Post Your Opinion
The Impassioned Exile Of Barry Callaghan
by Roger Burford

if we fail to write the language of here, there will be no literature of this place BARRY CALLAGHAN is the author of a collection of short fiction, The Black Queen Stories (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1982); a novel, The Way the Angel Spreads Her Wings (Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1989); and several collections of poetry, including Stone Blind Love (Exile, 1988). He is also a translator, and the editor and publisher of Exile magazine, which is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. He spoke with Roger Burford Mason in Toronto. BiC: You have something of a reputation for being jaundiced concerning the Canadian literary scene. Is it justified? Barry Callaghan: Serious but sardonic is how I`d put it. Let me tell you a story. Some years ago we gave a large supper party at a restaurant when Morley`s book A Wild Old Man on the Road came out. Northrop Frye was one of the guests, and I sat him next to the beautiful actress Gale Garnett. He was pleased with that arrangement. Well, people kept coming up to him: "Doctor Frye this.... Doctor Frye that. . -," tugging their forelocks. Gale heard all this deference and turned to him and asked, "Doesn`t anyone ever treat you like an ordinary human being?" "Not very often," Norrie replied, a little ruefully. "I have the cure," she said, and reached into her purse, from which she took one of those red foam clown`s noses. Norrie put it on as the first course was being served, I put one on, Gale put one on, and in no time flat, folks were hanging out with Norrie and he was behaving like the generous-hearted, shy, but beamish man he was. My point here is that Frye had an enormously playful streak. I knew it; Gale found it. A streak that usually went unnoticed, but it was there because he was utterly secure and completely confident in himself. He even played around with his own prose, making some serious reverse moves on his theories - as he confessed to me once - out of sheer whimsy. I put a picture of Norrie in his red nose on the back cover of 15 Years in Exile, Volume One. Some were scandalized by the apparent irreverence; a couple of people even asked me if I`d painted the nose onto the photo. The Presbyterian streak runs so deep in this culture, but no matter, Norrie knew how to play the clown. I never saw Norrie as a stem, august figure. He took his work seriously, but not himself. I think a good deal of his theory needs a clown`s nose, too, but when I say so, I`m jaundiced. BiC: That`s a lovely image of Frye, and a telling story, but "serious but sardonic" doesn`t entirely exonerate you of the charge. Callaghan: The charge? This is a country that loves cops, loves to lay charges. jaundiced? As if to go against the grain of conventional wisdom means you must be ill, jaundiced. Oh well, it all adds to the gaiety of nations. Still, these days I do wonder what the hell is going on. Last fall we published three commemorative volumes of Exile (15 Years in Exile) - great writers from Canada and around the world -and so far not one serious, evaluative word has been written about those three books. The person who edits the books page at the Globe and Mail said that the books were too big. Jesus Christ, too big! BiC: Maybe we can work back to an earlier time. What was the state of literary culture in Canada when you first began to take a professional interest in it? Callaghan: From 1966 to 19711 was the literary editor of the book-review section of the old Toronto Telegram, which was, I guess, the second-largest newspaper in the country at that time. Books were taken with enormous seriousness. I wrote a piece every week of at least 1,000 words, sometimes 21500; 1 printed long pieces by writers about writers; there was poetry; there was fiction; and we paid as much as the book pages pay now. All this took place in a kind of schizophrenic way within the old Telegram, which, as you may know, was run by the guys who now run the Toronto Sun. The guy that hired me left the Tely and went directly to Esquire magazine as associate editor, so that`ll give you an idea of the kind of split we had there. One of the marks of that book page, which found its legs right in the middle of a period of Canadian literary nationalism, was that we would have stuff about Russian writing, Irish writing, French writing - but not so much about the English. I thought that writing out of London was either limp, turgid, or merely clever - the quick shunt from stiff upper lip to smear. So supercilious. And I still think so. As for Canadian writing, we had no use for the nationalists, mooning the world. If you wrote a book of poetry, well, Lizzie Borden might give you 40 whacks. The fact that you came from Oshawa didn`t matter. This of course didn`t endear me to certain publishers, or poets. BiC: You have always been contemptuous of Canadian literary nationalism. What did you despise about it when it first began to rear its head in the I 1960s? Callaghan: Careerism, what Edmund Wilson called careerism: people keeping busy by being busy about each other`s business. You`d be surprised how many were displaced, second-rate talents from the United States, or Argentina, or England, all telling me, and writers like me, how to be a Canadian. A good deal of it was cheap anti-Americanism, too. BiC: How did you start Exile? Callaghan: In 197 1, when I finally gave the Tely job up, my boss at the university was Harry Crowe, who had been a political columnist for the Telegram. He used to share a column with a guy named Doug Fisher, who`s still around - they were socialists in this right-wing newspaper; it was a zoo, a wonderful zoo, the Telegram! Anyway, at a party Harry Crowe said to me, "Now that you have all those hours of free time, what are you going to do?" And I have no idea to this day why I said to him, "How would you like one of the best literary quarterlies in the world?" He asked me how much I thought it would cost to get it started. I didn`t know how much it would cost, so I just picked a figure out of the air, and he said, "OK, I`ll arrange the money, so get to work." I found myself starting a literary quarterly, though I had never planned to do so, and didn`t know how to do so. If you look at the first issues of Exile, you will see that the writers in them were the people who were important to me at that time. In the first issue there was Marie-Claire Blais, who lured me into Quebec. Yehuda Amichai, whom I`d met in Israel, was one of the founding contributing editors. John Montague, the Irish poet, whom I`d met in Paris, was the other founding contributing editor. Jerzy Kosinski became a friend after I`d first written about him in the Tely in 1967, and he sent a wonderful piece for the first issue. And Morley gave me a section from his new novel, the first three chapters of the work that became A Fine and Private Place. So the quarterly, the literary world it represented, was partly my own, and my background and tradition - rooted in my father - and the world that had evolved out of the book pages of the Telegram. This didn`t necessarily jell at that time with the literary world of Toronto, because of that surge of literary nationalism, which I always thought was bogus, and often said so. BiC: And yet you clearly admired someone like John Montague whose Irishness is a deeply rooted kind of nationalism? Callaghan: Oh, wait! I regard myself as a completely parochial person. This is where my roots are. Here I stand. My language is the language of this place. With respect to Exile, I said quite clearly that if the writers of the world wanted to treat Toronto as their Paris, why should Exile disappoint them? But that`s not what I found in the nationalism of that period. It was a way of protecting one`s small self within a literary power structure, especially in relation to the financial rewards that come through a governmentsupported publishing and writing world. It was, it is, a world that could, and does, lead to a lot of mediocrity, but it was very difficult back then to call a spade a spade. People had their business interests, cloaked in culture, of course. Jack McClelland told me one time that I ran the worst book-review pages in the country, that I was an insidious presence because I didn`t understand that Canadian books should be treated not critically, but as news. That was the whole problem right there. They didn`t want anybody knocking their products. I said to him, "Any selfrespecting writer who worked for you, and you said that to him, he ought to punch you right in the eye!" A real writer wants to see himself in relation to writers around the world, he doesn`t want to be a kept hothouse little flower, for Christ`s sake! Jack was a great character, a great presence. He would have understood Norrie wanting to wear the clown`s nose. He had flair. Anyway, do you think that Atwood`s dreams back in the `60s and `70s, for all her talk about survival, were bounded by Baffin Bay and Moose Jaw? It was an interesting period, though, because there were really independent writers getting going - Alice Munro was just getting out of the blocks back then. Mavis Gallant was well out of the blocks, but no one among the nationalists was paying much attention to her, and she wrote in the New Yorker, and in Paris. There was an awful lot of energy, and much of it was going into small-press publishing House of Anansi, Tim Inkster`s Porcupine`s Quill, the beginnings of Coach House. Exile was one of those, I guess. BiC: You have spoken of Exile as being "a safe haven for writers. " But don`t you think that the last thing writers need is safety? Callaghan: Ah, of course not. I didn`t mean "safety" in that way. The only editorial I ever wrote was in the first issue. It seemed to me that the imaginative writer was being supplanted by scholars or critics, and a whole body of information, and people were more interested in borrowed information than they were in perceiving things with their own eyes and ears, which is the only way the artist and writer can do it. In Exile the writer could trust his own eyes and ears. There have never been book reviews or essays in Exile. The challenge was for the writer, and particularly for the reader, because no one in the magazine was telling him, "Well, this is great stuff, the right stuff, or the wrong stuff." You opened it up and found a piece of surrealist poetry from a writer you`d never heard of in Quebec, alongside a story by Joyce Carol Oates, beside one of John Montague`s parochial poems. BiC: What are your thoughts about the way literature survives financially in this country? Callaghan: I have very mixed feelings about the Councils and their role, if that`s what you`re getting at. Most of the publishing in this country couldn`t exist without them. But it creates a very strange world, a quite schizophrenic world, because many a writer from outside the country looks at the content of Exile, and the style of Exile, and the style and content of Coach House and all the other presses, and says "Boy, that`s the way it should be, that`s nice, that`s great." And one might look at that and say, well, there must be a wonderful, vital, alive literary culture here in Canada, and in one sense there is - there are some very remarkable writers working here now, particularly if you take the French and the English cultures together, as I do. However, how many people actually read Exile and magazines like it? Exile represents a certain level of literary excellence, if you`ll pardon me for saying so, and from the way it looks, you`d think it must be engaged by thousands. It looks as if it should be, otherwise how can it exist? The fact of the matter is that it is not bought by thousands, it is bought by hundreds. About 1,200. So there`s a sham here. This level of cultural vitality and achievement, which is really extraordinary, is rather like a conjurer levitating. There`s nothing underneath it. You see what you see, but there`s nothing holding it up. Or apparently not. If you publish quite a respectable poet, one of the best poets in the country, and he sells more than 700 copies, this is a real accomplishment; if he sells 1,000 it`s extraordinary, and this hasn`t changed for years. As a writer I know these problems, as an editor I know these problems, and as a publisher I know the problems, and I know what the figures are - for my own books, and for the people I publish. I mean, we are talking about real poets, poets anyone would think of immediately in any anthology of the best Canadian poetry. They have no audience, no buying audience, no audience that rushes out to buy their work. They may have almost no readership! This leads to a strange aloneness among writers in this country, because they know they have no readers, but they are a part of an alive literary milieu. A poet like Joe Rosenblatt, for instance, or a poet like Patrick Lane, who is right at the top of his form now - they`ve won the Governor General`s Award, and they`ve been invited all over the world to represent Canada at various literary functions, but the basic situation is never going to change in Canada. Joe knows it, Pat knows it: if they produce a new book, it will be published, because the support is there, through the Councils, to make sure such books get published. So, the publishing world seems to be very healthy, but the readership is not there. You`re not alive as a poet because people demand that you be alive, you`re alive because people, through our taxation system, pay to have you stacked somewhere on a shelf. I`m not critical of the Councils, not even disappointed. But it`s a very strange situation for a writer, to know that he exists between covers not out of love or popular demand, but by bureaucratic will. Now, nothing stops a writer who intends to write, but all the necessary support is a blessing and a curse. It can breed an enormous mediocrity, and it seeds hothouse groups with particular agendas, but that`s a different problem. It creates levitation, a culture of the place that has no place among the people. But I can`t think of any other way to do it. BiC: You have said, more than once, that you think about bringing your magazine to an end. Why? Callaghan: I have, and do, and here`s why. About five years ago, I was at a meeting of magazine editors and I looked around that table and there was only one editor I hadn`t known for 15 years. Only one young person there who was running a magazine, and the rest of us were good old boys and girls, long since crazy and gone broke - a whole bunch of old crocks. I thought, What the hell`s going on? What are we perpetuating? Will we go on for another decade - and soon we`ll be 70 - publishing literary magazines, for whom? And then again, I just don`t know what`s going on here any more. Don`t get me wrong now, the remarks I`m about to make are not meant in any meanness of spirit at all - I`m glad to see a good writer doing good work and getting published anywhere in the world - but back in the `20s, in the `20s! Morley fought to set down the language of the place. His stories are written in the language of the streets of Toronto, the Blue Mountains of Collingwood. He was clearing the language the way the homesteaders cleared the land. It does not fill me with a sense of exhilaration and alertness about my own place, and the language of my own place, that Rohinton Mistry is here in Canada, writing about India in the language that is appropriate to India. The writing is fine, it`s a fine book, and I`m glad he`s here in exactly the same way I`m glad Joseph Skvorecky is here - they add richness of tone, a complexity, to the scene. I don`t object to Joseph getting the Governor General`s Award - give good writers as many prizes as they can handle - but don`t pretend that Joseph`s language is the language of this place. It seems awfully strange that we should find ourselves, having survived the worst of Canadian cultural nationalism through the `60s and `70s, now beaming under the umbrella of multiculturalism, embracing colonial voices as if they were our own. BiC: But what else could Canadian literature be, given that we are a nation of immigrants, of people who have come here from somewhere else? Callaghan: America is a land of immigrants too, and its literature does not have this sense of being voices from somewhere else. English is a mongrel language, and Canada is a country of great ethnic diversity, but I look around and I do not see the energy of our various ethnic communities emerging in a literature that is the language of this place. The dogs are not fucking down back-alleys. It`s all too fastidious, turning in on itself, finding still life in small towns while the people lunge about in big cities. Who is hiding, or harbouring, the language? What has happened is that writers from ingrown communities have been encouraged to suck on the teat of their own culture of origin, and not encouraged, as they would have been in the United States, to leap in with both feet and pick up the challenge of writing here. Now, I`m not so presumptuous or stupid as to ask that Mistry, or any other writer, be anything other than what he or she is. What puzzles me is that the children of immigrants, and the children of the children of immigrants, still do not seem to be writing about Canadian experience in a Canadian language. God, this is what W. W E. Ross, our first modem poet, pleaded for in the 1920s. So what do we find? As I look in this teeming city for more and more evidence of language and place, I am confronted with an enthusiasm, an official enthusiasm, for writers who have settled here from abroad, and write out of that foreign experience. Please understand me, I am not complaining about the authenticity of their voice, it`s real and good, but it isn`t the language of here. It`s more levitation. None of this is aided by the state of critical writing in Canada. It`s worse than it was in the `60s. I detect no cultural temperament in the book pages. If there is a direction, I can`t find it, not in either the Star or the Globe and Mail. There`s no rhyme or reason - they review trash as if it were important, and ignore important books as if they were trash. The Globe used to have a column, "The Small Presses," which was always a dumb idea. I mean, what`s a small press? Was Lester & Orpen Dennys a small press? When Exile Editions, which has 130 titles in print, publishes a new collection of short stories by Austin Clarke, does he get demoted to a small-press review because his publisher is Exile? Is Austin Clarke, a writer at work capturing the rhythms of Black people in our city streets, this place, not to be taken seriously and given the courtesy of a proper review? The trouble is, as Walt Whitman said, you can`t have a great literature without a great audience. He should have added that you can`t have a great literature without having pretty good critics. And that`s a real problem. There`s no tradition, in this country, of great literary criticism. There has never been a place for an Edmund Wilson. Robert Fulford suggested some years ago that George Woodcock was our Edmund Wilson, which was like the Toronto historian, Ramsay Cook, who compared Trudeau to Albert Camus! I can only think that Cook did not think very highly of Camus, nor Fulford of Wilson. To finish, I`ll read you another story. I used it as the preface to volume two of Fifteen Years in Exile: "One day, my father asked me, `Who killed all the magic, who killed Harry Houdini? `He had to tell me. He said a Canadian killed Harry Houdini, just stepped up out of nowhere in a crowd and punched him in the stomach and killed him. `But why would a Canadian want to kill the magic?` `Well,` he said, `it`s a complicated story, `but he never did tell me the story. He just told me who killed all the magic. Well, not quite all. My father was one of the happy few, an exile among exiles, and he was the keeper of the magic, unafraid of killers anywhere, though death stepped up and punched him in the stomach in 1990."

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us