If the true purpose of literary memoirs is to settle scores and put the record straight, Linda Leith's Writing in the Time of Nationalism, From Two Solitudes to Blue Metropolis is as true as they come.
Like the best of the genre, Leith's account of her 40-odd years as an academic, journalist, novelist and cultural activist in Montreal will inspire its share of chuckles and groans. I suspect those who've lived the times will give into deep and sometimes sorry sighs of recognition.
This second volume of her memoirs is a hybrid: part personal, part historical analysis. The latter theme is firmly stated up front: "How Montreal's English-language literary community pulled itself back from the brink and created the conditions within which writers could thrive." The personal part is about Leith making it happen, a vivid, sometimes breathless account of how an intrepid young explorer from the north of Ireland found herself in a West Island suburb just as all hell was about to break loose downtown. Pen in hand, Leith was on the scene, digging up Mavis Gallant's local roots, befriending the neglected author in Paris, reviving and canonizing Hugh MacLennan, tending wounded egos, creating awards, organizing discouraged scribes and eventually becoming one herself by writing three novels.
Her thesis is as clear as the narrative arc: In the 1940s, Montreal was Canada's cultural capital. But the coinciding births of Quebec and Canadian nationalism squeezed anglos to near-death, driving many writers away and forcing the rest to keep their heads down (except Mordecai Richler, a writer from most who stayed distanced themselves, Leith says). Gradually, through the hard work of institution-builders, things got better and now we have a publishing boom and an annual event attracting some 15,000 visitors each spring, the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, of which Leith was founder and, until recently, artistic director.
True. And yet also still true is much of what Leith abhors about the bad old days of yore: Literary works touching the immense political and social changes Quebec has undergone are few, interest shown by Toronto media and publishers in anglo Montreal almost nil. Novels set in Quebec have a better chance of being published in the United States or Britain than Canada: witness mega-sellers by Heather O'Neill and Louise Penny, both turned down at first by the who's who of Canadian publishing.
Written in clear, exhilarating prose, this is a very fine book, the best Leith has written. Clearly, this is her subject and she tackles it with zest. Just when bleak truth threatens to bog things down, along comes Linda's pep talk. Struggle is inspiring, even if it means starting right back where Hugh MacLennan began: "Being good is just not good enough. In the cutthroat world of literary reputations, you need a lot more than that. You need to be irresistible. Toronto will pay attention when there is something happening that Toronto needs to know about. For English Montreal writers, that eventually turned out to be international attention."
What she doesn't explain is why as founder and for 11 years director of Blue Met, she was so deathly afraid of ticking off Quebec nationalists, being careful to ensure that anglo and ethnic components of the festival never exceeded francophone participation. If international recognition is what counts, why not go all out to welcome the English-speaking world of letters? After all, Montreal is still a large market for English-language books, and French Quebec has a plethora of literary events with scant Anglo presence.
But Leith is a visionary, and visionaries rarely notice inner contradictions or flaws. If literary anglo Montreal is a little less confident, less buoyant than Linda Leith, it surely isn't her fault. She has done her best to spin the tale around.
Marianne Ackerman is a Montreal writer, author of three novels and publisher of the cultural web magazine Rover, found at www.roverarts.com.