Reviewed by Kait Pinder
Raymond Knister’s first and only novel, White Narcissus, was first published in 1929, three years before the author drowned, his literary career cut suddenly short. Knister’s novel bears traces of his modernist literary education; the protagonist, Richard Milne, suffers from the tension between his inner desires and the pressures of the external, social world. Despite its third-person narration, Richard’s thoughts guide action of the novel and demonstrate an attempt on Knister’s part to illustrate the complexity of human desire and psychology. But, as Knister attempts to write a modernist novel set in the Ontario countryside, he seems caught between modernist hardness of language and interest in psychology and a Romantic typology of desire and attraction to the natural world.
Knister’s novel revolves around Richard’s return to the country, where he tries to convince Ada Lethen, his life-long love, to leave her parents’ home and make a life with him in the city. A decades-long silence between Ada’s mother and father that Ada mediates complicates Richard’s attempts to win her from her family. Ada, not unlike Lotte (from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther), holds together a household and, to Richard’s extreme frustration, she is unwilling to compromise her duties. If Richard is an example of a new generation of urban writers, Ada is a more conventional virginal figure and a fan of reading romances who possesses “an obsession with duty” (79). Women in the novel tend to fit easily into this category of devoted housekeepers. Mrs. Hymerson obediently supports her husband, Carson, even as he grows more and more unreasonable, angry, and violent. In her silence, Ada’s mother is the only female character who defies her prescribed role in the male social world. Similarly, children are playful and function to renew Richard’s desire for childhood enchantment, innocence, and wonder in ways that are familiar to readers of Goethe and Wordsworth.
The more conventional representations of women and children are the social background to the anxiety about the forms of masculinity available to men in the changing world. The central conflict of the novel is neither Ada’s refusal to leave with Richard, nor the argument between her parents that prevents her, but Carson’s claim to Mr. Lethen’s property. Richard’s insistence on Ada’s love makes a similar proprietary claim to her as his muse. The theme of masculine conflict develops into a questioning of the possibilities of action and the detriments of consciousness. Richard suffers from a consciousness that paralyzes action, a problem that defines his generation: “It was the conflict of the conscious ones of his whole generation, this confusion of outer freedom and inner doubt” (105). While Richard is free to leave the country to make a life in the city, his self-awareness and reflexivity paralyzes him and is the source of frustration in masculinity; for example, “He was still the prey of conflicting emotions. He did not know what to do with himself. Action – to fight” (80). Conventionally masculine responses to his frustrations are no longer possible. Richard cannot fight; to do so would align him with Carson, whose anger results in a stroke causing his death. Instead, he is relegated to battle out his frustrations in his own consciousness.
An altogether different sort of frustration lies in the conflict between the sentimental Romanticism of nineteenth-century Canadian poetry and the directness of modernist writing that are Knister’s literary inheritances. The conflict between the city and the country in the opening paragraph of the novel epitomizes this conflict. Richard is “only two hours away from the city” when he begins to feel “lost in this too-familiar country” (19). The personification of the natural world makes Richard’s alienation from it personal; he returns as a foreigner to the country in which he grew up: “The fields, river banks, the astounding, overwhelming sky he seemed to have forgotten, questioned him as alien” (20). In Romantic fashion, Richard projects his insecurities onto the natural world and finds there precisely what he had feared. Furthermore, the adjectives used to describe the sky symbolize Richard’s alienation from the land and his ambitions; they also signal the tension between the male characters in the novel. The sky is “overwhelming,” “a thread,” “uncertain,” and finally “darkening” (the words appear throughout) as Richard and Ada’s love comes to its climax.
Knister’s Romantic tendencies often hold the novel back from its most powerful modernist insights. Yet, the Romantic voice in the novel is not Knister’s so much as Richard’s. At one point, a narrative voice distinct from Richard’s interjects to comment on his petty frustrations and behaviour, declaring, “the unhappy are the most cruel of people” (85). Richard is a wholly unsympathetic character. More troubling is the tidy resolution of the novel, which seemingly avoids a modernist inquiry into the modes of action and desire. Instead, Knister offers a “happy ending” rarely found in Romantic or modernist literature. Richard’s frustrations become the reader’s as the resolution of the novel offers no solution for the problems of changing forms of masculinity that catalyzed its conflict.
About the Author
At press time: Kait Pinder holds a CGS scholarship at McGill University where she studies Canadian modernism. In her spare time she enjoys watching soap operas and playing Bejeweled.