If Marian Engel had not died mid-career, her name might have been as well known today as Margaret Atwood’s today. Instead her name graces an award granted to a Canadian female writer mid-career by the Writers’ Trust.
A variety of forms, a strong feminist voice, challenging female characters, a fascination with boundaries (and crossing them): Marian Engel’s works are bold and insistent.
Like Sarah, in No Clouds of Glory, which was also published as Sarah Bastard’s Notebook in 1968.
These are the ruminations of a young woman who is uncomfortable with the place she seems to be expected to inhabit in society but also uncomfortable with the new ground she seems to be breaking.
“I am a lady Ph.D. One of an increasing multitude, but in my own point in time and space, a rare enough bird, the only one the [news]paper felt like rooting out that year, the only one at my college under fifty, and their series was on ‘Young Canadians’. And two weeks ago, I hadn’t yet turned thirty.”
Not only in public, as she was interviewed in “The Toronto Star”. But in private, too, she considers herself an outsider.
She travels to Yurp, but she doesn’t belong there either. (That’s Europe, in trite-speak. It took me a minute.) She inhabits a series of bed-sits; it’s not real living, she says.
Even so, Sarah is travelling the same path that writers like Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant, Brian Moore and Margaret Laurence travelled, moving through places overseas, gathering experiences unlike her own. which seem to end up only echoes of familar experience anyway. It was once adventurous, but now it’s trite; going to Europe seems like taking a pony ride now.
Times are a-changing. Which means that they are still a lot the same and some different. One scene can contain a landlady who insists that Sarah’s companion book a night in the lodgings across the street. Another scene contains a woman’s decision to abort an unplanned pregnancy.
Nonetheless, Sarah insists upon her independence. Her determination to make a life beyond family. Despite her friend (and sometimes lover) Joe’s belief otherwise. If she’s not lonely, he suggests she might be “half Lesbian”. But she’s simply looking for something else.
“If I could be the man, bring the bone home myself, not raise babies – maybe. But there’s too much to do and see. I’ve been years in prison, Joe.”
Sarah’s sister, Leah, exemplifies an idea of womanhood, of femininity, which Sarah can’t seem to disdain. Even though part of her does seem to hold it in contempt, she still longs for the acceptability that accompanies more traditional choices.
“She [Leah, her sister] had, in fact, quietly from the beginning of her life, and tidily, rejected the significance of everything I found bearable in our existence. She squatted in corners telling herself stories, to be far away from us. No snugness of armpits for her, no glorying in repellent love. I ooze, booze, stink, feel human rather than feminine, live in a welter of Kleenex and newspapers, cats, clay pots, pictures of people, dust. She is cool as a cat, aware, and apart.”
For much of the novel, Sarah is in motion. The prose doesn’t have a conventional arc. Readers kind of sink into it and wallow a little, rather than move through a series of events or realizations. “I was always in debt to airways and abortionists. I was carrying a more and more terrible guilt.”
It’s also uncomfortable reading, at times. Partly because either Sarah isn’t comfortable in her own skin or because she so keenly feels that others believe she should not be comfortable in that skin. “‘Sarah has changed,’ people said, smirking knowledgeably about Yurp.”
She doesn’t feel like she fits. “‘You have me confused with the peace marchers. I don’t belong to any generation.'”
And the world of academia – at home – isn’t any more satisfying than her voyages abroad. She is critical of the life and as much as she feels herself a part of it, she feels separate from it too. Separate and powerless.
“The edges are dulled – news takes a long time to come, and ceases to seem important. It’s something in the air, and perhaps a fundamental disbelief in temporal values. The only literary thing which really interests me is what is happening to literature now, why people write what. But we keep ourselves isolated from – the passion of making literature – from the passion of discovery. That’s why we don’t produce anything.”
In short, Sarah is longing for something more. That doesn’t seem so far removed from now.
The 1968 club is hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book, during October 30 and November 5, a reading week which focusses on books from a particular year, reading and reviewing and sharing ideas about the kind of works published then.