Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Translating the Frame: Rereading the Mountain and the Valley

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Translating the Frame: Rereading the Mountain and the Valley

Article excerpt

THE ENDING OF The Mountain and the Valley is notoriously difficult to interpret: Is David Canaan's death on the mountaintop meant to be tragic or ironic? Since its publication in 1952, these somewhat irreconcilable possibilities, along with Ernest Buckler's challenging prose style, have inspired uneasiness--often verging on outright exasperation--even in readers who regard it as, on the whole, a great novel. How we read the ending will ultimately affect how we make sense of Buckler's narrative strategies throughout this novel; in fact, the ending demands a return to the beginning. Rereading the novel turns out to be crucial, for a close scrutiny of both epilogue and prologue uncovers a strong basis for reading David's entire story as functioning on one of its levels as a metaphor for shifting states of consciousness. Buckler's low-key remark that David's death "was to be the crowning point of the whole dramatic irony (and, of course, the most overt piece of symbolism in the book)" (quoted in Young 36), appears then to be something of an understatement.

The Jungian notion of a limited self confronting his own shadow worked out in the penultimate chapter gives way in the epilogue to David's encounter with what Jung would call the transpersonal self. The clearly delineated stages of David's ascent up the mountain also closely mirror the four levels or modes of consciousness described in the Upanishads. Both of these symbolic paradigms presume that self-awareness may undergo a series of progressive translations from one state of consciousness to another. This idea of "translation," repeated so emphatically in the epilogue, may then further illuminate one of the key paradoxes of The Mountain and the Valley: that a novel which overtly explores the wounds inflicted by the spoken or the unspoken word, and the flaws and limitations inherent in language and narrative as a whole, still subliminally affirms their potential to be in a profoundly transformative relationship with the mystery that exists beyond the reach of both. Marta Dvorak, in her groundbreaking study of his entire body of work, has already examined in detail the paradoxical effects of Buckler's rhetorical strategies and his use of the notion of "translation" (88-89), most affirmatively in relation to Ox Bells and Fireflies. Yet, Dvorak sees David as a "failed artist" and his death as ultimately ironic (108). What I intend to explore here, building on the foundation which Dvorak has so ably constructed, is how that ending may be reread symbolically along the lines that Buckler has carefully encoded within the very structure and language of the novel as a whole.

Rereading David's story in this way instigates a strangely charged relationship between reader and narrator, as well as reader and text. Reader and omniscient narrator jointly observe David's progress through the novel and up the mountain, but, since carefully rereading this novel results in a growing sense of its structural and stylistic asymmetries, the narrator's vantage point in relation to the unfolding narrative becomes an increasingly pressing question. While observing these shifting spaces, Marta Dvorak wonders if "we readers also end up looking at the eye of our own watching" (100); in other words, a certain alienating space opens up not only between reader and text but within the reader as well. (1) Paul Ricoeur explains that "the matter of the text becomes my own only if I disappropriate myself, in order to let the matter of the text be. So I exchange the me, master of itself, for the self, disciple of the text" (From Text to Action 36-37). Such creative processes of alienation play a necessary role in the interactions between reader and text, Ricoeur asserts, partly because both are, to some degree at least, fictitious:

   [I]f fiction is a fundamental dimension of the reference of the
   text, it is no less a fundamental dimension of the subjectivity
   of the reader. … 
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