27 April 2012

Elle by Douglas Glover

Thoughts and Reflections:
When I first started reading this book I hated it. I felt it was crass and rude. In favour of another book, I put aside Elle having only read about 10 pages. However, when it came to returning the book to the library, I hesitated and decided to give it another go. Basically, I was curious as to how this book could have won the Governor General's award. I'm certainly glad I did, because it turned out to be rather enjoyable!

The novel is about a rather promiscuous upper class French girl, who is on her way from France to Canada with some of the first explorers. The novel follows her time in Canada (the New World) and her return to France (the Old World, as it were). Through this journey, the reader follows the protagonist through death, abandonment, rescue, and exploration of a new world and herself.

I began to enjoy this novel as soon as the young woman was abandoned in Canada. That might sounds a bit rough, but it's true. This wasn't the glorious tale of the brave explorer who found Canada, colonised, endured brutal winters with fellow colonisers. Rather, this novel shows a seemingly more accurate picture of what those initial journeys were like. The protagonist discovers a point that the celebrated Cartier was not the first to discover the New World, but that merchants and whalers had been trading with the local people for many years prior to his discover. So much for the glory of the explorers. This novel is not for the glorification of historical figures!

The ship on which this young girl traveled was fully of the unskilled "gentlemen adventurers" from the upper crust of French society who sought wealth or personal glory or whatever from these seemingly tame explorations. The diaries of Cartier serve as inspiration, talking of tough winters, savages, and the trading potential and wealth to be made in the New World. The protagonist is no different, from a wealthy family and bored with society, she sought adventure. And did she ever find it!

The author juxtaposes the "savages" against the "civilised" French explorers. The author hides none of the what Europe held at this point in time, everything from sexually transmitted diseases to religious fanaticism. The author paints a picture that is similar among the natives of Canada. A fluid sex culture and a society driven my mysticism. In many ways, these cultures are paralleled, neither one appearing elevated or more civilised than the other.

Dreams play an important role in the novel. Whilst living in Canada, the protagonist begins to dream. From this point in the novel, reality and dream begin to blur. Points seems purely dreamlike and others complete reality. However, many moments in between are hazy, leaving the reader guessing what is real and what is dream. I wondered if this confusion between dream and reality was a way for the protagonist to process her life in the Old World and her new experiences and understanding in the New World.

"I am in a place where everything means something, but nothing is understood."

Much of the novel is spent considering the issue of the Old World and New World, how these worlds can combine, how they met. The anti-quest (a term used in the novel, not one of my own invention) is a consistent theme throughout the novel. What begins as an adventure and quest for the New World turns into a misadventure, or an antiquest. The antiquest is the adventure for the unglorious, for the explorer never to be lauded.

At the same time, whilst discrediting the brave and glorious stories of history, the novel discusses the mystery surrounding Canada and the customs of its First Peoples. This is a harsh land. In addition, the image of the bear plays a key role in the novel. I am not completely certain of the meaning of it, but it is certainly a reoccurring and interesting image.

Those that ventured to Canada seemed to become forever lost. They no longer fit into their previous live in the Old World, whilst being unable to fully become apart of life in Canada. These individuals were forever caught in a longing for Canada or be changes in someway that the Old World no longer suited them. Likewise, those from Canada that were brought to France or otherwise, never seemed to adapt to life there. They forever longed for their old life, but were unable to return. I suppose this is the nature of exploring new things, nothing seems to fit anymore.

I am certain I have missed much of the symbolism of this novel. It was packed and I feel as though I have only skimmed the top of it. This book would be a great one for a book group and long discussions. It does have its rude moments, absolutely, but the reader is warned very early on about this. The rudeness, however, does play a central role the depiction of civilisations. I would certainly recommend this novel. It somehow managed to capture the mystery of Canada, whilst painting a more true picture of what exploration  was at the time.

About the Author
Douglas Glover was born in Simcoe, Ontario in 1948. He was raised on a tobacco farm in southern Ontario until he ventured off to York University. He received a Bachelor's in philosophy in 1969 from York before going on to do a Master's in Literature at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in 1971. In 1979 he received a Master's of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. Since then he has worked as a reporter, editor, radio interviewer, and at number of Universities in Canada and the USA. Elle won the Governor General's award in 2003.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. I enjoyed the journey of the protagonist and how she transforms through her experiences in the New World.
2. I enjoyed the imagery. The bear in particular is a very interesting symbol in this book.
3. I enjoyed the discrediting of the glorification of explorers and historical characters. I appreciated the honesty in the narrative.

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