Two Solicitudes: Conversations

by Margaret Atwood and Victor-Lévy Beaulieu

Published by McClelland and Stewart

252 pages, 1998


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Speaking Canadian

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards


One hears discussions about Canadian culture, or more accurately, its lack. How stymied it is by the presence of US airwaves and the American propaganda that leaks in through every southerly-directed Canadian orifice. It can be a little scary. Some even question if Canadian culture exists outside of yogurt at all.

Books like Two Solicitudes ease this type of fear. Published by a major Canadian imprint, in some ways the book embodies the very best of Canadian literary culture. Sub-titled Conversations, Two Solicitudes is precisely that. Conversations between two giant Canadian literary figures that were originally recorded for broadcast in French on Radio-Canada; Margaret Atwood and Victor-Lévy Beaulieu spent a total of two weeks together. One week at Atwood's home in Toronto and one at Beaulieu's country home near Trois-Pistoles, Québec.

The success of the conversations lies in part with producer Doris Dumais' pairing of the two. As Atwood writes of Dumais in the introduction, "We would have a lot to talk about, she thought. We'd both been connected with cultural nationalism in the sixties and seventies, we'd both worked with small literary publishers, we'd both come from a small place to a metropolis, we'd both written in several modes."

As dry as this potentially sounds, it works startlingly well. To have these two literary behemoths who had never met before sharing ideas and thoughts on their lives, their country and their work is a rare and unusual treat. Writers are, by training and nature, curious creatures. Curious about the world around them and the lives of others they encounter. More than conversations, then. Atwood and Beaulieu interview each other and the result is not the literary jousting that it might have been with different players and a different environment. Rather it is the lively conversation of two of Canada's brightest literary stars, as well as gentle probing into their respective backgrounds and what moves them as artists.

Atwood: And all that comes from being a leftist?

Beaulieu: Left-handed,
gaucher. That's completely different from a leftist, gauchiste. (Laughs.) For a child who knows that every night he's going to be scolded and rapped on the knuckles with a ruler because he writes with one hand rather than the other, the mother-son relationship takes on a completely different meaning than usual. His mother becomes someone difficult, hard, not lovable in the deepest sense of the word. When you've experienced that in your childhood, it takes you some time to get over it.

Atwood: Do you know the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Stevenson? Do you think writers in general, and you in particular because of those two hands, have dual personalities?

Beaulieu: To write, to live in the skin of character you invent, requires more than a dual personality. It requires a multiplication of personalities. Any writer, including you, unconsciously exploits at least two aspects of the self, the good side and the bad side. To write, you have to have that to start with.

They discuss their childhoods and their artistic motivations. As well, they talk about things important to their shared country: the native question, of course as well as issues affecting French and English Canada.

So, Canadian culture? It's alive and well, thank you. You just have to know where to look. | September 1998

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of the Madeline Carter novels: Mad Money, The Next Ex and Calculated Loss.