Having your makeup done by a professional may constitute one of life's most sensual, revelatory moments. A couple of weeks ago, I was in Halifax for the television show Open Book, hosted by Mary Walsh. Before the taping, the makeup artist took a moment to size me up. She narrowed her eyes, taking in the years of sun damage, and then said, "I'm just going to have to neutralize your whole face."
Looking into the mirror before me, surrounded as it was by giant, burning light bulbs, I suddenly realized how much I've aged in the last 20 years.
Which brings me to the re-reading of The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence, the book Mary Walsh, Sue Goyette, Jackie Burroughs and I were in the CBC studio to discuss.
I first read The Diviners when I was 20. I'm guessing most people these days read it in late high school or university, and they are about that age. I couldn't remember a single thing about The Diviners until I blew the dust off of it. I had the vague idea that it might be a bit stodgy and good for you. Marcel Proust once said that if you find you can't remember the books you read 20 years ago, don't worry. Reading is not about retaining facts and details so you can name-drop later (as I'm doing now). According to Proust, we read in order to be transported. It's the experience of reading that matters -- losing yourself, being swept away, suspending disbelief -- all metaphors for the disassembling of the ego, however briefly, in exchange for something brand spanking new. Books change you while you're in the midst of them.
And it seems that books themselves can change while they're just sitting on the shelf. The Diviners was a very different book the second time around. What I did recognize, from two decades ago, was Margaret Laurence's voice. The combination of generosity, especially when she's talking about sex, or writing, wit, intimacy, boldness, irreverence and intelligence, all came back in a flash.
For instance, when Laurence's protagonist, Morag, is 47 and comes to the realization that she's jealous of her daughter's sex life (they're living under the same roof) and sits down with the young couple to tell them why she's been slamming pots in the kitchen early in the morning. There's something deeply shocking about Morag's honesty. It was shocking 20 years ago when I tried to imagine a similar scene with my own mother (and failed). And it's shocking now, when I try to imagine a similar scene with my daughter (and fail). Morag's acknowledgment of her own loneliness makes her unbearably vulnerable, and instantly strong, a queer alchemy Laurence works throughout.
On the other hand, some things about The Diviners, published in 1974, now feel dated. Laurence had written four novels in a series before this one, her last, and maybe she felt pressure to write the Great Canadian Novel. There's an effort to sum up Canadianess, and this now feels like a naive impulse. So much of Canada's diverse multiculturalism seems left out of Laurence's boiled down schema.
Morag is orphaned as a young child, and goes to live with Christie Logan, the garbage collector in the fictitious prairie town of Manawaka. He fills young Morag's head with myths about her Scottish ancestry. Morag's native lover, Jules Tonerre, the other half of the Canadian mosaic, is a noble savage type, altogether too free-spirited to be expected to bother with anything so pedestrian as child support. Their love child, Pique, represents all that's possible for the young, hopeful Canada of the future. Laurence's heavy-handed, Jungian attempt to show where we all came from, the myths and legends that make us who we are, does feel a little stodgy. It's the idea that there's a definable we that comes up slight.
But Laurence is absolutely relevant and capable of taking your guts in her fist when she's writing about sex. I was going to say gender politics, but such a bloodless phrase doesn't capture the power of the ungovernable lust she describes in this book. Coupled as it is with Morag's loneliness and aging, sexuality is a compelling and disturbing force in The Diviners. It's hard to think of another Canadian writer so gripping and honest when it comes to the subject.
Morag takes lovers where she can get them, even when they're married with hordes of children and a downtrodden wife or are potentially dangerous. At the same time, she's unwilling to compromise her independence. She wants it both ways, and women who want that, especially if they're older, still make people very, very uncomfortable. In this way, The Diviners has aged rather than dated, and it makes me think that maybe aging isn't such a bad thing. Or maybe it is. Maybe it's really, really bad. Laurence puts this question front and centre, offering no easy answers.
The makeup artist said, just as she was finishing, "Now give me your apples." I smiled and she brushed the last bit of blush over the roundest part my cheeks. I looked younger.