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That Thing Whose Name We Dare Not Speak - Gerald Owen converses Douglas Fetherling
by Gerald Owen

I asked Douglas Fetherling why he thought-or thinks-Lee Harvey Oswald was-or is-the Messiah.
This idea comes up in the afterword to his Selected Poems (Arsenal Pulp), in his novel The File on Arthur Moss (Lester), and now in his second volume of memoirs. I acknowledged that he has partly explained it: Jesus and Oswald were both from the outskirts of an empire-Galilee, Texas-and got in trouble by getting too near the imperial authorities. This shows some likeness of misfortune; it hardly shows a likeness of mission.
"On that subject," he said, "I must remain coy. Suffice it to say that I am probably the only North American my age who doesn't recall where he was or exactly what he was doing at the time Kennedy was shot. All I remember is that I was nowhere near the scene, and this is my story and I'm sticking to it."
In the same postface to his Selected Poems, Fetherling says he is a political and religious poet. I did not succeed in getting any simple statements of his religious or political convictions. Great issues-such as the debate between Taoism and Confucianism, and whether taxis should be included in the ban of private automobiles from Toronto-remain unresolved. I did rather better at drawing out his convictions on the kind of prose-writer he is.
Whoever the Messiah may be, the Beast of the new title is journalism. Much of Travels by Night, Fetherling's memoir of the sixties, is about Bohemia (but not the one that was the kingdom of Wenceslas). Here, the scene, or the cast of characters, has mostly shifted to some sort of Torontonian Fleet Street or Grub Street, to the uncomfortable borderlands-no-man's-land?-between journalism and literature.
In the new book, he says, "I wanted to live a life as a writer that would itself be a critique of journalism, exposing its hopeless limitations as well as positing a few ways around them. Something more like the old 19th century man-of-letters.."
A few ways around-such as what? Fetherling's answer was not quite encouraging to journalists. It was that he managed to move on and away in the eighties and nineties, to write a dozen books in half a dozen years. When still inside the Beast, he exhorted Robert Fulford to do more of this:
" `Publishing books is why God put us here,' I remember pleading with him finally.
" `A peculiar theology,' he replied, `but one distinctively your own.' "
To my mind, a human-being-of-letters is some kind of journalist, a scholar or intellectual who makes a living not in a university or school, but by writing, in periodicals or books or both. Well, as Fetherling's memoirs show and say, he is ill at ease in institutions-not just in universities and corporations, but even in libraries. (This point is the occasion in Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast for a survey of second-book stores, because, to get the books he needs for research for his writing, he hunts them down and buys them.)
But his own account of "that thing we're trying to talk about whose name we dare not speak" is not an economic one. "I'm dancing around the phrase `man of letters', because it is gender-specific, but even more so because it's pompous. People think it's a rank. It's not a Masonic triangle that one studies for, or suddenly ascends to in old age.
"It's a type of writer. George Woodcock defined the term as a writer who fancies that he or she has a basic mastery of a whole lot of different genres, and is able to write the urgent piece of the moment in any of them.
"I've only added to that the shading that it's essential to the man of letters to make the increasingly precarious assumption that there is an educated laity for whom to write-a core audience of people who have some variety of humanist education, who are interested in things in general.
"It's part of the job description to leap from genre to genre, to build up a shelf of books, of seemingly unrelated type, which seem like a kaleidoscope, but that actually betray the presence of one or two consistent ideas-a handful of related ideas-that they address again and again. They use all of these opportunities to do so from different angles, to turn around like a prism and catch a different light.
"It's not part of that job description to write for different brows, to write down to some and up to others.
"This kind of writer has never been very common, but to me as a reader, it's always been a distinct phylum."
As examples, Fetherling named Paul Goodman, Chesterton, Jack Lindsay, Dixon Scott, Robert Payne ("at a more commercial level"), and Woodcock-on whose biography he is at work. He would be "ashamed" to raise himself into such company, "but if you had to check off a box on a form, Fetherling's not a novelist, he's not a playwright, or a comedy writer, he's `that thing', and although it may from time to time include `some of the above', that's not the same as `all of the above'."
What box should one tick for Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast, and for Travels by Night? We talked about whether they are memoirs of times, places, persons, conveniently linked by the man Fetherling, or are his autobiography. They seem to me to be both. Most of the people in the second volume-such as Fulford, Kildare Dobbs, Sandy Ross-illustrate the matter of journalism; some of these also illustrate the man-of-letters thing. Or do those themes illustrate them? In any case, these personae are a change from the small-press and bohemian worlds of the first volume (though the artist Vera Frenkel, for one, would have been at home there too).
"A handful of, it seems to me, disparate people that I knew in the seventies appeared to rise to the surface and take the narrative and run away with it. It was though I had no control over who the cast of characters was going to be. They had a tussle on my screen as to who was going to dominate."
There will be another volume, on the eighties-as a title I suggested Way Up High in the Beak of the Pterodactyl. Then,* Fetherling says, "I've signed a legal undertaking with myself to shut up." It is really "one fat book" written "almost as a serial." The two so far are perhaps most remarkable for their tone and style, which makes me wonder about another question of genre: their mix of tragedy and comedy. They disclose deep-sunken pits of distress, but the diction is demure and tranquil; this is a classical quality, that is to say, one that is found in ancient Greek.
Fetherling is often gracefully funny in these books. Even apart from amusing anecdotes, there are witty turns of phrase. It is characteristic that he calls someone a "sexual philanthropist", and that he describes someone else's office as full of "sedentary invoices". This is of course more gracious than speaking of a "slut" or a "deadbeat" would be, but is not mere euphemism; it is not dulling, flattening self-censorship, nor is it insult with the added twist of antiphrasis.
The mixture of calm, distress, and wit also appears in his poetry. For example:

Self-destructive behaviour
if you want it done right
do it yourself

Things we didn't know
had skins have them
after all.
Everything leaves traces
of its essence on
whatever it touches.
This is the secret
of human relations
and of scientific police work.

I threatened him with the Stephen Leacock award for humour. He denied setting out to be funny. Rather, he hopes these books are "conversational.the kind of conversation I would be capable of if I spoke fluently, without the stuttering. It's a great relief from reality.. I am writing them, I'm not drawing them, if you take my meaning. It's my cursive hand, it's not printing. It's not that calculated."
Travels by Night was strongly marked by the unhappiness of Fetherling's early family life. From the new book, or from our interview, I wondered if the stuttering was a still greater cause of suffering. However that may be, he said that his prose style gives him some distance on distress, as well as clarity: "It's light, not heat."
The first volume ended with his setting out for England at the end of the sixties, and saying, more or less, that he was on a quest that had to do with his father-then already some years dead-whom he had felt to be somehow English. The first chapter of Way Down Deep in the Belly of the Beast-well, it's actually presented as a prologue-is about his time in London; Fleet Street appears, but George Fetherling is not mentioned.
I asked him about this, and exposed myself to charges of pop Freudianism, when I advanced the hypothesis that his remarkably pure and deep anti-Americanism is connected to his troubles with his mother, as some sort of corollary to his explicit association of his beloved father with England.
He told me that his sense of his father's Englishness was more than just a sense, that he will "tie that up a lot more in Volume Three." The Fetherlings were Dutch Jews who came to England before America, who had "many ups and downs and splinterings." Expanding, in effect, on the first sentence of Travels by Night-"A love of secrecy was the most obvious trait my parents had in common"-he said the Fetherlings as a whole were a secretive family: "I've only just found out in the past forty-eight hours that my father had a brother."

As for Douglas Fetherling's column, he is on holiday-or rather was so at the relevant time.


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