I realize it’s gauche to kick things off with a definition, but when the text under consideration is an explicit, book-length callback to a type of writing that’s long since fallen out of vogue, it seems marginally more appropriate as a means of getting us all on the same page. So here’s what A Glossary of Literary Terms has to say about the pastoral: “a deliberately conventional poem expressing an urban poet’s nostalgic image of the peace and simplicity of the life of shepherds and other rural folk in an idealized natural setting.” Virgil was one of the form’s earliest proponents; “pastor” is Latin for “shepherd.” Edmund Spenser popularized pastorals in English poetry in the 1500s, and a few centuries later Beethoven wrote a symphony, his sixth, in the same vein, complete with image-appropriate titles for each movement (“Happy gathering of country folk,” for instance).
In a modern context, the pastoral, with its whole-hearted celebration of feeling the grass between one’s toes, feels dangerously earnest, even naïve. It’s easy to imagine a 21st-century take as nothing more than a rudimentary Blue Velvet for shepherds: revealing the darkness lurking just behind that rural tranquility. Avoiding this low-hanging fruit is what makes André Alexis’s Pastoral a refreshing and, ultimately, more rewarding piece of work. Rather than take easy shots at the genre, the Giller-shortlisted author and essayist tries to honestly transport it to (more or less) the present day.
The hero of Alexis’s novel is Christopher Pennant, a young pastor who finds himself running the parish in the small, fictional town of Barrow, Ont. It’s a place that, at first glance, appears almost literally stuck in time: “Whether through some divine compulsion for equilibrium or through poor census taking, its population had been 1,100 for twenty years.” But it has its quirks, too. The saints depicted in the stained-glass windows of St. Mary’s Church are lesser-known figures like Abbo of Fleury, “shown being killed by rioters,” and St. Zeno, “shown laughing at the side of a lake, a fish in his hand.” When Pennant asks why these particular saints, his caretaker, a conspicuously ascetic man named Lowther, replies that a previous parish priest “wanted two A’s and two Z’s.”
Part of Pennant’s challenge comes from trying to fit in with the residents and general culture of Barrow, which is tight-knit but reserved. The first person Pennant meets is a baker, who appears to offer the priest a loaf of molasses-and-walnut bread as a gift, only to then insist on his $2.50; later, a particularly ornery woman approaches Pennant in church to say, “There hasn’t been a priest yet who hasn’t disappointed me.”
What comes to dominate town gossip, however, is the pending wedding of Liz Denny and Robbie Myers – especially once word gets around Barrow that Robbie is also carrying on an affair with his old high-school sweetheart. Things come to a head when the two women make a secret wager to prove which of them Robbie truly loves. This involves a nude, public haircut, and it’s a fair bet that it is not inspired by anything in Virgil.
Still, the spirit of the traditional genre is alive and well in Alexis’s novel. Father Pennant has a minor crisis in faith that is spurred partly by a series of “miracles” he believes he witnesses – one involving the mayor of Barrow walking on water – but mostly by his nagging doubt that organized religion may be superfluous in the face of nature itself. Alexis makes a strong case for the specific beauty of Southern Ontario, too; any city slickers who’ve fantasized about retreating to an acreage will find themselves duly tempted. And the prose is appropriately elegant and well-mannered, albeit with the occasional slap of a writer whose opinions about, say, the Canadian media landscape are well documented. An aside wherein Maclean’s magazine is described as “a pointless rag that [Liz] associated with doctors’ offices and outhouses near Goderich” comes to mind.
Given that a pastoral is, by definition, a Vaseline-lensed look at an idyllic past, it would’ve been helpful for Alexis to date his version a little more clearly. We may be reading it in 2014, but it’s clear that Pastoral does not take place here; the closest we get to modern technology are telephone poles and cars with seatbelts (but not airbags). Any mentions of politics beyond the local level have also been, understandably, scoured away. Yet that means we lose their contextual value, too. The Barrow of Alexis’s imagination represents some kind of good old days, alright – but your nostalgia mileage may vary, depending on whether you’re picturing the 1930s, ’50s, or ’70s.
In all, it’s a satisfying one-off and a worthy act of reclamation. But is it really just a one-off? In a note at the end of the text, Alexis leaves a cryptic phrase: “Quincunx 1.” I looked it up. (More definitions. Sorry.) A quincunx turns out to be a series of five points, organized into a square, with the fifth point in the centre; picture the five on a die. So perhaps Alexis has further genre revivals on the horizon. If that’s the case, I’ll be ready for them, glossary in hand.
Michael Hingston is books columnist for the Edmonton Journal and author of The Dilettantes.