by Marian Engel.
Daunt, 176 pp., £9.99, April 2021, 978 1 911547 94 5
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Theold cover was better. I am talking about the notorious mass market paperback of Marian Engel’s 1976 masterpiece, where the body of a softcore librarian is completely laid open to us, surrounded by flowing silk. Her tits are perfect, like two drawers of a card catalogue. The bear of the title looms over her shoulders, a Muppet designed to be sexual, smiling inside the dark cavern of his face and presumably doing her from behind. There is a modern essay to be written about this work. It involves the aforementioned cover art, 1970s plaid shirt feminism, the rediscovery of this book every two years by roving groups of content foragers, who must live on the phallic morels they find in the woods. It perhaps contains a tie-in with The Revenant (2015), and an anecdote about the time your mother saw it in the cinema by mistake and texted: ‘The bear did not rape Leo as was reported.’ It perhaps contains a reference to the tame Instagram bear Stepan, whose duty it has somehow become to sensually embrace a variety of hot Russian models in fields. Jokes about never-to-be-seen footage, enjoinments to hear every sentence in Werner Herzog’s voice. All this is there for the taking. There is also something timeless to be written.

Is Bear one of those 1970s books about growing out your armpit hair? Kind of, but not only. Is it a metaphor for our relationship to nature? Fuck off. It has exactly as much plot as I like: Lou, a librarian suffering a romantic drought, goes to spend the summer in an octagonal house on an island, where she will catalogue the library of one Colonel Cary, imposing ‘numerical order on a structure devised internally and personally by a mind her numbers would teach her to discover’. And behind the octagon – monument to human whimsy, to the persistence of the personality in the wilderness – is a chained-up bear: half-size, scraggly and dull in the eyes, kept alive on dog food. Homer Campbell, who runs the general store upriver and sells limp carrots to the locals, tells Lou there has always been one on the estate. As keeper of the house, as investigator of its long line of owners, it will also be her duty to care for this creature.

Lou, too, is on a leash. It allows her to roam as far as the kitchen to make coffee, upstairs to the library to read, index and catalogue, to the fireside to drink whisky. In her previous life, it allowed her to have sex with the Director of the Institute on his desk, after first clearing away the more fragile maps and genealogies that covered it. Alone and unobserved on the island, she is given a bit more slack: it’s enough that she is free to walk outside to visit her charge, bring it its ration of kibble, look it full in the face. ‘It was not a handsome beast,’ she thinks. ‘And it would not be, if it always lived at the end of that chain.’

‘Shit with the bear,’ the old Cree woman Lucy Leroy advises Lou. Lucy is the century: ‘I am one hundred years old. I can read. I went to the mission school.’ She took care of the bear before Lou came and she’ll take care of him again when Lou is gone. Shit with the bear every morning and he’ll like you, Lucy says. And Lou thinks, why not? Set two smells next to each other like twin beds. Now, if my happiness came down to my ability to shit on command next to a bear’s shed, I am afraid that I would live out the rest of my days in torment. Nor am I really cut out to inhale anything’s Randy Pong. But this was the mid-1970s.

The bear smells like himself. Lou smells like herself. She puts the kettle on, pulls on a sweater. The song of the bear’s chain in the yard; the only lyric is its length. Inside she walks from the kitchen to the desk. She has the feeling of being reborn on the island. ‘Where have I been? she wondered. Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?’ Had that really been her before, moving like a mole through the winter? Had that been her in the city streets, throwing a green marcasite egg through the window of a lover who had betrayed her, ‘imagining the neatness of his young girl’s cunt’, carving ‘anagrams of her rival’s name on her arm’?

The whole island sparkles like a dragonfly’s skin. A childish conviction grows in her: things in this world are made to fit other things. She finds notes in curly handwriting scattered throughout the colonel’s collection: folklore and legends, little morsels about bears. Outside she takes the bear to swim in the river. The pronoun ‘it’ switches to ‘he’ mid-sentence.

Sex starts on page 107, though love begins on page 77. How does this first impossible encounter happen? Starved of company, Lou lures the animal inside. In the library, as the bear dozes beside her, she picks up an edition of John Richardson’s Wacousta (1832), often called the first Canadian novel, and then reaches for the next book on the shelf: an 1858 memoir by Edward John Trelawny who ‘burned Shelley’s body and saved the heart’, who ‘turned the shroud back to have a look at Byron’s lame foot’. She begins to see Trelawny, not as a historical figure but as himself: ‘What a man! Big.’ And then she looks up to see the slumbering bear as himself, too: ‘Like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big.’ Full of his own thoughts, which she can scent but not quite find.

This kind of excitement is carnal. You are a researcher in a private library, and this is your pleasure: watching three dimensions rise out of two, watching the skin and small hairs arrive to clothe a sentence. The chain of logic here is as fuzzy as the real thing: Lou ‘wanted to know how and who this Cary was. Trelawny. Colonel Cary. The bear. There was some connection, some unfingerable intimacy between them.’ She thinks of Cary and wonders when he became himself, how he started to want what he wanted. ‘I was reading Trelawny, getting high on Trelawny, feeling I knew Cary, feeling I had tracked down the mentality, then I … the bear.’ She begins to make love to herself, in Engel’s words. The animal awakens and turns to Lou, her real scent finally in his nose. Who hasn’t let a bear go down on her off some crazed librarian’s high? A numerical system cannot be imposed on the bear, but the compass can: she swings him south.

She guides him by the ears – not his for hearing, now, but for listening to her. Why had she, in her previous life, been having sex with the Director of the Institute on his desk? ‘I won’t ever lie back on a desk again, not ever, ever,’ she thinks. The bear rears up on his hind legs. Lou lies back exposed, explicit as the word ‘explicit’, and she cries to the bear to pull off her head. She and the Director had fucked on maps and genealogies. What could she cry to such a man? Scatter my archives? Cross out my name? Nothing, nothing, like pull off my head. ‘Pull’ is a different kind of word to ‘rip’ or ‘tear’. It has a ring of mercy, of necessary surgery long put off. One imagines the head rolling softly off her shoulders, falling to crown the pile of her clothes, the mouth open in the middle of some unnecessary word.

The bear is the great question. What is going on in the darkness of his skull? ‘There was a depth in him she could not reach, could not probe and with her intellectual fingers destroy.’ She tries calling him Trelawny but realises she is wrong: ‘this was an enormous, living creature larger and older and wiser than time, a creature that was for the moment her creature.’ The bear attends to her, sometimes because she spreads honey on herself, sometimes out of his own interest. ‘And like no human being she had ever known it persevered in her pleasure.’ He was made to grub around in her as if she grew morels. She is a patch of earth, his island, which has always had a bear.

The climax, when it comes, performs itself like a feat. They are together once more in their library. He sees that she is wearing a disguise – a thousandfur, an allskin, as the fairy tale would have it – that he must remove before the act can be accomplished. He could take it off her, as she could not take it off herself. And now he extends one paw, as close as it can be to her body, as big as he actually is, and he lays her whole back open. Oh.

This is the needling sound of risk, of wind in the ears on a highwire. The risk in sex, or what your body feels to be the risk, is that you will die in someone – more possible with a bear than a person. The body must feel it as a risk because it must also feel caught at the end of its fall. But here this exchange is made actual: he lays her open and he could go further, he could make her a long jet of blood that would fall forever without a net. But she puts her hand up against the ultimate, she will not let him take her all the way.

If we believe that consent – the ability to give and receive it – is an ultimate attainment of human communication, then here the bear would become human. He would stand up, pull his jeans back on, and smoke a cigarette at an open window. He does not. Scent listens to scent. Her scent holds up a hand and his stops, steps back from her obliteration, refuses to do what she might actually want: to carry her away. In other words Lou loses her nerve. Most of us do, in the moment, barring extreme cases like Prince Charles. Still, the bear lifted her for a moment and something was exchanged. ‘What had passed to her from him she did not know.’ Here is where I might shake my head and say I don’t know whether this scene could be written now. Well sure it could. Why not.

Am I making things a bit heavy? Possibly. Imagine me subjecting you to this monologue in the aftermath of a passionate one-night stand: one where perhaps I had made you get down on all fours and eat chow out of a dog bowl – firelight flickering behind me, interpretation pouring from my lips, the decayed robe of an aristocrat draped over my shoulders. Telling you that here is the difference: in Bear she is really fucking an animal. That’s why this book is alone of its kind, and why we still cannot sell it as it is. Engel never sharpens the dullness out of Bear’s eyes. He is not a man dressed up. He scratches his behind against a tree, not like something from Breughel but like something in a zoo. It is about the tautness in the chain, the performance for food, the pain of standing for a moment on hind legs. It’s about the fact that we have always kept a bear.

The book has the shape of a fable, but the soul of a real encounter: friction and fire, drunkenness and peanut butter, the clash of two solitudes which cannot be made one. Yet the essential gift of the fairy tale is retained. Lou leaves the island equipped with what she needs, the breath of kind beasts upon her.

Wiser,maybe, to end things there, but I found myself going on in my old way, seeking out Engel’s other works, like Lou lingering through the summer in Cary’s library, long past the point where she ought to be paid for it. Some writers, after all, actually need to have their back catalogues read.

The style in Bear seems immutable, as if Engel could not possibly write in any other way. In fact she tried out many kinds of sentence throughout her writing life. After studying first at McMaster University and then at McGill, where she did an MA under the Canadian novelist Hugh McLennan, she married Howard Engel in 1962. ‘We both love adventures and islands,’ she wrote to her parents shortly after. ‘We are rotund, happy, and ON THE MOVE … We are twins!’ Together they embarked on a period of European itinerancy that she would look back on with longing in subsequent decades – maybe believing, up to her elbows in dishwater, that a real existence is one where you are riding donkeys constantly. During this time she attempted several novels – ‘The Pink Sphinx’, ‘Death Comes for the Yaya’, ‘Women Travelling Alone’ – but they all ended up in the drawer.

No Clouds of Glory, her first published novel, came out in Canada in 1968 and was reissued in the US six years later as Sarah Bastard’s Notebook. In this book, Engel produced an interior monologue every bit as self-hating as those can sometimes be – the inner voice that mocks you in the voice of your mother. It is funny, deadly funny, but mostly on a second read. On the first you hear the sentences in your own deepest and most self-excoriating voice, the one that asks Why do you get to be alive? Engel takes an intense (Canadian?) satisfaction in denying her protagonists a glamorous aspect. There is a sense of humour, and therefore a philosophy, centred in this refusal.

No Clouds of Glory was followed by The Honeyman Festival (1970), Monodromos (1973), Bear (1976), The Glassy Sea (1979) and Lunatic Villas (1981). Interspersed with these were two short story collections, Inside the Easter Egg (1975) and The Tattooed Woman (1985), two children’s books, a radio serial published as Joanne: The Last Days of a Modern Marriage, and a non-fiction book called Islands of Canada. The dedication to Lunatic Villas reads: ‘For my mother, Mary Passmore, who once put four sticks in the flower bed and said, “Give them all names and you’ll have someone to play with.”’

Here I will put in a plea for No Clouds of Glory and The Glassy Sea to be reissued, perhaps in an omnibus with The Honeyman Festival. Monodromos, I will admit, is largely pastiche: think bitter lemons, Lawrence Durrell, the-paisley-of-my-ex-husband’s dressing-gown-glows-like-homosexual-embers. Lunatic Villas is one of those novels where aspirant landlords in carpenter trousers lurch at one another on the diagonal while making hysterical remarks about gentrification.

But those first three novels have a genuine solidity. All are to a great degree retrospective and are deeply rooted in their female protagonists. In No Clouds of Glory, Sarah Bastard speaks from a cauterised present, alternately casting an eye back to a childhood among sisters and to a rich period of travel in ‘Yurp’ — ‘Soyabintayurp, Sarah, Soyabintayurp.’ The protagonist of The Honeyman Festival, Minn, is a bit like Mrs Dalloway, if Mrs Dalloway were pregnant and coated in a thick layer of grime. She sits in the bathtub, tumescent, preparing for that night’s party, which like all parties in novels will surround her with the story of her life. And in The Glassy Sea an ex-nun of the fictional Eglantine order writes a restless and wide-ranging letter to explain her decision to return as Mother Superior, a letter which does not fail to include descriptions of freaky sex under a Spanish crucifix.

The novels’ preoccupations bleed together. Twins run in the family – Engel herself would give birth to twins, William and Charlotte, in 1965. There are sisters whose lives ‘are part of a serial compulsively read’. There is the complicated shape of the mother, setting up the sticks of fiction in a flower bed, the source of those raw running thoughts in the mind. The consciousness of Engel’s protagonists does not exactly stream. Instead, she endows them with a bobbing circle of illumination, oil lamp, flashlight, that zigs and zags over the landscape. The circle flits towards what the character needs to see, not what the reader needs to know, so we must stick with her or else step out into the dark again. There are recurring flights to clean islands which provide the contrast to over-full and dirty houses, there are sloshings of alcohol, there is base lust and renunciatory celibacy, and, above all, there is a kind of talk that came to be Engel’s signature.

At the tip of a hat, after a single drink, her characters will tell you their entire history – they must tell you, it is the literary equivalent of pressured speech. It’s easy to forget that the female writers of Engel’s generation are telling their stories after generations of mothers and grandmothers (and Aunt Ednas whose ‘talent was slicing in half slices of sliced store bread’) said nothing. This was not simply a matter of oppression, it was a deep and violent sense of propriety that her generation, just as violently, was trying to cut out. More than one Engel protagonist speaks of her ‘stiff pudeur’, which sounds like a little pussy wearing a crinoline, dancing with herself in a ballroom. The books are in hand-to-hand combat against that, and ultimately they are a triumph. People like Engel write books not to shock society but to free themselves, to violate some inner constraint that makes the agreed on forms of living unbearable.

Engel’s genius is located in her lust, what she calls in her journals her ‘Hot Pants’. ‘Now you’re closer to it: who wants to give up that comfort, that wondrous feeling in the middle of the night: the feeling that this is it, this is why we are alive?’ In Lunatic Villas, Harriet thinks of her lover, his ‘beige, conservative self unreeling into her body; neatness translating itself into deftness until she feels like a small animal balanced on the end of his prick’. I, too, am tired of abject sex in novels; where is the six-inch stiletto, where is the taser for the reader’s balls? But this is not exactly abject – it is trying to strip its way to the core of the act. In Engel’s books there are often dressing-up scenes that function as foreplay, which allow the protagonist to undress, afterwards, past the point that she normally could, to take off the whole charade of clothes entirely – layers and layers of fairy-tale disguise laid on her from birth, swan feathers and serpent scales and fur. In Bear, Lou drunkenly dresses up in Colonel Cary’s clothes while unpacking boxes in the basement with Homer: it transpires that the most recent Colonel Cary was actually a woman – her family named her Colonel so that she could inherit the estate. A joke, a quirk out of the pattern, the sort of snag with which actual history bristles. A ballgown slides off Lou’s shoulder and she looks at herself in the pier glass, admiring, allowing a perfect stranger to admire her too. Once you find one of these scenes you go looking for the others, certain that you’ve stumbled on something. This is what leads us on, those horny lunatics in libraries, this is the Randy Pong: somewhere in all this paper is a person.

A page from Engel’s journals:

The clothing hassle has its origins in the ‘androgynous’ side of me … I can always visualise being naked & sex or wearing men’s clothes – nothing in between – my usual tendency to extremes emerging extremely.

Images from adolescence:
1) wearing Dad’s shirt 1st time
2) dressing up naked in silk scarves Androgyne by day, women at night?’

And then:

I want to get laid.
I want to be loved.
I do not want to be anyone’s property again. But that big hairy bear-man will want me as property.

The kernel of Bear exists in Monodromos, a travel narrative set in Cyprus and partly based on Engel’s experience there in the 1960s. It enters the doorway of a scene and stands, a prefiguring shadow in the corner. ‘I’m not alone. That’s what. There’s something big in the room, big and breathing. Something like a bear.’ ‘He’s drunk, I think, soft and uncoordinated. But he’s working at me like a bear on a honey log, slowly, with determination and his paws back to back.’ And just before: ‘Glory to sit reading late, alone, with a bottle of brandy and warmth and warm music drifting in from the nightclub around the corner, picking excellent brains.’ Here you are rewarded for reading Monodromos, whose text is not just suffused with its own meaning, but with that tenderness you feel for the unread, a tenderness that translates into care.

It is not that much put together, maybe the length of an arm. I went through it all with a Canadian conscientiousness – at one point my own notebook turned weird, because I got the uncanny feeling that Christl Verduyn was editing it. The last piece I needed was a story called ‘Transformations’, which features a protagonist (also named Lou) who finds herself disappearing from mirrors. I couldn’t get my hands on it; I asked around. Finally a librarian friend, trained in the preservation of paper, sent me a video of herself walking into the stacks at her archives and panning along the shelf that contained all of Engel’s works, one of only a few in the US. No explanation except: Marian belonged to someone there.

‘I tell at parties how I am an adopted person with a lost twin & this is true,’ Engel writes in one of her final cahiers. ‘I do not remember Eleanor but still suffer from a burning rivalry with her.’ In No Clouds of Glory a near-twin named Leah shows up, icy and untouchable, with a blue vein beating in her forehead that causes everyone to desire her – it is her vital and unknowable life, the life Sarah Bastard might have led. ‘I am happy enough to be what I am,’ Sarah says, but, ‘beside Leah I feel like a poor Story.’

Marian Engel was born Ruth, the second of twin girls, to an unknown woman in Toronto, on 24 May 1933. ‘Our mother was eighteen, just out of Central Commerce,’ Engel writes. ‘Her mother a widow, was a cost acct for Eaton’s. Times were bad. They lived on Walmer Rd. They gave us to the Children’s Aid.’ She and Eleanor were in foster care together until the age of three, at which point they were adopted into different families. She drew the Passmores – Frederick was an ‘auto-mechanic teacher’, and Mary was a ‘homemaker and former secretary’ whose own mother had died when she was born. They renamed their daughter Marian. ‘The Passmores didn’t like to talk about adoption,’ Engel ruminates. Neither did she. It is only in her last few notebooks that she speaks of her homesickness for her lost sister, whom she calls Nor.

In Marian Engel: Life in Letters there is a marvellous picture of her, crop-haired, laughing uproariously, and holding a lit cigarette, being embraced by a figure in a bear costume. There is something unsettling about the costume itself – there are none of the concessions to cuteness that we would expect in our post-furry era. The eyes are holes, the nose looks real, and the fur has separated, in the manner of a teddy who has been too strenuously loved. The bear looks like it smokes. And Marian is perfectly happy. The next year she will divorce Howard Engel; in two years she will be diagnosed with the cancer that will kill her in 1985. But this moment has nothing to do with the outer conditions of her life. It simply freezes her in the glory of acknowledgment. She is herself and we see her. She is not a poor Story at all.

One way​ to remember her is as a literary citizen. The picture was taken at a Writers’ Union of Canada meeting in 1976; she helped found this organisation in the early 1970s and served as its first chairperson. Early meetings were held in her living room. There were things to be done, she must have thought with some of Mary Passmore’s practical exasperation, and if we don’t get down on our knees and scrub the floors no one will. Her letters find her in conversation with the giants of the time – Margaret Laurence’s letters are the most heartening and humane, and her mentor Hugh MacLennan’s the funniest. He’ll begin by telling Marian that the limbs of her sentences bleed and end by talking about the Nazis. ‘Without the study of fluvial geology,’ one gloomy line reads, ‘I would never have been able to write anything.’

Here is Margaret Atwood, commiserating with Engel over obtuse reviews of The Glassy Sea: ‘Soon we’ll all be so old that they’ll have to be nice to us.’ That’s a suffering sentence, knowing what’s to come. Anyone can see that it would be difficult to have Atwood as one of your contemporaries: she was finding a way to write not just about herself but about the future, whereas Marian seemed, at times, limited to that overflowing bathtub that floats her protagonist Minn in The Honeyman Festival. The whole world can be held in a bathtub, yes, but your friend is getting to write about robots. Is that fair? Regarding Atwood, Engel writes: ‘There are coincidences of environment, and we never choose the same methods, but it’s a bit like having someone walking over your grave a bit too soon.’ Alice Munro was there as well, glowing like a microfiche machine that contained clippings of all the weird prairie marriages that had taken place in the nation’s history. Engel was living in a renaissance, which is always a jostle full of human elbows and noise and ambition, but she was there to play her part in it too.

Bear was her book of freedom. As a writer, you are lucky to manage one novel that strips away your obstructive tendencies, that sets you out in the sun and makes a long lean jerky of you. It corresponds, not coincidentally, with a notebook that she called her Golden notebook, which was embargoed for five years after her death because it contains intimate details of her psychotherapy sessions with a man named John Rich. It is even dedicated to Rich: ‘who knows how animals think’. During the same period, she was in the process of separating from her husband. ‘I couldn’t take marriage any longer; I don’t like the alternative AT ALL but at least there’s nobody telling me yesterday’s sins every morning, when I goof it’s my fault, when I succeed it’s my own too,’ she writes in a letter from 1976. Bear was entirely her own. It brought her to the edge of what she could do and dangled her there; it was a creature that was for the moment her creature.

Robertson Davies predicted that Bear would be wrongly read, not taken seriously, but he could not have anticipated the speed, extent, or superficiality of its mass dissemination. Very little is as hideous to contemplate as the prospect of a posthumous reputation that won’t let you in on your own game. (The fact that this is one of the only available forms of posthumous reputation is not much of a comfort.) Sarah Bastard says: ‘I want to produce, I want to get into a world where creation – creation of anything – is a fact, where ideas are important, where people are tough on you and where if you turn out something good nobody, but nobody, will say it’s “cute”.’ If a bear shows up to the party, let it smoke four packs a day; that’s how we lived then, that’s what it was like. Let things be the size that they actually are, even in rearview, and don’t think you invented sex, either – I was a small animal balanced on the end of a prick too.

Later, reading aloud from the book in Australia, Bear seems to her ‘flossily romantic’ and maybe it is – in the Wordsworthian sense more than the Harlequin. But it strikes me that alone of all her novels, Bear is unembarrassed. The self-lashing inner monologue is gone and it reaches out with a naked hand. This is the quality of all first-rate love stories and the one that gives them their endurance. In one letter Engel speaks of her preference for Emily Brontë over Charlotte, which is easy to suspect. Cathy froths at the mouth and gets down on all fours, she is a creature, but she is also unencumbered by our scratchiest and most hated hereditary garment: shame. The voice in her head is her own, and what it says is I want, I want. Ask her to do the dishes, and she’ll smash them at your feet one by one.

Much of women’s work is what allows life to continue. The rest is like … Windexing the veneer of civilisation every morning to keep it shiny, or cooking Beef Wellington every night for a pig king who would be just as happy eating apple cores. Equitable division of household labour has always had to contend with the fact that no husband on this earth was ever raised by Mary Passmore, hears her voice in his mind when he enters the grocery store or hunkers down to wax the baseboards. The phrase ‘slut’s wool’ isn’t in his vocabulary, or if it is it means something different. Alice Munro said that Engel ‘felt a need to be forthright [with interviewers], to show herself to them as fully human, dirty dishes, empty bottles and all’. But what she was displaying, perhaps, was the same principle of refusal that constituted both her defiance and her sense of humour. A sense of humour can be sad, after all, or sour, or a broad clowning gesture to the chaos behind you. It is more expressive of the person than literary ecstasy, which takes on the same note in almost everyone. It is a regional address: Marian Engel, Ontario.

Here is what it is: no force on earth will keep a writer’s preoccupations out of their fiction. You are not necessarily looking for them, but you find them every time. There you are in your octagon, holding a glass of whisky in one hand and working one foot into the fur of a bear, when the fire lights up the primal line. That is what I am waiting for, I am waiting to see scarves on page ten of one book and page 56 of another and then one line in the letters and then there she is, the person, not an apparition but a body of desire, playing dressing-up in front of the old pier glass mirror. Continuing to want what she always wanted: for life to make art. ‘A world. I wanted a world; yes, that was it, and I wanted a world I could legislate, make my own; not own, not totally control, no, not that: ah, but that was it: have an importance in.’ She stands in the mirror and turns; someone is watching over her shoulder.

Engel’s contemporary Elizabeth Hardwick has something to say about this form of continuation in a story called ‘Cross-Town’:

And out of the index cards and the coughing tapes your biography will be preserved and in this, having caught the public eye, you will be trapped in the universal, the toneless data. No matter. Many consolations. You will share this internment, the fatality of being interesting to someone, with generals, scientists, flamboyant artists, and other criminals. In a way you haven’t fared worse than Michelangelo.

When she died in 1985, at the age of 51, her friend Timothy Findley wished to have a hybrid iris named for her; instead, a memorial garden was created for her at the Toronto Reference Library. That’s almost a satisfying ending – gardens, libraries, sticks in the flower bed – but poking around in Creating Memory, a book about public sculpture in Toronto, I discovered something she might have lingered over longer. A little green park was dedicated to Marian, a short distance from where she lived in her final decade. For a while it featured a ‘Precambrian boulder’ that had her name inscribed on a bronze plaque, but either the name or the boulder must have caught someone’s eye – a vandal or a fluvial geologist or the wild thing itself – for at some point when no one was watching, it disappeared into private hands.

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Vol. 43 No. 17 · 9 September 2021

Patricia Lockwood laments the ‘superficiality’ of the ‘mass dissemination’ of Marian Engels’s Bear on its publication in 1976 (LRB, 12 August). In fact the novel received the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary prize, which for an openly pornographic tale of bear-on-woman sex was pretty good going. Bear, Lockwood writes, is ‘alone of its kind’, but what is its kind? Engels’s masterpiece drew on Indigenous legends about marriages between women and bears. But the novel also belongs to another tradition, particularly resonant, perhaps, in our lonely times: the age-old depiction of female solitaries as unrestrainedly carnal, unleashed from masculine control into illicit passions. Like many of her antecedents, Lou, Engels’s heroine, is visited by the devil, but unlike Eve or witches or other diabolic wantons, she experiences ursine sex as redemptive: a purification of body and soul.

Barbara Taylor
Queen Mary University of London

Vol. 43 No. 19 · 7 October 2021

Barbara Taylor quotes Patricia Lockwood’s remark that Marian Engels’s Bear is ‘alone of its kind’ (Letters, 9 September). But, as Taylor asks, ‘What is its kind?’ If we are talking about novels with a bear as protagonist that include woman-bear romantic involvement, then we can include The Bear Comes Home by Rafi Zabor, which won the Pen-Faulkner Prize in 1998. Narrated from an ostensibly ursine perspective, it relates the existential and romantic challenges faced by a hip alto-sax-playing talking bear as he attempts to break into the US jazz scene.

Bill Williams
University of Lisbon

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