Marian Engel stands at the birthing point between old (i.e., WASPy, Victorian/Brit-influenced) and new CanLit, a crossroads that leads in a straight line from MacLennan and Mowat, to Laurence, Atwood, Findley, Munro, Ondaatje, Shields, Gowdy, Ann-Marie MacDonald, more and more.
This - her first novel - can, I think without too much authorial heresy, be read as a documentary of the difficulty of that birth: not just as a new contemporary literary tradition was born, but because (not to stretch the birth metaphor too far, but …), it was given birth by women.
Engel slyly alludes to this right here in Sarah Bastard’s Notebook, “If this is a club, how the hell did I get in?” She’s referring here to her character as an academic; but this whole thing reads like autobiography, with a few names and details changed; mostly the places are left intact (a telling tell).
This novel would probably not be published today. It's experimental, raw, stream-of-consciousness stuff, and it is specifically about the struggle: i.e., that of the Toronto-based, Ontario-bound female academic of the 60s/early 70s, struggling to define her place in a suffocating and provincial intellectual milieu.
It’s almost too self-referential, as a novel: these days, it would simply be memoir, everything laid bare. She wouldn’t have taken the trouble to disguise it – she wouldn’t have needed to do so
. Ahhh, progress.
If the 'story' - such as it is - rambles and rants; if it's angst-ridden, bitter and resentful; if despite what must have been seen as its almost avante garde
style, if it shocked or mystified the old white men in control of Canadian publishing at the time - and now too? I don't know - (it would never have been published but for the pull of her literary and academic mentor, Hugh MacLennan) - and if all this feels dated, like a lot of water under the bridge … well, it still made me want to wave a placard and yell slogans and filled me with courage and pride. I.e., it still resonates.
So, still a ways to go on that progress thing.