Category Archives: Kondiaronk Book Reviews

Montreal Book Reviews: The Watch That Ends The Night


Christ, what a book.

I can’t write a review of this book that would do it any justice, so read Nick Mount’s 50th anniversary review for The Walrus instead.

It’s long been rumoured that the book’s protagonist, Dr. Jerome Martell, is based on the late, great Canadian surgeon Dr. Norman Bethune, (arguably the most famous Canadian of all time) and indeed, there are many similarities, though the author maintained the character of Dr. Martell wasn’t based on anyone in particular, though acknowledged Jerome was nonetheless similar in demeanour to a Dr. Rabinovich whom MacLennan knew, and who lived and practiced in Montreal in the 1930s. Apparently they had ‘similar backstories’.

Jerome Martell’s backstory, as told in the novel, is perhaps the most engaging thing I’ve read in the last five years.

I mean, talk about a page turner.

I didn’t know much about The Watch when I picked it up, other than that it takes place here in Montreal mostly in the 1930s and 1950s, which is in and of itself enough to get me to read just about anything. That there was this apparent connection to Norman Bethune was an added plus, and then I discovered it’s the inspiration for the Tragically Hip song Courage (for Hugh MacLennan).

The song’s reprise “courage, it couldn’t have come at a worse time” neatly paraphrases the story’s climax.

The Watch That Ends The Night tells the story of a man returned from the dead. The aforementioned doctor, who, again much like the real Dr. Bethune, left a promising career in Montreal to fight fascism in Europe, returns home after over a decade, much to the surprise of his former wife, his now university-aged daughter and best friend (the novel’s narrator, based on MacLennan and his life and experiences in Montreal in the 30s and 50s) who had stepped in to handle the familial responsibilities after they had received bad information suggesting the doctor had been killed by the Nazis. The character of Jerome Martell isn’t seeking to pick up his life where it had left off, but rather, he returns in an effort to bring closure to those he had left behind. Unfortunately and in parallel with Canada (and much of the developed world) as MacLennan describes it, the ‘lose ends’ of the 1930s come back to bite everyone in the ass, albeit in a subdued and sad fashion.

This is just a cursory overview of the plot, and it’s not giving anything away either. I won’t go in to any more detail but will simply say for something written about lives lived eighty years ago the book has a remarkable timelessness about it – it still seems very pertinent and I wondered whether any of the key social questions of the era have ever been answered.

It is in part a criticism of the generation which had survived the Depression and the Second World War but lost it’s desire to effect large-scale progressive change during the Cold War (and more specifically, the really shaky early years of the Cold War, back in the day when cities like Montreal had squadrons of interceptors on standby at Saint-Hubert airport and air raid sirens dotted suburban skylines. Back when we had bomb shelters built into the basements of federal government buildings downtown. I find it almost impossible to imagine what it must have actually felt like to live in a large city anticipating nuclear attack…)

For MacLennan as narrator, The Watch‘s present tense is the early 1950s, when Montreal was Canada’s metropolis and the Korean War was threatening to draw the United States into a direct conflict with the USSR, one many suspected would quickly go nuclear. MacLennan refers back to this ‘sword of damocles’ constantly, in parallel with his character’s present, and Jerome Martell’s previous wife Catherine’s troublesome heart, afflicted as it is and growing weaker with each passing year. Catherine symbolizes much of the youthful hope and popular socio-political engagement of the 1930s, and here too I can only imagine what that must have been like. I would say we’ve always been a politically engaged city, but there is a politically-militant class here. Imagine what it must have been like when the general population was engaged to the same degree, when a worldwide generation of people were organizing to improve our collective well-being, in some cases with terrifying results.

I had never considered, for example, that the rise of socialism and fascism (and everything in between) during the interwar years was a kind of response to a generation’s loss of faith with the established order after the First World War. MacLennan traces the curve from popular engagement, the days when communists and fascists were organizing themselves in the streets of Montreal, when Lionel Groulx established his Blue Shirts, when Mussolini was painted into the ceiling of a Roman Catholic church in Montreal’s Little Italy (etc.) through the forced socialization and state-planning of the war years and then into the era of prosperity and ‘apprehended annihilation’ which followed. MacLennan describes the budding of a modern Canada – precocious, stronger than it appears, but perhaps like a teenager who matured too quickly, fundamentally unsure of itself despite its outward, largely aesthetic confidence.

The two focal characters, the male and female leads, are both bridges from the 1930s, when they were individually at their peaks and served as channels for hope and courage against a growing darkness. Between their, and the narrator’s, three points of view they collectively relate the coming of the darkest hour, something else I’ve had a hard time rapping my head around. Hitler came to power in 1933 and for six years the world assumed the worst was coming, and they were right. For six years he preached fascism and fascism grew in Europe. Alliances were formed, territories annexed. What I hadn’t appreciated was that Hitler presented himself as the Europe’s primary defence against Communism, and thus also the primary defender of Christianity against State Atheism. When he invaded France, it was (as the Nazis described it) to stop the spread of socialism and international communism, both of which were thought to be spread by ‘foreign subversives, immigrant terrorists’ etc.

Sound familiar?

Suffice it to say I have an entirely new perspective on the origins of the Second World War, and of the long-term implications of the Spanish Civil War.

MacLennan’s emotionally exhausted and existentially bankrupt early Cold War society leaves the great questions of an earlier generation unanswered, the negative implications of which are illustrated by the calamities that befall the three central characters after the doctor returns from the dead.

The insinuation is pretty straightforward – the past is going to catch up with us.

In any event, an inspired and probing book, and a profoundly Canadian book in the grand tradition, mixing social analysis and criticism, history, tragedy and relatable, personal Pyrrhic victories.

A Hidden History

The Burning of Parliament at Place d’Youville, Montréal – 1849

The painting above is of a fascinating moment in our shared history, and yet all to often I’ve heard it described as something of a joke. Perhaps that’s all it’s worth today anyways, and given there’s very little in terms of general acknowledgement of that intrepid pre-Confederation era, no memorials, no markers. The joke goes something along the lines of Montrealers being so passionate (if not violent) when it comes to politics that the only time they tried to make Montreal the capital, the locals burned the parliament buildings. It’s a joke about the feverish Latin blood of the Québecois, of French Canadians. It’s also grossly inaccurate. The mob was English, no British, and defiantly so. A mob of elites who stood in the way of responsible government, democracy, and a defined, unique character.

The site of this parliament is today a parking lot at Place d’Youville – the rough outline of the building conforming very nicely to the limits of the asphalt. There’s nothing at the Bonsecours Market either – it served as parliament too. And LaFontaine’s House, as we all know, is presently a squat. As per the custom of Montréal, it’s much vaulted history is a mystery. We’ve Disneyfied ourselves – plenty of places which look historical but very little in terms of public education, interpretation. Sometimes this city seems to be a study in half-assing it. We don’t do monuments, let alone plaques, memorials or museums – we don’t bother trying to explain to ourselves or others why we’re historically significant, but there always seems to be both time and money for theatre students to dress up like soldiers or blacksmiths.

In the words of the arrested prophet Gob: c’mon!

We can do better, and I would argue that if we did have a fundamentally better appreciation of the critical time in our nation’s evolution we’d have a more perfect society today. For those of you who know me, you know that I’m a student of John Ralston Saul, who it seems wants nothing more than to remind Canadians that we are, at our very core, a complex society which stands in stark contrast to anything to ever come out of Europe or the Americas. We are integrated, multi-cultural, bi-lingual – and above built up through patience and restraint. All of these are our virtues, and most of the necessary political philosophizing was accomplished here, in Montréal, prior to the BNA Act of 1867.

There’s reason to rejoice here, especially if you’re a federalist at heart. Our nation’s founding fathers were not ardent supporters of the British Empire – they wanted out, but they didn’t want to do so via bloodshed. They wanted to create a new nation in which European nationalism was seen for what it was – out-of-touch, out-of-step and thoroughly unacceptable in the Canadian context. The Patriote’s Rebellion was an effort to remove the British from impeding the creation of a multi-racial, multi-lingual Canada, where social and political values of brotherhood and commonwealth were viewed as superior to the status quo. Today the flag is flown as a general statement of discontent with the establishment, and many separatists have taken up as their standard. If they only knew.

If we all only knew. If only we had the balls to tell one of the most fascinating, violent and intellectually awe-inspiring stories from our great history – we could do much to remind all Canadians that the nation we have today is not in fact the mis-guided creation of an opposition political party (as Stephen harper would like you to believe), but rather a very deliberate and controversial creation which has been evolving for years, generations even.

The linguistic battles we fight today are not as a result of something from our past left unfinished, incomplete or unaddressed. We fight them simply because we forgot who we are and why we’re here. We forgot because we’re pathetically humble sometimes. See this link for a book I’m reading now on the lives of our nation’s first real leaders, LaFontaine & Baldwin. Much of the great work they did which would ultimately lead to Confederation occurred in Montréal, and yet there’s nothing at all to remind the locals and tourists of their monumental accomplishment. It’s a shame we should let weigh heavy on our hearts, as failure to adequately and appropriately recognize the significance of these men, and that key era between 1837 and 1867 when Montréal was the laboratory of Canadian democracy should be front and centre – with or without the government grant. We must endeavour to educate the public for the common good, which is incidentally precisely what these men – our nation’s grandfathers in a sense – were trying to accomplish.

It’s an inconvenient truth for the hardcore separatist inasmuch as Stephen Harper’s brainless ‘conservatives’, and it’s our saving grace.

There’s going to be a lot of ‘blood & guts’ history to appease the militarist-nationalists in this country for the next year. I can only hope when the tide goes back out we recognize that it was still a battle between empires with legitimate Canadians caught like pawns in the middle. The War of 1812 was not the birth of our country, it was simply our first instance of collective defence against naken aggression. What is infinitely more significant is the effect the war had on our founding fathers, many of whom openly rebelled against the British Empire a quarter-century later. The crucible of our creation, miraculously, lies outside any field of battle, and instead can be found in addresses, debates, letters and laws.

When will we stand to acknowledge that we were created by peace? When will we have the balls to cast off bloodshed as a necessary condition of our creation and subsequent evolution?

When will we recognize ourselves for who we really are, and accept it?

Food for thought. I’d like nothing more than to solve our nation’s never-ending crises with a simple history lesson.

Kondiaronk Book Reviews {No.3} – Marc Levine’s Reconquest of Montreal

I began reading this masterpiece around this time last year for my History of Montreal class (HIST-307 with Dr. Gossage at Con-U if you’re interested, I highly recommend it) and I could not advocate a better, more thoroughly researched study on the linguistic political battles that have so coloured Quebec and Montreal society since the dawn of the Quiet Revolution.

For the purposes of full disclosure, this is not a novel, nor pop history. It is an in-depth analysis of the rise of Quebec Separatism, how Bill 101 came to pass, and how that law, unpopular as it might be in certain circles, may have ultimately prevented Quebec independence, possibly forever.

A great deal has changed since the book was first published. In fact, it surprised me. I thought I knew this history particularly well, but I was quite mistaken. There’s a world of subtlety, nuance and intrigue Levine was able to weave into a complex sociological study. And he provides just about all the pertinent statistical information you’d ever want to read with regards to the linguistic battles that ultimately created Bill 101 as protector and preserver of the French language in Montreal.

Almost twenty years after the publication of Reconquest, Marc Levine’s sober analysis still holds a lot of weight, though his predictions have been tested time and again. Nowadays, with separatism on the decline and the PQ in near-total disarray, it may seem like a book of this nature (and provocative title) may be out-of-step. I would caution against such thinking – this is after all a book dedicated to a difficult area of study – recent Canadian history. And given Levine’s outsider perspective, he doesn’t get wrapped up in petty politics or the spin that otherwise distorts our discourse. He is laser-precise more often than not, and reveals the contradictions, hypocrisies and absurdities you might expect to find in a pan-nationalist confederation of ‘minorites-majoritaires’. It is ultimately a nation worth saving, worth fighting for, though I feel this might be required reading in order to know why. Even then, the solutions to our problems may seem a bitter pill to swallow. So be it.

I cannot over-state just how important this book is for anyone looking to get a firm grasp on who we are as people. An exceptional book that makes for a difficult yet ultimately rewarding read.

Kondiaronk Book Review – Saturday Night at the Bagel Factory

Don Bell was what you might consider a kind of boulevardier back in the 1960s and 1970s, keeping abreast of the freaks and geeks which make urban living so goddam enjoyable. He compiled a variety of anecdotes into the aforementioned compendium which became a big local and national hit back in 1972. Though I can imagine almost everyone interviewed by Bell is likely dead by now (save for a few old hippies), the characters are paradoxically products of their era and somehow timeless as well. We don’t have the same calibre of local eccentrics like we used to, in my honest opinion, but we’ll never be short on characters. Bell demonstrates clearly the source of so much creative inspiration in his honest and down-to-earth portrayals of a host of characters from early 70s Montréal, from local big shot showbiz types in their halcyon days to the silent and methodical Greek pool-sharks, from old-money dilettantes to new age gurus and the caffein-addled over-night crew staffing the Mile End bagel shops. Don Bell was looking for what the creatively-inclined see in the people and faces of this city, a never-ending supply of complex reactions and adjustments to the human experience. Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, at times ill at ease with those living on the fringes of our society, the stories and scenarios he relates seems to steer away from the pulp curb-side reporting of Al Palmer in his Montreal Confidential as though he was interested principally in offering a societal and cultural almanac.

It’s been something I’ve been looking for for quite some time now – to capture that fleeting feeling of knowing the spirit, hydra-esque though it may be, a location may generate. In another sense I find myself looking for the zeitgeist in the built and natural environment, and by extension how such an environment may impact the people and colour their character. I think Marsan was looking for this, and Richler was certainly aware of it, and yet for some reason I don’t think we care as much about it anymore. That or we have forgotten what we came so close to defining. Either way, the people always seem to be at least able to feel in their spines, and know it to exist if only to know its indelible imprint. Don Bell saw the city in the citizen, and how the city, as a living, breathing super-organism, defines lives and lifestyles for its inhabitants. He demonstrates the beacon-esque qualities of a modern city in its prime, and the seedier elements of the underbelly, the harsh-realities of the lives of the people in the guts of a gigantic machine. Required reading for any boulevardier, urbanist, or Montreal history & literature enthusiast. Also, it caused a fair bit of controversy, but you’ll have to read it to find out why.

Kondiaronk Book Reviews {No.1} – Montreal: The Unknown City

Montreal: The Unknown City by Kristian and John David Gravenor

This is the book that first introduced me to Montr̩al Рand I was born here.

It’s a little bit of everything; an almanac, a guide-book – in some cases it’s like a highly-localized Ripley’s Believe it or Not, albeit better documented.

But more than anything else the Brothers Gravenor manage to gather a massive quantity of information and weave it into a cohesive series of vignettes, presenting the Montréal hiding in the recesses, shedding light on the nooks and crannies of our City, it’s society, culture and history. It’s an excellent travel guide to Montréal for those who want to get to know the real city and not just the typical tourist destinations. And for those with adventure in their hearts, they will discover the anecdotes, the history myths and fables of our community. On the whole, this singular book provides an answer to the question, why is Montréal a major cultural centre, and what propels the Montréal style, in the creative and fine arts, in architecture, literature etc? In sum, what is it about Montréal as a city that feeds so many creative minds? If nothing else, this compendium will provide countless hours of enjoyable, casual reading and provide an immense wealth of knowledge, not to mention the settings, scenarios, scenes and characters to generate a torrent of creative content. And if you’re unfamiliar with said content, never fear, as the book is also a compendium of all manners of local film, television, visual arts, bands etc.

With regards to the style of the book, I find it invites the reader to do additional research, even if that might be no more than simply looking it up on Wikipedia or Google. I know Kristian makes great use of the on-line Montreal Gazette archives in addition to an on-line copy of the Lovell’s Directory to unearth hyper precise information, and also runs the successful Coolopolis blog. I find the book reads like a blog in the same fashion that a blog would use hyperlinks to open new windows onto a given subject. There’s a palpable feeling that the authors want you to take it upon yourself to go out and discover the city’s history and culture on your own terms, to see it for the first time through your own eyes. At least that’s what I did, and I’ll be forever grateful to the authors for this gem. A must-read.