Sunday, June 25, 2006

Barry Callaghan writes about Irving, The Globe & Mail, June 06

The life of literature, the literature of life


Raise You Ten:
Essays and Encounters 1964-2004
By Barry Callaghan
McArthur & Company,
$34.95, 369 pages

One of the toughest pieces I ever remember writing was a profile of the writer Barry Callaghan that appeared in this newspaper some years ago. The occasion was the publication of Callaghan's memoir, Barrelhouse Kings, and I went to interview him at his home in the Rosedale section of Toronto. I was greeted by row upon row of giant dancing hibiscus with wide, pastel faces that fluttered like fans in the sun. It was a very hot day and the sight of the flowers made me a little dizzy.

Out back, beside a water garden, with a single floating lily, Callaghan regaled me with anecdote after anecdote -- about his father Morley Callaghan (Such is My Beloved, That Summer in Paris) and his father's friend, U.S. writer Edmund Wilson, about bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, about the significance of men in homburg hats. By the time the interview was over, my head felt heavy as a bowling ball. I was so full of Callaghan's stories, I could barely write my own.

And this is what has tended to frustrate Callaghan's critics: his propensity for powerfully dominating the story -- even when the subject is not himself. When he ran the books pages of the Toronto Telegram in the 1970s, readers learned more about Callaghan than they did about works under review. He was accused of vanity and of arrogance of opinion, though I'm not sure this is fair. What Callaghan does possess is a rather stringent code of literary ethics that prevents him from pretending any degree of omniscience. He is always acknowledging the role his personality plays in everything he writes. Callaghan patterns himself after the eminent man of letters, Edmund Wilson. His warm, impressionistic remembrance appears in the second volume of his collected articles Raise You Ten, which, like its predecessor (Raise You Five), showcases the author in his various literary guises, including that of poet.

In Raise You Ten, Callaghan examines the life and work of Cecil Beaton, G√ľnter Grass and Muhammad Ali. The book makes strange bedfellows of Irving Layton, Leon Rooke and Dean Acheson, a former U.S. secretary of state. Callaghan reacquaints us with the instrumental actors of the FLQ Crisis and ponders the mystique of the Canadian mind. He contemplates the fate of the Baltic countries. Whether Callaghan is writing profiles or political analysis, cultural observation or autobiography, he remains a critic at heart. He recognizes the elements of fiction in every situation, and never completely separates literature from life.

In The G Spot, for example, he explores the link between his gambling -- he plays the horses -- and his art. He writes of his familiarity with the race track at Longchamp, which he first encountered in Zola's novel Nana: "Nothing has changed," he says. Callaghan's criticism is often elegant and perspicacious. His portrait of poet Irving Layton exposes the sometimes small man struggling inside the larger-than-life persona.

His observations can possess the cruel accuracy of a bull's eye: He names author John O'Hara's fatal weakness as the inability to express "the unsayable," and can also write of Miss Lonely Hearts that Nathanael West's "humour is certainly not in the Mark Twain vein of corn-pone satire; it is closer to the mirthless laughter of a black comedienne like Moms Mabley, where pain is a prickle-board upon which a grin has been stuck."

As regards to form, Callaghan can be wildly idiosyncratic. Karsh and MacLennan: Power Lifting spins into an accolade for Hugh MacLennan's essay on the photographer that appeared in Maclean's magazine. Three of the article's seven pages are given over to an excerpt, with no apparent concern for balance. Callaghan's stubborn desire to do as he pleases is sometimes childishly willful.

I read somewhere that Callaghan planned to write his dissertation on Edmund Wilson, but never got around to finishing his PhD. Certainly, his perceptive profile of Wilson lays the groundwork for a substantial biography. In Raise You Ten, Callaghan recounts his visits to Wilson's home in upstate New York, and declares the source of his admiration for the man: Wilson, Callaghan says, has a feel for the "literary image that will convey social crisis, for the scene that will instantly evoke a historical moment."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Callaghan has developed that same skill. Though many of these articles were originally published nearly 40 years ago, they maintain a bracing relevance. For instance, in Mojo, set in 1971, Callaghan finds himself in the Marin County jail interviewing Angela Davis, who was imprisoned at the time for her support of the Black Panthers. Davis was a prominent black activist and brilliant academic, but Callaghan seems to foresee her future as a leader of prison reform.

In The Public Ordeal of Bryce Mackasey, he elicits distressingly prescient comments from the forsaken Trudeau-era labour minister: "Our so-called free-enterprise system is a mode of compromise. A free-enterprise corporate structure in a none-too-compatible marriage of convenience. And unless we resolve the conflict and make the marriage work, I doubt that our kind of society can survive. . . . [Then] I guess the Liberal Party will have little or no relevance."

Callaghan takes the unusual step of interviewing Mackasey on Grosse-Ile, an island in the St. Lawrence River where, in the mid-19th century, ailing Irish immigrants were left to die. This piece is a little heavy on atmosphere. Nevertheless, it makes a clever analogy between Mackasey's deadly surroundings and the harsh environment of Canadian politics, particularly for those of Irish extraction, which both Mackasey and Callaghan happen to be.

Callaghan actually likes to see himself as an outsider, for he is put off by the slippery ease with which elites slide through life. Indeed, he is very much attracted to the stories of black men, who are perhaps the ultimate outsiders and who appear in this book with surprising frequency. These stories are thoughtful and complex -- all the better for the respectful distance from which the subjects are observed. Callaghan seems to see straight into bombed-out core of the heart of LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka). He captures the true machismo of Muhammad Ali (of which boxing is a mere reflection). In Austin Clarke: Riding the Trane, he traces the contours of the author's iconoclastic style with delightful insouciance.

A couple of stories in this collection strike me with special force. Two are succinct, pearl-like pieces about the repressiveness of Quebec society before the Quiet Revolution: The first, Archbishop Charbonneau, gives an account of the priest who, in 1949, was ostracized by the Catholic Church for his gentle support of the Asbestos strikers. The second is Woman in an Iron Glove, about the abusive childhood of Quebec novelist Claire Martin. Of all the pieces in the book, my unambiguous favourite is A Motiveless Malignancy, Callaghan's riveting chronicle of the vandalism of his Chinatown home. He chronicles the incident from start to finish, from the early omens of bad luck to the stunning viciousness of the attack to the court case and conviction of the pathetic accused.

Callaghan and his partner, artist Claire Weissman Wilks, rented an apartment overlooking the lake until the repairs on their house were done. He writes this of their return: "In the early morning hours, after everyone had gone home and Claire had gone to bed, I stood on the upstairs back porch staring down into the darkness of the back lane, the dark split by a shaft of light from the new high-beam lamp on the garage. The two thieves had come up onto the porch out of that darkness to break and enter our lives, but as I stood there staring at the light, I remembered my childhood and how, at night, when the light from a kitchen door fell across an alleyway, I'd crouch on one side of it -- as if I were a mysterious traveller -- and then I'd leap through the light and go on my way, unseen, unscathed. The year had been like that light; we had leapt through it and with our secret selves intact, we were now travelling on."


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