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.
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.