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Douglas Fetherling
by Douglas Fetherling

WHEN COLLEAGUES gather together a book (or sometimes, a special issue of a journal) to honour a writer or scholar on retirement or on a particularly important birthday, the object that results is called a Festschrift. Everyone uses the German term because the idea dates back to the German Enlightenment, when research professors - one per discipline per university - were regarded as cultural glories, the sort of people whose milestones just had to be marked in some permanent way.

Being so long-lived and conspicuous the proud possessor of strong likes and dislikes, as well as the cause of them in others - Irving Layton, who turned 80 last year, seems a natural choice for such a volume. In fact, a sense of near-inevitability (and of literary history) permeates Raging Like a Fire: A Celebration of Irving Layton (Vehicule, 256 pages, $35 cloth, $18.95 paper), edited by Henry Beissel and joy Bennett.

The classic Festschrift is one in which a distinguished academic's retirement is commemorated by a collection to which the subject's peers and former students contribute essays bearing on the honouree's own field of study. A recent example would be The Mind in Creation: Essays on English Romantic Literature in Honour of Ross G. Woodman (McGill-Queen's University Press), edited by J. Douglas Kneale. Sometimes personal reminiscences are included too.

Either way, some of these books, being part of the academic world, strike the outsider as bureaucratic and committee-driven. As being a Festschrift editor is thought to carry some prestige of its own, a team of three put together Omnium Gatherum: Essays for Richard Ellmann (McGill-Queen's) - which became a memorial volume instead when Ellmann, the James Joyce scholar, died before the book actually appeared. Five people took upon themselves the rather straightforward chore of assembling Centre and Labyrinth: Essays in Honour of Northrop Frye (University of Toronto Press).

For poets and fiction writers who are only secondarily academics, Festschrift rules are a little different. Age requirements are elastic. George Woodcock was 66 when UBC Press published A Political Art: Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock edited by W, H. New. Leonard Cohen will be a mere 60 when Ken Norris brings out the Cohen Festschrift he's planning for 1994. More important, writers' Festschrifts lay more emphasis on tall tales and memories. They can thus be almost shadow biographies. This is certainly the case with Raging Like a Fire.

Which is not to say that, give or take a few anecdotes, there's anything new to be learned here about Layton's external life, personality, or poetry. But the book is useful as a reminder of the important role his liberating bombast and bardic posture played in the world of Canadian literature.

The book is published in collaboration with Concordia University, with which Layton has had a discontinuous relationship going back decades to when it was called Sir George Williams. There ate reminiscences by former students (Bernice Lever Farrar, Moses Znaimer), his coeval Ralph Gustafson, and his confederate Raymond Souster, as well as his long-time protege and admirer Seymour Mayne. There's little by young writers (perhaps he hasn't affected them the way Cohen has) but there's much by young-middle-aged ones, the generation that began to publish in the 1960s and 1970s. In general, the focus is on Montreal but the scope is refreshingly international, with contributors from beyond both oceans.

A joyous inability to repel or neutralize controversy always having been an important part of Layton's persona, it's no surprise to see old wounds reopened here. Roy MacSkimming speculates about what might have resulted if he had pushed ahead with writing a biography of Layton, as he had planned in 197 7, instead of going to work for the Canada Council. Well, for one thing, it's unlikely that Elspeth Cameron in 1985 would have written the one over which Layton created such a storm of controversy.

Cameron, incidentally, was bravely asked to contribute to this anthology, and she gamely responded, with something soothing. In fact, the editors should be commended for breaking new Festschrift ground by inviting people not especially well known as admirers of the subject. "I imagine I am far from alone in the ambivalence of my attitude to Irving Layton," writes George Woodcock. "I have never been among his friends or close associates; we met only once, circling each other like suspicious bears." Yet Woodcock admires some of Layton's personal qualities, and certainly recognizes his importance as a historical figure in the development of Canadian literature.


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