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The Diviners by Margaret Laurence

Written by eastern writer on Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Only in Canada, you say? Pity

Write what you know, they tell beginning writers. And even veteran, successful authors tend to stick to this advice. Which is why we get so many novels about people trying to write novels. And which is one of the reasons why so many people are turned off serious modern writing. Too self-indulgently intellectual and irrelevant to most people's lives.

Granted there are some very good and popular novels featuring writers. Works by several great authors come to mind. The thing is though that, while these may feature writers, they are not about the writers trying to write. Rather, writing just happens to be the profession of the characters who are engaged in more important issues of life.

This is happily the case with The Diviners. The protagonist Morag Gunn is obviously based on Margaret Laurence herself, being raised in a small Manitoba town, working on a local newspaper, marrying a professional man, separating, becoming a novelist, living for stretches in Vancouver and Britain. Many differences too however. In the final analysis it's a work of imagination, as Morag deals with her scarring childhood, the men in her life, a footloose daughter, and her quest to discover where she belongs.

Now here's where it gets dicey. Parts of the novel just seem too made-up. You can see the secondary characters being introduced, given their requisite quirks and moved around to fulfill their roles in the narrative. You can see the thinking that went into the dialogue that each character is provided.

Not always though. The greatest character is Morag's adopted father Christie, the town's garbage man, or Scavenger as he's called, seen mainly in flashbacks to her youth. A brown-toothed, uneducated, impoverished embarrassment to the young Morag in public but a loving, beloved storyteller to her in private, he's the life of the novel whether he's present or not. Also, the once-love of Morag's life, a ne'er-do-well M├ętis country singer named Jules "Skinner" Tonnerre is a natural character we want to see more of.

But too many other people, especially those in Morag's present life are ciphers. Her daughter and daughters' companions are stereotypical hippies of the time. Her professor husband, her own friends and neighbours and assorted landladies all seem to perform their narrative functions and then shuffle offstage.

This is not necessarily a fatal flaw. You can often see the story-telling contrivances at play in works by great writers from Homer to Shakespeare to Dickens and Irving. But in those works you are soon transported into that contrived world and no longer care how you got there. In The Diviners however we are not enraptured enough by Morag's existential crisis, whatever it is, to take our eyes off the mechanics of the whole production.

Now, if you had asked me a few years ago about The Diviners, I would have offered a far different assessment. I might have rhapsodized about how much I loved Margaret Laurence's work. I night have gone about her honestly drawn characters and her understated writing style with its emotional undertow. I might have decried a certain Canadian critic who recently put down Laurence's revered work as not being world-class.

But I've just re-read The Diviners. In the time between readings, I've been exposed to the greatest works of world literature. And with my better-trained eyes I see that The Diviners is not in that class of good. There's a certain flatness to it, a refusal to go for the big, difficult questions. It prefers to settle for the easier, more comforting conclusions about how story and mythology determine our place in the world. (A lot of CanLit does this, come to think of it. Why is this?)

A Canadian classic perhaps. We'll have to settle for that.


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