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An Aesthetic Underground:
A Literary Memoir


by John Metcalf
292 pages,
ISBN: 088762121X


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Still Kicking Against the Pricks
by Keith Garebian

If hanging, drawing, and quartering were a punishment available to the most fervent Canadian nationalists, John Metcalf would probably be first on the executioner's list. Whether it is the assorted buffooneries of the school system and departments of education or the Canada Council and the major publishing houses, whether it is yesteryear's overrated literary lions or today's pop stars of CanLit, whether it is slavering celebrity journalists or pompous academic hacks, Metcalf makes all flinch. I have known rational men of respectable education to turn apoplectic with rage at the mere mention of his name, and I suspect that many of his critics equate the deadly strength of his venom with the nefarious effects of SARS or mad-cow disease. Metcalf is simply a plague on all their houses.
His critics misunderstand his intentions. As a result, their reactions tend to become ad hominem attacks on his Englishness, elitism or snobbery, "anti-Canadianism" (that old canard!), and supposed envy at the popular success of other writers. What they miss in their choler is his express commitment to a rigorous attack on apathy, blandness, intellectual dishonesty, and lack of craft.
Metcalf is certainly English: he was born in Croydon in 1938 and English history lay around him in "long barrows, dolmens, hill forts, standing stones," et cetera. His reading, too, was typically English. As he recalls in his memoir, he was always surrounded by books. His father, a Methodist minister, kept a library of theology, "standard poets," Conrad, and Hardy, and his mother indulged herself in "bodice rippers" and detective stories. Metcalf 's narrative begins with a vignette about the lure of books when, at fourteen, he first touched an auctioneer's boxes of books. He resolves this vignette into four motifs that he takes to be the common denominators of his literary life: books themselves, the collecting of things, "a certain independence of mind and judgement," and "the almost magical inability to acquire money." Although he did not learn to read time till he was eleven, he read books quickly and relished the "Sutton Hoo of books" that came his way at school and university. His sixth-form class, for instance, read so widely and deeply that it came to regard William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity as "light entertainment." His education certainly has no equivalent in Canada where a disturbingly high proportion of undergraduates think that a copulative verb is a sly reference to sex. At Bristol University, his reading had a breathless range. No wonder that in matters of literature, he has the inviolable self-assurance and deflationary wit of a snob. Readers who relish sharp edges and points will love his flashing sabre and glinting stiletto: Dennis Bock's The Ash Garden is "ill-written"; Ondaatje's The English Patient is "ill-written and tedious"; university professors suffer from "constipated jargon"; Morley Callaghan is "flatly ludicrous"; Douglas Gibson is found guilty of "smarmy Babbittry"; Evan Solomon of Hot Type is likened to a slobberingly enthusiastic Labrador. At Metcalf's every second word, a reputation dies.
Metcalf's memoir is possibly at its best in the early sections which contain "unofficial" memories of an elder brother who became an internationally famous numismatist, his father (a distant man), a mother whom he tortured with quixotic changes of ambition (an early wish of his was to be a boxer), and memorable teachers, such as the eccentric Charles Tomlinson, a "myopic and morose" poet whose office was like a dark, gloomy tent, and in which he kept his motorcycle because "he claimed his landlady's dog had once bitten it." As entertaining as all these sections were, I was most affected by Metcalf's off-moments¨those casual spots of time when one's guard or mask is down, where the deepest sources of one's humanity are revealed in brief glimpses. Never before has John Metcalf shown his private self with such acute candour as when he writes with a mixture of bitterness and regret of his first wife or humorously and tenderly of his second wife of many years, Myrna Teitelbaum, or of their pain at the extremely troubled life of an adopted daughter, or of his compassion for friends gone or nearly gone. It will be a long time before I forget the scene where Metcalf is at the bedside of a grievously stricken John Newlove, holding his hand and stroking his hair while the poet lies mutely strapped into a wheelchair, all of his right side paralyzed.
An Aesthetic Underground has further value in the thumbnail sketches of Canadian writers, publishers, artists, and book dealers. Posterity may be grateful to Metcalf for what he reveals of friends such as Hugh Hood, Alden Nowlan, or Sam Tata, even if it decides that his vitriol against his enemies was sometimes in excess of their provocation. The memoir also shows strength in sections where Metcalf demonstrates his acumen as a literary critic. There is, for example, a splendid analysis of a paragraph by Keath Fraser, and later a solid debunking of Rohinton Mistry's "formulaic writing." At his best, Metcalf's writing gleams with subtlety, precise diction, and disciplined embellishment, and it resonates with a sense of exquisite timing, facilitated by line-breaks and deadpan irony:
Somewhere in the sun, D.H. Lawrence was at it.
Hemingway was giving them both barrels.
Ezra was suffering for the faith in an American bin.
All painters were everywhere possessing their exotic Javanese models.
I, meanwhile, was in Croydon.

The pay-off line should comfort those who feel that Metcalf reserves all his contempt for Canada. Metcalf is a satirist, and satire shows no loyalty to any nationality. Of course, he is combatively unfair at times. Of course, he has blind spots. But even at his most acidulous, Metcalf is worth being read repeatedly. Trouble is that in his memoir he quotes himself too much and too frequently: a long section from a novel or short story, a passage or two or three from one of his strong polemical essays. Not only this: he quotes his fellow writers, fans, and disciples¨sometimes with blissful disregard for the mediocrity of the quotations. Indeed, he tends to overpraise or exaggerate the virtues of those who belong in his aesthetic camp, and he boasts that Porcupine's Quill, for whom he serves as reader and editor, is "the best literary press in Canada. Perhaps in North America." Which may be true, but the boastful tone has elements of hype.
Taken in their original contexts, his views, though eccentric or magisterially narrow in some instances, are presented with a detailed relish, masculine vitality, and cool elegance. But extracted from their original sources (remarkable polemical books such as Kicking Against The Pricks, What Is A Canadian Literature?, Volleys, Freedom From Culture) and forced into the service of this memoir, they become unnecessary self-advertisements. Metcalf should have remembered what Gore Vidal once wrote of Norman Mailer: "What an attractive form the self-advertisement is. One could go on forever relighting one's lamp."
Metcalf has, it is true, laboured a long time in a difficult vineyard. Despite playing an important role in the creation of an infrastructure for Canadian literature and criticism by his superlative work as promoter of the delights of Norman Levine, Clark Blaise, Leon Rooke (with whom he has had his radical differences), and Alice Munro, and as editor of anthologies, textbooks, and manuscripts of new writers (Keath Fraser, Terry Griggs, Annabel Lyon, et cetera), Metcalf has never really been given his due. He realizes that "the shape and significance of a literature take a very long time to reveal themselves." But the real question is whether the Canadian literary establishment will ever stop forgiving him for his mockery of it. He has never earned lavish royalties for his own writing; most of his earnings have come from editing the work of others. Mavis Gallant predicted that no one would thank him for his anthologies, and Metcalf complains that between 1980 and 1994 his writing was excluded "from every trade anthology of national scope." However, he misses a crucial point: to be embittered by the denial of popular success or official status is to grant a victory to the society and forces one has criticized or tried to affect. As Gore Vidal once asserted: "It is clearly unreasonable to expect to be cherished by those one assaults. It is also childish, in the deepest sense of being a child, ever to expect justice. There is none beneath the moon." ˛
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