Department of the Rediscovered: Douglas Glover’s ‘The Life and Times of Captain N.’


By Shane Neilson

In his afterword to Elle, Douglas Glover’s 2003 Governor General’s Award-winning (and best-known) novel, reviewer/essayist Lawrence Mathews compares Glover’s strain of historical novel to that of unnamed Canadian writers who have, en masse, adopted the convention that “Our Past must be presented with Due Solemnity and with an Eye to Political Correctness.” Matthews’ comparison is fair; Glover’s irreverent yet thoughtful, rich, layered, and complex novels are both part and not part of the Canadian historical novel tradition. They are part of the tradition in that Glover’s novel coincides temporally with the immense popularity of the form in Canada; but they are not part of that tradition in that history is, without a doubt, incidental to Glover’s manner of writing.

History for Glover is a trampoline for his writing to jump into ways of thinking about the past. History isn’t content, it’s process. Glover tricks out history, folds history on itself, refashions history into the elastic stuff of dream; then the dream merges with the nightmare of the character’s present (his/her history); then the character dreams while waking, history and dream being equal. Or, history becomes the novel; the novel isn’t history at all, it is a beautiful rendering of speculation and perspectives on how to know a thing whilst being entertained by a surface plot that itself represents the real authorial thinking.

Glover wrote in a “Reader’s Guide” edition of Elle,

There are two kinds of historical novels: one tries to tell the reader about a particular moment in history, and the other tries to tell the reader what history is. I write the second kind.

I don’t agree; in terms of aesthetic success, both elements must occur and double, story and manner of delivery of story, story about story, story becoming story.

It is not easy to believe that a writer can be so successful coming on so strong with the tired device of dream; but Glover is not a common writer. In many ways he writes against truisms and fads (like the historical novel) and he does this by embracing the fad and using it against itself while also respecting it by taking it beyond where it has gone before. These two things are, actually, the same thing. In Glover’s hands the historical novel becomes a palimpsest of identity and displacement and death. And sex: Glover’s novels contain a fair amount of sex, again unlike the Canadian norm.

The novel’s language leans towards poetry (a fact which might receive a rebuke from plodding realists) but it also resists poetry; the novel’s structure becomes the truly poetic aspect to a Glover novel, for in a Glover novel all the components, as per E.M. Forster’s advice, connect. Glover’s historical novels are a hall of mirrors for the consciousness of character and reader (story on story, story about story), an endless cycle of return and return and return that increases the power of incident with each variation of return. Each line is imbued with a memory of previous lines. Each line is sentient, encouraging the reader to take it and cast the line against the whole book, each line a hook cast deep to pull out a vast catch of metaphor and meaning. Like James Joyce, Glover is ripe for interpretation, though not so cloistered, cribbed, and uncompromising as the great writer.

Is Glover an experimental writer? Reading just the above, you would be forgiven for thinking so. A well-made thing called “novel” is, each time, an experiment. Maybe he is when certain aspects of his technique are considered (and I’ll mention these a little later); but really he’s in between. He wants the best of both worlds, that of ascertainable prose narrative that gives good story, but his writing also inhabits the realm of language that provides emotion beyond that of dramatic incident. Glover as novelist is a storyteller with an eye fixed on the beautiful expression, phrase, and word. I’ll return to the emotion of Glover’s writing after I provide, as Glover terms it in his critical works, a bit of “backfill.”

I have not read a book as beautiful as The Life and Times of Captain N (McClelland & Stewart, 1993, reprinted by Goose Lane Editions, 2001) since I read Nabokov’s Pale Fire. The comparison is apt in that Glover, in his critical writings (especially The Enamoured Knight, Attack of the Copula Spiders), is a fan of Nabokov’s structural élan. Nabokov wrote the following paragraph about Joyce in Lectures on Literature, and I believe he was anticipating Douglas Glover too:

The characters are constantly brought together during their peregrinations through a Dublin day. Joyce never loses control over them. Indeed, they come and go and meet and separate, and meet again as the live recurrence of a number of themes is one of the most striking features of the book. These themes are much more clear-cut, much more deliberately followed, than the themes we pick up in Tolstoy or Kafka. The whole of Ulysses, as we shall gradually realize, is a deliberate pattern of recurrent themes and synchronization of trivial events.

For Glover, the novel begins with Don Quixote; this is of course the historical truth. I remember sitting on a dock and filling up boats with gasoline on the Saint John River, reading about Sancho Panza and the good Don barfing and shitting to great comic effect, but Cervantes’ novel was too much a victim of translation to translate to me. Because fiction for me is the ultimate form of freedom, the place of the greatest truth-telling (and these are the same thing too) and coincident freeing-up of the language, the novel for me as reader began with Joyce’s Ulysses. And Ulysses is an experiment as to how smart the novel can be, how impossibly byzantine the novel can be constructed, the novel as a great code and thing of genius. Martin Amis, the greatest living stylist in English prose (if an endearing, capering dunce at plot structure), wrote in The War Against Cliché, his Nabokov-indebted book of essays, that Ulysses was like the atom bomb: it can’t be done again.

What did Joyce do after Ulysses? He tried to outdo himself. He tried to make a bigger bomb, or perhaps an un-bomb. But the effect was a retreat to a personal Herculean feat, an impossible obscurity, a self-reflective brilliance, a hermitage of genius: Finnegan’s Wake. He wrote an endless series of puns that defuse every line. Graduate students cast their fishing hooks into the whole book and emerge with their thesis-worthy catches. The fish are dead. Joyce pushed his intelligence as far as it would go. The end was a titanic irrelevance. He lost, in the idiomatic and also structural sense, the plot.

Other novels have changed my thinking about the novel (just as Glover’s incessant refraction changes one’s thinking about the novel and history itself). Alden Nowlan’s magisterial The Wanton Troopers, posthumously published after being found in the great man’s desk (published too by Goose Lane Editions, who have also consistently kept Glover’s novels in print) taught me that writing must be emotional on a word by word level. Words themselves should pack an emotional punch separate from narrative, from what’s ostensibly going on. This is true in all novels but Nowlan pushed the idea as far as it could go: his elemental representations of love and loss and poverty and the psychological devastation of a little boy suggested to me, through the words themselves, that every word must serve a purpose greater than dainty beauty, more than structural cleverness. Every word has to hit the heart.

To recap: I came to the novel first as a devotee of the beauty of intellect; a little further down Novel Road I got wrecked by the novel as vessel of pure emotion; but it took too long for me, hundreds of novels in English and in translation, to find a book that would have appealed to Joyce himself as a strategic alternative to the self-talk of Finnegan’s Wake. This novel is The Life and Times of Captain N.

First, the story: Captain N. has three parallel plots. The story of the eponymous Captain N. is the central plot, though all three plots have equal weight. Captain N. is a soldier in the Tory army during the American Civil War. He is a lover of former white female captives of Indians. He ruminates prophetically, thematically, memorably. He knows he is doomed and yet embraces that doom while he rails against it. He suffers terrible headaches. Another plot is the story of Oskar, Captain N.’s son, who is captured by Captain N. and made to fight the war. Oskar is angry and lost and is recruited into a land of between-worlds, adopting the customs of the native troops he commands. The final plot is that of Mary Hunsacker, a young white captive who becomes the reluctant lover of Oskar and who cares for Captain N. at the time of his death. Mary is the prototype of the protagonist of Glover’s later novel Elle.

Captain N. has a cunning structure in which the three plots are juggled like three balls that become one ball which split into two balls that then split again into three. And so on. The juggler varies his rhythm, becoming an illusionist. Dream plays an important role in the narrative, making most of the action in the novel possible and most of the history able to be included (story on story.) To make things even more impressive, Glover inserts another ball into the routine from time to time. With this ball (and with Nabokovian glee) he has Oskar (who writes the book we are reading) comment upon themes and even the structure of The Life and Times of Captain N., providing the keys to reading what has happened in the book and what will happen. It all coheres. The balls stay in the air. Nabokov would be pleased.

Structure is a matter of skill, a practical application of intelligence. Joyce was my first tutor here. What I hadn’t seen before – bringing Glover’s experimental credentials into the debate – is thematic forcing and image patterning to the nth degree. (If you’re unfamiliar with such concepts, then don’t worry; Glover literally wrote the book on them. See his new Biblioasis book Attack of the Copula Spiders.) Glover’s masks and headache imagery, his infliction of dream on the narrative as device and image, are used so repetitively, with such frequency and insistence, that they equate: the words, which are the images, become other. And, well, even the idea of “the other” is made use of. Here is a representative passage taken almost at random from the book, in the voice of Captain N.:

I have headaches.

The pain begins behind my right eye, radiates across my jaw to my ear, snakes up and fills the vein that stands out on my forehead. When the pain reaches my forehead my face is suddenly split in two. The right side is on fire, and the left is in shadow.

She says the pain is a symptom of a soul sickness. (This is the way the Iroquois talk – they say our dreams are but wishes of the soul. But the dream is also a mask, and they speak of dreams as if they were riddles.)

The Life and Times of Captain N., entirely comprehensible in terms of plot, becomes a kind of poem which reflects upon dreaming, history, headaches, and masks. These words nest inside one another to create an incredibly intricate, beautiful experiment. (It is tedious to say so, but devotees of Glover’s techniques will protest that the above excerpt is better than I’ve shown: it contains several subsidiary image patterns too.)

With such an argument you might think that Glover could be compared to Anne Michaels and Michael Ondaatje and their ilk, but this again brings up the contrariness of Glover’s ability. Glover can be compared to these practitioners of the poetic novel, but just as much as Glover’s exploding the practise of the historical novel, he’s exploding the practise of the poetic novel too. The following arresting (and brief) passage in the voice of Captain N. demonstrates that he’s an enemy of what Matthews might call Poetic Prose Fog:

I have lost count of the expeditions and depradations since, though I remember standing with Brant fifty yards from the walls of Fort Stanwix in April, with a handful of flaming straw, the sparks scorching my eyebrows, and the Rebels hurling down buckshot and spit.

The writing is vigorous and beautiful but also precise and plot-driven (story on story). One wonders if Glover was anticipating the rise of the Poetic Fog Machine he’d have to compete with when he wrote the following Swiftian passage in Oskar’s voice (to appreciate the full savage irony, remember that Oskar is the character who is writing The Life and Times of Captain N., the novel the reader has in their hands. Witcacy, a dwarf, expounds to Oskar):

“Truth is beauty. Look around you,” he shouts, then trips off his perch, picks himself up, and snatches his violin from the floor with a flourish. “The savages are poetry come to life. Their every gesture is rhetorical. Beauty is truth to them. In order to tell their truth you have to forget the world and render everything poetical.”

“…render poetical,” writes Oskar, rubbing his cheek. “I don’t understand,” he says.

“Plato hated poets,” says Witcacy. “It’s crucial. We took a wrong turn there. Plato hated Indians. You have to overcome writing.”

“But you taught me…”

“White boys have to learn the long way around.”

Oskar sighs and tears up his sheet.

Joyce wrote to free the novel. I joined him, as a reader, on the ground floor. But Glover wrote to free the reader from the boring historical romance-by-another-name, and his writing also frees us from poet-novelists like Ondaatje, Michaels and their ilk. Tear up the sheet! I don’t understand! Overcome writing! In Glover’s writing, a word must be purposeful, beautiful and intelligent. Words carry the water into the beach hovel on Labrador’s Isle of Demons (Elle) and the words look good doing it. Glover uses structure as poetry, not poetry as poetry, and this is the key difference from Michaels and Ondaatje and the Cloud of Poetic Fog. Glover takes an idea or image and varies it and forces it into the narrative so often, in so many character’s heads, in so many characters’ dreams, and on so many characters’ bodies, the ideas and images become not forced but a tour de force of cross-links and empathic comparisons.

The Life and Times of Captain N. is (like Ulysses was for the smart set) an atomic bomb for structure (and thereby poetry, idea, and emotion.) All these balls are in the air, and I am confused as to why Glover’s landmark novel isn’t talked about more, why it’s faded into history, perhaps the greatest irony for a historical novel that makes so much of how history is fickle.

One Comment

  1. Posted July 31, 2012 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Shane, thanks for this article that’s full of ideas, and that makes a good case for reading Glover.

    Two things. First, instead of the realism-experimental divide, perhaps we could adopt the term exploratory, which I first heard the writer Thom Conroy use. It can use realism (and whatever else it wants) to get to something new and exciting, but it may not be found in the camp of, say, one of the more extreme Oulipian texts. It may also help in removing the constant (and at times false) opposition between two forces.

    Second, you write: “For Glover, the novel begins with Don Quixote; this is of course the historical truth.” Some would disagree. I’d refer you here:

    This is a review by Alberto Manguel of Steven Moore’s _The Novel: an alternative history_. Moore backdates the novel by quite a bit.

    Again, thanks for this stimulating piece.


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Shane Neilson

Shane Neilson is a writer and medical doctor from New Brunswick. His latest book of prose is Gunmetal Blue: A Memoir, and his latest book of poems Complete Physical.

Copyright 2010 Great Plains Publications/Enfield & Wizenty

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