Douglas Gibson on The Next Chapter

Each Monday leading up to the Canada Reads debates, The Next Chapter will interview one of the authors (or, in the case of the late Hugh MacLennan, his editor). CBC Books is replaying these interviews here for your enjoyment.

First up is Shelagh Rogers' conversation with Douglas Gibson, a publisher and editor who has worked closely with Robertson Davies, Alice Munro and, yes, Hugh MacLennan, author of Two Solitudes. Two Solitudes will be defended by Jay Baruchel in the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.

This interview originally aired on December 24, 2012.

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The term "two solitudes" has become part of the Canadian vernacular, as a shorthand for describing the relationship between francophones and anglophones in Quebec and Canada. Its popularization was driven by Hugh MacLennan's 1945 seminal work, Two Solitudes, about a blended family trying to navigate the cultural currents of Quebec in the early 20th century.

However, the title Two Solitudes only came to MacLennan when the novel was nearly two-thirds finished. While reading a book review, he came upon a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, who once said: "Love consists in this, that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other." It was this sentiment — that French Canada and English Canada can come together — that was at the heart of the story. "That, of course, is circling and inclusive, rather than exclusive and dividing," Douglas Gibson, MacLennan's editor and friend, told Shelagh Rogers.

The Tallard family is the focus of the novel: Athanese, a French-Canadian politician who works hard in parliament to bring the two sides together; his son Marius, a proud French Canadian who was against the Canadian conscription of soldiers in the First World War; and Paul, Athanese's younger son by his second wife, Kathleen, who is Irish. Paul struggles to reconcile the two sides of his identity, and dreams of writing a book that would explain to the rest of the world what's happening in the two Canadas; his vision is to showcase a new Canada, one of inclusivity and togetherness. In this way, Paul very much represents MacLennan himself and his ambitions for Two Solitudes. Both men "want to write a history of his people to explain to the world the significance of his people and to explain the relationship of Anglo and French in Canada," Gibson said. "He wanted us all to understand the other."


Gibson believes MacLennan succeeded. Two Solitudes became the fastest-selling book in Canada at the time, won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and appears today, nearly 70 years later, on many school curricula. That's exactly how it should be, Gibson says. "I would argue that if you want to understand Quebec, you have to understand the history. It's no accident that the licence plate reads je me souviens," he said. "[Two Solitudes] is still vitally important background reading for anyone who wants to understand the Quebec and rest-of-Canada divide."

But that's not the only reason Gibson believes you should pick up Two Solitudes. "I would suggest it's still good reading," he said. "I do believe he was our first world-class writer and I do believe he has been underestimated and I hope that Canada Reads can help fix that."

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