(Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1976)
“She looked at the bear. He sat there, solid as a sofa, domestic, a rug of a bear. She went to kneel beside him. He smelled better than he had before he started swimming, but his essential smell was still there, a scent of musk as shrill as the high, sweet note of a shepherd’s flute.”
This, it seems to me, is great writing. It’s from Bear, a novel published in 1976 by Canadian writer Marian Engel (1933-1985). The book was wildly controversial at the time (but nevertheless won Engel a Governor General’s Award in 1976), no doubt because it is primarily about the erotic relationship between a lonely, aging and sensuously unfulfilled Toronto archival librarian and bibliographer (she speaks despairingly of “her waning flesh”) and a tattered old bear. The bear, which is half wild and half a sort of pet, is kept in an enclosure behind a now abandoned colonial mansion on an island in northern Ontario—the richly endowed library of which the protagonist has come, for the summer, to catalogue.
The librarian’s name is Lou and Engel establishes her presence and her problem quickly and vividly in the very first sentence of the book: “In the winter, she lived like a mole [the book’s imagery is alive with animals], buried deep in her office among maps and manuscripts.”
Lou needs awakening—in the sense of needing to feel something. The bear behind the island house needs care.
A relationship of some sort or other is clearly meant to be.
And the fact that it does take place—and the way it takes place—created a huge fuss at the time and apparently still does. One recent Internet review—if that’s the right word for what is simply a hysterical cry of outrage—found it necessary to deplore the book in the following robust terms: “If you can stand reading about his tongue’s [i.e. the bear’s] ‘vertical crease’ or his hoo-hoo-dilly’s ‘cartiliginous sheath,’ if despite the bad prose, uninteresting characters, and a plotline as mind-numbingly cliché in its themes as it is freshly, grotesquely surreal in its details, and most of all, if you just have to know what in hell she did with a bear, then Bear is just the book for you.”
“Hoo-hoo-dilly”? “Bad prose”? “Uninteresting characters”? It’s difficult to believe we’ve both been reading the same book.
Positioned by most critics as Engel’s exuberant, full-bodied triumph over the misogyny of mainstream Canadian society—as a lover, Lou’s bear is apparently a warm, passionate and vital alternative to the drab, colourless, life-negating men she had previously experienced—the novel takes its place deep in that fervid emotional landscape explored by critic and theorist Northrop Frye in his book, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, 1971, and further enriched by Margaret Atwood in her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, published a year later.
Frye employs the now-famous term “garrison mentality” to characterize the positing of differences between, say, an outpost of light and warmth and safety, and the dark, unknowable forest hovering all around. But of course in the case of Lou’s isolated historic house and moldering library, over which she reigns for a summer, the “garrison” polarities are reversed: it is the island, the house and the bear which provide warmth and assurance, and it is the banality and coarseness of mainland life (and especially of city life) that embody threat. At one point, for example, Lou takes the house’s motorboat to the mainland for supplies (and, in contrast to the company of her bear, for some human—albeit unnourishing—attention). “She went to the boat,” writes Engel, “and rammed around the channel like any other foolish motorized person….”
Frye quotes British poet Rupert Brooke on the “unseizable virginity” of the Canadian landscape. Again, in Bear, the opposite is true: for Lou, the unspoiled, virgin landscape has become eminently “seizable,” whereas, by contrast, her life in Toronto, sequestered away in her basement office at the Kafka-esque “Institute,” has been arid, shriveled, and glumly isolating: “Her basement room at the Institute was close to the steam pipes and protectively lined with books, wooden filing cabinets and very old, brown photographs of unlikely people….”
What Lou needs—and what she achieves—is to be reborn from this dusty, airless anti-womb of an office and loosed into the newfound Eden that is her northern island where, like Eve and Adam, she and the bear, can frolic like children. Oh brave new world that hath such creatures in it! Despite her tender if somewhat disturbing sexual congress with the bear, there is, in the end, a palpable guilelessness and consequent deep joy in their relationship. There are times when Lou sounds almost like Christopher Robin at play with Winnie-the-Pooh: “ ‘Oh bear,’ she laughed, ‘we’re a funny pair.’ He turned around and quite definitely grinned’.”
Here are the lovers at play: “The next morning was hot. She took the bear down to the river, hooked his chain on a nail in the dock, and jumped naked into the water beside him. He seemed enormous, with his fur alternately flaring out and clinging seal-like. She dog-paddled beside him, scooping little waves towards him. He slapped the water with his paw in return…”
This is the sound of the pastoral mode in operation, of the myth of idyllic childhood absorbingly enacted: here are two innocents cavorting in the fields of the lord. Because Marian Engel’s prose is so gleamingly assured, so consummately pointed and exacting, she manages, in her joyous realism, to displace and occlude, to a very large degree, her novel’s inescapably mythic underpinnings—and this, no doubt, is the source of much of the outrage the book generated—and continues to generate.
But the thing is clearly a work of high literary art. There is unbearable sadness and exhilarating triumph in the book’s final sentence: Lou is driving back to the city and observes (her vision now clarified by her recent transformation) that “It was a brilliant night, all star-shine, and overhead the Great Bear and his thirty-seven thousand virgins kept her company.”