An Alberta Tall Tale: The Studhorse Man

Studhorse-Man3Robert Kroetsch stands out as one of Canada’s most unique and talented story-tellers. Canadian literary culture lost something when he died two years ago. Kroetsch is one of those strange beasts that is both a great poet and a great novelist. Normally, you are good at one thing and not so hot at the other, but Kroetsch belies this trend. There is a great website that catalogues his work and makes a number of interviews and media clips available to the public.

Anyways, I picked up a lovely copy of The Studhorse Man when I was in Alberta a year ago and I finally pulled it off of the shelves. This is a raucous, rowdy and raunchy tale of a studhorse man who is trying to keep his rare breed of blue horse alive by impregnating any good mares he can find as makes his way across Alberta in the last days of World War I. Hazard Lepage, said studhorse man, is a larger-than-life character who becomes a hero of sorts in the novel even as he becomes increasingly desperate in his attempts to breed Poseidon, the blue stallion. As with Kroetsch’s other novels, there is an element of the ridiculous in this novel as Lepage ends up travelling to Edmonton in a train-car full of bones, starts a stampede of horses through Edmonton’s streets in a blizzard, loses his clothes in a schoolhouse fire but somehow manages not to freeze to death, and then ends up sleeping with almost every woman he meets. I wouldn’t call Kroetsch’s writing magic realism because that term has a specific cultural history just like Kroetsch’s writing draws on the frontier tradition of tall tales. Because that is what The Studhorse Man reads like at times: a rambling, alcohol fuelled narrative told at a grungy bar under dim lights.

Yet what made The Studhorse Man most interesting for me wa s the narrative structure that Kroetsch employs. Lepage doesn’t narrate the story nor does an impersonal third-person. Instead, we have Demeter Proudfoot, a cousin of Lepage’s fiancee Martha, who tells the story from an empty bathtub in an insane asylum. Demeter’s relation to Lepage slowly becomes apparent over the course of the novel and it provided intrigue to no end for me. It’s almost like a mystery novel where the writer dangles something intangible in front of you without really showing his hand. What it also does is leave readers constantly questioning how much of the story we are told actually happened (Demeter is unreliable to say the least) and how much is fabrication. Yet this kind of shifting narrative fits perfectly with Alberta’s wild west climate in the early part of the 20th century. And, given the ludicrous and slap-dash politics currently animating the province, it continues to fit as a kind of provincial narrative/allegory.

I highly recommend this book for Alberta readers, but be warned that there is plenty of reproduction in this novel.

Kroetsch, Robert. The Studhorse Man. 1969. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2004. Print.

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This Book is Slippery and Surprising: Lolita

lolitaChances are that even if you have not read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita you at least know what it is about. It’s about an older man loving a pre-pubescent girl, or nymphet as Humbert Humbert calls them.  It is is titillating and immoral.* Well, this is what I thought going in. But this is not what the book is about. If you are looking for a pornographic or lascivious book, then Lolita is bound to disappoint you. Yes, Humbert is a pedophile, but he openly admits this at various points. Yes, there is sex between an adult and a minor, but it is never portrayed directly nor is it crude or lewd. What Lolita is about is a self-deluded and totally unreliable narrator.

This is not to say that the novel is not slippery. Humbert is cunning as he tries to get readers to sympathize with him. The novel is set up as a kind of memoir written while Humbert is in jail, long after his relationship with Lolita is finished. I say Humbert is cunning because he gets readers to sympathize with him through his various rationalizations of what is he doing, but then something slips in the narration and we suddenly realize that we have unwittingly crossed some kind of moral line. Nabokov is masterful in his ability to string readers along and then expose them for their own failings. As my friend J said to me about the book, part of its strength is its ability to make us realize that we are all, at heart, animals; we are not so different from Humbert no matter how much we want to be.

This might be the first case, at least since my high school years, where I was nervous about reading a book in public. J and I had a long argument about this, but the fact that most people assume Lolita is an immoral and pornographic book, even though they probably have not read it, meant that I was careful where I brought it out to read. I have read far worse books, yet Lolita’s popular reputation tended to precede itself.

Two things really surprised me in the novel. First, that it is a road novel in the sense that a lot of its action takes place on the road. Humbert and Lolita travel across America several times, and I loved how Nabokov dove into the tourist countryside, exposing its cheapness yet also showing how we enjoy it all the same. A lot of this comes in the first few pages of Part 2, and most of it is quite funny. For example, Nabokov writes “we avoided Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones, old-fashioned, genteel and showerless, with elaborate dressing tables in depressingly white-and-pink little bedrooms, and photographs of the landlady’s children in all their instars” (146). I could immediately call to mind a couple of different roadside inns that fit this example quite well. This is just one of a number of descriptions that resonated with my own experience travelling across North America.

The second thing that surprised me was how Humbert actually loses Lolita with more than a third of the novel left. She disappears and he spends several years desperately searching for her. This was a turn I had not expected and kept me turning the pages.

*spoiler alert*

Humbert does find Lolita again, but by this point she is out of his “nymphet” stage. Yet it is at this point that his love for her actually becomes visible. He even recognizes that he has, in a major way, stolen Lolita’s childhood. I really appreciated the emotional depth that Nabokov suddenly springs on the readers. Lolita is a masterpiece. That being said, it is not for everyone. It is about a very problematic relationship that has troubling implications, but it is also quite high-brow in the sense that it is loaded with allusions to French, German, and European literature. If you get an annotated copy, it is probably easier to make sense of the dense writing, but this is not totally necessary either.

I would hesitantly recommend this novel for those interested in American literature. But if the subject matter is not something that you can, at the least, suspend judgment about, then this is not for you.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. 1955. New York: Vintage International, 1997. Print.

*If you have made your judgment based on the movie (Kubrick’s or the other more recent and less successful Lyne adaptation), please read the book. It is different in a number of critical ways.

Cetology 101: Moby Dick

moby-dick

Rather than try and summarize or review a 600+ page tome in this short review, I’m going to talk about a few things that I found interesting about the novel. It was a wildly entertaining read at times, and a more prosaic and tedious read at others. Like a whale, the narrative is sometimes visible and moving along at a good clip, and at other times it is submerged while Melville pontificates and meditates on various sundry subjects connected to whaling. Some of these meditations are amazing and some are less than stellar. I found it ironic when at a certain point the narrator, Ishmael, writes these words:

“So far as what there may be of a narrative in this book; and indeed, as indirectly touching one or two very interesting and curious particulars in the habits of sperm whales, the foregoing chapter, in its earlier part, is as important a one as will be found in this volume …. I care not to perform this part of my task methodically” (221)

Melville seem to honestly believe that every part is justified by being interesting and curious, and he indulges in many moments of unmethodical wandering. In a way, it seems fitting that Moby Dick, often seen as one of, if not the, great American novel is so rambling, diffuse, and maniacal. The US is anything but streamlined, completely coherent, and carefully structured. At the same time, Moby Dick is about whaling, Ahab’s quest for the white whale, and a growing sense of despair felt by the crew at being caught in the jaws of fate. Similarly, the US is about liberty, freedom, the right to bear arms, and so on. It is easy to read Moby Dick as some kind of meta-narrative or allegory about the US as a nation. However, I think this reading overlooks a key point in the text when Ishmael, in justifying his need to explain all the particulars of whaling, states:

“So ignorant are most landsmen of some of the plainest and most palpable wonders of the world, that without some hints touching the plain facts, historical and otherwise, of the fishery, they might scout at Moby Dick as a monstrous fable, or still worse and more detestable, a hideous and intolerable allegory.” (223)

Now, if you want to claim this novel as an allegory, this poses a challenge. Melville explicitly claims the narrative of Moby Dick as a real event. Of course, such words come from a fictional character who may or may not be totally sane having spent two days at sea clinging to a coffin (thanks to JF for pointing this out to me). The complexity of the novel is amazing not only for its publication date (1851) but also how it has been taken up as a key text of English literature in general. As JF also pointed out to me, the actual narrative about Ahab chasing the whale amounts to less than 100 pages of the novel while everything is “filler.” Another friend, LK, told me how she enjoyed reading these sections most and her optimism helped me through some rough patches. In one of these sections, I came across this amazing sentence:

“And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth, and the round world itself but an empty cipher, except to sell by the cartload, as they do hills about Boston, to fill up some morass in the Milky Way” (470)

I had to re-read this a few times. In a stunning way, Melville justifies all of the wandering he does because to not do so would be to miss the “certain significance [that] lurks in all things.” He even makes the bold claim that such significance gives the world its true meaning. You can quibble with Melville’s view, but I think that these words give credence to my own belief that narrative, or story-telling, is one of the highest human activities, perhaps the most important one. For if we can tell stories that show the significance in all things, we give meaning and worth to them.

That’s enough cheap philosophizing for me. “Turn up all hands and make sail!” This reader is off to book number 4.

I would not recommend this book to someone looking for a tight narrative or quick read, but I would recommend it for someone who has not read it. It’s worth reading through to the end as important things happen in the last 50 pages, but it takes a lot of work to get to there.

Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2003. Print

PS. For some great contextual material on Moby Dick, check out these blog posts over at Verba Americana