Canadian Jewish News article Jan 11
Canadian Jewish News
Layton saw himself as Jewish maverick in stuffy Canada
By JANICE ARNOLD
His authorized biographer Francis Mansbridge wrote in Irving Layton: God’s Recording Angel that the celebrated poet saw himself as a “hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter.”
In his heyday in the postwar period and into the 1960s, the pugnacious Layton styled himself as the outsider who was going to shake up the staid sensibilities of English Canada and make poetry a force for raising consciousness. He also liked to tweak his fellow Jews for their bourgeois complacency and philistinism.
But try as he might, Layton made few enemies, at least, not for long. The outpouring of tributes upon his death last week at age 93 after suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for a dozen years reflects the affection many held for him.
With his years of bluster and swagger long behind him, the once leonine Layton in the past decade had become almost a pussycat.
Many were moved by his physical frailty, the decline of his mental and creative powers, and his aloneness, despite five marriages, four of which were official.
He had been living since November 2000 at Maimonides Geriatric Centre, where he enjoyed having his works read to him.
Extraordinarily prolific, he published 50 books between 1945 and 1992. His poetry had a lyrical and romantic style, but the content was often ironic, acerbic or erotic. Jewish themes were common, expressing a mix of despair and pride in his people’s place in the Christian world.
University of Ottawa English professor Seymour Mayne believes Layton is second only to A.M. Klein among Canadian Jewish poets, and ranks with Canada’s best five or six ever.
He thinks Layton has a lasting place in the Canadian canon, and he expects his work will now receive the scholarly and critical interest that it did not while he was alive. Among readers he already sees a revival, especially among the young. His students like his poems, especially for their wit.
“Layton’s work is polemical… it has a large vision, it looks at society, and not just personal experience,” said Mayne. “He was a public poet, and probably Canada’s first celebrity creative writer.”
Layton’s relationship with the Jewish community, though sometimes strained, remained strong, and he was “fiercely” Jewish, after his own fashion, Mayne said. He pointed out that after the Six Day War, Layton became a supporter of Israel, and did not waver in later years. In the 1970s, he took part in demonstrations for the freedom of Soviet Jewry.
In person, Layton was vivacious and gave his full attention to people he was with, Mayne said. “He was especially generous with his time and counsel to other, younger writers who would take their troubles to him. His door was always open. In that way he was like a chassidic rebbe, ready with a sympathetic ear and word of advice.”
Retired Concordia University English professor Mervyn Butovsky thinks Layton rushed far too much material to print before it was fit to be published. But he said some of his poems are very good, especially those that were heartfelt.
Butovsky, who was a contributor to the 1993 “festschrift” anthology Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton, along with some of Canada’s leading literary figures, said Layton “pick and chose” various and often disparate elements, from the Israeli army to Karl Marx, to construct a complex Jewish identity that suited him.
“I interviewed him for about two hours in the early ’80s on this topic, and he was very comfortable with his choice… He was proudly Jewish, something a lot of people don’t recognize.”
One of his last anthologies, Fortunate Exile, published by McClelland and Stewart in 1987, was devoted to his writings on a Jewish theme. It was dedicated to “Father Abraham and his angry progeny.”
Butovsky points out that Layton said he saw himself as “a prophet and a clown,” which was bound to perplex others.
In 1997, on his 85th birthday, friends rallied in Montreal to raise money for full-time care to allow the failing Layton to stay in his home. In 1999, the Montreal Jewish community paid tribute to Layton with an evening during Jewish Book Month, held soon after the release of his son David’s scathing childhood memoir Motion Sickness.
There were 20 speakers, including his eldest child Max, then 53, who distanced himself from his half-brother’s portrayal. “I want to make clear that my father was not only a great poet, but a darn good father, and I love him dearly.” He said it was true his father was “torn between his muse and his domestic obligations,” yet could be fun and affectionate, and never dull.
At the event, Toronto television mogul Moses Znaimer recalled that when Layton was his English teacher at Herzliah High School in the 1950s, on the first day of class he wrote on the blackboard “99 per cent” following by a series of nines. “With a piercing gaze, he said that was the percentage of people who are philistines. We had no idea what that was, but I was determined not to be one,” Znaimer said.
Stan Asher, who was a teacher at Herzliah in the 1960s, remembers Layton would peddle his books at school. “He would say he was offering it to me at wholesale prices and promised that one day it would be a collector’s item.”
Musia Schwartz, a devoted friend to the end, first met Layton when she was a young immigrant from Poland after World War II attending his English class at the Jewish Public Library, along with other survivors. Their horrifying stories inspired some of his poems on the Holocaust.
Old friend and contemporary Shulamis Yelin, since deceased, described Layton in 1999 as “difficult, egotistical, arrogant and sharp-elbowed,” but deep down a “tender-hearted sissy. You can turn the screw, but at the same time have a big heart.”
Layton did not live a conventional Jewish life, but he never severed his association with the community. He was born Israel Lazarovitch in 1912 in Tirgul Neamt, Romania, the youngest of eight children. The family immigrated to Montreal the following year. They were poor; his father was a quiet religious man, his mother – to whom he was strongly attached – was a formidable character.
She believed her youngest was destined for greatness because he was born naturally circumcised.
Books, other than holy ones, were regarded as a frivolity, and Layton only discovered literature during his recuperation from serious burns suffered when a candle set his nightshirt on fire as a boy, according to Donald Winkler’s 2003 documentary A Red Carpet for the Sun: The Life of Irving Layton. Layton himself also spoke of a Baron Byng High School teacher as awakening him to the beauty of poetry.
Layton earned a degree in agriculture at Macdonald College in the 1930s and, in a communist phase, toyed with the idea of going to live in the Soviet Union. Instead he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1942.
After the war he was at loose ends, until one day when he was in a cafeteria, in the proverbial blinding flash, he was inspired to write a poem. Grabbing the waitress’s pencil, he dashed off The Swimmer in five minutes. Layton was basically self-published through the late 1940s and 1950s. The title of the film by Winkler is taken from the collection that earned Layton a Governor General’s Award in 1959.
The advent of television allowed Layton to develop his persona as an iconoclast. He discovered the showman in him, and the power the medium had to make his work known.
He was openly sensual, derided Chrisitianity as “Judaism with a nose job” and embraced Jesus as a fellow Jew. Until then, he had been living a conventional life in Cote St. Luc, raising two children with his second wife Betty Sutherland and teaching school.
He taught at Concordia University (then Sir George Williams) from 1950 to 1964, and returned in 1989 as writer-in-residence for a year. He left the university a massive collection of manuscripts and correspondence, and in 2000, its Institute for Canadian Jewish studies acquired the desk he wrote at.
Institute head Norman Ravvin said at the time it was a perfect place for it because of Layton’s impact on younger Canadian Jewish writers and his “staking out [of] an outspokenly Jewish poetic voice that helped put Canadian poetry on the map.”
Concordia awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1976, the same year he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada. He also received honorary degrees from Bishop’s and York University, and was a professor of English at the Toronto school from 1969 to 1978.
Family friend and occasional visitor Rikee Madoff said that the day before he died, Layton “looked good, his face smooth and calm.” He sat beside the piano as she played old Yiddish songs for him.