The Complete Stories Vol.3|
by Morley Callaghan
The Complete Stories Vol.4
by Morley Callaghan
The Complete Stories Vol.1
by Morley Callaghan
The Complete Stories Vol.2
by Morley Callaghan
Post Your Opinion
|Morley Callaghan and the Test of Time
by W. J. Keith
Until now, most of us wanting to explore Morley Callaghan's short fiction have relied upon Morley Callaghan's Stories, a collection of 57 short stories which first appeared in 1959. Subsequently, Callaghan and his son Barry unearthed a cache of forgotten stories that were duly published in 1985; 26 stories were thus added to the total, but they have generally been regarded as a modest addendum to the main collection. Now, however, we have what is offered as The Complete Stories, attractively produced in four volumes, each introduced by a contemporary Canadian writer, and each containing "Editor's Endnotes". Six more stories are printed (seven, if one counts a short sketch printed in the endnotes to volume 4 but not listed in the contents), plus two novellas and "The Man With a Coat", a story later expanded into "The Many Colored Coat" but itself longer than some novels. The project is nothing if not ambitious, and gives the appearance of providing the definitive edition.
But a number of questions immediately arise. First and foremost, how good are these stories? And, a related but additional query, what do they have to offer readers in the early twenty-first century? These issues will form the main focus of this review. Yet a further question (that may sound brutal or even snide, but is not intended as such) also needs to be addressed: who needs them? More of that later.
When the 1959 collection appeared, the main contemporary figures in Canadian fiction were, indisputably, Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan. And since MacLennan displayed no interest in the short story, Callaghan had no immediate rivals in the genre. At the same time, he posed something of a problem. While MacLennan was obviously in mid-career (having just published what many, including myself, consider his finest novel, The Watch That Ends the Night), Callaghan, highly active in the early twenties and throughout the thirties, had thereafter produced little of note, with the exception of The Loved and the Lost (1951). Only four of the 57 stories in the 1959 book were less than twenty years old (though these were not identified as such). He was, at this time, concentrating on journalism and broadcasting. It seemed as if his artistic career might be coming-or had come-to a halt.
In November of 1960, however, Canadian readers of The New Yorker were surprised to find no less a critic than Edmund Wilson hailing Callaghan as a figure worthy of major international attention, a judgment repeated in his controversial O Canada in 1964. Ironically, it was just at that time that, unrecognized by most of us, talented younger writers of short fiction were beginning to flex their muscles. Mavis Gallant had published her first collection (though her expatriate residence in Paris meant that she made little personal impact), Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro had begun publishing their early stories, and Hugh Hood took the form to new heights (so far as Canada was concerned) with the publication of Flying a Red Kite in 1962.
Callaghan regained his creative energies in the 1960s, though he subsequently focused his attention on novels and novellas. But a new Canada was emerging, with new ideas and ideals, and since then his writing has produced wildly divergent reactions on the part of critics and readers alike. The disagreements have been extreme. For most of us he was a primarily realist writer concentrating on ordinary settings and ordinary people facing everyday problems; yet some have questioned this, confidently classifying his writings as "moralist rTcits". Many, influenced perhaps by reports of their famous boxing match in Paris, have stressed his links with Ernest Hemingway, while others have denied any close resemblance. As Fraser Sutherland noted, "his prose style has been praised as clear-cut and direct, condemned as prolix and clumsy." Wilson considered that his work could "be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov's and Turgenev's," while John Metcalf described his short stories as "badly written and mawkish" in 1982 and his prose as "pedestrian" and "boring" in 1993. How do we account for these totally opposed evaluations?
Reading (more often, re-reading) these stories half a century after they were written, I find it desirable, as a matter of procedure, to separate what Callaghan has to say from how he says it. I realize that this is a dubious action, going as it does firmly against the current of literary-critical wisdom, but it is necessary, I think, in order to explain the contrasting responses to Callaghan's work.
First-and this is something that needs to be emphasised-Callaghan at his best knew how to create interest in his characters and their stories. We may not like them very much, we may grow impatient at the dull conventionality of their lives and actions or the undemanding style in which Callaghan presents them, but we want to know what happens to them, and so are impelled to read on. When we do so, we may well find an ending "typical Callaghan," yet we have probably failed to anticipate its particular brand of typicality in the process of reading. As a maker of stories, then, he must be regarded as a skilled practitioner.
When we come to consider his style, however, we may begin to have reservations. The best that can be said about it, I would argue, is that its virtues are all negative: it isn't pretentious, it isn't ornate, and self-consciously "artistic" effects are studiously avoided. Yet now, in 2005, what once passed for deliberate, artfully achieved simplicity often seems merely faux-naif. Though it is not always borne out by closer examination, one gets the distinct impression that his favourite verb is "to be". Clarity is achieved at the price of a stylistic thinness that borders on the anorexic. After all, his steadfast refusal to exploit the possibilities of metaphor, though resulting in an enviable directness, implies a dismissal of what is usually regarded as the crowning technical ability in a creative writer. Similarly, wit, elegance, polish are noticeably absent.
Here, the comparison with Hemingway is crucial, and I must agree with Metcalf when he argues that Callaghan "did not really understand Hemingway's stylistic innovation." To be sure, he is not conspicuously metaphorical. The directness, the "tell-it-like-it-is" quality may be granted, but Hemingway's sentences are always carefully shaped-one might even say lovingly moulded-in a way that Callaghan's are not. They are distinguished primarily by cadence, whereas Callaghan's seem determined merely by grammar. The opening sentence of "Very Special Shoes" is an only slightly extreme instance: "All winter eleven-year-old Mary Johnson had been dreaming of a pair of red leather shoes she had seen in a shoe-store window in the avenue one afternoon when she was out with her mother doing the shopping." Clear, yes, direct, yes, but notice how the individual phrases limp along one after another, creating a bumpy, cluttered effect which is surely not intended. Hemingway would never have let such a shapeless sentence pass without revision. Callaghan once remarked (admittedly, in an off-the-cuff letter): "As for literary style, I have no awareness of it, or the lack of it." The comment speaks volumes. Metcalf hit the critical bull's-eye when he wrote: "Hemingway's writing has the illusion of simplicity; Callaghan's was simple."
It is probably unfair to blame Callaghan for his stylistic deficiencies. We must remember that well over half these stories were written in the depressed 1930s when Callaghan had to provide for his wife and growing family. Markets were limited. He was compelled to write fast, without time for considered stylistic revisions, and he had to temper his artistic preferences to fit those of his readers and the editors who served them. As one reads through these volumes, one soon recognizes a popular formula, a preferred length, a popular emphasis (often involving an ending that offers modest but desired emotional uplift). These stories, whatever their virtues, were written to earn the daily bread. Callaghan was admirably successful, but it was a success that could not place much emphasis on qualities likely to appeal to a literary posterity.
How, then, do these stories read today? Toronto, Montreal-indeed, Canada as a whole-have all changed radically since Callaghan wrote them, and the country has produced numerous writers who have extended the possibilities of the Canadian short story. Many were influenced by Callaghan, and were able to build on the foundations that he laid, but to read Callaghan after reading them is rather like returning to a manual typewriter from a computer. His best stories still work; they can still capture our interest, but we are aware as we read that, technically and stylistically, they have been surpassed. Callaghan's imageless prose may have its virtues, but when I turn to the name story in Hood's Flying a Red Kite and read in the first paragraph, "Finally an obese brown bus waddled up like an indecent cow and stopped with an expiring moo at the head of the line," I know I am in the presence of a writer who can do with words what Callaghan would not and could not do. The same can be said of Norman Levine, Alistair MacLeod, Jack Hodgins, and others I have already named. Callaghan belongs in the history of our literature, but it is surely time to admit that he is no longer essential to our imaginative lives.
We are now in a better position to return to my earlier, provocative question: who needs this "complete" edition? Though competitively priced, the four volumes cost well over a hundred dollars, so are unlikely to attract general readers (who hardly need the complete stories anyhow). This is, then, an edition seemingly directed towards a few Callaghan enthusiasts, specialist scholars of Canadian literature, and libraries-especially, one would think, university libraries.
Yet here we encounter a mystery. Barry Callaghan's endnotes to the first volume make it abundantly clear that no attempt is made to serve the requirements of scholarly academics. He notes that his father never ordered his stories chronologically or gave dates of publication in collections that appeared during his lifetime, and announces that the edition will follow this lead: "The order is, to all intents and purposes [whatever that means in context], random and undated." Yet these are precisely the details that scholars want in order to trace a writer's development and better understand the shape of a career. True, most of the dates can be assembled (with time-consuming effort) from Judith Kemble's admirable Callaghan bibliography published in the Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors series in 1984, but it would have been so easy to record the dates of stories, for those interested, on the contents pages. And a random ordering may make things easier for an editor, but is of no positive use to anyone else.
The four writers who introduce the individual volumes-Alistair Macleod, AndrT Alexis, Anne Michaels, and Margaret Atwood-also write for general readers, though I did not find any of them especially illuminating. In the main, they confine themselves to elementary points, are suitably approving, and say surprisingly little, for writers, on the vexed question of literary style. MacLeod, incidentally, is hampered by the lack of scholarly information. At one point he writes that most of the stories in the first volume "seem to come from the 1950s." If proper editing had been provided, he would have known that more than half (14 out of 22) represent early work and only one is as late as he thinks.
Other editorial decisions are equally puzzling. Callaghan, we are told, "looked back on these stories" and "eliminated habits of phrase and also tightened slack paragraphs and lines before he died." But once again no details-or examples-are provided. Scholars, then, will have to start laboriously from scratch. Even more seriously, Anne Michaels concludes her introduction as follows: "It is very appropriate that these volumes of Callaghan's works are called The Complete Stories. Yes, these stories are, in every way-poignantly-complete." A pleasant sentiment-but is it true? Barry Callaghan would have us believe that we now possess "the complete stories," yet Kemble's bibliography lists under "Short Stories" no less than twenty-five items that do not appear here. There may be a perfectly good reason for this, but it is surely an editor's obligation to explain why they have been excluded.
These volumes are very much a family affair. Morley wrote the text, Barry not only served as editor but is responsible for each book's cover paintings, Michael P. Callaghan is credited with "Composition & Design", and the whole enterprise is produced by Exile Editions from the famous Callaghan address: 20 Dale Avenue. As an act of familial piety, it is admirable, but it would be foolish to pretend that the result isn't, to employ a trendy and overused word, "problematic".