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Vanderhaeghe Lecture

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Western University
English 2060E

Guy Vanderhaeghe (b. 1951) Biography Born and educated in Saskatchewan, Vanderhaeghe is a short story writer and novelist, winning a Governor Generals award for both forms of fiction for Man Descending (1982) and The Englishmans Boy (1996). The story were reading The Watcher comes from Man Descending, is, like many of Vanderhaeghes short stories, according to prairie writer and critic Dennis Cooley, structurally conservative and concentrated on the humiliations of male characters, varying in age from childhood to old age (1161). The value of the stories is the complexity of their psychological realism where characters often become complicit with the violence and brutality they see around them while still retaining vestiges of readers sympathy. Cooley continues: Embarrassment and shame threaten to undo them; cunning protects them; and pride in small ways sustains them (1161). This psychological detail and interest in how shame leads and guides characters, not always to their undoing, links Vanderhaeghe with Alice Munro and her variation on the gothic in her short stories. He has acknowledged his influences to be other Prairie writers such as Sinclair Ross, Margaret Laurence and Robert Kroetsch (his novels such as The Studhorse Man presumably), but also American Gothic writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Flannery OConnor. Style In Violence and Narrative Metalepsis in Guy Vanderhaeghes Fiction, Tom Gerry lists the positive aspects of Vanderhaeghes style: vividly realized, gripping, profoundly disturbing in its implications. Part of the disturbance, Gerry argues, is that Vanderhaeghes human interest lies in the darker side of the humanity and avoids any simple heroisms or heroes. This reluctance to follow an epic narrative arc may come from his interest in an oral tradition of story-telling that developed in rural communities (Vanderhaeghe qtd. in Gerry) common in his Saskatchewan milieu as well as those Southern gothic writers previously mentioned. Gerry goes on to specifically tie the Southern Gothic and Louise Gossetts work on types of violence in it to Vanderhaeghe. He uses Gossetts distinction between Psychological violence [that] is relayed in states of mind and feelings[, and p]hysical violence [that] is the consequence of force exerted by a character against himself or against others, resulting in extreme acts like arson, rape, mutilation, suicide and murder. At times . . . the violent force is the power of nature threatening man in storms, floods and droughts, or in hostile land (Gossett qtd. in Gerry). These forms of violence are difficult to extricate from each other and they are further complicated by Vanderhaeghes use of the grotesque, both dramatizations of disorder (ibid) that is an intense form of social critique found in such fictions and their thematic reliance on violence. While John Moss has trumpeted the moral dimensions of violence, readers may find some of Vanderhaeghes depictions disturbing. The narrator of The Watcher, for example, takes on the violence around him at times, but the question should be, I think, not what is wrong with the child narrator, but what comment is Vanderhaeghe making about the society Charlie is responding to and reflecting? Part of Vanderhaeghes commentary appears to be on the grotesque nature of Charlies society. Gerry uses Margot Northeys definition of the grotesque from The Haunted Wilderness: The Gothic and Grotesque in Canadian Fiction: a mode of writing rather than a condition or attribute of nature: the grotesque emphasizes incongruity, disorder, deformity, and arises from the juxtaposition or clash of the ideal with the real, the psychic with the physical, or the concrete with the symbolic. Are there clashes with the ideal and real, the psychic and the physical, or concrete and symbolic in The Watcher? There is certainly disorder and struggle between branches of the family, generations, rural and urban, watchers and actors. Gerrys ultimate argument is that the project of rediscovering order itself is at the core of Vanderhaeghe's art, as revealed by his uses of violence and the grotesque, and, on the formal level, by his uses of story (200). Order can be found in the conservative structure of the story with its build up of tension and traditional climax, but its up to you to decide whether his use of violence and the grotesque lead to order or disorder. The Watcher is a first-person retrospective narrative from the point of view of Charlie, a young boy coming into adolescence. His mothers incarceration in the hospital at Fort QuAppelle for tuberculosis leads his downtrodden father to hand his son, Charlie, over to Charlies paternal grandmother, Edith Bradley, a strong and hardened woman who continues to live on the farm on which she raised her children, ready to take in the next generation at need, if without much sympathy. Charlie finds himself an outside wherever he lands, but outside of his element on the farm where there are no other boys, no toys, and nothing in the way of wildlife beyond a beaten-down rooster. Charlies outsider status gives the short story its title: he is The Watcher and it allows Vanderhaeghe to explore families, power relationships, violence, and secrets from a childs perspective. The narrative is quite straight-forward and chronological, without the gaps or jumps of a writer like Alice Munro whose work we will explore in Unit 6. Likewise, the point of view is consistent; there are no perspectives other than Charlies. But the moral complexity of the choices involved in growing up are laid out when Charlies aunt Evelyn brings her boyfriend home to Ediths house. Lines of power are drawn between the triangle of Evelyn, Edith, and Thompson, watched by Charlie, whose presence and, perhaps, complicity raises questions as to who victimizes whom and with whom should the helpless ally themselves. Controversy: Vanderhaeghe and Prairie Writing According to novelist and Canadian literary critic Aretha Van Herk, prairie writing is understood as an odd phenomenon that exists as something like an eccentric older relation in the closet of a larger Canadian canon: Strangely, the notion persists of prairie writing as a kind of remote, fenced area best left to gophers and dust storms. One might almost imagine it hanging around the basement of Canadian literature. It could be argued that such designations manifest again the centre's desire to impose regionality on everything beyond the centre, but an informed and engaged reading of contemporary writing coming out of the Canadian West will radically alter preconceived notions of what prairie writing ought to consist of. For all the optimism inherent in the intellectual diversity and eagerness of the Prairies, a clutch of nervous critics and writers persist in wanting the West and itswriting to remain safely realist, wanting the definition of prairie writing to be determined by the writer's birthplace and genealogy, and are adamant that prairie words must enshrine a Depression-glass version of romantic insularity. In creative fact, the Prairies' ability to enfold and engage the modern and the postmodern, the realist and the transcendent, the historical and the imagined, argues that this region is greater than its geographical boundaries, far more than the pliable landscape and climate that are available for documentation. In every literary sense the Prairies are what Henry Kreisel called a visionary state of mind. They are a mythic space, inspiring abundant literary effect both within and beyond their horizon. (from the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature 1983-1996) What are the preconceived notions about what prairie writing should be? Common preconceptions, as Van Herk notes, are: 1) that prairie writing is realist. That is, it accurately reflects to the best of its writers ability the real world in its landscape, people, and culture; 2) that prairie writing is nostalgic. That is, it accurately reflects the prairies past when its demographics (European) and common occupations (agrarian) were thought to be homogenous; 3) that therefore it reflects a rural and agrarian past; 4) that its stories are geographically determined. That is, the landscape has more effect on the storys action than the characters cultural background, psychological motivations, education, etc. Alison Calders has called this type of literature prairie realism and lament
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