Hugh (John Blagdon) Hood Essay - Critical Essays

Hood, Hugh (John Blagdon)

Introduction

Hugh (John Blagdon) Hood 1928–

Canadian novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and biographer.

Hood is an intellectual writer whose prose is deceptively simple. Although he has described himself as a "Catholic novelist," his views are often unorthodox and are rooted as much in philosophy as religion. The tone of his fiction shifts between the serious and the satirical, creating a fictive atmosphere at once realistic and fantastical, or as Hood has defined it, "superrealistic." Critics praise Hood's concise diction and the skillful craftsmanship which is particularly evident in his short stories. Also notable in his short fiction is his ability to convey large moral and philosophical concepts through seemingly trivial events. Flying a Red Kite (1962) and Dark Glasses (1976) contain examples of his most masterful writing.

Hood's most ambitious project is a twelve-volume novel entitled The New Age, which is designed to convey a comprehensive fictional representation of the Canadian experience. Hood introduces narrator Matthew Goderich in The Swing in the Garden (1975), the first volume of The New Age, and experiments in the series with the concepts of time, space, history, art, and identity. Four volumes have been published thus far; Hood has projected that the series will be completed in the year 2000.

(See also CLC, Vol. 15; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52; and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Kildare Dobbs

[It's] evident from the stories in [Hood's] first book, Flying A Red Kite, that he has knocked about a good deal in the world outside the universities…. One of them, "After the Sirens", not the best of the stories but certainly a rigorously imagined and professionally executed vision of nuclear war, made it in the big league of Esquire. It is a tribute to the genuineness of Hood's talent that his work appealed just as much to ordinary educated people as to fellow academics and to more self-consciously literary readers…. The patient accumulation of sensuous detail induces recognition of place as well as of people. Toronto is here ("Recollections of the Works Department"), Montreal is here ("Flying a Red Kite"), and in the magnificent "Three Halves of a House", set on the Canadian shore of the St. Lawrence near Gananoque, there's a continental feeling, a sense of the whole of Canada. It is this aspect of the stories that patriotic reviewers are apt to seize on, rightly feeling that our own lives are that much more real for being brought into a context of art and imagination, that our country is the more unquestionably present for having been seen by a real writer and set down forever in print. But Hood isn't writing advertising copy for the Canadian Way. His stories are about life and death and eternity…. (p. 72)

[Hood] writes as confidently in the third person as in the first and with as much inwardness about women as about men. In form, his stories follow the shape of a meditation rather than a plot, and he has taken pains, as he hints in one story, to master the English sentence. In this he resembles American writers like Updike rather than any Canadian predecessor. (p. 73)

Kildare Dobbs, "Memory Transfigured" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Canadian Literature, No. 16, Spring, 1963, pp. 72-3.

Robert Fulford

This man is French Canadian, unmarried, middle-aged, rich, attractive, intellectual. He's a professor at the University of Montreal, and he drives fast, expensive cars. He's passionately federalist and he scorns both separatists and nationalists. Furthermore, he's just decided to go to Ottawa to save Canada.

A profile, of course, of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Right? Wrong. The man in question is Roger Talbot, the hero—or at least one of the two heroes—of Hugh Hood's new novel, A Game of Touch. (p. 47)

[Few] readers will fail to notice the resemblance immediately. Indeed, A Game of Touch looks like the first Trudeau novel, the first sign that Trudeau may have begun to possess Canada's literary imagination as he has possessed its political imagination.

This implies a certain audacity on Hood's part, but that's nothing beside the bravado he displays by putting at the core of his book the very stuff of Canadian politics itself: federal-provincial relations. Hood's Roger is no cool above-the-battle hero, no charismatic saint of the television age: he's an untiring part-time bureaucrat whose most passionate desire is to figure out how to make Canada run more or less to everyone's satisfaction. (pp. 47, 49)

The quintessential Canadian hero comes to life at last, fighting his way to mythic stature not through Greek islands or western plains but through the thickets of...

(The entire section is 420 words.)

Anthony Robertson

Around the Mountain is subtitled, 'Scenes from Montreal Life'. A collection of essays, some of them apparently non-fiction fiction, about the varied aspects of life in Montreal that moves from scrub hockey leagues, to suburban development, to the old quarters of the city. Hood loves the city. He walks it, he bicycles it, he drives it. Some parts of the city foster life, some parts do not. Hood accepts both. Progress means scummed rivers, vanishing farms and sculpture on the overpass pylons of uncompleted freeways. Hood sometimes likes what replaces the farms and streams, sometimes he does not. The waterfront is filthy but active. He goes there frequently to get the feel of it; just as he goes to the top of the mountain. Both places are the city, not any city, the city. Perhaps if he were designing the city he would do it differently, but he's not, so he'll take it as it is. His eye is honest. He does not use his subjects as ways into himself, although the self of the observer is plainly there. The essays are not excuses for condemnation or commendation. Most of them are in one way or another mood pieces; definitive of elusive moments within the ordinary. Hood is a topographist of a particular kind. His attachment is to what moves between what he sees and his quizzical undetached self. The city and its inhabitants are alien to each other, but for Hood there is some connection between all, the things and people he describes that does not make the city a place of total alienation. However disjointed, it is a place of superb life.

Anthony Robertson, in a review of "Around the Mountain" (copyright © June, 1971 West Coast Review Publishing Society, reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), in West Coast Review, Vol. 6, No. 1, June, 1971, p. 53.

Kent Thompson

That Hugh Hood is a serious and accomplished Canadian artist of considerable significance is a fact that ought to be more widely known than it is…. [Some] of the best fiction in Canada is now being written in the short story form, and Hood is one of the masters of it. Furthermore, he is probably its most ambitious practitioner, demanding more of the form than almost any other writer, and he is one of the few who is concerned with the totality of a collection—seeing the collection, I think, as an entity which has its effect in sum and not in bits and pieces.

It seems to me, in fact, that this feeling for coherence is one of the most admirable aspects of Hood's work. All his work is of a piece, although it shifts focus, takes new directions, explores. It is not obviously avant-garde …, but it is always exploratory, always pushing on, expanding on its previous discoveries, looking more closely here and there, developing, broadening, and always deepening. Indeed, I think there is no predicting the eventual dimensions of his work—and that. I suppose, is part of the definition of an artist.

To give some idea how all this has developed, I suppose I am justified in briefly reviewing Hood's career. One ought begin with his first novel, White Figure, White Ground (1964), a novel of Canadian identity, history, and culture, and one which says a great deal about art. It is also a novel which deals with the relativity of space (conceptual and geographical) and time (conceptual and historical and spatial) and the artist who looks out at the universe from his own specifically individual perspective. In this case the artist is a Montreal-based painter who has married a French-Canadian beauty and returns to Nova Scotia in search of his ancestral identity. The point is made that meaning, in an abstractly relativistic universe, results from the individual creation and imposition of meaning. Thus, as a religion makes the universe coherent, so does an artist, and so does every man…. This sounds more complicated than it is (and I have reached into other parts of Hood's work to make my generalizations) because the weight of Hood's concern falls on the individual. His art deals with the individuals who live in the context just described. (pp. 116-17)

But the context is important, and the individual who ignores it does so at his peril. One has to consider one's time, place, and history in one's creation, and one has to decide if one's creation of an identity is valid and worthwhile. For example, in an early Hood story, "O Happy Melodist!", the heroine tries to create herself in the world of fashion, and the result is that she becomes so "in" that she's "out." That is, she disappears as an individual in becoming a representative of something fashionable. This is just one of the themes which Hood pursued in his second...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)

EUGENE McNAMARA

[The Fruit Man, the Meat Man & the Manager] shows that [Hood] knows perfectly well where he is and what he is doing. The stories are carefully varied, like a bon voyage fruit basket. "Who's Paying for This Call?" is a stream of consciousness, lower case word portrait of the artist agonizing over his use/misuse of his craft and his public. "Cura Pastoralis", about a young priest who violates his vows, "One Owner, Low Mileage", about a widow left with a large new automobile she doesn't know how to drive, and "The Singapore Hotel", about a bank manager's encounters with the home office's whizz kid, are three samples of a kind of workmanlike, slice-of-life story that J. F. Powers used to be good at. They are...

(The entire section is 423 words.)

The Times Literary Supplement

[You Can't Get There From Here] is the story of Leofrica, an "emergent" African nation, living at or below subsistence level. There are two tribes, Ugetis and Pineals (isn't the pineal a gland?), the UN, the USSR, the USA, a giant corporation called INTERFOODS, agents, double agents, tribal myths, trained scuba divers, two currencies (nuts and UN Scrip). The local girls use an oil pipeline for ritual masturbation, believing it to be a snake god. There is intrigue, and counter-intrigue. The descriptive prose and the dialogue are both good, and include humour of an ironical kind—for this is basically a nightmare, where a tribal civil war is artificially provoked by powerful outside interests (Albania/China)....

(The entire section is 221 words.)

Patricia A. Morley

You Can't Get There From Here … [focuses on] the freedom of societies, and the problematic survival of indigenous cultures assaulted by Western technology and by the cultural package of ideas and attitudes which necessarily accompanies this technology.

You Can't Get There From Here is a very sophisticated novel. It should firmly establish Hood's place in the top rank of Canadian writers, confirming the promise in earlier novels and in short story collections such as Flying a Red Kite (1962) and The Fruit Man, the Meat Man and the Manager (1971). Hood's latest novel is simultaneously black comedy and a profound philosophical comment on human nature and societies; at once...

(The entire section is 396 words.)

Patricia Morley

The Swing in the Garden is the first of a projected series of twelve novels, a roman fleuve in the manner of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Proustian references recur, sometimes rather self-consciously. In the Goderich family, Sunday drives in the country alternate with trips to the docks. Matt is reminded of Proust's narrator and of his weekend choice of excursions from Combray along the Guermantes' path, or along the way to Swann's house. Proust's narrator discovered much later in life that the two ways united to form a single meaning…. (p. 99)

The handling of time is deceptively simple. The mind of the adult narrator, a sophisticated art-historian, is set...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

J. R. (Tim) Struthers

In his imagination Hugh Hood has outlined a twelve-book epic on Canadian life entitled The New Age/Le nouveau siècle, which he intends to complete by the year 2000. The first part in this extraordinary project is The Swing in the Garden, a fictional story of an art historian's boyhood in and near Toronto during the thirties. The Swing in the Garden is a novel, an extended "digressive" essay, an autobiography, a topographical map, a snapshot album or documentary film, a history book, a philosophical work, a piece of socialist rhetoric, a commentary on national economic policy, and a dream-vision allegory. The Swing in the Garden is all of these things; but in essence it is the beginning of...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

David Latham

[Dark Glasses contains] three or four of the best examples in all of literature of how the short story works. The weaker of the twelve stories could be dismissed on the assumption that they were included because of Hood's predilection for arranging his "pieces according to complex numerologies" that provide "a scaffolding for the imagination."… (p. 105)

Hood's strength lies in his ability to shape what he calls the "physical form" of material as diffuse as metaphysical speculation. Thus in terms of both manner and matter Hood is like the painter Alex Colville. Neither artist can rid himself "of those four or five bloody sets of metaphysical states" that Mathew Goderich (the persona for...

(The entire section is 991 words.)

Hallvard Dahlie

The opening paragraph of [A New Athens] reflects what has come to be a Hood trademark: the transformation of circumstantial detail and self into a kind of mystical entity which, for all its ontological complexities, represents finally a re-affirmation of Wordsworthian man. Hood takes us quickly into speculations about "original glory," "wild multiplicity of forms in this world," "a curious infinity," and other components of transcendentalism, all through the consciousness—and prescience—of the articulate narrator/protagonist, Matthew Goderich.

The novel, the second of a projected twelve-volume chronicle about mid-century Canada, takes up Matthew's story a generation or so after the events...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

LOUIS K. MacKENDRICK

Most of the 16 stories here (drawn from Hugh Hood's previous collections) don't appear in general anthologies. Since this seems to be the purpose of Selected Stories, one may regret the absence of "Three Halves of a House", "The Village Inside" or "Getting to Williamstown". But we are given "Looking Down From Above", Hood's lovely evocation of Montreal's mountain and reflection on self-fulfilment despite the accidents of the flesh.

Hood's prose is finely controlled in several tempi, as for example in his chronicle stories where fiction and documentary meet. He has an exacting sense of location, of specific and loved places. Often he emphasizes wonder and discovery in his writing as if he were...

(The entire section is 219 words.)

John Orange

Hugh Hood's style, including diction, characterization, symbolism, and tone, is very difficult to deal with in a general way. He is a very eclectic stylist and he does not seem to pay much attention to whether or not various techniques are actually suited to each other or mesh together—especially in the first two novels of The New Age. Since, for one thing, he is interested in ways of knowing various dimensions of reality, he incorporates the vocabularies and styles of different approaches to reality…. [The] reader is apt to run into lists of names of places and things which are given for their own sake. Along with this "Eaton's catalogue" style one also finds a journalistic recording of historical...

(The entire section is 1400 words.)

W. J. Keith

If sensitivity is the hallmark of the artist, one wonders how he can be anything but an outsider in a crassly insensitive age.

In this new volume of interrelated short stories [None Genuine Without This Signature], Hood offers a clue in the first narrative, "God Has Manifested Himself Unto Us As Canadian Tire" (a bold title—what story could live up to it?—but this one does). Here we are confronted by A. O. and Dreamy, who seem at first sight bitterly satiric creations crudely symbolizing a consumer society run riot. Hood saturates his prose with the rhythms and slogans of advertising. The couple are surrounded by the latest buys …; their culture consists of reading about the next sale...

(The entire section is 1151 words.)

Michael Bliss

Most readers have passed judgement on Hugh Hood's great work-in-progress, The New Age/Le nouveau siècle, on the basis of the first three novels, The Swing in the Garden, A New Athens, and Reservoir Ravine. A number are hooked on the series, acclaiming it one of the most audacious, skilful, and satisfying literary enterprises undertaken in this country. But a larger body of readers—those who make the Atwoods, Richlers, Laurences, et al., national best sellers—have apparently been turned off by Hood's disregard for some of the conventions of narration, plotting, and character development, as well as by the extreme intellectualism of both Hood and his central characters. Black and White...

(The entire section is 840 words.)