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Barrelhouse Royalty - Branko Gorjup speaks with Barry Callaghan
by Branko Gorjup

Barry Callaghan was born in Toronto on a quiet, tree-shaded street. At the age of six, he wandered off and was found several miles away in a Woolworth's store by a policeman. The policeman took him home; he has resented the police ever since. In 1959, he sold his first story to CBC Radio, Windsor. He had become a television journalist, too. In 1966, he became a left-leaning literary editor for the right-leaning Toronto Telegram. He was also teaching at York University. In 1972, he got fired from the CBC and was forced to leave The Telegram. In 1976, he founded the literary quarterly, Exile, and Exile Editions. That same year, the Afrikaner police put him in prison. Two years later, he came up for air and published The Hogg Poems and Drawings. Then, in 1982, he published poems set in Leningrad, As Close As We Came, and The Black Queen Stories. A little more space was filled by fiction with The Way The Angel Spreads Her Wings in 1989. Morley died in 1990; the Rainbow Gardens Orchestra played "Bye, Bye, Blackbird" over the grave. He wrote more fiction: When Things Get Worst and A Kiss is Still a Kiss. He tried to avoid writing a memoir, but the blackbird kept circling overhead, so he wrote Barrelhouse Kings: A Memoir.

As for the circumstances of my interview with Barry, there was nothing particularly extraordinary-at least, I felt no sense of foreboding, there was no tapping on the walls, and certainly no leprechauns poked their heads out. It was conducted in early October at Barry's home, the house in which Morley lived for half of his life. Every so often, an Irish Setter and a Golden Retriever-Jazz and Jives, as they are so named-would wander in to sniff the mike and wag their tails.

BG: What prompted you to write a memoir at this stage of your life?

BC: Like the best things in life, this memoir came about by accident, not by intention. To amuse myself I wrote some thirty pages about living in this house, about my experiences in black dance halls as a teenager, about coming home late at night when all the house lights on our street were out except for in one window in which I'd see my father sitting at his desk, deeply involved in creating his worlds, gesticulating, making a very private exhibition of himself. Then I showed the piece to my agent. He was ecstatic and said I had the opening for a memoir.

I had already said "no" to a memoir for two reasons. It would involve an enormous amount of emotionally trying work, and in the opinion of my publisher, Kim McArthur, I had not managed in the eyes of glib reviewers to get out from under the shadow of my father. I would write a book and the headline, say in a Saskatoon paper, would be: "Son of Morley Writes a Collection of Short Stories". That I should write a book about my father she saw as disastrous.

So, after Morley's death, I took Kim's advice. But a few years later, when I wrote this piece, I was confronted with the enthusiasm of my agent and then with Kim's, because I had published two books, When Things Get Worst and A Kiss is Still a Kiss, that got excellent reviews. And Morley's name never came up.

BG: One of the central themes in Barrelhouse Kings is obviously the father/son relationship, which also happens to be a relationship between two people playing a significant role in Canadian literary and cultural life. Were you at all motivated by a desire to explain that relationship, to answer once and for all the frequently asked question, "What is it like to be Morley's son?"

BC: I think my initial intention was to explain how hard it was for Morley to have a son like me (laughter). By the end of my father's life in 1990 we had become close, so close that he put a clause in his will stating that if he has left an unfinished book of fiction at the time of his death he entrusts it to his son, Barry, to finish it. I was flabbergasted! Over the years, we had come to share a lot, especially after my mother's death. We went to Paris, to Saratoga. We developed a critical relationship, we closely read each other's work in progress. All this was wonderful, celebratory. But to finish his book, to speak in his voice-that of course was impossible. Still, what a gesture!

In an unapologetic manner I'm telling the world that fascinating story (I hope!) of how my father and I loved each other. Many people wanted me to be belittled by his presence, his reputation, and the weight of his talent. Our mutual respect seemed to act as a poultice, bringing out envy and malice, especially among disappointed men, writers disappointed, I suppose, because they felt overlooked or still secretly feel that they've been found unworthy.

BG: There was a solidarity between the two of you, a world view that you shared?

BC: I grew up with a father who took his children seriously. He made it clear to us that what we thought and what we said were of serious concern to him. Morley was a great talker but he was also a great listener. In our house we talked about politics, films, novels, baseball, boxing-the whole world was discussed all day long, with Morley as the taproot to that discussion. So before I went out into the world, so to speak, I was already out there. I took it for granted that I would go to Paris, to Rome, because I had been intellectually abroad in my living room. At the same time, I had deep, parochial roots in this place. I never wondered whether my roots were legitimate-all that carping about identity was boring to me.

BG: But being here was not always welcoming. This was also a place of betrayal.

BC: You have to understand what kind of town I grew up in. Toronto was a little Belfast, a narrow town huddled for comfort under the umbrella of Presbyterianism and Methodism. To be Catholic in this town meant going to a Separate school. I was secure but I was separate. Then as I grew up-by temperament, and because I was my father's son-I felt separate within Catholicism.

It's no accident that when I wanted to marry, a fine orthodox priest refused me-said I was lapsed. And to make it worse, he said the woman I was marrying was "nothing", unbaptized, totally outside the tribe. Of course, I found a priest who married us. He asked me, "What is a Catholic?" I said I didn't know. He said he didn't know either and gave us his blessing. That priest and I were wary of men who held rigorously to official truths, who spoke ex cathedra, either as priests or politicians. Of course, if you buck the official truth, if you tickle the tribal bone and do so with a zest that is not heedless but disciplined, trouble will knock on your door.

And I've gotten into trouble. Quebec, the Afrikaners, the Chicago Seven trial, the Black Panthers, the Middle East. I tried to say what I saw was happening to the Québécois, to Black Power people like Angela Davis, to the Jews, and to the Palestinians. Talk about lapsed-ex cathedra boys had a field day.

Did friends betray me? Sure. But you must make a decision, and this my father taught me. Don't ever curry favour or cravenly cozy up to the official mouthpieces because you suspect they are about to sandbag you. Bunker down as best you can. Better to be betrayed than to betray yourself. And besides, I learned a great truth. An affirmative truth. Judas and Jesus are one. "In betrayal the beautiful is begun." Without Judas there could not have been redemption. Unlike most men made in His image, Judas knew why "the kiss is always the ancient invitation to the abyss." Without my betrayers I could never have become my man Hogg.

BG: At the beginning of your memoir, you comment that everyone has "little healing confessions" to make. At that stage, you are still a young man but you seem to understand that by telling others about one's sorrows, confusions, and failures, one is participating in a sacramental act, reaching out to connect with oneself and the world. Is your memoir, in this sense, a testimony to a consciousness in search of wholeness, of spiritual health?

BC: I believe all relations that sustain themselves beyond immediate passion or infatuation are predicated upon the telling of stories. Out of the flux that we live in, we select and order our experience, give it shape, and in the shape lie the feeling and the meaning. If a relationship lasts, the stories are affirmative in their profound implications. If a story lasts, we approach what we mean by immortality. Christians think they are going to see God and God is going to say, "Yes, I know your story. St. Peter says you were a good person, so why don't you sit on my right hand where my Son sits and have a chat. He's known as the Word. Bit of a storyteller Himself when He was a man, just a poor carpenter's boy."

It was Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago who suggested that the difference between lives lived before and after the birth of the carpenter's boy is that history suddenly became, not the relating of events-like how many died in battle, and which ruler disembowelled which other ruler-but history. Each individual was suddenly placed in close relation to his God, saying to God (and to himself), "I have an important story, the story of my life." And all of a sudden everybody's story had authenticity, and everybody had the possibility of redemption.

If you don't have a story or if your story is silenced, you are forgotten, you are denied immortality. The best you can hope for is that weird way-station at the end of a disused line, limbo. I'm not trying to make a case for fundamentalism; I'm talking about the nature of how we attempt to preserve ourselves. And this is the point that Morley makes. If you have a people who have no history, they will be forgotten. My people came to fight in the War of 1812 or during the famine of the 1840s. It's hard for me to know much about them or to determine what is true in stories that have been passed down to me. When I was rooting around, I met a relative, a theologian from Ottawa, who told me that we-the Irish in North America-had lost our stories about the famine families, we had lost our heritage as a people. In a very real way, then, my memoir is a re-creating, a re-writing of as much of my family history as possible.

Now, the beauty is that all such stories are healing. That is how we seek compassion. That is how we learn that even the most abusive and ruthless among us have secret stories that they yearn to tell. They yearn for compassion. Even the vicious cry in envy. "How did it happen that he is so worthy?" is a desperate cry for compassion: "Don't overlook me, I have a story, too!"

BG: There you go. You can't stop fictionalizing reality. This may be problematic to some readers of your memoir, which is supposed to be an accurate recollection of the facts of an actual life.

BC: When I set out to write this book, I moved forward by intuition. I had no idea where it was going except that it would end with Morley's death. How was I going to get there? I just started telling stories. As I moved from one story to the next, at a certain point, I'd realize I had to go back to explain things to give a story some context. I found that I was not following a linear path. I was moving backwards and forwards in time. Is this a fictional or novelistic technique applied to the memoir? Well, yes and no, because the expectation that a memoir should be chronological is a fictional assumption in itself, attached to the nineteenth-century novel. I observe somewhere in the book that no "family can have a linear awareness of itself." That's what I discovered while I was writing about myself and my family. I had to move around, go backwards and forwards, to be authentic.

BG: Isn't it true that the moment we begin to tell someone about ourselves, we begin to fictionalize reality?

BC: Truth. Truth. Picasso said that all art is a lie that tells the truth. He wasn't talking about a blatant falsification of facts, like changing 1910 to 1920. He was talking about the representation of facts in an arbitrary, selected order, establishing relationships, more by what is left out than put in. Or, as I put it somewhere in the book, interesting men go away map-making. They disappear, but somehow they come back to tell the tales-some taller than others, but the truth is always in the telling.

But the thrust of your question suggests a manipulation of facts into an order that arrives at something artificial. What could be more artificial as a form of story than that most factual of all books, the telephone book? It has its genre, its rigour, its method as it moves forward alphabetically. Good luck to you if you read it all! When you're done you will know nothing. You will have confronted nothing but facts. Meaningless. But take names out, rearrange them, and give them shape...

What is shared among writers is imaginative truth, a way of arranging the relationships between facts. Aristotle and Plato do not need Derrida to tell them that language is made up of signs that fictionalize reality. What else is new? This is what Aristotle meant by plot: the progression of things in a relationship that becomes compelling because the progression has an inevitability. At the same time, the storyteller must make sure that he acquiesces to the nature of the material he has at hand. The material I had at hand-my father's life, my life, lives parallel in many ways-was enormously complex. My father had an active cultural, political, and social life. So have I. I had to find a structure that would yield to that complex material.

BG: You often quote passages from Morley's novels in order to shed additional light on his character or on his perception of reality. You use poetry and songs-voices from the world of jazz and blues being quite frequent-to create a particular mood or a commentary. You introduce dialogues allowing others to express their points of view or to make fools of themselves. You cite letters of friends and lovers, and so on. How can we trust a memoir if, like any other work of fiction, it tells lies? How can we trust Barry Callaghan?

BC: How can you trust the storyteller? D.H. Lawrence said, "Never trust the writer, trust the story." That's not a glib way of dismissing your question. But you must trust the story, always. It is true, I use all kinds of techniques and again I have to say I did this intuitively while yielding to the material. For example, what was the best way to describe the breakdown of my marriage? It was my fault. How could I describe the remarkable woman I had betrayed? Would I be believed if I put it in my own words? Or could I take the liberty of quoting one of the most extraordinary letters I've read in my life, a letter she wrote to Morley at the moment I was leaving her, in which she explains what is actually happening? That letter, as a document, is stunning in its authenticity. It has the weight of independent fact within my story, within the fiction. But bear this in mind, that letter was not a "fact". It was her story as she saw it and, not surprisingly, Morley rejected her arrangement because it contained a criticism of him. She was, as far as he was concerned, fictionalizing reality. Which all goes to prove my point.

BG: So, the memoir became a liberating form, a genre that allowed you to weave freely into the text what you chose?

BC: Yes, I decided what to weave into it-like that letter, or songs, or newspaper reports, or television transcripts. These are played off against each other as part of the progression of the book. I hated to tell of the breakup of Brownie and Sonny-two men I loved, two great blues singers. I couldn't bear to watch those two men who had been a moment of beauty in the lives of their audience betray each other with crude finality, bitterness. But I told the story as a counterpoint to the larger, more affirmative story of zest for life-not a heedless zest but a disciplined zest. A zest that is unapologetic and celebratory. Some folks in this culture don't know what to do with somebody who is not only unapologetic but also celebratory. They used to call it arrogance; I notice the word they now use is swagger. This book is not swagger. God knows, I've been quite frank about failures-my father's and mine.

BG: Absolutely. I noticed a very strong confessional tone to the memoir.

BC: How some folks can confuse a confessional with swaggering is beyond me.

BG: You spend some time describing the difference between father and son, particularly in their style of writing. Morley is described as adamantly refusing the idea of the symbol. You, by contrast, have always looked for signs, omens. For you, representation seems more complex and problematic. Would you say that you and Morley come from two fundamentally opposed literary sensibilities? And if so, what they are?

BC: We both believe that the prime task of the writer is to see the thing for what it is in and of itself, to keep the eye on the object. When the writer moves away from the object he's going down the road to hell-to doing what Morley would call fancy writing and I would call windbag writing. My father said that language should be like glass. What did he mean? He meant that language-the tricks, the conceits-should not stand between you and the thing. You should see through the words directly to the thing, the emotion, the experience. Your relationship with it should be immediate.

Morley was a kind of neo-Platonist as a stylist. The word is an appearance. He wanted to see through the Appearance to the Reality, the experience beyond the language. Reality becomes ideational in Morley's best work, the clearly concrete is experienced as an idea. His early work was described as hard-boiled realism. Margaret Atwood said what first struck her about it was the solidity of the description. She is right.

Now, what is the difference between my prose and Morley's? I think that, while keeping your eye on the object, you can get "resonance". I have attempted, consciously at first and now by habit, to set up resonating relationships between words while always avoiding taking the eye off the object. I reach for those words that establish musical or visual relationships, so that they constitute in and of themselves another level of experience.

BG: Language for you is not a sheet of clean glass as it was for Morley. It is smeared with resonances.

BC: No, it's not smeared at all. The word I use to describe the thing is as direct and clear as Morley's is, but by the choice of the words, I have sought to create a kind of musicality in my prose that was different from Morley's.

BG: Isn't this the poet in you?

BC: Yes, I think so.

BG: Do you really believe that a word can be transparent, neutral, without carrying the burden of its own culture and history?

BC: Morley wouldn't argue that words should be totally transparent. You have to remember that Morley was formulating this position when Ezra Pound was writing The ABC of Reading, which was a reaction against a certain abuse of language. Morley was always in reaction to the abuse of language.

I can put this to you in other terms. The English language is rich because it has many roots. The Anglo-Saxon root word for what happens to our body on a hot day is "to sweat". Those who find that too aggressive, too direct, too brutally true, will instruct their daughters to move away from that directness. So, a lady uses the French-rooted word, "to perspire". The more the language becomes affected in this way, the closer we get to comedy, and we know we are dealing with characters removed from the object. That's all Morley's concerned about.

BG: Were either of you influenced by anyone in particular?

BC: This matter of influences is often misunderstood. For example, I'm pretty sure that Morley wrote the first appreciation of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake in this country, in Saturday Night. He knew he was in the presence of a totally new way of using the language. He knew Joyce was getting hold of night thinking. He didn't reject Joyce's elaborate exploration of sounds, the possibilities within a word itself. He understood that it was appropriate to Joyce's purpose. For Morley, this was an exercise in glass because Joyce was taking you into the dream world with the language most appropriate to that world. He celebrated Joyce. But he saw that Finnegans Wake was a dead end, there was nowhere left to go with language employed that way. Let Finnegans Wake get into your work and you'll sink into parody.

So Morley went back to Dubliners. His was not a rigid, narrow, death-defying position. He loved Sherwood Anderson, Maupassant, and Tolstoy. I, too, loved Dubliners, but I was more drawn to Dostoyevsky than Tolstoy. I loved Dostoyevsky's almost lunatic ideational energy. There's something detached in Tolstoy that was closer to Morley. Maybe I was a little more forgiving than Morley, or more prepared to play with possibilities and partial failures in other writers, which is maybe why I've also been an editor and Morley could never have been an editor. The one thing I can say had an enormous influence on my style-an exercise that Morley never engaged in-was translating poetry, trying to turn a translation into a poem. I learned how I could tune one word to another with both functioning as glass.

BG: Despite your stylistic differences, both of you have been labelled as Toronto writers, penetrating its urban darkness, disclosing what is hidden. Is this a coincidence? How different are your characters?

BC: I never wondered where I was from or why I was from Toronto. My father had exactly the same feeling. It didn't matter whether he felt, as a young writer, that the intellectual world around him was irrelevant to what he was trying to do. His sense of himself on the streets was absolutely authentic in his own mind. He thought he knew far more about those streets than the literary folk who were busy perspiring. His first novel, Strange Fugitive, is in fact the first gangster novel in North America, set in the streets of Toronto. Such is My Beloved and More Joy in Heaven are rooted in this city. I'm insisting on this because one of the most bizarre aspects of the neo-national movement of the late sixties and seventies was that those folk dismissed Morley as a New York writer. Stupid people said this because they did not read his stories, and because he had been a success in New York. So Toronto was there simply because it was the place where Morley lived.

BG: Wasn't that the period when writing and criticism were predominantly landscape fixated? Even some other writers who wrote about cities did not fit. However, it was Morley who created a "region" out of an urban landscape.

BC: Yes, he was the first writer to create an urban landscape in this country.

BG: And in your fiction?

BC: My fiction is also rooted in Toronto. I'll tell you what fascinates me about the response to my stories. When The Black Queen Stories came out, admiring review after admiring review spoke of my empathy for what they called "low life" (laughter). What kind of person says that a story about a black woman who wants to be a blues singer, sitting in a bar watching a blues singer sing, is low life? What makes life low in the eye of a critic?

BG: Is it because she is a black woman or because she is sitting in a bar?

BC: Both. Or, in another story, two homosexual men-and this is a story not about homosexuals, but about two people growing old-these two men collect stamps and invite friends for a Mother's Day supper and serve crudités. Is this low life? Is it because they are homosexuals? Are they lower than Alice Munro's girl who pays the local boys to gang bang her and damn well bankrupts the family business? A tale told by a guy who is banging one of the neighbourly wives in the back seat of his car? I suggest a simple swap. Take Munro's story and set it at Parliament and Queen Streets and I'll put my guys in Buttonville, and her story will be low urban life, and mine will be decorously country to such critics.

BG: What about all the dark spaces-those areas that are beneath the surface of a decorously contained world-that your fiction, and Morley's, explore?

BC: Let's take a story that is well known, Such is My Beloved. A young priest gets involved with two prostitutes. He explores the mystery inherent in "The Song of Songs". Christians do not know what to do with "The Song of Songs", with its blatant sexuality. They want to get rid of the sexuality, make it metaphorical. But if you can't, if it remains as real as those two prostitutes, if love is carnal, if the Bride and the Bridegroom go a-whoring to consummate what is in the heart, then you get into dark questions. My father tended to express such stories as parables-compelling, but in the end, you are left with a mystery. Christ's parables provide no answers. Nor do Morley's. There is something inherently dark in a story that forces you into ambiguity: a loving, intelligent priest betrayed by the guardians of love, sitting alone in a great calm that hinges on madness.

I have a different approach to darkness. In A Kiss is Still a Kiss, there is a journalistic report of what happened to two characters, Claire and me. We are the actual characters in this fiction. It is an interesting effect, because for the people who know us, it is us and yet they read the story as fiction. What happened was horrible and gratuitous. Drug addicts broke into my home and in a period of two and a half days they destroyed it. The police said they'd never dealt with anything like it. Instead of seeing it as retribution delivered upon me, as some people suggested, I chose to see it as a gratuitous act, as malevolence loosed upon the world. How did I deal with it? At first the cops thought I was involved because I was not hysterical. I went around looking at the destruction calmly and took it in. I believe that it is in our power to take in darkness, to redeem it.

When I encounter darkness, which I have on many occasions-I've been put in prison, I've been in a civil war-my response is always a curious calm determination. I try to get the situation in perspective, knowing I will somehow redeem the darkness, if only in my mind, by telling the story. Maybe this is why I've always gotten along well with gangsters. True darkness does not unnerve me. It is part of the larger ritual of life-we begin to die the moment we are born, the gift of life betrayed by our bodies. And such a confrontation with the darkness is healing. This is why I'm against all forms of censorship. Parents who prevent their children from reading dark stories are inviting disaster by refusing them this encounter with healing.

BG: Throughout the memoir, as in your fiction and poetry, a dark undercurrent runs like liquid pain. It keeps erupting, reminding us of a divided world, your acquiescence to it. As you remember your visit to a leper colony in Africa you meditate on the nature of disease. What you say-and I'm paraphrasing-is that if we refuse to touch the diseased, and the evil that is disease, we refuse our humanity. Is that your basic philosophy of life?

BC: I don't know about basic, but as I look back I think I was very lucky. I had a high-flying adolescence: I was a jock, I was a lover on the hoof, I was a dancer. And then one day, I ended up in the hospital, not able to walk. Three different types of arthritis had hit me at once. I was bedridden, in pain. I had to learn how to walk all over again. The doctor told me that the profession didn't know anything about arthritis. It is a malevolence that comes gratuitously-your white cells, your own body attacks itself. What do you do? You have a choice. You end up dominated by the pain of your body or you learn how to forget it. I learned to forget it and to live with it. How do I think about betrayal? I think of it as those white cells attacking. Betrayal can be gratuitous. Why have certain people malevolently attacked me? White cells. How do I respond? I respond as I've responded to the pain in my body: I take a deep breath, I absorb it, and make my way through it. I will outlive them, and I will outwrite them.

You are quite right to relate this to my experience in Africa, when I visited Schweitzer's territory. It was a malevolent world. Sickness is a malevolence that comes out of the earth, the foliage, the growth. The jungle eats itself endlessly. You see people in the jungle-their bodies wracked with disease and pain. I went to the leper colony because people living there are outcasts. The colony was called Village Lumière. I thought I was ready to deal with the experience, to look and observe. Before I could do anything, a smiling, beaming man suddenly offered me his hand, but it wasn't a hand, it was a gleaming stump, wet with the leper's wound. There was the moment of truth: do you recoil from disease, from evil, or do you take the hand? I put out my hand and took his stump and we held each other. At that moment I understood I was capable of dealing with not just my own internal pain but with the force of evil, that darkness called disease.

BG: How do you feel now that you have finished your memoir? What is next?

BC: Do you know what I felt as soon as I finished writing the memoir? I felt an enormous relief. I can start writing stories again. And I've started two already. I have no idea where they are going. I don't care. I might not even finish them. But just to talk in someone else's voice! Then there are places I would like to go, places to return to, to round off what I've written but not published: Russia and Latvia and Zagreb, Italy, Ireland, Germany. All this I left out of the memoir. And maybe Hogg, my old pal, who is out on the road somewhere, will come home with new poetic tales to tell... Hogg will come home again, as I always do. 

Branko Gorjup teaches Canadian literature at York University. He is the editor of a series of bilingual (English-Italian) volumes of Canadian poetry, most recently P.K. Page's Rosa dei venti/Compass Rose (Longo Editore Ravenna).


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