Coach House Books, 2014
Softcover, 162 pages
As befits an homage to its literary namesake, André Alexis’s new novel, Pastoral, is replete with shepherds and sheep of all sorts, unfurls in idyllic countryside and is suffused with gently probing meditations upon life, love and death. It is, however, a very modern reinvention of that ancient form wherein country life proves to be anything but simple, nature is a force to be reckoned with, and the sheep bear watching. It is, as well, an intensely Canadian novel, quietly unassuming yet deeply provocative, as it wrestles with the metaphysics of a landscape as immense as ours, and the correct relationship between religion, the divine and the land. Even before the cover was cracked, and with my previous experience of Alexis’s deceptively simple yet penetrating writing in his novel Childhood in mind, it seemed a perfect marriage of form, function and style. It did not disappoint.
Father Christopher Pennant, is, like other of Alexis’s characters, immediately likeable. Ernest, humble, thoughtful and uncertain, a city boy, Ottawa bred and raised, he had dared to hope that his first parish might be located in a smallish city like Peterborough or Cambridge. It is with some dismay and trepidation, therefore, that he learns he will begin his vocation as a priest in the small town of Barrow, in Lambton County, Ontario, a fictional hamlet with a population of 1100. Hopeful, however, that he can prove to be an adequate shepherd to this somewhat alien flock, he sets out with what he believes is an open mind, determined to do his best. Inevitably, if innocently, his ideas of what life in Barrow will entail are coloured by the romantic condescension of the urbanite. In short, he believes life will be “pastoral,” in the traditional literary sense of that word — simpler, purer, more straightforward. As Alexis succinctly explains,
That this was not true he learned almost at once.
Father Pennant’s new country life is immediately complicated by the presence of Lowther Williams, a sort of cook and all round handyman, inherited from his predecessor along with the rectory, whose polymathic proclivities include fine cuisine, the natural world, and large chunks of the English literary canon and who firmly believes that, as a result of a family curse, he will die at age 63. Convinced the day is imminent, the 62-year-old Lowther realizes that it is Father Pennant who will preside at his funeral, and wishing to be sure the priest is the right man for the job, he, with the help of his wealthy, inventor friend Heath Lambert, devises a series of fabricated “miracles” designed to plumb the new priest’s religious sensibilities. Whether all of Father Pennant’s miraculous encounters are the results of Lowther’s machinations, however, remains a debatable point.
Further complicating Father Pennant’s new existence is the plight of Elizabeth , a young parishioner engaged to be married to Robbie Meyers. Elizabeth has just discovered that Robbie, an idealist, it seems, in matters of the heart, has resumed a relationship with a former lover, and, apparently, has no intention of giving up either woman. In the end, it is the women who find an unconventional solution to this unconventional impasse. In addition, the beleaguered young priest discovers that, far from a refuge whose calm simplicity will clarify and reinforce his faith, the countryside is a powerful presence in its own right, and his confrontation with the energy immanent in the Canadian landscape provokes a relapse of doubt which he had hoped he had put behind him in his seminary days.
The story follows the gradual resolution (or not) of these issues of love, life and death, with much intervening (and entertaining) hilarity, mystery, and metaphysical inquiry, unfolding over the approximately six months, from April ’til October, of Father Pennant’s stay in Barrow.
That Father Pennant’s adventures will be fabulous (in its original sense of fable-like) is apparent almost immediately. The peculiar “place out of time,” eternal and unchanging nature of Barrow is established by the fact that its population has been exactly 1100 people for twenty years. Alexis is careful to note that Father Pennant is immediately “enchanted” by the countryside. The sheep, as well, so necessary for a pastoral, are artfully well-spoken.
The name “Barrow,” trails noteworthy connotation — the agricultural sense of a castrated pig, but also the sense of ancient hills, and mounds constructed over the bones of the dead. As well, the hamlet is the home of three “mysteries.” The first is Barrow Mansion, said to be haunted by the ghosts of two members of Barrow’s founding family, a father and son both murdered by their respective spouses. Barrow Day, the second mystery, is a yearly communal bacchanal, a sort of conflation of ancient May Day rites, the Day of the Dead celebrations, and Halloween, with Kafka-esque undertones, celebrated every June 15, and which involves much public drunkenness, occasional nudity, and a little water-walking. The third, and most powerful mystery is the “Regina,” the headwaters of the Thames River, a
vein of glass-clear fresh water that sprang from the ground, ran for six feet and returned underground.
ran so fast and constant, it was as if it did not run at all, [appearing] like a solid section of crystal.
Issuing from a vulva-shaped cleft in the earth and suffused with libidinal associations, the Regina stuns Father Pennant with its beauty and is clearly a well-spring of the mystical life force, nature’s spiritual font. By dipping his hand in its waters, the young priest makes contact with primordial natural energies.
This novel is triumphantly and exuberantly Canadian on many levels. Firstly, it is unapologetically and unmistakeably situated in Canada — Lambton County, in rural southwestern Ontario, is a very real place. Petrolia, Oil Springs, Sarnia and Ottawa make guest appearances or receive honourable mentions. It is also quiet, self-effacing, gentle and polite — qualities which should never be mistaken for shallow, simple or unsophisticated, as Father Pennant soon comes to understand. The drop-dead gorgeous and beautifully apt cover illustration is a photo of a painting by Nova Scotian artist Lindee Climo, entitled The Lady Sheep, gleaned from the Dufferin County Museum and Archives. Kudos to Coach House Press for so successfully mining the potential of the book cover as an integral part of literary art. Anton Piatigorsky, a Canadian writer whose work addresses many of the questions raised in Pastoral, is also referenced. Most significantly, though, Alexis’s story addresses, deliberately and directly, the great Canadian metaphysical dilemma: what to make of nature on the scale of the Canadian landscape, its undeniable immensity and power, and, yes, enchantment, and how to integrate it into one’s world view, particularly if one’s world view is Christian, with its attendant assumptions of dominion over nature.
As Don McKay has discussed is his fascinating essay, “Great Flint Singing: Reflections on Canadian Nature Poetries,” in The Shell of the Tortoise, there is a power, a “pristine other” in the natural world which exists beyond the realm of time, reason or language, terrifying in its uncontrollable and unfathomable otherness, but which resonates deeply within our animal selves. Muted by centuries of European civilization, weak emanations of this power were the catnip of the Wordsworthian Romantics, whose ideals shaped the sensibilities of so many of the colonial immigrants to Canada. Arriving as they did steeped in Romantic notions of Nature the mild and nurturing mother, source of comfort, and inspiration for faith, the immense, immutable beauty, and often fatal reality of the Canadian wilderness demanded a radical reordering of their understanding of the divine. Some identified the energies as menacing and evil, satanic in their provenance, and sought only to push Nature back with advancing civilization, Christian missionaries prominent amongst these front line forces. The careless, foolish, or naive did not survive. Others were utterly seduced, entranced, enchanted, some to the point of madness. In any case, the attempt to come to terms with Nature on a Canadian scale has been a longstanding Romantic dilemma, and a persistent thread in our literature, one mirrored with much thoughtful humour in Father Pennant’s adventures in Barrow.
Alexis states explicitly that Father Pennant has become disenchanted with cities, Ottawa in particular, as lonely and oppressive, and had come to feel (most Romantically) “that any place that covered the earth with tar and concrete was a place where [God’s] presence was bound to be muted.” Further, and despite warnings from the town curmudgeon, Tomasine Humble, that he would be wise to confine himself to matters of the soul, he hopes that his close study of the southern Ontario countryside, and its flora and fauna, will show him a “way back to the feeling of closeness with God, a way back to the fount of his own spirituality.” As readers soon see, he gets far more than he bargained for, falling under Nature’s spell almost immediately, and discovering, at the Regina, the fount of a force which he intuits may predate, supercede and encompass that of his God. As he struggles to ascertain the nature of this force (sanctified or evil?) and a correct relationship: Nature within God, or God within Nature, and deal with the implications of any rearrangement, he comes to understand that the more sensitive one is to the natural world, the less need one has for God. Understandably reluctant to give up on the idea of heaven, however, he finds himself one day (rather incongruously) imploring a talking sheep (which, to be fair, he assumes is another of Lowther’s shenanigans) to “teach [him] to be satisfied with the world and everything that’s in it.”
There are, in addition, innumerable sly references to Romantic precedents, in particular Wordsworth and Hardy, an added pleasure if one, like myself, enjoys a literary treasure hunt. Heath Lambert, Lowther’s friend, has a name which brings to mind Hardy’s Egdon Heath, that “great inviolate place,” of pagan energies (and barrows). Pastoral seems to owe a particular debt to Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native, which also features a love-triangle, an examination of man’s place in nature, and a character named Thomasin, played out against the backdrop of the heath. Wordsworth’s father’s employer (the Earl of Lonsdale) was named James Lowther, Heath sends Lowther a postcard while on a trip through Cumbria, in Wordsworth’s beloved Lake District, which is also, it turns out, Robbie Meyer’s ancestral home. Cartmel Priory, featured in Wordsworth’s poem “Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peel Castle”, is also referenced as is St. Mary’s — both an island in Windemere Lake, favoured by Wordsworth, and the name of Barrow’s church.
As the talking sheep indicates, Alexis’ touch is both playful and profound. The land is often depicted as incarnate, a stream described as “a strand of clear muscle.” Observing it, Father Pennant feels he could lift “the brook out of its channel, as he would ligaments and fascia from an animal he had dissected.” The landscape watches its inhabitants and often expressing its moods through weather, as on one particularly blustery day when a
succession of black clouds crawled above Barrow [and] small things and bits of paper were taken into the air, held, then tossed, as if Lambton County were sullenly looking for something it had lost.
The author himself makes a cameo appearance as St. Alexis (a beggar with a book) one of the four obscure saints (Abbo, Alexis, Zenobius and Zeno) depicted in the Barrow church’s stained glass work, referencing the Greek letters alpha (Α) and omega (Ω) a Christian appellation for God, but also suggesting that Barrow’s cosmology is all-encompassing. As Alexis notes, “there was something about these little known saints that suggested the great range of sanctity.” It is also probably worth noting that Alexis makes a point of stating that the nave of the little church was “barely deep enough to accommodate the font”.
In typical low-key Canadian fashion, there are no grand epiphanies here, no absolute truths or certainties. Things work themselves out to varying degrees of satisfaction, and life goes on. There are, however, the most beautiful final lines that I have yet to encounter in Canadian fiction, ones that rival Fitzgerald’s boats and Crummey’s whale, and so I leave you with this:
As he walked into Barrow, somewhere around seven o’clock, evening was in the early stages of suffusion. The world was not yet dark. It was beautiful: a hint of winter in the air, the lights of the town turned on — one by one, it seemed — as its inhabitants, each in his or her own time, became aware of the coming darkness.
in the hopes that you will concur that a story worthy of such an ending must be very worthwhile indeed.