by Doug Beardsl
Your father is a genius and such men should never have children.
(Alla, Irving Layton’s longtime housekeeper)
While much of the hype surrounding David Layton’s unseemly bitter memoir, Motion Sickness, has predictably concerned Layton the Younger’s relations with his illustrious father, it is his mother who suffers most from this invidious family portrait.
Aviva Layton’s life seems to have been based on pretense, her neglect of her son a result of her ongoing fantasies of escape that left him in the uncaring hands of friends. “Never far from a wine bowl,” she comes off as a lost, obsessed soul “oblivious to the mistakes she’d made.” Lost in her dreams, and in constant “need of praise[,]... her painful needs” balanced only by her “desperate demands”, David Layton saw his mother as both “f— delirious” and “wonderfully ridiculous”. The latter is the nearest he gets to paying her homage, with the exception of complimenting her on the clarity of her eyes. Her eyes did shine like stars, but it wasn’t only her orbs that brought men to their knees.
I knew Aviva only from the occasional evening visit I paid to the Layton apartment in the Montreal of the late 1960s, but I can attest to what son David euphemistically refers to as her “power”. Simply put, Aviva was one of the most erotic beings ever created. Her manner of flirting with her husband set the standard for an adolescent Protestant man from a repressed household. She embodied the reality of one’s most feverish fantasies. The less said about Leon Whiteson, Aviva’s lover and future husband, the better. In Motion Sickness, he comes off as merely pitiful, a man who sees Irving as one “who takes other people’s pain and turns it into clumsy poems.”
Naturally, it is Layton the Elder who commands centre stage, and it is here that the memoir is somewhat more balanced, though there are grave errors of omission.
David Layton seems to have great difficulty distinguishing between the public persona his father projected and the private man. “He was never miserable,” he writes. “He would certainly not be sobbing in any hotel room.” But those who knew Irving Layton well over the years caught glimpses of a quite different man.
The son employs a sarcastic tone when describing the poet’s “absent-mindedness, his profound lack of interest in domestic affairs”, and chides his father for marching “to his own drummer” by “manufacturing his own optimism”. David Layton ridicules his father for his “childlike delight”, his ability to see everything as “magic”—in short, for being a man “determined to enjoy himself.” But these are precisely the qualities that create the spirit of imaginative innocence necessary for poetry.
Layton the Younger would have benefitted from even a cursory glance at his father’s poems; by his own admission, he seems not to have read them. Two of his father’s best are about David’s mother: the celebratory “The Day Aviva Came to Paris” and the later “Letter to a Lost Love”, a deeply moving elegy on the breakup of his parents’ marriage. If Layton the Younger had read nothing of his father’s work but these two great poems, the tone and tenor of Motion Sickness would have been different.
In fact, it’s amazing that David Layton appears to have done so little reading on the prolonged and not always conscious struggle between vulnerable, resistant sons and their invulnerable and famous fathers. A look at Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, a classic study in the form of autobiographical fiction of father-son conflict over three generations, comes immediately to mind. And Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, which focuses on the inevitable tensions between generations as they manifest themselves in family relationships, might have provided the necessary context for these self-serving anecdotes. Even Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons or Stendhal’s The Red and the Black or, closer to home, Wayne Johnston’s recent Baltimore’s Mansion might have offered the author a modicum of understanding and a deeper perspective that are so lacking here. Irving Layton wrote and read for several hours a day. It’s sad that at least some of the father’s habits didn’t rub off on the son.
David comes across as an obnoxious little twerp, constantly swearing at his mother. He seems to pride himself on the disruptive role he played in his parents’ lives, blaming it all on them.
It’s clear he doesn’t breathe the larger air of the spirit embraced by his Goliath-like father. There are no acute perceptions here, no virtuosity of expression. Set against his father, David seems less than slight, without the joie de vivre of either parent. He appears blurred, even in his own terms.
David simply doesn’t measure up to his parents’ bolder personalities. Rather, he comes across as a Jewish bourgeois, a nice and proper gentleman, moderate, fearful, bloodless, offended by his father’s Greek improprieties. In fact, I can’t help feeling there is something terribly puritanical, indeed prissy, about David Layton’s attitude towards his father’s moral irregularities.
Regrettably, the author of Motion Sickness shows no motivation or psychological growth, no understanding of his own inner development. Psychologically, the son has to ask: “What aspect of life did my father not live?” It is the son’s responsibility to alter the parental pattern in the next generation and—in this case—to bring stability to his own life, the very quality absent in his own upbringing. That’s what the author has to do, rather than berating the life of his parents, as he does in this whiny memoir.
To his credit, David Layton captures the temper of the times and does occasionally see his father in more memorable terms: “These were his convictions: that he would shape the world with this own words and make of it whatever he wished it to be”—precisely what the poet does in his poems. Elsewhere, he speaks of his father’s “frayed dignity” and, on a boat trip with Irving, comments, “I felt as if I were transporting Churchill across the Canadian Shield”. In fairness to the main subject, one of the greatest poets this country has produced, one could have done with more of this throughout the book.
Motion Sickness is hardly a courageous work. In the end, one can’t help but agree with the verdict David’s Math and English teacher—a man identified only as Mr. Mitchell—pronounced on him many years ago: “Kid, you’re a damn baby boy.”
Doug Beardsley is a poet who currently resides in Victoria, where he is a professor of English at the university.