Michael Bliss

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840

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 Keys, the fourth novel in the series, will utterly delight the addicted and may be the best entrée into the series for the non-believer. It is certainly the most powerful and most accessible volume so far.

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There is a simple plot and structure. In 1941 Andrew Goderich, former professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, is chosen to attempt to rescue Georg Mandel, the heir to Kant and Hegel as the voice of philosophic idealism, from Dachau. While Andrew is confronting absolute evil in Germany, his teenage son, Matthew, enjoys the near-fantastic innocence of a Toronto boyhood. He tinkers with the piano keyboard trying to become a musician, experiences the images of war only through the ritual of the movies, and witnesses evil personified on Thursday nights when the Masked Marvel performs at Maple Leaf Gardens. The European adventure reads like a political thriller; the alternating Toronto chapters like relaxed, nostalgic sketches.

The book deals with the great themes of twentieth-century and Canadian history. It is a novel about the Holocaust, about the confrontation of Christianity and Judaism, about the relevance of the Canadian experience to the agony of mankind. Hood's intellectual resolution of the themes is an elaboration of a comment uttered in Reservoir Ravine; one of the (so far) lesser characters says in a 1923 Hart House debate at which Lord Balfour is present: "I say to you that the Holy Land is in Manitoba and Québec, and it is the other way round too."

It is possible to quibble about Hood's treatment of some of the literary conventions in Black and White Keys. The dialogue and plotting in the thriller chapters sometimes seem forced. The digressions in the Toronto chapters will try many readers' patience. Hood's sense of a Christian universe permeates the novel to the point of obtrusiveness. These are Hoodisms, though; a reader who can't adjust to them had better give up on The New Age. (p. 54)

Not many of us any more share Hood's Catholic belief in history as the unfolding of the divine will, or even agree, since 1967, with his Pearsonian-Hegelian view of Canada as a model of racial pluralism. While differing fundamentally with Hood on these points, it is possible to share completely his feel for the structure and texture of history. He sees the universal in the particular; he sees the novelist-historian, or any artist, reaching out in a creative act of comprehending the universal-particular. Some doubts have lingered. Through the first three volumes, the Goderich family and their acquaintances have lived and moved in a fairly confined, confident, WASPish Ontario. Was The New Age going to be twelve volumes of nostalgia and Christian metaphysics? With Black and White Keys the series moves into startlingly new territory, undercutting fears that Hood's range was limited. The anticipations of darkness to come were there in the "long fall" ending The Swing in the Garden and Matthew's melancholy as he surveyed the covered reservoir in [Reservoir Ravine]. Now evil has not only been unleashed in Europe, but finally burns into Matthew's Toronto consciousness when Life magazine carries pictures of the Holocaust victims. In a low-key way, Hood ends Matthew's war years in Toronto by taking us toward the image Pynchon uses to begin the greatest post-war novel, Gravity's Rainbow, "A screaming comes across the sky." (pp. 54, 56)

Black and White Keys is rich in the allusions, epiphanies, symbols, emblems, and play that we have come to expect in the series. The analogies to the Christological drama seem heightened because Hood and heaven are mobilizing angels and apostles to try to cope with the great disturbance of the universe that genocide represents.

It's been seven years since Hugh Hood started publishing a series of novels that he wanted to be comparable to the work of Anthony Powell and Marcel Proust in their complexity and scope. Volume twelve, God willing, will appear in the year 2000. As time passes, Hood will gather increasing critical acclaim as an outstanding novelist and historian of our age. As more readers begin to come to terms with Hood's work, some of us will be passing The New Age to our children. These are books we will want them to read in order to know our experience. (p. 56)

Michael Bliss, "New Territory" (copyright © 1982 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 97, No. 10. October, 1982, pp. 54, 56.

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