Modern Works: The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan

The Watch that Ends the NightThe Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book came to my attention thanks to the Tragically Hip song “Courage: For Hugh MacLennan.” The song draws on the following quote from the book:

“But that night as I drove back to Montreal I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.”

This book, which spans the time from Great Depression to about 1950, is a product of its place and time, which helps it make observations about the human condition like the one above that are universal. In a strange way, it seems the more we change, the more we stay the same as people.

While I am not entirely sure how I feel about the narrator of the book, I realize that I can like the book without entirely liking the narrator. This book is a collection of love stories set against the backdrop of history, but they are the love stories of intense and flawed people. So the stories are somewhat unconventional, because it is not just love for other people, but also for ideals, and sometimes those things get confused.

At the same time, we see the changing world through the eyes of the narrator, who is a political commentator for the CBC. So at the same time that we get observations like the one above, we also get insights like this:

“The evil inside the human animal — the fascists are charming it out like a cobra out of its hole and the capitalists let them do it because they think it’s good for business.”

I feel like this is as true today as it ever was, though perhaps it is not the fascists, exactly. But that evil gets charmed out, and some people think it is good for business.

People like historical fiction, Canadian literature, and understanding how a specific time and place can reflect universal themes will like this book. If the quotes above can’t pique your interest, then leave this one alone.

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