IF YOU WERE to choose the archetypal English-Montreal writer, it would have to be George Szanto. Born in Northern Ireland of Viennese parents with a Hungarian name, educated largely in the United States, political activist and social inquirer, bon vivant and wanderer, as a novelist, playwright, and essayist, Szanto embodies what is most montrealais about many Montreal writers: they don't write about Montreal. "As if we did not truly possess the homeland," he notes. Such writers do, however, write about everything and everywhere else, just as they please, sans frontieres.
George Szanto, like most of us, is built on a contradiction and the term is understood in its philosophical sense of coexisting, yet opposing, propositions. The son of refugees who fled Austria in 1938, after its annexation by Nazi Germany, Szanto learned his socialism first-hand on the shop floors of textile mills in Manchester, New Hampshire; he has always been a social activist, an inquirer into the underpinnings of society. His political activities read like a catalogue of the 1960s American protest movement: participation in the Vietnam Summer in 1967 with left-wing priests in the Boston area, confrontations with the US military at the San Diego naval base at the end of that decade, work with the premier Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson.
A mind ripe for the charms of realist fiction? Wrong. That's the contradiction: Szanto loathes naturalism, in whatever art form it may reside, and 1 suspect he secretly wishes he were a painter, working in a medium from which naturalism may effectively be banished. He gave up on dramaturgy and play development because, as he claims, "There is no theatre in Canada." The reason? Naturalism. It gives birth to "nice plays" that present "small worlds. If it can be photographed and that gives you the whole picture, then why bother doing it?" he asks. As a playwright, he penned a larger-than-life theatre, a happy, uproarious mixture of any number of traditional art forms that predate naturalism: singing and dancing, broad spectacle - witness his adaptation of The New Black Crook (a play first created in 1866) or The Great Chinchilla War. "I admit, it's art the troops can enjoy," Szanto says wryly.
It makes sense that Szanto, convinced of Canada's meagre dramaturgical vision, would turn toward other forms. In 1978 he came out with Sixteen Ways to Skin a Cat (Intermedia), a collection of stories that he calls "an attempt to write non-naturalistic fiction." Cat is a collection of fragments and oddities, intense transcriptions of unusual circumstances, ices, sonic wonderful, others nightmarish. In 1982, he changed gears completely with Not Working (Macmillan), a novel set in Dobie, Wyoming. The book's hero is an ex-policeman from San Diego in retreat from his past. The book was a finalist for what was then the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and attracted attention for its theme, which was daring at the time (and maybe still is): that of a stayat-home man with a working wife. While striving to keep corrupt mining interests out of his town, the ex-cop Joe Levy has to worry about the dishes and the food shopping, prompting some reviewers to proclaim Not Working the first house-husband novel. This subgenre, apparently, has not gone on to dominate the literary world, perhaps because men's adventures, rightly or wrongly, are usually played out far from the kitchen sink.
Szanto writes to explore the relations between people and power in society, and one of the relations that fascinates him is how the novel itself is held together. This kind of postmodern self-referentiality usually springs from a mind more oriented toward the self than the political world, but such is not the case with Szanto. His Not Working offers the reader a great deal of information on how the book came to be, its underpinnings, on the action that went on before the printed page existed. "Sometimes it's important to tell the reader that it's a story he's, reading. A story that couldn't have come into being at any other time and place but this one," Szanto says. "That's when it becomes fun, when you can show where the structures come from without being so obscure that you bore the reader."
In Not Working, Szanto supplies enough love interest and good and bad guys to satisfy most entertainment-seeking readers. I want to entertain the reader variously,"he insists, aware nevertheless that there is something inherently hostile to the pleasures of escape in the great postmodern conceit of high self-consciousness.
George Szanto's current most favoured landscape is Mexico - more precisely, the state of Michoacan, northwest of Mexico City. Readers discovered that when his story cycle The Underside of Stones (McClelland & Stewart) was published in 1990. Szanto's south of the border is nothing like Malcolm Lowry's mescal Saturnalia, though the narrator, like Joe Levy in Not Working, is also in retreat, as was Lowry's drunken Englishman. The narrator of The Underside of Stones has journeyed to a small Mexican village to recover from his wife's death, and he soon becomes the receiver of a large number of stories and counterstories about village life, especially about a certain Ali Cran, whose name derives from alacran, or scorpion. Though the narrator never plunges into local life, his new environment does force him to accept phenomena he would have rejected in the past, such as statues coming to life and shooting passers-by who have offended them.
Szanto's narrator receives, transcribes, and attempts to sort through these stories, all the while remaining an observer, a staunch outsider, as anyone who intrudes on a Mexican village must be. This moved one critic to complain that Szanto was wilfully withholding information about such matters as the narrator's deceased wife. The same objections have at times been raised by readers of Not Working, who were frustrated at not knowing whether Joe Levy really had a social disease as the result of his philandering. "Knowledge is a limited phenomenon," Szanto replies. He cites the celebrated self-defence that Beckett mounted when asked by critics why we don't know more about the characters in Waiting for Godot: "I'm telling as much as I can know."
Szanto divides his writing life between Montreal and Mexico, either travelling to or away from the places where his work is set, as the need arises. Living in the midst of one's literary setting is not always the best strategy, especially for a writer who shuns naturalism. Szanto cites the French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet's story about having travelled from Paris to the Normandy coast to observe the flight of seagulls, only to discover in situ that the birds were flying the wrong way. The best research is done after the story is written, and veracity of detail is less important than the detail's contribution to the work. Hence, Szanto worked on his Michoacan stories in Canada, and on an upcoming work set on the Quebec-Vermont border in Mexico. But he admits that if you are going to write about a certain butterfly, it is an advantage to be able to see the creature fluttering by your window.
All of this change of location and genre has proven to be a commercial drawback, says Szanto. "Along the way, I've been accused by several agents of changing modes with every book. What they want is a 'Szanto voice."' The Szanto voice is less a style and more a method of philosophical inquiry, a desire to lay bare structures of all kinds, aesthetic or social, or both. Yet for a man who stakes his claim to the aesthetic fringe in Canada, George Szanto has made the institutions work for him. After 10 years of running the comparative literature program at McGill University, followed by three years of doing the same with graduate communications, he is semi-retired and, like his fictions, divides his time between the two enormously different worlds of Michoacan and downtown Montreal.
It would be remiss not to mention that other side of George Szanto so obvious to anyone who has seen his eyes sparkling with mischief from behind his glasses. Szanto is a literary prankster, a trickster who does not worship Literature with a capital L. He conspired with the Winnipeg writer Per Brask on a story collection called Duets, which featured a prize for readers who could spot the six common elements in any two pairs of stories. Also with Brask, he published a "Modest Proposition," a pamphlet featuring a fictional committee whose self-appointed goal is to right all the country's wrongs. Among other things, the pamphlet tells us, "the Committee has taken note that no Administration of any Known Pharmaceutical Agent is capable of producing a Favourable Issue. Though beyond the boundaries of our Mandate, the administration of both Barbiturates and alcoholbased Liquids was attempted." Getting high, Szanto tells us, is, unfortunately, not the answer to the problems of the nation.
Verbal gamesmanship and the anti-war movement. Cultural criticism and the retreat to a village in Michoacan. Grand spectacle on the stage and some pretty, hermetic fictions. Is there any unifying force to all these wanderings? There doesn't have to be, Szanto would probably reply; you can have a saw-off between it all and call it ambiguity. But if anything holds the man's work together, it is that irresistible urge to slip around the other side of the stage and see what keeps the false fronts propped up the way they are.