A Very Large Soul:
Selected Letters from Margaret Laurence to Canadian Writers

by J. A. Wainwright,
264 pages,
ISBN: 0920953875

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Yours Truly
by Janice Keefer

EIGHT YEARS AFTER THE death of Margaret Laurence, there is still no one who has taken her place within what she called the "tribe" of Canadian writers. Although writers and readers alike still mourn the loss of "the most significant creative writer in Canadian literature," as the editor of A Verv Large Soul, J. A. Wainwright, describes her, perhaps it is time to concede that no one has assumed Laurence's role because, in performing it so generously and so well, she made it obsolete. If, as Wainwright states, Laurence was "the Canadian literary matriarch" this was due to two things: the power and resonance of the fiction Laurence wrote, and the effectiveness and influence of the institution she did so much to build, the Writers' Union of Canada. Her fiction helped to create an internationally acknowledged and nationally recognized literary culture in English- speaking Canada. As Alice Munro puts it, "she was the beginning of everything" for contemporary Anglophone writers. And her private efforts to encourage all those writers lucky enough to come within her ken cannot be separated from her public services to the writing community in general. All this A Very Large Soul recalls, and in this way it serves both as a memorial and as a timely reminder. For if Canadian writers no longer need the kind of mothering Laurence provided, we do need, in this period of cut- and claw-backs of all kinds, to maintain the kind of solidarity that Laurence so magnificently exemplified.

"Matriarchal me!" Laurence exclaims at one point in this collection; at another: "I am not Mother Earth." Perhaps it is also time to pay at least as much attention to Laurence the writer as we do to the "den mother." But do these letters, written to correspondents as well known as Margaret Atwood, or as relatively obscure as Hubert Evans, add to our understanding of the literary Laurence? I'd say yes, with reservations. First, as the editor makes clear from the start, this volume omits the letters Laurence wrote to the two most important writers in her life -- writers who were also lifelong friends. Laurence's correspondence with Al Purdy has already been published, and her letters to Adele Wiseman, Wainwright hints, are to appear in a separate volume. What A Very Large Soul provides is a smattering of letters, composed over a considerable period of time, to each of 33 correspondents, some of whom seem to have played a minor, others a more considerable part in Laurence's writing life. What emerges is, for the most part, an unavoidably repetitious commentary on specific events, most of which occur towards the end of Laurence's career: the completion of The Diviners; the fundamentalist crusade against it; the period of painful uncertainty she went through as to whether she'd ever write another novel. Finally, many of the correspondents offer their own takes on Laurence's fiction, her life, and the contribution she made to Canadian literary culture. Some of these are illuminating; others, however, are skewed or lustreless.

Since these letters deal strictly with literary and cultural matters, any reader desiring reflections on or revelations about Laurence's personal life will be disappointed. 'Me letters as they stand are full of editorial ellipses; it's impossible to tell whether the ellipses represent material that Wainwright found repetitive or irrelevant, or that Laurence's children found too sensitive or private to print. Whatever the reason, the letters often seem disappointingly truncated, and do not present Laurence as one of the great letter writers of our time. Given her considerable domestic and parental responsibilities, as well as the staggering amount of publicservice work she took on, it's astonishing that she even found time to write to so many people.

Certainly there are important insights to be gleaned from this volume about how Laurence regarded the process of writing: the importance of recognizing your limitations, so that you can discover whatever real possibilities you possess; the continual risktaking involved in this vocation, making all writers worth their salt "perpetual amateurs";

the inescapable loneliness of the writing life, however tribal a creature you may strive to be. Particularly important is Laurence's use of the key terms "terror" and "grace," as designating the most important experiences a writer undergoes -- terms that will speak to all writers, whether or not they share Laurence's "radical" Christian beliefs. Terror when you write alone, in the dark, unsure of the value or necessity of what you're making; grace when, for no reason, good or bad, the writing flows effortlessly, and seems "given" to you. What Laurence calls grace, others might call the muse -- but Laurence's choice of locution is crucial, for it reflects her acceptance that with The Diviners she had accomplished what was given her to do.

Perhaps more valuable than all the commentaries this volume provides on why Laurence didn't produce another novel is David Watmough's comment on the need to take a "cosmic" view of literary production, one that refuses to put writers through the "cruel hoop" of demanding deathless works of prose from them every two years, as if making a novel were as easy as making a cup of instant coffee. Surely the lament/debate over the fact of The Diviners being Laurence's last novel has been done to death. We should let Laurence's own, conflicted words (in a letter to Margaret Atwood) speak for themselves:

... I'm buggered if I'll ever write a mockup of a novel only in order to go on writing. If it isn't really there any more, at whatever point, may God give me the strength to quit without self-dramatization or malice. It'll be others' turn then -- the thing itself goes on; or so I believe.

Margaret Laurence was an extraordinary woman and writer, as these letters amply remind us. But it's hard, reading them, not to be impatient for the full-scale biography that is yet to come.


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