In imagining Montreal, we have to consider the hidden history of a city that has experienced wave after wave of immigration – or, if you prefer, successive phases of invasion and colonization. Since the French first arrived and planted a cross on Mount Royal, followed by the English and Scots who built the banks, our little island has existed mainly under successive states of siege. Its original inhabitants, the natives, vanished from our streets long ago, returning occasionally as shadows to beg in Metro stations and sleep on benches. And our imagination has gone the same way as our indigenous people: it’s been displaced, marginalized, and survives on handouts from a society that has lost its memory, aka compass, aka soul.
Each new colonizing gang brought its own new diseases, neuroses and crimes for which each gang needed to create hospitals, schools and prisons. All these developments make up the history of a city we still appreciate for its natural beauty and diversity. As for the institutions that still compete to control the wilderness beneath the pavement – few of us feel very attached to them, or if we do it’s mostly for all the wrong reasons.
We have grown up in the shadow of massive crimes against humanity, which we have successfully forgotten thanks to “modern science.” Our sense of well-being depends on manufactured amnesia. Still, we’re human. So every now and then we remember something that we feel might be important enough to share with other humans. This is why some of us are so professionally concerned about “literature” and “art.”
In Montreal, art is everywhere. So is writing. Lately, certain people have become quite strident in their demand that our art, and particularly our writing, be recognized across Canada. The people making this demand are mainly writers who feel under-estimated, and the arts administrators who live to make writers feel better about being poor and ignored. But lately, there is a sense that Montreal writing is not getting the audience it deserves. When a Montrealer wins a literary prize these days, it’s like the Canadiens winning the Stanley Cup. Except that hockey is such a simple game, compared to writing, where more and more “winning” is the result of promotion. So these days, our arts administrators are doing their part, to promote our city in the world where art and literature really matter.
The trouble is, these winners from Montreal rarely write about Montreal. They write about crossing the ocean in a little boat, or growing up in Maine – themes which are considered suitable for an international audience. As Montreal grows on the literary map, Montreal content seems to be disappearing --
When we write about this place, where we just happen to live, we are trying to make some sense of our lives and experiences here. Like it or not, most art is autobiography. And it’s also political. Anglos would not be so strident in their demand for recognition, if they didn’t feel a sense of opposition to the established order. In Montreal, when you are looking for an establishment to be opposed to, you can choose between two possibilities. One is English, the other French. Some Anglo Montreal writers feel they are drowning in a sea of French.
I never felt that way. I was always grateful to be living in a French speaking environment while enjoying some of the privileges of speaking English. I didn’t mind if Quebec separated. I always knew I could pick up and move someplace else. Looking back, I realize how wishy washy I was – and how lucky. Like anyone with a interest in underdogs, I wanted the French of Quebec to succeed, against all odds, in creating their own future against a backdrop of colonization. I stood around for several decades, and watched them do it. In the meantime, I wrote about my life in this place. I wrote stories, or imagined stories I would one day write …
Some of our stories are necessarily trivial and riddled with kitsch, which is why we need critics, or inner critics, to prevent us from believing in them. Like any city, Montreal is the scene of great dramas, if you can see past the situation comedy, the stereotypic images sold in souvenir shops around town, the maple leaf badges, bagels, Expo hats, hockey sweaters, churches, oratories that make up Montreal’s revolving circus of secular and religious kitsch. If you can deconstruct the testimonies of our talkative drunks, psychiatric patients, street musicians, journalists, poets, and even an internationally-recognized singer who still roams our streets on occasion, granting interviews which all sound pretty much the same – then you have a chance of Imagining the real story of Montreal. Meanwhile we have our festivals, newspapers, literary events, television stars, actors, small and large theatre companies competing for audiences in the Centre de Spectacles. Taken together, Montreal is a fascinating travel package that promises endless entertainment that only visitors can afford -- but never mind. The show goes on, and most of it washes downriver in spring.
Personally I can’t Imagine Montreal without thinking of secrets. And since secrets are usually dark, I can’t Imagine Montreal not floating in copious amounts of darkness, lit by the lamps of gambling and prostitution. Other writers have noticed all this before me.
Secrets make for interesting stories – this is a truism, and our rulers also know this. That’s why in recent years, so much effort and money has gone into colonizing and sanitizing our literary scene, ridding it of its darkness and obscurity. Exposed to the light of day, washed with Sunlight, deprived of its mysterious potential, it resembles every other literary scene on the planet, except that it appears much more self-conscious and provincial than the ones I would really like to be part of.
Why is the end result so predictable? Montreal used to be a good place to hide out and write, in secret. Nobody was looking over your shoulder, ready to snap up your manuscript for the Commonwealth Prize or the Giller Award. What was true then is still true today: to write truthfully about Montreal, you need to go far away from Montreal. And once you’re away, you tend to forget the trauma of having lived there. I believe Mavis Gallant would agree that this was true, even in her day when she was going around exhuming Butter Box Babies and upsetting the authorities by writing about it.
It was only when I left Montreal that I started to see it as a voluntary ghetto with high walls that were built by its own inhabitants –or at least certain inhabitants, who wanted to protect the spoils of conquest. In British Columbia, where I kept my radio constantly tuned to Radio-Canada so I could pretend I was still in Quebec, I rarely missed my freelance life of poverty in Montreal’s expanding literary scene. Montreal is not Quebec. Neither is it a real City State, as Montrealers like to pretend.
Living out West, I suddenly realized the principal reason nobody out there cares about “Montreal writing” is that Montreal writing does not much care about anything outside itself. Montreal writing has existed for decades in its own little ghetto – and much of it was written by men at McGill who secretly worked for British intelligence.
I rarely hear French writers complaining about their lack of outside recognition, certainly not with the sense of bitterness and outrage that rejected Anglo writers seem to feel. French writers expect to be ignored. Another way to put this is: they have learned the lessons of “independence.” Not so, we Anglos.
Complaining about being ignored by the Rest of Canada is now a Montreal Anglo tradition which I helped start it in the 1980s, when I was trying to get published. There were few publishers in Montreal back then, other than a couple of small magazines at McGill. Several Toronto editors told me there was no English writing coming out of Montreal, even though I was in Montreal and had just sent them a manuscript in English! Either I was dealing some deeply-held religious mindset (although it felt more like a longstanding unwritten policy of ignoring Montreal because it wasn’t Toronto.) I happened to have additional advantage of having lived in Southern Ontario in the mid-seventies and worked for Southam, so I knew all about their tendency to paint all Quebecers as criminally insane, in order to create scary headlines and sell their newspapers to an incredibly straight-laced public.
Or was all this part of something more insidious? E.g., a CIA-style operation to divide and rule Canada by forcing Anglo Montrealers to emigrate en masse, and thus reinforce our collective amnesia? Silence and Exile – were they doled out to us as our punishment for having witnessed one of the most bizarre military psy ops in Canadian history – the October Crisis of 1970?
By the early 1980s, there were a few of us losers still hanging around, writing in English in the Plateau. Our local media (which mainly boiled down to the Gazette) owned in Toronto and staffed by up and coming journalists from Saskatchewan, were not supportive. Their deluded mission in those days was to drag Montrealers kicking and screaming out of the Dark Age left behind by the separatists, and any leftover wet dreams we might retain of “independance.” A dirty French word, that independance –because of how it suggests “dance” as opposed to “dence” as in dense, or density, more of an Anglo virtue. Or what about that equally dirty phrase, “Vive le Quebec Libre” –a shocking obscenity that Mordecai Richler never got over, while Norm Webster was still traumatized by it in 2007, four decades later.
Those of us who lived here back then, and had even had the bad taste to be born and grow up here, had nowhere to go with our little stories and scribbles. Nobody out there wanted to know what it was like to be electroshocked at the Allan as a child or teenager, or tricked by the RCMP into taking LSD and throwing Molotov cocktails at the Montreal police. If, in fact, we even remembered those strange incidents from our past. Had we been encouraged, back then, to “write what we know” we might have eventually ended up piecing all our memory puzzles together, and arriving at the inevitable conclusion: telling the truth in Montreal can get you in trouble, if not outright killed.
This is something we have had to learn the hard way. It’s also why we have produced so few really great writers who can speak to the ROC. Because collectively, we lost our minds ca. October 1970.
Of course, all that is about to change...