Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ltyon mentioned in Callaghan's book, The Toronto Star, July 2 06

His lasting contribution
ANTHOLOGY Non-fiction pieces still shine
And storytelling is always journalism
By Susan Walker
July 2 2006

Raise You Ten: Essays and Encounters
1964-2004, Vol. Two
by Barry Callaghan
McArthur & Co.,
371 pages, $34.95

Much has been written — nearly all of it irrefutable — about Barry Callaghan's qualifications as a "man of letters." His bibliography lists two books of short stories, two novels, five books of poetry, a memoir, and nine translations of some very fine poets. No plays are cited, but that doesn't mean he hasn't written one. And let's not forget literary service to the many authors he has published through his Exile operations.

Not that he has spread himself thin, but it is Callaghan's non-fiction — his essays, critical reviews, profiles and straight reporting — that quite possibly have made his most lasting contribution to Canadian letters. Raise You Ten, the second volume of Essays and Encounters 1964-2004, presents some of the most engaging writing of its kind to be found anywhere in English Canada. He dedicates this volume to journalist Ron Haggart, and to novelist William Kennedy. Tellingly, he says Kennedy "as a reporter, never forgot that journalism is storytelling and as a storyteller, never forgot that he was a reporter."

Add to Callaghan's credentials: an aphorist, a master of the bon mot.

He applies these diverse talents in refreshingly diverse ways. When encountering another writer, Callaghan steeps his observations in the language of that writer. He tells a non-fiction story that might easily be fiction, and often takes poetic liberties. Yet for those who know his subjects, he captures them as firmly as butterflies pinned to a corkboard.

A long piece on Irving Layton, published in Saturday Night in 1972, but revised as is Callaghan's unusual practice, contains big chunks of poetry — not as examples, but as narrative. Callaghan places himself in the story, giving himself an equal weight, critiquing the poetry and reflecting Layton's character in his prose. "But his seas are full of ghosts — the ghosts of the women he has impaled on a rumpled bed, the ghosts of Hitler's henchmen who still haunt him, the skeletons of grief-crazed Jewesses who still stalk him ..."

Austin Clarke, a Callaghan chum, comes in for good-natured teasing in "Austin Clarke: Riding the Trane," published in the National Post in 1999. Here as well, there are echoes of Clarke in the writing. Choosing the novelist's love of John Coltrane's jazz as a metaphor for the place where the Austin known as "Tom" in Barbados meets the "decorous man, a donnish man who likes to take a pew at high mass on Sunday at the Anglican cathedral," Callaghan crafts a telling portrait.

A prominent photographer gets a snapshot: "Cecil Beaton, with razor-cut puffs of white hair over his ears, his lips pursed, is a figure of a certain elegance, a man of refeened urbanity who has cast his eye upon the old rich, the industrious rich, and those whom Scott Fitzgerald described as the coastal spew of Europe — the nouveaux riches."

Leon Rooke is well served in a delightful meta-fictional piece: "A Performance of The Exile at Café Tristan Bernard."

There are crosscurrents in these essays, reviews, profiles and poems. Callaghan combines literary, political and historical analysis in "Churchill the Crisper," a cogently argued piece that starts out with Rolf Hochhuth's play about Churchill, The Soldiers, and takes us into the wartime PM's moral position in history. Related essays present General Wladyslaw Sikorski, exiled Polish premier during World War II, and, in "Flowers for the Forgotten," the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe.

Callaghan's pet subjects are not hard to spot. The grandson of an Irishman, the son of Morley Callaghan, he has never lost a sense of his Irishness and his Roman Catholic heritage. You can see it in his excellent Saturday Night profile of a former federal cabinet minister, "The Public Ordeal of Bryce Mackasey." The story begins on the grubby winter shores of Grosse-Île in the St. Lawrence River, where the Irish immigrants landed in the 19th century. Some were buried there, if the passage to Canada proved too much for them. Callaghan pitches the story as a meeting between two sons of Ireland, but takes it a lot farther than that with references to Mackasey's complex relationships with Trudeau, Mulroney, et al. One of the reasons this volume makes such good reading is that many of Callaghan's discussions are still in the air. Black Americans — activists, jazz artists, writers — have always been a Callaghan topic. In two pieces especially, an encounter with playwright LeRoi Jones, and "Mojo," written about the politics of the Black Panthers, Angela Davis and the literature of revolution, Callaghan writes with precision, style and passion. He even skewers Tom Wolfe's manic piece on radical chic in support of the Panthers.

No collection of pieces such as this would bear the name Callaghan if it didn't have a reference to horse racing, and betting on the ponies. "Year of the Horse" tells how it all began.

He's not finished yet, having promised his publisher a third and fourth volume to add to what is already a collection of non-fiction to put your stake on.