Monday, January 09, 2006

I Remember Irving Layton, J.Chambers, Globe & Mail, Jan 9 06
I Remember Irving Layton
Monday, January 9, 2006 Page S9

Jack Chambers of the University of Toronto writes about Irving Layton, whose obituary appeared on Jan. 5.

In the early 1970s, when I arrived at the University of Toronto as an assistant professor in linguistics, obscenity trials were rife in Toronto courts of law. To my delight, I found myself in some demand as an expert witness on the linguistic pedigree of four-letter words. Usually, the trials were relatively sedate, and so I was taken by surprise when I arrived at courtroom 42 in Old City Hall on Jan. 17, 1973, and found it buzzing with reporters, cameras, law students and spectators. We were defending two pockmarked young clerks against charges of selling obscene paperbacks in a Yonge Street store.

The prosecution and defence made cursory examinations of me and another expert in their haste to get to the star witness, Irving Layton, then professor of literature at York University. Layton took the stand with bravura, and put on a vintage display. He quickly grew bored with answering the lawyers' questions and launched into an oracular and visionary declaration on the literary merits of the pulp fiction seized from the shelves of the store. Some of the novels, he said, should be in the university library, and he intended to make sure they were.

"The four-letter word has come into its own," he said. "In 1945, the reviewers fell on me for exploiting sex, but the public has caught up with me and Joyce and Faulkner." The books offer "plain, unwrapped sex," he said, perfectly normal human behaviour.

At this point the judge, Charles Drukarsh, leaned over and said, "Bestiality, Mr. Layton? Is bestiality 'perfectly normal human behaviour'?" Layton smiled up at him. "Listen, Your Honour," he said, "I lived on the Greek islands, and I can tell you, firsthand, that it is." The verdict was guilty (but it was overturned three years later). That day, the verdict got second billing.


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