Book Review: Michael Ignatieff’s ‘True Patriot Love’

Iggy addresses the question that has puzzled so many

Book Review: Michael Ignatieff's 'True Patriot Love'There is a passage in True Patriot Love, Michael Ignatieff’s new book about successive generations of extraordinary men in his mother’s family, in which his uncle, George Grant, comes to terms with being a Canadian.

Grant, who would later become famous in his native country as the author of Lament for a Nation, was thriving at Oxford in the years after the Second World War, but he couldn’t deny the tug of home. “I love England,” Grant told his mother, “and think it is the greatest country on earth—but Canada is in one’s heart—in a way that this country can never be.”

Reading that plain-spoken, almost plaintive, expression of patriotism from so long ago, one has to wonder if Ignatieff ever experienced a similar moment of his own. If he did, it must have hit him when he was much older than his Uncle George was when he realized how obstinately Canadian he was at the core.

ALSO AT MACLEANS.CA: An exclusive excerpt from Iggy’s new book

Grant returned from Oxford as a young academic and made his name as Canada’s most public conservative philosopher, bemoaning the rise of American dominance, secularism, and technology, and eulogizing the passing of the old Christian, small-town Canada.

Ignatieff answered the call of home only in late middle age, when he decided to take a stab at Canadian politics, surprising many who had assumed he was settled permanently into an enviable expatriate existence, first in England and then New England, which his success as a writer had won him.

His new book is sub-titled “Four Generations in Search of Canada,” but “Four Generations in Search of a Reason to Be Canadian” would have been better. Like Ignatieff, all three of the forebears he writes about could easily have made it in the British or American big leagues.

The chronicle starts with George Munro Grant, Ignatieff’s great grandfather, an influential early advocate of Confederation, who wrote Ocean to Ocean, the first account of a trip across Canada. His son, Ignatieff’s grandfather, was William Lawson Grant, a formidable educator as principal of Upper Canada College, who exemplified a brimming confidence in Canada’s potential after World War I. Then came George Grant, the unrelenting, disillusioned believer in a Canada he feared had ceased to exist.

Ignatieff proposes patriotism as the sustaining motif in this grand lineage that reaches down to him. On one level this is merely a convenient way to package campaign fodder for a man who, after all, hopes the next federal election will make him prime minister.

Yet there’s more to it than that. Ignatieff’s attempts to defend patriotism as a motivation are more interesting than any stump speech. Without quite saying so, he’s finally addressing the question that certain highly educated, frankly ambitious Canadians have puzzled over ever since he defied their expectations by returning to Canada in 2005: Why give up a Harvard professor’s chair, a regular pulpit in the New York Times Magazine, a loyal British fan base—all for dreary old Ottawa?

Ignatieff makes an attempt at defining the patriot, whose abiding loyalty is to country, by contrasting him with the cosmopolitan, whose attachments don’t run to flags and anthems. This is a risky gambit for him, since it’s bound to remind readers that the pre-politics Ignatieff—public intellectual, best-selling author, novelist and screenwriter—epitomized the latter category. “The best argument on the patriotic side is that cosmopolitan attachments depend upon the security that countries provide,” he writes. “Anyone who doesn’t think he needs a country, anyone who believes they are beyond the local attachments of the national state, ought to visit a refugee camp.”

Ignatieff has indeed visited some. So perhaps this particular cosmopolitan came to realize that his passport mattered only when he saw first-hand what it meant to be stateless in a hard world. It’s patriotism as a self-preservation calculation. However, Ignatieff also lays claim to a warmer sentiment. “With love of country, you have to keep it simple,” he asserts. “You love what you love, and that’s good enough for you.”

Now that sounds more like a politician with an instinct for the lowest common voting denominator. But don’t worry—that breezily reductive voice takes over True Patriot Love only in spurts. For the most part, this book carries enough of the subtlety of Ignatieff’s writing from before he became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada to hold a reader’s attention. His evidently genuine fascination with his family tree elevates the narrative.

The steady current that runs through the book is the way the Grant men are always trying to imagine a Canada worthy of their own impressive capacities. If this were just a matter of personal aspiration playing out, the pursuit might soon grow tedious. But there’s something more universal at issue here: the question of whether public life can be made to matter as much in a second-tier country like Canada as in a first-tier cosmopolitan centre.

It’s a doubt that should resonate for anyone who has had second thoughts about settling for, say, Toronto rather than New York, or Bonn rather than Berlin, or maybe even Sydney rather than Shanghai. Anyone who wonders why Ignatieff came back.

The best fun in True Patriot Love comes in the book’s first third. George Munro Grant was a Nova Scotian Presbyterian clergyman, a terrific preacher, whose crowning achievement was to make Queen’s University a first-rank institution as its principal from 1877 until his death in 1902. Before then, though, his gift for expressing a compelling vision of Canada made him a useful friend of prime ministers, and of Sandford Fleming, the legendary engineer who oversaw the building of the transcontinental railway.

It was with Fleming that Grant crossed Canada in 1872, the trip Grant recounted in Ocean to Ocean. Ignatieff retells the tale with verve. He revels especially in imagining Grant and Fleming crossing the Prairies on horseback in the last days before the railroad. “It’s fair to say,” he writes, “that those long days on the trail, sometimes breaking into a gallop to run after birds, sometimes chasing each other, other times letting the reins free, so that they could daydream, were the happiest moments of my great-grandfather’s life.”

Although Grant is every inch the Victorian, Ignatieff finds much to admire from a twenty-first century progressive’s perspective. Grant sided with the French in the Manitoba schools crisis, and broadly held that “a people can be truly united only when great minorities do not feel themselves treated with injustice.” Arriving in frontier Kamloops in 1872, Grant noted with disapproval the bigotry against the Chinese, praising them as “cleanly, orderly, patient, industrious and above all cheap.”

When Ignatieff moves on to consider his maternal grandfather, William Grant, he lacks the compelling centerpiece of an epic journey. The defining event of this life, of this generation, was the First World War. A promising historian who had lectured at Oxford, Grant returned to Canada after the war to run UCC, and write a high school history textbook. Ignatieff uses his life mainly to meditate on the mindset of Canadians who believed their country had come of age on the Western Front.

By the time of George Grant, brother of Ignatieff’s mother Alison, the family had evidently internalized and even mythologized its sense of purpose. “He always said,” Ignatieff writes, “that it was his mother who turned the vice of family expectation, who imbued him with a sense that he had to measure up to ‘the ancestors.'”

But George Grant’s particular way of relieving the pressure of the vice—by becoming Canada’s most noted intellectual pessimist—hardly meets with his nephew’s approval. “He gave up on the country. He should not have done,” Ignatieff writes. “The country is not done. The story has only just begun. There is so much more to tell, so much more to do.”

A sound-bite cadence has seeped into Ignatieff’s prose here. Yet on the very same page his writer’s craft reasserts itself when he describes visiting his famous uncle in 1983, finding him a “great shambling patriarch with a straggly beard, a huge laugh that revealed a frightful set of crooked and stained teeth.”

Ignatieff is often at his best with physical description. But he’s not just a good set of eyes. Remembering how family demons plagued George Grant into old age, Ignateiff discovers that this pain binds him to his uncle in a “family tradition” that’s far from benign. “A tradition,” Ignatieff reflects, “is also a channel of memory through which fierce and unrequited longings surge that define and shape a whole life, his and mine.”

He doesn’t let us in on exactly what “fierce and unrequited longings” shape his own life. Maybe they have something to do with his bid to become prime minister. One can only imagine the agonies Liberal party operatives would now be suffering if their leader had unguardedly followed this line of thought.

Those party pros will undoubtedly be hoping readers skip ahead to his final chapter, in which Ignatieff recounts how, with his wife Zsuszanna, he retraced the Western portion of his great-grandfather’s cross-Canada journey. In this travelogue, their rental car takes the place of the horses and canoes of the original.

Behind the wheel, Ignatieff adopts the requisite sunny outlook of an era when the word “hope” is synonymous with successful politicking. Even seeing the slow death of Prairie whistle-stop towns—the culture created by the railway Grant and Fleming championed—doesn’t get him down. “The Canada George Munro Grant had dreamed of was passing away,” he admits, “but a new economy was taking shape in the downtown universities and research institutes, the law firms and the business parks.”

Later he rides the West Edmonton Mall’s water slides!

By this time, Michael and Zsusanna have set themselves the jolly task of finding the best pie to be had at the highway eateries. Any further musing on the problematic nature of patriotism seems pretty much out of the question. The writing has turned too slight to lug around the burden of the Grant legacy.

Strangely, it was while reading about this light-hearted road trip that I found my thoughts drifting to the paternal half of Ignatieff’s family tree, the more melancholy side he explored in 1987’s The Russian Album. (Maybe it was the presence of Zsusanna, who is Hungarian, that nudged my thoughts in that direction.) The book won the Governor General’s Award, and might still be Ignatieff’s best. In it he gave us a finely textured account of how the Ignatieffs came to Canada, what the accomplished here, and what a strange, gifted bunch they were.

Ignatieff’s grandfather, Paul, was in the cabinet of the last tsar, and his grandmother, Natasha, was a Russian princess. Their youngest son, George, Michael’s father, rose to become a top Canadian diplomat—and an exemplary, grateful immigrant. “He presented himself to the world throughout my childhood as the model of an assimilated Canadian professional,” Ignatieff wrote of his father, who was still alive when The Russian Album came out. “And to this day he is a much more patriotic and sentimental Canadian than I am.”

Michael Ignatieff was drawn more to the Russia his grandparents, father, and uncles had fled than to the Canada they embraced, the country prepared for their arrival, in effect, by people like the Grants. “Between my two pasts, the Canadian and the Russian, I felt I had to choose,” Ignatieff wrote. “I chose the vanished past, the past lost behind the revolution. I could count on my mother’s inheritance: it was always there. It was my father’s past that mattered to me, because it was the one I had to recover, to make my own.”

Or so Ignatieff held before he turned 40. In the last paragraphs of The Russian Album, he declared bluntly, “I do not believe in roots.” He was a rising man of letters (and television) then, living in London. “This is my story and I make it up as I go along,” he wrote. “I want to be able to uproot myself when I get stuck, to start all over again when it seems that I must. I want to live on my wits rather than on my past. I live ironically, suspicious of what counts as self-knowledge, wary of any belonging I have not chosen.”

There’s nothing so bracing as that astringent declaration of personal independence in the new book. In fact, the toughest way to read True Patriot Love would be to consider it as The Russian Album‘s companion volume. The earlier book is far superior, at once cooler and more soulful, funnier and sadder.

Still, the two sagas complement each other. The Ignatieff family view of the world was all about Great Powers; Canada comes into the picture as a sort of sanctuary, from which a man like George Ignatieff can safely venture forth again into the real world. The Grant family’s view of their beloved country was shaped by their evolving beliefs about first British and later American imperial primacy; again the main stage is somewhere else.

But Ignatieff ends his new book by asking us to consider a radically changed world order (or disorder). He suggests that centres of power might have ceased to exist, at least in the ways that would have been understood by past generations of Grants and Ignatieffs. He says we are “living the end of the American high noon.” International institutions like NATO and the UN are “boxed in by the conflicting interests of member states.” China and India lack the “capacity or interest to create a new world order.” Russia is merely “a spoiler in the international system.”

Ignatieff sketches a world in which “no state, not even the most powerful, is able to guarantee its sovereignty or the integrity of its way of life to its citizens.” The status of great capitals is in doubt. London, Washington, Beijing—what do they really amount to if those in command there can no longer reliably call the shots?

The best thing is not to be big and powerful but to be smart and well-governed. “No country may be sovereign over its identity, but some countries are much more successful than others in mastering the forces of globalization.”

Mulling over these concluding speculations made me flip back to Ignatieff’s opening pages. “I grew up in a Canadian household where my parents did think that life was elsewhere,” he confides near the outset. “This is how it is in small countries and provincial societies everywhere in the world.”

Like his maternal great-grandfather, grandfather, and philosopher uncle, Ignatieff went away but came home. “Life was elsewhere all right,” he writes, “but this place was my place, my problem, my obsession, my home.” That reads like a sidelong admission that he finally resigned himself to becoming what he says George Munro Grant and Sandford Fleming were in their time: “big men in small ponds.”

But what if Ignatieff is right and the great powers no longer matter quite the way they used to? Perhaps, then, all ponds are smaller now. In which case, migrating back to the placid pool where one was hatched might not really be settling for less.

And in a less stratified world, the old quest of the Grants, to build a country worthy of their ambitions, seems to have it the wrong way around. To them Canada looked like a provincial place their talents might elevate. Now it seems more like Canada might be that rare thing—a country that still has enough going for it to lift the merely talented toward the accomplishment of real service.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.