For a teen-age lady who wished to know intercourse, the nineteen-eighties, in Canada, had been a huge, barren land. The Internet was not accessible; films had been age-restricted in theatres and prudishly edited when proven on tv. The intercourse scenes I did handle to see had been practically at all times offered from a man’s viewpoint. Magazines for girls had been stuffed with tips on the way to seem extra enticing. I had bother greedy how sharpening my exterior would possibly result in any form of inside satisfaction.
In novels, I discovered extra diverse views. My mates and I favored books with depictions of intercourse that acknowledged our biology and offered a sensible form of schooling. These had been the well-thumbed paperbacks handed round with dog-ears to mark the most effective pages. By the time I turned fourteen, I’d learn a lot of the core texts, beginning with the œuvre of Judy Blume, shifting to “Flowers in the Attic,” and to the extra primal affairs in “The Clan of the Cave Bear.” Then, someday, a good friend of my sister’s leaned in shut, and whispered to me the plot of one other guide—a guide, she stated, about a lady who has intercourse with a bear.
It was 1987, within the deepest a part of winter. I discovered a copy of “Bear,” by Marian Engel, within the library, and introduced it residence to my bed room to learn. I clutched the pages nearly nervously, carrying a scratchy sweater, my fingers damp and my face sizzling. The radiator groaned. I attempted to know how intercourse with a bear would possibly work.
“Bear,” a slim novel, had been printed greater than a decade earlier than. It’s about a lonely archivist named Lou, who lives in Toronto and is distributed by one thing known as the Historical Institute to a distant island in northern Ontario, to catalogue the library of an eccentric, nineteenth-century soldier turned Justice of the Peace, Colonel Cary, whose descendant, a lady additionally named Colonel Cary, donated the property to the institute earlier than dying. Along with piles of books and papers, Cary has additionally left behind a bear. Lou takes care of the animal. She feeds him, takes him swimming, and begins to anticipate his wants. They have intercourse. “A fat, freckled, pink and black tongue,” Engel writes. “It licked. It rasped, to a degree. It probed. It felt very warm and good and strange.”
Bestiality didn’t concern me: males and bears, on the time, equally inhabited the realm of fantasy. My notions of intercourse had been slim, and my thoughts merely forged the bear within the function that I imagined a companion was purported to play. I keep in mind questioning if licking and touching certified as intercourse. The human and bear components don’t fairly match, and Lou should do her greatest to have interaction. Honey is concerned. She touches herself. Engel’s gaze is focussed on Lou’s inside life, her expertise. The novel whispered to me about what stimulation would possibly do for a lady. Lou leaves the island renewed.
Nearly 20 years later, I used to be attempting to jot down my first novel. I had given start a few months earlier than, and most of my ideas had been about how onerous it was to assume when sleep-deprived. Concentration whooshed in waves that felt like hallucinations. My best moments had come once I made a listing of causes to surrender writing.
Too drained to sleep one night time, I made a decision to learn. I picked up “Bear,” which I hadn’t learn since I used to be fourteen. Anything extra substantial—a worthy hardback, say—appeared threatening. And the plot, as I remembered it, appeared manageable. A lady goes north, has intercourse, and returns. Two instructions had been as many as I may deal with.
My slim introduction to the guide apart, “Bear,” I knew by then, had an esteemed literary pedigree. Marian Engel, who died in 1985, two years earlier than I first encountered her work, was a longtime author when “Bear” was printed. Margaret Atwood known as the novel “plausible as kitchens, but shapely as a folktale.” She and Engel had been a part of a era of Canadian writers who helped display that worthwhile writing in English may come from locations aside from London or New York. “Bear” gained the Governor General’s Literary Award, one in all Canada’s most prestigious prizes. In its review, the Times described the guide as “spare, wry and altogether extraordinary.”
When I picked it up that night time, the phrases didn’t swirl and spin, as the remainder of the world gave the impression to be doing; they stayed put and invited me in. It learn, this time, like an elaborate fantasy—about a lady who turns into free to give attention to herself. Lou describes her life within the metropolis as colorless. Of Lou’s time with a former lover, Engel writes, “He loved her as long as the socks were folded.” Lou has an affair with her boss, which continues merely out of behavior. She goes north on a directive from the institute, however, when she leaves civilization behind, her life opens. She takes inventory of the place, the home, the books, “her kingdom.” She swims. She hikes. Her physique tans and grows stronger; she goes by means of a form of rewilding. The captive bear does the identical. When they go swimming and he strains on the chain, Lou interprets this small rebel as “a return to life.”
I reread Engel’s phrases and located what I wanted there. “Bear,” I spotted, is a story about how social place can suppress particular person need, an expertise shared by lady and bear. It’s about what occurs when Lou wakes up. The subsequent morning, I set to work.
Another 13 years handed. I used to be in the course of an investigation. I had been cleansing my workplace and located a assortment of recordsdata about a bear assault that had occurred in 1991, close to the place I labored on the time. In a uncommon deadly assault towards people, two campers had been killed by a black bear, which had partially devoured the our bodies of the victims, whereas leaving their meals untouched. I had already written a novel loosely primarily based on the assault, however, in going by means of the previous clippings, I spotted that a lot had been left unanswered concerning the case. I wished to fill within the gaps.
I drove north, towards bear nation, to interview a wildlife biologist in a room stuffed with animal skulls, radio collars, and a huge assortment of seeds that had been present in bear scat. He had a straightforward method, and we laughed about our obscure collections of bear DVDs. We talked about how people not often see bears clearly; our concepts about them—as cuddly toys, crew mascots, ferocious beasts—are pictures in a mirror. The biologist was anxious about how I might write concerning the bear in my story. Would I demonize him?
After the interview, I checked into a motel. I picked up the copy of “Bear” I’d thrown into my bag. A paperback version confirmed a lady’s again with 4 bloodied scars on the duvet, which mark the turning level in Lou’s relationship with the bear.
I grew up in Canada, like Engel, the descendant of European settlers. People like me have a historical past of telling sure tales concerning the North—that it’s a wild place, empty, ready to be found. These tales give settlers, and their descendants, permission to take the issues that they arrive throughout: land, bushes, beaver pelts, whole cultures. I remembered “Bear” as a guide about a lady who drives north to make an inward discovery. What form of story had Engel actually instructed? What form of story was I telling?
That night time, I learn a story about a lady who crosses the road between actuality and fantasy. Lou is from a individuals who outline themselves other than the wilderness, residing inside a colonial creativeness. The books that Lou is cataloguing, in Colonel Cary’s library, have been procured from numerous locations to make an “island kingdom, safely hedged by books.” Lou is aware of that she will paint any face she needs on the bear, and that feeling cherished by him is her invention. She searches for her place within the wilderness in an try and rediscover herself. “Bear,” she says, “make me comfortable in the world at last. Give me your skin.”
When the bear claws Lou’s again, she wakes the subsequent morning to seek out that every part appears totally different. Lou appears within the mirror and sees “not the mark of Cain,” however wounds. The home, with all its books, is “no longer a symbol, but an entity.” The bear is a bear.
The novel is a fable rendered within the method of realism. Engel dares to think about a sublime and believable erotic arc for a human-bear relationship. And then she slashes the parable. The reader has to ask, why did I imagine it? After studying the guide for the third time, I had one other query, about my real-life investigation. How clearly was I seeing the bear?
“A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers,” Italo Calvino wrote. Every so usually, “Bear” is discovered by new readers, a few of whom gawk at its numerous covers or marvel what Canadians rise up to in the course of the lengthy winters. Those who sit right down to learn it’s going to discover a quietly sensual, feminist story that questions its personal foundations. I’m going to learn it once more in one other fifteen years or so; by then, my relationship with the guide could have spanned practically half a century. I do know that “Bear” could have extra to say.