My father has a framed blow-up photograph prominently displayed on his office wall. The image was taken in the mid-1950s. A group of men and women are propped on ski poles huddled together high atop a Swiss peak. The long-legged woman in front is wearing the latest spandex ski-fashion, her lips are pasted bright white, a tall fur hat is perched bird-like on her head. Their tanned faces glow like a clutch of brown eggs in a craggy nest of rock and snow, cheeks radiating slope-reflected sunlight and the optimism of youth. My father is in the middle of the pack. He wears a green military hat borrowed from a member of the Swiss border-guard who joined the gang freshly off duty from patrolling the alpine frontier. His face is clownish with glee. I ask him about this image, what was it like? He answers that he doesn't remember. But his silent grin fills in the details. It says, unequivocally, that was the time of my life.
My father's cherished photo came to mind while reading William Weintraub's account of freeloading his way across the ski resorts of Europe in his memoir of the 1950s Getting Started. Unlike my father's rite of passage, Weintraub's European excursion arrived unplanned, as a result of an unfortunately-timed booze-induced remark about his boss looking porcine. It turned out to be a welcome departure for the author.
This follow-up to Weintraub's bestselling City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and 50s, is a coming of age memoir, for the author and his cohorts, and for the country as a whole. It's the story of a group of writers bound together by friendship, financial precariousness and the passionate desire to pursue a life of writing. In addition to Weintraub's personal reminiscences, the reader is treated to extensive samples of the rich correspondence he enjoyed with Brian Moore, Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler.
The letters are invaluable for the voice they give these writers in their creative infancy, before they would emerge as giants of Canadian literature.
Weintraub's biggest challenge is to avoid letting the thoughts and sentiments expressed by his more famous pen-pals overwhelm the author's own personal narrative. He succeeds by skillfully balancing the letters with a rich array of background details and witty anecdotes. Also, Weintraub's own letters are every bit as funny, articulate and thoughtful as the ones he receives.
Before there were university writing programs or Canada Council grants, budding authors honed their craft and made an honest buck slogging long hours on the graveyard shifts of newspapers like the Montreal Gazette or penning features for magazines like the now-defunct Weekend. Weintraub, along with his Gazette co-worker Moore and close friend Gallant, envisioned the day they could follow in the footsteps of literary heroes like Ernest Hemmingway, travelling the continent reporting on Europe's post-war recovery and attempting to establish themselves as great writers of fiction.
Getting Started reminds us why the 1950s produced so many talented and influential artists in Canada. They were encouraged by the rapid development of mass-market cultural industries spurred by the post-war economic boom, the proliferation of new technologies like television and the advent of such national cultural initiatives as public broadcasting.
Some young writers, like Moore, wrote pocketbook thrillers under pseudonyms to support their higher literary aspirations. Moore proves to be a playful correspondent who interestingly, as with his thrillers, wrote to Weintraub in various styles signing his letters with different monikers. Others, like Weintraub, became attracted to the creative opportunities afforded by new media. He took a two week course in tv script writing and was working for the CBC only three months after its inauguration in Montreal.
Although it's true that opportunities were increasing, the drive and ambition of the young writers should not be underestimated. For example, here's a 22-year-old "Mort" Richler from London expressing his desire to receive publicity photos for the promotion of his first novel: "Will you ask [photographer] Dave Bier to crop that pic of me smoking and send 4 airmail. This is imp! And look, I want two more prints of Šyoung author with hand cupped on his chin, having a think.'" I never imagined the always-dishevelled Richler could be so preoccupied with his image. Throughout the book we learn other surprising little factoids; for instance, Richler didn't care much for Gallant's first New Yorker story.
Every fledgling writer who has doubted their chances of success will be heartened to read this admission by Gallant writing to Weintraub about her disappointment at having a story rejected by the New Yorker. "The news from the Nyorker (sic) was heartbreaking. I had a letter saying they couldn't take one story because the theme was like others they had runÓ They went on to say they liked the other one fineÓ then had another letter saying it was like part of a novel and wouldn't work as a storyÓ It's had a bad effect on me. Everything I'm now doing looks horribleÓ"
The friends write to each other about social activities, booze and writing, but mostly about lack of money. Richler pleads from Paris "i'm pretty damn broke, bill; can you lend me 50 bucks? If not now, soon?"
Like all authors, they also suffered from creative drought and self-doubt. Working on his second novel Richler writes: "The book has slowed down on meÓ each day you sit vacant writing nothing but still a prisoner to the typewriter¨each day like that is a special kind of hell. Questions come to you making small wounds. Why are you making this book? Does it matter? Do you believe in it? Ó I thk (sic) art or attempts at art are born of despair. That, more than vanity or intimations of mortalityÓ All writing is different levels of failureÓ there is no fame big enough or money bribery enough to compensate for the pain that goes into the making of a novel."
After working as an editor, freelancer, and dabbling in short fiction, a love of film took Weintraub in a different direction. He soon began working at the National Film Board, a relationship which would deepen and last for several decades.
Weintraub has an eye for the absurd. His account of the First Meeting of Experts to Promote International Cooperation Between Film and Television held under the auspices of UNESCO in Tangier, Morocco is biting satire. When the conference delegates were not attending high-minded sessions, they were enjoying the city's nightlife, at places like "Óthe luxurious Chat Noir, where, for 400 pesetas, three naked young women would give us a private performance of tableaux vivants de l'amour Trotique."
The correspondence is filled with genuine warmth, affection, mutual support, as well as some envy, and a healthy dose of rivalry. Moore's renown begins to grow from the success of his first novel Judith Hearne. He settles into domestic life in Montreal and even turns down, on principle, an offer of $30,000 to write a biography of industrialist Sir James Dunn. Weintraub, then living in London, teases Moore by providing his itinerary for a "Grand Tour" of Europe. Moore writes, "Please do not, repeat NOT, continue this insidious listing of pleasure tripsÓ" Meanwhile, Weintraub wonders "Ówith a mixture of admiration and irritationÓ" whether he would have turned down the Dunn job.
Weintraub's letter chastising Richler for all the errors he found in the manuscript of Son of a Smaller Hero reminds us that even for the most independent and gifted artists collaboration is a necessary component of any creative endeavour. Later, Richler writes "Ó I'll be sending you airmail a copy of the DUDDY ms. I'm anxious, of course for you and Brian to read it and tell me what you think. But I want you to go through it with an eye to factual errors (not a strong point with me)."
The lasting impression left by this book is that of a well-told story about a company of young adventurers caring deeply for one another and throwing all caution to the wind for the sake of their creative ideals. It leaves a refreshing aftertaste in an era of alienated, jaded, cynical, market-savvy young artists. We can be grateful for this book. As grateful as the friends are for one another. As grateful as a country is for their accomplishments. ˛