The watch that ends the night: A novel Paperback – 1986
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In The Watch That Ends the Night, the last of Hugh MacLennan's major novels (it earned him his fifth Governor General's Award), the unruliness that was always part of his epic vision has become particularly noticeable. MacLennan's usual mélange of intellectualism and melodrama is still immediately recognizable, but The Watch That Ends the Night rambles in ways that his earlier books do not, through passages of Dickensian pastiche and even what appears to be a tinny mimicry of the private school from Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. Narrator George Stewart, a moderately charming, self-justifying, and privately meek radio commentator, is married to Catherine, a passionate but chronically ill woman. Though George and Catherine were teenage sweethearts, they only married after Catherine's first husband, Jerome Martell, disappeared while fighting with the French Resistance in the Second World War.
Martell, however, is not dead, and he returns to Montreal, upsetting the mild domestic stability of the Stewarts. MacLennan sets up Martell as a flamboyant, doomed hybrid of Christ, Odysseus, and Doctor Norman Bethune, and The Watch That Ends the Night is really Martell's book--recounting his checkered Canadian career and the forces that sent him to the trenches in the First World War, to aid the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, and to incarceration and forced labour in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and China. The Watch That Ends the Night is among MacLennan's most politically sophisticated books, and it makes an interesting counterpoint to Two Solitudes. Curious readers who are unfamiliar with MacLennan will be much better served, though, by the much more readable Barometer Rising. --Jack Illingworth --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
"In his fifth book MacLennan has gained a new mastery over the two strongest elements in his work: the storytellers and the self-explorer are one. The effect is virtually to double his stature. The Canadian novel takes a great stride forward."
"The Watch That Ends the Night is a novel of affirmation ... The vanity of human wishes, death itself, are part of the mystery to be loved ... I would not trade MacLennan for a legion of beatniks or a whole flotilla-full of angry young men." --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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Hugh Mclennon was a Montreal author, originally from Nova Scotia whoe was also a distinguished classics teacher teaching in Mcgill University.
The story is basically the relationship between Jerome Martell, a Monreal surgeon and his alter ego. George. Both are in love with the same women Catherine. Catherine is George's childhood friend who eventually marries Jerome then a successful surgeon. Jerome is someone from a modest background who had fought in WW1 and was notably damaged by his experience. He is a somewhat heroic charecter loosely based on Dr. Norman Bethune. At first he is happy with Catherine who is barely clinging to life with a damaged heart. However when Jerome becomes politically active, the relationship deteriorates and he abandons Catherine and their daughter Sally and goes off to fight on the Republican side in thr Spanish Civil War. He eventually disappears and is presumed dead. Catherine then turns to her old friend George and they marry. Jerome reappears twelve years later at the height of the Korean War and Catherine nearly dies of shock when she meets her ex husband.
The stregnth of the book is the descrition of St.Catherine Street, the main Montreal thoroughfare during the thirties with its unemployed crowds shuffling aimlessly. It is also good in the social ferment, in particular between the commuunist and the right wing French Canadians. Mclennon tries to use Jerome as a political everyman showing how devotion to a cause though well intentioned leads only to misery all around. He does this very well. In style the book sometimes reminds me of a Canadian Hemingway with occasional touches of A.J. Cronin. The weakness of the book is the sometimes unconvincing dialogue and the sketchy portraits of the female charecters. In summary this is a very informed and entertaining novel.
_Watch_ gets compared to Graham Greene's _The End of the Affair_ here and there. It's a terrible comparison, though they make an interesting contrast. They both vividly document modes of thought and emotional states that I've experienced. They both deal with illness and death, and a kind of love. But the POV characters couldn't be any further different. The smugly self-hating narrator of _Affair_ is hard to cope with (although his actions belie the awfulness of his words). The narrator of The Watch that Ends the Night is, well, very Canadian. And a lot like me. Which made it much easier to identify with him. (Not that being able to identify with a character is a good in itself.)
The one action sequence is rollicking, even if it is sort of in a Jack London mode. As a document of the intelligentsia dealing with fascism and Communism in the mid-twentieth century, it's fascinating. As a personal atlas of heartscapes, it's arresting. It's kind of a novel-length version of Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat", I suppose.
The reason I give it four stars:
I can't believe how awful the Kindle ebook version of this is. I don't think it was proofread once. Abbreviations like CBC and RCMP are lowercased, lines of dialogue are run on with one another (making it difficult to understand who's talking), and there are flatout typos all over the place. The publisher should be ashamed of this hack job.