
[vi] American lit. Though I’m curious at how accurate this assessment is. I’m also curious to know how inclusive Ricci’s book is for non-Canadian readers.
8 December 2008 ~ St. Catharines.