The Sunday Magazine

Hugh MacLennan's novel about a love triangle, fighting fascism and 1930s Montreal

In episode four of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place — publisher Doug Gibson discusses Hugh MacLennan’s 1958 novel The Watch That Ends the Night.
Doug Gibson sings the praises of The Watch That Ends The Night, a Montreal-set story of war, loss, and above all, love. (Macmillan of Canada/Submitted by Doug Gibson)

Welcome to episode four of The Backlist, a series about Canadian novels that have fallen out of public memory — or never got the attention they deserved in the first place.

Hugh MacLennan's novel The Watch That Ends the Night features one of the most compelling love triangles in Canadian literature.

Catherine and George Stewart have a quiet, joyful marriage, and a good life in 1950s Montreal.

But they are both haunted by the memory of Jerome Martell — Catherine's first husband, and George's closest friend.

Martell was a brilliant surgeon and fierce political crusader who left his wife and daughter to fight fascism in Europe in the 1930s. George and Catherine believe he was tortured to death in a Nazi prison camp. They have mourned him, but tried to move on. 
A young Hugh MacLennan. An academic as well as a writer, he published seven novels in all.

Then, ten years after his supposed death, Jerome Martell shows up in Montreal alive.

When it was published in 1958, The Watch That Ends the Night was a bestseller. Doug Gibson, the former publisher of both Macmillan and McClelland and Stewart, says the novel is still relevant today because "it's about love."

"It's about men and women and their children, dealing with the difficulties that love produces, as well as the joys," he told The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright. 

The plot is set in motion by what Gibson calls "the most exciting, dramatic phone call in Canadian history."

George Stewart, who is teaching at McGill University, is just about to leave work when he's told to return a call.

"A voice comes on, and he realizes it is his wife's dead husband, who has come back to life," said Gibson.

"It's a great love triangle, and it's also a great portrait of Montreal. The three of them all mingled with the left-wing in Montreal during the Depression, and we don't have many books about what it was like in the Depression … We become obsessed with these people living this life in the 30s."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview. Doug Gibson also reads a short excerpt from Hugh MacLennan's first novel Barometer Rising, published by Duell, Sloan & Pearce in 1941. 


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