Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The publication and reception of Guy Vanderhaeghe's Man Descending in 1982 indicated the arrival of a powerful new voice in both western Canadian literature and Canadian fiction in general. Over time, the strength of his narratives and his vision of lives enduring and surviving have been recognized with two Governor General's Literary Awards, the City of Toronto Award, and, in England, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for fiction as well as other honors. Vanderhaeghe was born in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan, on April 5, 1951. He was educated at the Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina and lives in Saskatoon.

Vanderhaeghe's voice comes out of the traditions and influences of previous writers from the West–Wallace Stegner, Sinclair Ross, Martha Ostenso, W. O. Mitchell, and Margaret Laurence. Like those writers, Vanderhaeghe's "naming" of the Prairies is a significant contribution and, at the least, one of his starting points. In an early interview with David Carpenter in 1982, Vanderhaeghe said that his response to reading Robert Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man was precisely in this act of naming: "Even though it was such a mythic book it had a tremendous amount of authenticity for me. . . . I said to myself, even before I had decided to write, this part of the world can be written about." His vision of the Prairie landscape is painted deeply as a strong wash beneath the struggles and images of his characters, especially in Homesick (1990) and The Englishman's Boy (1996). Though he has hauled the urban landscapes of the Canadian Prairie into the foreground of his work more than some previous writers, particularly in My Present Age (1984), it is still true that, as an artist, he has helped celebrate the lyrical beauty and mythical harshness of the Prairie landscape and universalized it in his imagery.

Vanderhaeghe's voice also surfaces within a renaissance of new voices in western fiction: Robert Kroetsch, Rudy Wiebe, David Aranason, Carol Shields, Kristjana Gunnars, Aritha Van Herk, Edna Alford, Sandra Birdsell, and Jack Hodgins. From the early short stories through to the large designs of the novels, the tension between modernist and postmodernist– the positioning between past and present influences–is always present. Like Alice Munro, Vanderhaeghe has pushed realist narrative in a postmodern direction, out into looser, more chaotic forms, while, unlike Munro, he has insisted upon an almost modernist leanness in the images he sets up to control his vision of contemporary life. The latest evidence of this tension is the pull, in The Englishman's Boy, between the postmodern, spatial effects of its narrative as it weaves itself back and forth between historical foregrounds and backgrounds and the tight, modernist design of its vision as it echoes Pound, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner in its attempt to superimpose images upon history, force the contradictions and paradoxes of history into stylized resolutions or representations of those things.

This struggle in Vanderhaeghe's narratives is between where he wants to take the traditions of social and psychological realism in his forms and how he tries to organize the play between existence and history in his content. It accounts for a dichotomy in his texts between an ever-loosening abandonment of linearity and closure in form, reminiscent of Kroetsch and Shields, and an almost mannered, throwback design in content, reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Stegner, and Hemingway and fueled, one suspects, by his own background in history and philosophy. That is why the admittedly dark and even limited comedy of My Present Age can appeal to some readers who might be suspicious of the lean designs of The Englishman's Boy, even though the latter is the stronger work in many ways. It is the looseness, more Kroetsch-influenced hilarity of the former that appeals, with its mirrors of form and content, and it is likely that in further work this tension between the modern and postmodern in Vanderhaeghe's writing will break down, and he will fulfill the brilliance of his voice and vision even more than he already has.

John Hugh Lent Okanagan University College

Carpenter, David. "Inside Guy Vanderhaeghe." NeWest Review 8 (1982): 8–15.

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