Bear by Marian Engel
Or, Who Wants to Talk About Bear Sex?
Oh Canada. Book-wise, I tend to stay away from Canadian authors. I’ve read a few (Atwood in particular), but they just don’t often work for me. Discussing this with a coworker, she made a perfect analogy: Canadian authors are like a train. They are good stories that seem to be chugging along a perfectly solid path, and then suddenly, they completely veer off track! This is a perfect introduction to Bear by Marian Engel.
First published in 1976, it won the Governor General’s Award for fiction (pretty important award) and raised a lot of controversy. It then kind of disappeared from the fiction world until years later; people started writing about it again. It was recently touted as the most important novel in Canadian literature and history. Certainly peaks the interest. Strangely enough, it wasn’t the first time I had heard of this novel, but it wasn’t until recently that I really felt the urge to read it. I don’t know; maybe I’m getting a little braver in my reading repertoire.
Why (if you haven’t heard of this novel) do you need to be a little brave to read it? Well, how do I put this? Quoting the synopsis from the back of the book: ‘[Bear] tells the unforgettable story of a woman transformed by a primal, erotic relationship’ and I shall add, ‘with a bear’.
Before we talk about the bear porn, because we will be talking about the bear porn, let’s talk about some other aspects.
To say that this novel is distinctly Canadian is an understatement. Engel has captured the meaning of Northern Ontario living. We are one with nature. That may sound clichéd but in that area, it is something that is always surrounding us. It is in the corner of our vision wherever we go; and I don’t simply mean parks and such, I mean the wilderness. I remember waking up to see a full-grown deer in the middle of our intersection. In my hometown, it was a common occurrence to see a bear or moose in one’s backyard. It truly shows how Canadian I am, that I fell in love with this book when I read the following quote:
“She was trying to decide to regard the black flies as a good symptom of the liveliness of the North, a sign that nature will never capitulate, that man is red in tooth and claw but there is something that cannot be controlled by him, when a critter no larger than a fruitfly tore a hunk out of her shin through her trousers.” (Engel, p. 56)
I remember as a child, running, running from these things!! Engel certainly had me at that quote. That quote also brings to mind what else I love about Bear: the writing. Classics have a tendency to be so full of words that the reader can get bogged down. Engel’s writing is vivid and beautiful, as the above quote illustrates. This novel is only 115 pages so to say that it’s bogged down with words would be erroneous. Engel has carefully chosen each and every word to make it the most powerful and resonant sentence that you read.
Okay, I’ve waited long enough: BEAR PORN! Sorry. 😉 It’s not everyday that I can write a review with those words in them, so I’m making the most out of it. Yes, Bear has bestiality in it. There is sex between a young woman and a bear. Is it weird: yes. Is it a little graphic: yes. Can it be argued that it’s necessary for the story: entirely.
At the centre of Bear, the main character, Lou, is trying to find herself. Living in Toronto, she comes back to the remote Northern Island, Cary Island, to catalogue a house labeled historical. In doing so, she begins to become wrapped up in the mystical nature that can be found in remote Northern wilderness. Reading about Cary’s obsession with bears, leads her to become more entranced with their mythical nature. The bear, itself, is more human than any of Lou’s previous lovers (possibly done on purpose by Engel). He is more gentle and thorough (sorry) and the scene in which he pleases Lou (sorry) and then farts and walks away makes the bear less like an animal and more like a man. One must remember, that part of this story reads like a fable, and within Bear, there is a lot of mention over the powerful and God-like nature that people attached to the creature. I said above that part of living near the wilderness is finding oneself and becoming one with nature, in part becoming a stronger person. In her relationship with the bear, Lou becomes stronger; she becomes more confident in herself as a person as well as a woman. I can’t really say it better than Robertson Davies, in his praise for the novel: “The theme of Bear is one of the most significant and pressing in Canada in our time … to ally ourselves with the spirit of one of the most ancient lands in the world. In our search for this spirit, we are indeed in search of ourselves.”
Is Bear largely bear sex in which you are thrown into it on page 1 and it doesn’t stop until the end (like most erotic novels these days)? No. There are maybe three or four scenes that don’t start until over halfway through the novel. But it is bear sex. There is no way to lessen that blow. It’s bear sex.
Some may be completely uncomfortable with that and write the novel off before giving it a try. That saddens me, but as with most classic literature, it’s shocking, and disturbing, but also brilliant. Her writing is gorgeous; her skill is unmatched. I think she’s one of the best Canadian authors that I have read. I’ve picked up her most controversial and shocking novel first; her others I will gladly read now.