From 1934 to 1936 Sheila Watson taught nine grades in a one-room schoolhouse in Dog Creek, on the banks of the Fraser River, in the Cariboo district of British Columbia. A place and time that forms the setting of The Double Hook.
“I sank roots,” Watson said, “that I have never been able to disentangle.”
She wrote the book between 1952 and 1954 in Calgary, Alberta and revised it in Paris from 1956 to 1957.
Watson: “it’s about how people are driven, how if they have no art, how if they have no tradition, how if they have no ritual, they are driven in one of two ways, either towards violence or towards insensibility – if they have no mediating rituals which manifest themselves in what I suppose we call art forms.”
From the epigraph, giving us the title of the book: “He doesn’t know you can’t catch the glory on a hook and hold on to it. That when you fish for the glory you catch the darkness too. That if you hook twice the glory you hook twice the fear.”
The setting is an unnamed community of only a dozen individuals, divided and isolated by their fears and loneliness; their uncertainties, lost and clinging to the parched banks of a winding river running dry in a hot July drought. A place forgone of its own past and outside connections, barren of all traditions and rituals – Sheila Watson’s “art forms”, and all other cultural connections.
“A man can’t peg himself in so tight that nothing can creep through the cracks.”
And so they search still: “I’ve seen Ma standing with the lamp by the fence, she said. Holding it up in broad daylight. I’ve seen her standing looking for something even the birds couldn’t see. Something hid from every living thing. I’ve seen her defying. I’ve seen her take her hat off in the sun at noon, baring her head and asking for the sun to strike her. Holding the lamp and looking where there’s nothing to be found. Nothing but dust.”
This is Greek philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, founder of Cynicism, with his lamp held high in daylight looking for one good man. It was also Diogenes, who, upon looking over a pile of human bones, was said to say to Alexander the Great, “I am searching for the bones of your father but cannot distinguish them from those of a slave.”
“One man’s one man and two men or ten men aren’t something else.”
Margret Atwood: “While alive the old lady’s sin had been her refusal to accept life whole, the ‘darkness’ along with the ‘light’, the cyclical processes of Nature as well as man’s structures, houses and straight lines. The ‘something she’d never found’ is her own completeness.” (Margaret Atwood, Survival – A thematic guide to Canadian literature, Toronto: House of Anansi, 1972).
In Watson’s narrative, she looks beyond morality tales of Christian redemption and Greek philosophy, reaching back to Native American mythology.
“I don’t know about God, William said. Your god sounds only a step from the Indian’s coyotes.”
“In my mouth is the east wind.
Those who cling to the rocks I will
I will set my paw on the eagle’s nest.”
And later, the coyote calling: “In my mouth is forgetting. In my darkness is rest.”
Watson completed her B. A. in English at the University of British Columbia in 1931, her teaching certificate and Masters of English in 1933.
She taught for several years at a variety of public elementary and high schools before becoming a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia in 1948. Upon her return from Paris in 1957, she began her doctoral studies at the University of Toronto under Marshall McLuhan. In 1961, she became a professor of English at the University of Alberta.
In 1941 she married poet and dramatist, Wilfred Watson, professor emeritus of English at the University of Alberta. Upon their deaths in 1998, they were found to own a library of over eight thousand books.
Watson’s post-war Paris was alive with differing intellectual thoughts and reasoning, the back-and-forth of the Marxists and the Existentialists, the rise of Structuralism, the pushing back of Realism by the Modernists.
Le degré zéro de l’écriture (Writing Degree Zero), Roland Barthes, was published in Paris in 1953. Watson was there, 1955 – 1956, editing The Double Hook.
Writing Degree Zero is frame-worked by the understanding that language is historical, style is biological and writing (écriture) is a function, one that, “is always rooted in something beyond language, but develops like a seed, not like a line, it manifests an essence and holds the threat of a secret, it is an anti-communication, it is intimidating.”
Barthes looked for and found that which cannot be seen, that which is harbored beyond language, this “essence” or “seed”; this intention and inspiration that is the touching of what Faulkner called, “be writing”. And it does not matter the school of thought or the place and time a writer comes to us with this, for it to be true, be it Hemingway’s minimalist attempts of truthful Realism, the tightness of Faulkner’s depths housed in his streams of consciousness, Morrison’s connectivity, McCarthy’s explosion of language buoyed by the confinements of his distant objective walls. It’s all the same and coming from the same place—this “seed” or “essence”; this touching of “writing”; this intent and insight of the “self”.
Watson: “When I began the work which became The Double Hook I knew I had to create a total fiction out of experience which was concrete — which defied the clichés imposed on it. I wanted to get rid of reportage, the condescension of omniscience. It wasn’t an act of reconstruction — like going back and saying I remember this — no one I ever knew did or said the things which are done and said. The people and the country and the animals and the plants gave me images for what I wanted to say.”
Barthes: “the writing of Realism is far from being neutral, it is on the contrary loaded with the most spectacular signs of fabrication.”
Watson: “I wanted to fuse the dialogue with the context— the reaching towards speech — the speaking out of silence — out of space.”
Barthes: “Only then can the writer declare himself entirely committed, when his poetic freedom takes its place within a verbal condition whose limits are those of society and not those of a convention on a public.”
If there is one work that best exemplifies Barthes’ point, is it is Sheila Watson’s, The Double Hook. Why? Because it is near flawless in its transcending historical boundaries of language; the narrative societal conventions of style; of marrying form and structure with an “essence”—this intention and inspiration of “self”; of “writing’” that is a mechanism of emotive imagery driving words, that works. It is a blending of action, thought and voice in a manner that renders convention and style pointless—it simply lays them to waste, rendering them obtuse and self-defeating.
But why then, has this little book not broken out from the confinements of Canadian academia and literary studies?
Because Watson was a woman writing in the 1950’s in British Columbia? Because she never again wrote or published another novel? Because it was labeled ‘modern’, the book living outside of accepted commercial standards and forms?
I don’t know.
However, I do know, the book today is still considered to be a work of “modernist” writing. When I first came to it as a study piece in the late eighties it was referred to as being post-modern. Making it today, what? Post-post-modern? And what does this say? About us? About writing today?
We need to push back the narrowing of the center. Watson’s book should not still be unsurpassed as a work of “writing”; of narrative possibilities, and it should not still be considered “modern”, that’s absurd, despite, sadly, it being true. And for these reasons, we need to hold it up, saying: yes, this is possible—saying: find this and push; find that touching point that takes us beyond where all the others have once stood.
And certainly, it is not too late to come to the work, look at Melville and Moby Dick, a perfect example of time (sixty-five years) and us needing to catch up to the work, and once we had, what it did for writing.
Read The Double Hook. A book that, although written fifty-six years ago, still reads today as if it were written tomorrow.