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The Globe and Mail
Published Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013, 3:42 AM EDT
Last updated Wednesday, Oct. 16 2013, 3:46 AM EDT
Eleanor Catton, who on Tuesday won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, is 28 years old. The novel for which she won, The Luminaries, is 848 pages, the longest book ever to win. And it is her second book, following The Rehearsal, which was published to wide acclaim in 2008.
Surely the most remarkable thing about her story is that that Ms. Catton, the youngest person ever to win the prize, has accomplished all of this at an age when many of us remain engaged in heated debates about the merits of pineapple as a pizza topping. (Delicious, for the record.)
But not in Canada. Here, the most remarkable part of this story is that – you guessed it! – Ms. Catton is Canadian. Or, rather, she’s sort-of Canadian: She was born in London, Ont., moved to New Zealand when she was six, and now calls that island nation home. But she probably learned to write within our borders. That’s close enough, right?
But can you blame us? As of last Wednesday, no Canadian had ever won the Nobel Prize for literature. And no Canadian had won the Man Booker since Yann Martel’s tiger-maintenance manual Life of Pi took the prize in 2002. Only three Canadians had won in the Booker’s 45-year history, and again only sort-of: Michael Ondaatje had to share his 1992 honour with a co-winner, Barry Unsworth.
And then, last Thursday, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize. And on Tuesday, Ms. Catton won the Booker. And, for those so inclined to read the prizewinning tea leaves, it felt like, as a literary culture, we had made it. As a colleague jokingly wrote me by way of informing me of Ms. Catton’s win, “We’re a real literary nation.”
Of course, to believe that is to ignore the fact that Canada has, for a long time, produced a lot of remarkable literature, much of which has been celebrated around the world. Before winning the Nobel, after all, Ms. Munro was but one of several Canadian names tossed around in speculation. I heard some say Margaret Atwood or Michael Ondaatje; someone predicted Rohinton Mistry as a longshot. It was suggested by the especially optimistic that Al Purdy had once been thought a contender.
This bounty, though, is a relatively recent thing, which is probably why this sudden confluence of international recognition feels, even to the skeptical, like a real moment. Canadian literature, late to gestate, late to blossom and late to grow into a sustainable maturity, has, of late, arrived in a significant way.
Once, Nick Mount of the University of Toronto’s English department pointed out to me that that everything CanLit happens a few generations behind broader trends. Compared, for instance, to our English-speaking counterparts in the U.K. and United States, we got started rather late. (After all, Canada has not yet celebrated its 150th birthday.)
To give you a sense of how meteoric our growth as a literary culture was, in 1959, McClelland & Stewart, Ms. Catton’s publisher, issued 19 books. A decade later, that number was more than 70, and the house had become one of the country’s dominant cultural forces.
Writing in the periodical Books in Canada in 1975, critic Robert Fulford quantified the change similarly: “When I wrote a daily book column for The Toronto Star in the early 1960s I tried to review every serious novel by a Canadian published in English; and some seasons I nearly succeeded. Today it would take a platoon of critics to attempt the same task.”
That decade, the 1960s, was the crucible of CanLit’s growth. But that was 50 years after Woolf or Hemingway, 100 after Dickens and Dickinson, more than 200 after Defoe or Richardson or Fielding. Almost 400 after Shakespeare.
Obviously, we cannot know if Ms. Catton’s bizarre and ambitious account of the 19th century New Zealand gold rush will be remembered, even canonized, as some Booker winners have been. The prize’s 45 years have recognized a lot of famous books, but also too many that have slipped from our collective cultural imagination. Is The Luminaries a Midnight’s Children, or a The Remains of the Day? Or is it destined for the remainder bins of history, like P.H. Newby’s Something to Answer For, which won in the prize’s inaugural year, 1969?
But perhaps it does not matter. Some readers love The Luminaries. Some find it tiresome and mannered. But its victory, and Ms. Munro’s, speak to something larger: a culture finally fully grown, and the confidence for us, as a literary nation, to tread upon a bigger stage. Even if we have borrowed an actor from our Kiwi colleagues.
Jared Bland is the The Globe and Mail’s books editor.