A World Divided, A World Divined: Two North American Fictions
Margaret Laurence The Diviners appeared in 1974, John Irving The World According to Garp in 1978. The 1975 and 1979 paperback editions celebrate these novels as the "#1 Canadian bestseller" and "America's most jubilant bestseller." 1 For bestsellers, their major themes might seem esoteric: each novel charts the intertwined course of a writer's life and art. The life of the writer in each novel bears some resemblance or connection--metaphorical, biographical, or autobiographical--to the life of the writer of each novel; both fictional writers and the novels' narrators have much to show and say about the nature of the past, the uses of memory, the workings of language, and the status of fiction. Both novels, like many other North American fictions, present characters who are drawn to a European homeground, variously conceived of as a museum for the young writer's imagination, a repository of wartorn monuments, a deadly playground for sexual initiation, or an ultimately deceptive setting for a return to origins.
Beneath these superficial similarities, however, lie some intriguing differences that are worth attention--chief among them, the differences between the novels' visions of writers' fictions in relation to writers' lives, and the closely related differences between the novels' conceptions and uses of the past. My contention is that the shared North American preoccupation with displacement in time and space that these writers and their protagonists explore is manifest quite different in its Canadian and American versions, and that this difference reflects the divergences that continue to distinguish Canadian and American representations of their respective cultural legacies--even when, if not particularly when, these representations appear to be subsumed in the metafictional and postmodern intentions of two novels that, each in its own way, have bridged the gap between high and mass culture to speak so powerfully to the popular imagination about the position of the writer and the importance of fiction.
The central problem for Morag Gunn, the writer in The Diviners, and for Morag's creator, Margaret Laurence, is how to conjure with the past. One of the