Bearing Gender: Marian Engel does Timothy Findley

by ConduitCanada

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Reading Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage in high school taught me that you can be a writer with a conscience and still be poetic. In university, reading Marian Engel’s Bear carried me through the period of my life that Jeremy Hanson-Finger has so accurately described as “the dirty end of my adolescence”(Hanson-Finger 25).  Not all of Engel and Findley’s correspondence have been preserved, but from the letters republished in Christl Verduyn & Kathleen Garay’s Marian Engel: Life in Letters, a complex and affectionate relationship emerges. In fact, their candid relationship could be instrumental to Engel’s notions concerning gender and sexuality.

One of the most fascinating letters in Verduyn/Garay’s book was written from Engel to Findley on 27 October 1982.  The first part of her letter references some correspondence between Engel and Margaret Laurence. In the correspondence between Laurence and Engel, it appears Laurence was offended when a group of Canadian writers confronted her about her alcoholism. Laurence accused Engel and Findley of spreading malicious gossip which aggravated Engel’s insecurities: “I don’t know aboutyou [sic] but I’minfinitely [sic] suggestible (sorry, kids have been using the machine and spacing is off) and my interior voice is very weak” (232).  Laurence, Findley and Engel eventually resolve their differences, but the professional tension between them suggests an intimacy between Engel and Findley that perhaps Engel and Laurence did not share.

Later on in the letter, Engel casually responds to a telephone call from Findley in which he (ironically?) proposed marriage to her, multiple times:  “If I sounded funny about your proposals of marriage—which Adele [Wiseman], I think, suggested in the first place—it’s because I’ve been working out certain relationships with homosexuals, because I’ve got a terrible crush on one of my doctors, who is.” Engel is open-minded when it comes to sexual orientation, and suggests a wry awareness of a performative designation of gender and sexuality: “I haven’t REALLY got my cap set for you or expect you to have yours set for me, but I’m rather amused by it: it acts out some stuff for me.” Admittedly, we must avoid reading correspondence too literally, but let’s indulge a closer reading of Engel’s Bear according to what we can glean from her correspondence with Findley.

As we explore Engel’s sexual identity further, more aspects of her fascination with Bears surface. In the same letter to Findley she goes into candid detail about her own sexual and emotional frustration: “And I’ve decided its okay to have lots of gay friends, but only to marry them if they are chinchillas—fat and furry and elderly, and you’re not one.  So there.” Engel is teasing Findley here, but it’s hard to ignore that she is basically describing a preference for what is commonly referred to in queer communities as ‘Bears’. She qualifies her statement by normalizing her fantasy in a very strange way: “There’s a bend in my libido somewhere; but what I really need is a straight guy who has the right chinchilla characteristics! A Nigerian with his arm in a sling would do.” We have no idea what she in referencing in the Nigerian with an injured arm… perhaps some shades of colonialism are sneaking in here, since she is anthropomorphizing and sexualizing the African male. It demonstrates, at least, that a combination of anthropomorphization and sexualization are the main strategies Engel employed to normalize and explore her own deviance.

Camp and cross dressing are extremely evocative concepts to use in dissecting this novel. As a strategy, Camp subverts the standards of gendered sexuality through praxis: by practicing an exaggerated version of heteronormativity, Camp suggests that all identity is fluid and performative. Conventional cross-dressing and Camp styles often contrast gay male sexuality and femininity through excess, complicating heteronormative desire. The queer category of ‘Bear’ contrasts homosexual desire with working-class heterosexist masculinity, an essentialist concept that lies at the heart of traditional Canadian national identity.

It is unclear how long hairy gay men have been referred to as ‘Bears’. According to the LGBTQ logic of Camp acting or dressing ‘Bear’ is a subversion of hyper-masculine identity. One aspect of being Bear that would be particularly convenient to a discussion of Engel’s novel is its association with the lumberjack archetype:  “Lumberjacks appealed to gay men at aesthetic levels but also for the fact that they were working class, and for the fact that their isolation from urban society (and hence from mainstream gay culture) opened up a fantasy of both secrecy and liberation, within an idyllic, rural, North American setting” (AGLBICAL.org). For critics who maintain a reading of Engel’s Bear as a Canadian nationalist allegory, perhaps the metaphor is more nuanced than we thought.

Reading writers’ personal correspondence can either reinforce popular notions about their personalities or, occasionally, offer quirky insight into how they operate outside of an edited, deliberate text. Reading letters as strictly supplemental to their life’s work, as entirely novel texts, can endear us to our favourite writers. Since Engel and Findley are both deceased, both taken at a relatively young age by cancer, it’s unfortunate that we can only speculate on their discourse. At least there are some spontaneous moments preserved that we can read more intimately, exchanging references so obscure or strange they may escape us completely.

The following postscript to the year Engel published Bear is a wonderful confirmation of this relationship. It comes shortly after Engel published Bear and ended her 10-year marriage to Howard Engel: “Congratulations re: divorce. Having gone through it myself—I know it’s hell.  Try not to think badly of us all—none of us men are perfect ladies” (Findley 15 Dec 76).

Work Cited

“Bear Culture: Hypermasculine Gay Men.” AGLBICAL.org. <http://www.aglbical.org/2A%20BEARS.htm&gt;.

Engel, Marian. Bear. M&S, 1976.

Garay, Kathleen. Christl Verduyn eds. Marian Engel: Life in Letters. Toronto: U of T Press, 2004.

Hanson-Finger, Jeremy. If I Make My Bed (In Sheol) pt. 2. Ottawa: In/Words Press, 2010. < http://issuu.com/jersgarage/docs/sheolpart02-20100207?mode=window>.

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