by George Galt
Two new collections of letters show Canadian literature coming confidently of age
FEELING BLUE about the future of Canadian culture? Afraid some of our writers may be silenced by cuts in government funding to the arts? Don`t bet on it. John Sutherland`s letters from half a century ago demonstrate that literature can and will be produced in the face of mass indifference and apparently insurmountable material odds. It may be cold comfort to realize that despite our current economic difficulties writers and other artists are still far better off now in Canada than they were in the post-war decade. No consolation, but true. Sutherland`s brief career was an inspiring example of artistic courage in a philistine environment, and also a dark reminder of how much that courage can cost.
Sutherland edited two lively little magazines in Montreal in the 1940s and 1950s: First Statement and Northern Review. Here was a guy who had the kind of funding problem that few cultural entrepreneurs face today. He didn`t lie awake nights wondering how to fill out his next grant application or worrying that the arts councils might cut him off. There were no public grants to be had, none at all, no Canada Council, no federal Department of Communications publishing program, no provincial subsidies, and precious few angels either - Vincent Massey and H. S. Southam. each gave Northern Review a one-time $250 donation in 1950, but there were no large gifts that could provide the magazine with any sense of security. As for Sutherland`s contributors, they probably would have made more money holding out a tin cup on Ste. Catherine Street. He was able to pay - when he could pay at
all - half a cent a word.
In his time a prescient cultural pioneer, Sutherland made a mark both as a freelance literary critic (he had no university affiliation) and as a tireless magazine editor and publisher of modernist literature. His First Statement Press was English Canada`s first important small literary press, publishing books by Irving Layton, Raymond Souster, and Anne Wilkinson, among others.
A well-developed sense of language, a fierce intellectual honesty, and a pride in things Canadian were Sutherland`s prevailing qualities as an editor. These strengths are exhibited in some of his correspondence, but judged as a collection his letters are less a literary work than a fascinating chronicle of the economics of making literature 40 and 50 years ago in Canada. When he wasn`t writing letters begging for money, Sutherland was either corresponding with good writers he hoped would be his contributors, or performing the mechanical donkey work of typesetting and printing, or trying to find time to write something himself. He lived frugally and died young, unrewarded and largely unrecognized. "I am sure there are more Canadians who have made speeches about the need for supporting Canadian literature than there will ever be subscribers to Northern Review," he wrote to a colleague in 195 1. How sad! Finely edited and handsomely produced, The Letters of John Sutherland is a worthy tribute to a neglected hero.
By the time Margaret Laurence and Al Purdy began exchanging letters in 1966, the relatively stark cultural land, scape of Sutherland`s pioneer period had been settled by a number of talented poets and fiction writers, and was being fertilized by the Canada Council. Along with the material boost of public funding came enhanced national pride and
confidence. A Friendship in Letters reminds us that EnglishCanadian culture was on an unprecedented roll for about 20 years, beginning with the birth of the Canada Council in 1957 and tapering off in the late`70s as Rene Levesque`s sovereignty-association referendum approached. From where we sit now, this period increasingly looks like a golden age of excitement and possibility, with Laurence, Purdy, and half a dozen other excellent writers starring.
That period saw a happy confluence of talent, bubbling social energy, and money. But let`s not undervalue the talent. To make themselves into powerful writers Purdy and Laurence had both struggled in creative isolation for years. Their letters show a feisty determination to survive as artists no matter what the circumstances.
Purdy and Laurence had their differences, small and large. He liked Greek brandy, she drank Greek wine. He believed still believes, I`ve no doubt - writers had to seek out experience, she that they were offered their books as a kind of gift from the cradle. But they shared a great mutual affection and were in many ways kindred spirits. The bursts of confession and eager enquiry in the early letters read as if these two writers had long been looking for one another. Each already admired the other`s work, and each listened carefully to the other`s anxiety, puzzlement, and exhilaration about the writing process. They shared a commitment to literary excellence, a pride in their similar backgrounds, and a generational bond. Both came from small Canadian towns, and both had been marked by the Depression and the Second World War.
The correspondence began when Laurence returned from England to Canada in 1966 to promote A Jest for God, and ended in 1986 shortly before her death. Her anxious efforts to invent first The Fire-Dwellers and then The Diviners are documented in the sort of lively detail that a good novelist knows how to supply. It was always difficult for her, as a single mother, to make time for her work. "My kids hate it when I`m writing," she confessed in June of 1967, "as I`m often rather absent in every way that matters, and then the little brutes tell me I`m neglecting them, thus loading me with guilt...." And there were the difficulties with the writing itself. "I`ve written pages and pages of sheer nonsense. I feel like hell about it, in one way, and yet in another way I know the thing is there, if only I can manage to stumble onto the way to do it .... My mind creaks like rusty machinery at the beginning."
A few days later, she wrote to Purdy: "I have just burned all the hundreds of pages which I wrote on this novel 3 years ago and which I had been trying recently to sort through...." And he replied, "The way you seem to be feelin a long quiet drunk with a friend, someone you can talk to, would be a good idea....However it must be fun burnin all that money you coulda. had for the typescript. Anyway, I recommend a drank, tho I ain`t qualified to prescribe - that or twentyfour hours fucking
Though for years they were writing across the Atlantic, and hardly knew each other apart from their letters, from the outset they spoke as friends would across a table littered with the empty plates and glasses of a good meal. There`s a remarkable ease and intimacy to these letters, many of which run to several pages, and they now provide us with a fascinating double diary of two of Canada`s best writers. Peppered with tart observations about other Canadian writers - some of whom won`t like what they read about themselves - the book also has some very fine autobiographical prose. Here`s a marvelous paragraph from a Purdy letter, sent from Ottawa later in 1967:
Have also three bushels of wild grapes to clean, a legacy
from Roblin Lake, which are bubbling in the tiny kitchen
like a spillage of whispers. Squirrels walking upside down on screens of windows; yellow, red and green leaves outside deciding what to do when the wind comes. Days getting so short they seem no more than the click of a camera; a tall crane fumbles heavy weights out the side window like a gigantic mantis. Crazy ordinary.
And here`s Laurence, a month later, not lyrical but alert as always to the ironies of the writing life:
Of course, in all honesty, I am scared, too, at this point, of writing a really dreadful novel. Which is daft, but there it is. I hope I would know it was dreadful, before letting a publisher see it. You know, some very young writers whom I seem to keep meeting ... are always saying to me how great it must be to have published a certain number of books, and to have been given this and that and how reassuring it must be - little do they know that it is the exact opposite. I had far less fear about my first novel than I do with this one - I didn`t know how difficult it is, and how many things can go wrong.
Fear was a huge burden for Laurence. She wrote at great psychic cost, and it must have been one of the reasons she fell silent as a fiction writer in her last decade. Her drinking problem, her writing anxieties, but also her sharp intelligence, and her uncompromising commitment to her own artistic values are all revealed in concrete ways throughout this book. Laurence becomes, through these letters, one of her own most complex and most likeable - literary characters, far more compelling than the autobiographical persona created in her memoir Dance on the Earth. Purdy remains his boisterous, generous, bawdy self, a writer who has always gone his own way and pushed himself to experience more and write better. An excellent feature of this nicely edited collection is the decision to include in the text all the poems Purdy sent to Laurence as he wrote them over the years. The effect is something like watching a painter at work - you`re right there with Purdy as he finishes his poem, often still revising as he types it for the letter. The poems from the most intensive period of correspondence with Laurence, 1966 to 1977, include some of his most eloquent - some of the most memorable poems ever written in Canada, for that matter. They make this lively book even richer, as do Laurence`s clear-eyed critical commentaries on much that Purdy showed her. "Say what you have to say and then shut up, or so it seems to me," Laurence wrote presciently - almost clairvoyantly - to Purdy in 1967. That`s what she did, much to the regret of her admirers. How lucky for us that she and Purdy were writing this other book all the time they were friends. In its own eccentric, unplanned, human way, it`s among their best.