February in Canada: A Love Story with a Difference – Bear

Marian Engel: Bear, 1976.

My impression of the 1970s is that they must all have been on drugs for most of the decade – and the films, books and music of that period (perhaps starting a couple of years earlier, from about 1967-68) have that same dreamy, occasionally frenzied and lurid quality to them. At the same time, it must have been an exciting time of questioning, rebelling, reassessing and ‘finding your true self’. Even if the wins of that generation ended up being transient and often illusory.

I can’t help feeling that, in some respects, we have regressed as a culture in the 2010s, i.e. that there is less of a willingness to explore and push boundaries, that it’s all about bestseller lists and celebrities. This is all by way of introducing the novel Bear by Marian Engel, which has been described as ‘the most controversial novel ever written in Canada’, although at the time it was generally well received by critics and even won the Governor General’s Literary Award that year. Let’s not be coy about it: it is about a woman who develops a passion for a captive bear, and this passion includes quite explicit sex. What surprised me, however, is how much more shocked readers seem to be about this now, in an age when the worst kind of pornography is readily available to all.

Are we in danger of focusing so much on the bestiality aspect of the book that we miss what it is about entirely? Given the vigorous over-reactions, I was expecting something a lot more titillating, but the sex scenes constitute a very small part of the novel. Failing that, I expected it to be a much more surreal type of novel, full of heavy symbolism. It is in fact quite a straightforward narrative, although it does have a fable-like quality about it.

It is actually a novel about loneliness, about feeling alienated from the world, about being a woman in a world where men and career paths and options have proved disappointing. Lou is an introverted librarian in her late 20s who is sent on a mission to assess the estate bequeathed to her institute by the last of the Cary family, an oddly luxurious house with no indoor toilet on a small island on a lake in the remotest reaches of Ontario.

For some time things had been going badly for her. She could cite nothing in particular as a problem; rather, it was as if life in general had a grudge against her. Things persisted in turning grey. Although at first she had revelled in the erudite seclsuion of her job, in the protection against the vulgarities of the world that it offered, after five years she now felt that in some way it had aged her disproportionately that she was as old as the yellowed papers she spent her days unfolding.

Spending time by herself in this house which seems strangely incongrous with the surrounding landscape, Lou tries to reconcile the rather conventional library of 19th century classics with the bear that ‘has always been there’ on the grounds, captive, yet obviously important somehow to the family. Notes about bear myths and legends fall out of books as she catalogues them. She discovers documents by and about the early settlers in that region, documents which are sometimes at odds with the official history of Canada.

The ones who were most truly romantic perished horribly… Fell through the ice, contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis, died of strange fevers, scurvy, depression, or neglect. Only the hardies survived and their few memoirs. Often the diaires that were left to the Institute broke off when the settlers arrived from England. If you were building your own cabin, making your own cloth and soap and candles, furniture and tools, there was no time to concoct a bottle of ink or find a quill to use it with.

Although she can buy food from the shop on the mainland, in some ways Lou is imitating the lifestyle of those early settlers. Her few interactions with the people in the area prove rather unsatisfactory and leave her feeling more alone than when she is by herself in the house, or swimming in the lake with the bear. It is the bear who provides uncritical companionship.

She loved him with a clean passion that she had never felt before. Once, briefly, she had had as a lover a man of elegance and charm, but she had felt uncomfortable when he said he loved her, felt it meant something she did not understand, and indeed, it meant, she discovered, that he loved her as long as the socks were folded and she was at his disposal on demand… She loved the bear. There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.

This is much more a novel about trying to find a sense of purpose, agency and yes, perhaps reconnect with nature. It reminds me a lot of Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, with its close observation of the rhythms of nature and with no anthropomorphising of the animal. What we have here is a smelly bear, farting freely, with suspicious little eyes and a dirty bum. Yet all this ceases to matter as the narrator bonds with the creature – or perhaps with what the creature represents to her. There are moments when she wishes to be annihilated by the bear – and at some point she very nearly is – a bent towards self-destruction that I have never understood, but which many people seem to experience at some point in their lives.

So, while I’m not sure if this is the greatest Canadian novel of all time (I haven’t read enough Canadian literature to make an informed decision about this), it is certainly a beautiful piece of writing. I am glad this novel has been rediscovered and I hope that it won’t be read and discussed for all the wrong reasons.

I have two more books by Marian Engel on my shelf – I found all three of them second-hand at a bookshop a couple of years ago and couldn’t resist buying all three. The Honeyman Festival and Lunatic Villas seem to feature older female protagonists in urban environments, tied down by marriage and children, trying in vain to recreate something of their past glory and hopes and dreams. Ah, my perfect cup of tea, then! I might continue with one of them for my February in Canada month…

23 thoughts on “February in Canada: A Love Story with a Difference – Bear”

  1. I agree with you, Marina Sofia, that there is a tremendous emphasis now on books that will sell well, as opposed to books that discuss controversial issues, or that break boundaries, or that use different sorts of styles. And this book is (at least to me) the sort of book that might not be published today, for just that reason. Thank you for profiling it here. It may not be a book for everyone, but, just from the bits you’ve shared, it does sound beautifully written.

    1. Of course, certain people would jump on the bandwagon of blaming ‘woke’ culture or ‘political correctness’ for it, but I think it really is about the commoditisation of culture. If a book (or show or film) doesn’t come with loads of dollar bills attached to it, it is perceived as somehow too risky.

  2. I don’t think I’d want to read this book, but it’s an interesting human trait that we’re both less and more easily shocked these days! (Daunt are bringing out a reprint of this book in April, I may come calling to borrow your review for Shiny!)

    1. Are they indeed? Interesting – and possibly entirely because of the social media furore around it since about 5 years ago. Between the late 1970s and 2015, I think it had disappeared into oblivion. Of course I’m happy to contribute to Shiny – but your go-to person would be Dorian Stuber, who really is very keen to proselytise about this book.

  3. Margot makes some good points in her comment. I wondered if some of that shock was for the benefit of a social media audience. Interesting that Daunt are reissuing it. Increasingly, I think you have to look to the independents if you want fiction that pushes at boundaries.

    1. Absolutely agree that the most interesting type of publishing tends to come from independents, although sadly you will then see some of the names that the smaller publishers discovered (and who have become successful) then being poached by the bigger publishers who can afford higher advances etc.

      1. An instance of which I discovered yesterday when reviewing a title published by one of the big conglomerates although I’ve made sure to mention the author’s original indie publisher and include a link.

  4. A good review of a book I had never heard of and wonder if I would have read it, but why shouldn’t novels stretch boundaries, in the same way that brave television documentaries introduce us to strange people and ideas.

  5. Your review interested me enough to see if this book is available in our library. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer’s ‘no’. My interest hasn’t risen to ‘I’ll buy it then’, so we’ll have to see …

  6. Excellent piece, Marina! In my experience of teaching this novel, the less you know beforehand the better. People are often expecting something horrific, but in my experience that is not what they will find. The Haushofer comparison is spot on–I’d also suggest early Margaret Atwood: The Edible Woman and Surfacing similarly explore how women can find meaning for themselves in a patriarchal world. To escape into nature is a time-honoured response, though that brings its own complications.

    My only quibble is that although the island is far from Toronto it is far from being the remotest place in Ontario!

    I’m glad you read the book! I have THE HONEYMOON FESTIVAL too, though I’ve never read it. Should get to that soon.

    1. In my defence, I’d say that it’s not me who claimed it was remote, but it keeps coming up in the book, from Lou’s point of view. I guess remoteness is in the eye of the beholder… And yes, why did it not occur to me – The Edible Woman is another perfect comparison.

  7. Absolutely agree with you about skewed and strange our views are nowadays – from what I recall of the 1970s things were very ‘out there’, and although that broughts some problems, there was a willingness to explore and experiment across culture which has gone now. And I expect I will read this eventually…

  8. Is one of those old 19th century books by Balzac, and does it include a story about a love affair between a soldier and a panther?

    Some blogger should do a readalong project that is all books with bears.

    1. No Balzac. As I recall, Lou, the professional librarian, is disappointed that they are all American reprints of Victorian classics. What Balzac story is that??

    2. “A Passion in the Desert.” It’s in the NYRB collection of Balzac stories. Ten pages. Dang ol’ masterpiece, that story.

      I begin to wonder, as I do, about the relevant earlier texts. Walt Morey’s Gentle Ben is from 1965. I can see a writer thinking, but what about a woman, what about an adult?

      But the Balzac story seems like a more, let’s say, canonical touchstone. A good story to argue with.

      1. My copy of those stories is inaccessible right now, but I will get to it eventually. In terms of precursors–not consciously, I don’t think–what about Lawrence’s The Fox?

      2. Right, Lawrence, what’s going on there in Canada? The Hugh MacLennan novel you recommended to me, which I need to write up, was explicitly Lawrentian.

        This readalong seems better and better. Not just bears but also Balzac, The Fox, Lady into Fox, on and on.

  9. I’m not sure that the working class has the same memories of the 1970s as what you describe in your first paragraph. While it’s true for artists, for upper classes and maybe the academic world, I don’t think that’s the 1970s my parents lived.

    It sounds like an interesting book, one I’m not sure I could read.

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