Remembering Irving by David Mason
(A shorter version was delivered at the Irving Layton Memorial at Harbourfront, June 24th 2006.
Published in Descant 139, Volume 38, No. 4 Winter 2007)
June 24, 2006
I first met Irving Layton when he and Aviva came into my bookstore one day in the 70s. Aviva was interested in early children’s books and was delighted by many of my books. Irving seemed a bit impatient and, I could see that he didn’t share Aviva’s enthusiasm. I guess the age of the books told him that they would be expensive. Like almost all writers I have met, Irving didn’t like to pay for books. Finally, after much oohing and aahing by Aviva, and Irving’s increasing nervousness and some heated whispered conversation, Irving approached me with Aviva’s choice.
“My wife likes this book”, he informed me plaintively, “what can we do”? I could see he was suffering.
“Well”, said I, “its $35. You could pay me the $35 or maybe we could maybe make a deal.” “A deal?”, he asked hopefully. A ray of hope.
“There’s a poem of yours I greatly admire”, I said. “If you would copy it out for me on a sheet of paper I’d give you that book.”
“You’d give me the book? For a poem?” You could see he could barely believe he had found a way out. “What poem is it?”, said Irving, his timidity vanishing, his voice booming with confidence.
It’s called “Ballad of the Old Spaniard“ I said.
“Oh that one, yes”, he agreed, “it IS a wonderful poem isn’t it? I’ll do it”, he glowed at his newly discovered admirer.
I wrapped the book and they left without, of course, writing out the poem. Well here we go again I thought. Conned again; this time by myself. I’ll never see him again. But three weeks or so later Irving came in again with the poem. He had remembered.
Over the years Irving would bring me things from time to time when he needed money. Sometimes I could sell them and sometimes I arranged to give them to an institution for a tax credit.
One day he called to say he had a poster for the “Night of the 1000 Authors” signed by quite a few Canadian authors, which Jack McClelland claimed some collector would happily pay $1000 for. Irving arrived in his car, a battered old thing. I directed him to the backyard of my store, which was a converted three story house. In back it had a wooden shed which was so dilapidated I had torn it down. All that remained were a set of poured concrete steps jutting out at a right angle to the building. Irving turned in to park and hitting the jutting steps tore a huge deep gash the entire length of his car. He got out and looked at his car, silently. He shrugged, and I thought he was probably thinking, oh well, poets can’t be concerned with trivial stuff like this. To make matters worse I then had to inform him that I didn’t know of any collectors dumb enough to pay $1000 for a bunch of signatures on an undistinguished poster in spite of Jack McClelland. We would have to give it to an institution, and hope he had sold enough poems to owe some taxes that year. Which is what we did.
For many years now I have joked that I bought Irving’s library every time he got a divorce, to help pay for it. Technically this is only partly true. I did buy some of his books when he and Aviva parted, but they had actually never married, and I bought more when the Bernstein divorce occurred. So, I did buy Irving’s books twice but in fact he didn’t have a book worth a penny except for his ownership marks in them. As I said earlier, like most authors, Irving couldn’t bring himself to pay more then 50cents for a book. But I was able to justify paying a good price for them with the idea that someday they would have some value, because of his signature in them.
The first lot I purchased were books of little intrinsic value, political books, standard texts of poets, mostly shabby and well thumbed. But most important to me they were much annotated by Irving and usually signed. Some were signed in his real name Israel Lazarovitch. Often they contained poems by Layton in his hand. I would think that like many compulsive readers, Irving no more would exit his home without a book in his pocket than he would have without his keys or wallet. So when the muse struck he would write the divine message on the endpaper.
I kept them together labeled as Layton’s books adding about $5.00 or so to the price for Irving’s ownership marks. After six months I had sold only one. Finally, I got angry and cursing the stupidity of Canadians I took them all off the shelf and packed them away. Later, when I bought his library again during the Bernstein divorce I did the same but this time I told Irving that I was doing so, and why. “David”, he shouted with glee, “you’re just waiting until I die so you can make a fortune off my books. Aren’t you?”
“Yes I am Irving”, I replied, “but, I somehow doubt it will be me who makes the money. It’s more likely to be my son or my grandson.” Then we had another of our many discussions on the Canadian public who could not recognize genius when it was presented to them.
The Bernstein divorce brought other adventures. Howard Aster, the publisher of Mosaic Press, had been a student of Irving’s and venerated him as did I. In an attempt to help Irving with the cost of the divorce he got permission from M & S to make a collector’s edition of Irving’s latest book “A Wild Peculiar Joy” which was being published only in paperback. Howard bound it in good cloth with a signed leaf inserted in an edition of 100 copies and I bought the entire edition from Irving for $5000. I believe Howard paid the entire production cost because of his regard for Irving. (A noble gesture I thought then, and still do.) As for me, it took me 18 years to sell enough to break even and now after 24 years the next copy I sell will put me into the profit column.
For his next book, “The Gucci Bag”, Howard and I arranged to do the same but when Howard delivered the 100 copies there was a glitch. They looked exactly the same as the regular version the only difference being the signature.
I gave Irving a couple of thousand and called Howard telling him that we couldn’t offer as a limited edition something which was the same as the trade edition except for the signature. Irving sold his own books at readings and would sign them too, so there would be no justification for the price. We needed to do something to fix it up. So, I put the boxes in a corner where everybody forgot about them for some years. Years later in the 90’s an article in the newspaper told the melancholy news that Irving needed expensive care and might have to be put in a home. Remembering our unfinished business with “The Gucci Bag” I sent down some more money and received a nice, if sad, letter from Bill Goodwin, Irving’s nephew and friend, thanking me and telling me that Irving thought he remembered me, or at least he was trying to do so.
I didn’t did find the books until recently, when I moved my store and they surfaced. So now, of two limited editions of 100 copies each, published 30 years ago, I still have 80 of one and all one hundred of the other. But, of course, I’ve been raising the price every few years to reflect increased value so perhaps you could say I’ve made a lot of money even if only on paper.
Many of the books I bought from Irving were inscribed to him by other poets often acknowledging his influence and their gratitude. Having a modest collection of Layton’s books myself, I once bought from a colleague in the states three books of Irving’s which he had inscribed to Jonathan Williams the publisher. Williams published “The Improved Binoculars” Layton’s first major book published in the States. It had a preface extolling Layton by William Carlos Williams which established his international reputation. Thinking Irving would be amused to see his inscribed books back in Canada I showed them to him. Well, he was livid. “He sold those books?”, he roared in disbelief, “I gave him those. I treated him like a son and he sold my books. What treachery.”
“But Irving”, I countered. “You sold me hundreds of other Poet’s books that they inscribed to you. Isn’t that the same?”
“Of course not.", he bellowed indignantly, "they weren’t great poets.”
Sometime in that period I had a rather precipitous domestic breakup one of those where you leave quickly with no place to go. So I found myself living for a few months in the back of my store. I bought a slab of foam and built a bed in a cubby hole using a base made of boxes which contained Irving’s books. Some time later I took up with a new woman and we took to using what I called my “Layton bed” for our courtship rituals. Thinking Irving would enjoy the thought of that I told him in one of my letters what we were using his books for. I still have his reply so I’ll read you part of it:
“David, let me say here and now that I am infinitely touched by your account of the ‘Layton Bed’. Those cartons filled with my books could not have been put to better use than to serve as a mattress for your betrothed and yourself. During the passionate love-making didn’t some of the cartons burst into flames? It pleases me to imagine that there was a sudden luminous eruption that enveloped the two of you and clearly and forever showed you the one infallible road to true happiness”.
Spoken like a true poet.
I had a friend, now dead, who knew a lot about English poetry. He wrote several books on it including a complete history of the English Poet Laureates. People like him and Antiquarian booksellers like me who deal with hundreds of years of literature tend to have a different view of what time does to reputation then most people. I once asked my friend, for instance, how he thought Dylan Thomas would last. After some thought he stated that Thomas wrote maybe 6 poems which would be read as long as the language lasts not a bad count when you consider what time does to all but the greatest. Ever since then I have been asking poets I know, how much of Layton’s work will survive time. Mostly, they answer 10-12 poems.
Irving’s reputation is not at a very high level now, especially in his own country. But people like me, who deal with hundreds of years of literature, know that time and history always bring the cream to the top, while the superficially popular sinks with hardly a trace. Irving’s time will come. Remember, Blake was considered an imbecile in his time, and Melville was 50 years dead before “Moby Dick” became the great American novel. For myself, I feel honoured to have had the small contact with him that I had and I have never cared that, so far, I haven’t sold more than a few of the books I bought from him. I liked and admired Irving enormously and my memories of our meetings are the only profit I care about.