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Douglas Fetherling - Backward Glance
by Douglas Fetherling

I didn't know until I had dinner with him recently that Greg Gatenby, the director of literary programs at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto, and founder of both the International Festival of Authors and the World Poetry Festival, is an opera buff. But when this became apparent in the conversation, I said to myself, "Ah, yes, of course." Many people, I believe, would react the same way, for Gatenby's position in Canadian writing requires a descriptive noun that only the world of opera seems capable of supplying.

Most of the terms we use for people such as Gatenby have somehow taken on a derogatory ring: mover-and-shaker, mogul, culture vulture, arts tycoon. But impresario is just about right, for it is without negative connotations and suggests a person whose taste and level of sophistication are equal to his or her skill at practicalities and promotion-in short, someone who does for the arts what producers do for mere pop culture. That's Gatenby to a T.

Like most of the true impresarios of the opera stage, he is blessed with a rare sense of the past, but whereas impresarios have tended to be living repositories of anecdote, Gatenby is a literary historian turning out books for the general audience. He is not an academic but rather a kind of independent scholar. In his new book, The Very Richness of That Past (Knopf Canada, $32.95), he has left no avenues of research unexplored and has produced a book with all the necessary apparatus of annotation. But his prose, while careful, is informal. Without being-again, in the pejorative sense, journalistic-it nonetheless manages to rattle right along, for Gatenby writes not to be consulted but to be read-by civilians, so to speak, whom he hopes to convert to the cause of Canada's literary past. In his approach, though not in his scale (not yet), the figure of previous times he most resembles is Van Wyck Brooks, who gave Americans of the 1930s and 1940s a contextual key to understanding old books and old writers.

Two years ago, Gatenby published The Wild Is Always There: Canada through the Eyes of Foreign Writers, a pleasant combination of commentary and anthology, showing how various distinguished literary visitors had responded to Canada down through the decades. In juxtaposing figures as different as Mark Twain and Matthew Arnold, or Elizabeth Bishop and Willa Cather, he held up a looking-glass to show how Canada itself grew from a colonial culture to a freestanding indigenous one. Personally, I found it a most pleasant book indeed, and have had every bit as good a time with The Very Richness, which follows the same format yet without the deterioration of quality one somehow expects in a sequel. That says much about the amount of material available. It also says much about Gatenby's very nearly invisible methodology.

Judging by the diaries, letters, and other works Gatenby has selected, one might generalize that visiting Canada has tended to bring out the bad in bad people and the good in good ones. In 1906, Aleister Crowley, the English occultist, poetaster, and mountain-climber, observed that "Toronto as a city carries out the idea of Canada as a country. It is a calculated crime both against the aspirations of the soul and the affections of the heart." He went on: "Of all the loveless, lifeless lands that writhe beneath the wrath of God, commend me to Canada!" For his part, Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French anti-Semite and all-purpose misanthrope, was infuriated that Canadian trees are so "haphazard".

Gatenby is not simply collecting material in these two books. He resembles not at all the original antiquaries, who sought (and usually missed) the truth of history through objects and old documents. In the way he uses and interprets his texts, Gatenby is closer to a specific but rather unusual type of critic. He doesn't make inflated claims for the stuff he's unearthed. For example, of Nathaniel Hawthorne he writes: "The author of the classic novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables was aesthetically engrossed by the American species of Puritan culture, and its powerful hold over the social life of his country. So, while it would be foolish to make claims that Canada played a large part in Hawthorne's imaginative life, the country did appear regularly in his correspondence, and played an uncelebrated role in both his fiction and non-fiction over several years"-as Gatenby then goes on to explain.

Similarly, the editor knows how to make the spark of ideas by striking flint against steel. He observes, correctly, I'm convinced, that Joyce Carol Oates (one of the participants in this year's edition of the International Festival of Authors) began writing about her native United States much differently during the ten years she spent viewing it from the deceptively distant perspective of the University of Windsor. A decade in Canada permitted her to see, and to begin exploring, a far more terrifying, nightmarish vision of American society than she had written of previously. It's one she continues to push to ever greater imaginative extremes, as reality dictates.

I could go on and on about The Very Richness of That Past, but there comes a time when the proper course is to recommend a book to other people's attention and then shut up and let them enjoy it themselves.


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