Ernest Buckler Remembered

by Claude Bissell,
208 pages,
ISBN: 0802058140

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The Peak And The Trough
by Joyce Marshall

I OPENED Ernest Buckler Remembered, a memoir written by Claude Bissell in tribute to a 30- year friendship, with the query: But did Buckler have a life? Is there anything that can or need be added to what we know of him: that he lived in a house not far from his birthplace, near Bridgeport, Nova Scotia, and that he became more and more unwilling to leave home even for a day (as I know from having been on a committee with him during the 1970s and obliged to communicate with him entirely by letter)? Well, it seems, there`s quite a bit more; certainly a more human figure emerges from these pages than the somewhat eccentric recluse who had, I`ve been told, a passion for listening to opera on the radio and dancing informally with friends. To give us this picture, Bissell has relied on his own memories and abundant quotations from Buckler`s lively letters. And as he has not, in his own words, tried "in the fashionable critical manner to separate the man from his books," he also quotes from these and gives information about their writing. They met in 1953, a year after the publication of The Mountain and the Valley, which Bissell had reviewed enthusiastically in the annual fiction survey of the University of Toronto Quarterly. Buckler, who was 45 at the time, agreed to see Bissell and his wife while they were vacationing in Nova Scotia. Regular meetings and deepening friendship followed and Buckler was once even persuaded to visit the Bissells in Toronto. He had been a brilliant student, at school and at Dalhousie. In 1929 he `Vent to Toronto to obtain his M.A. and spent five more years in that city, working in the actuarial department of Manufacturers` Life, a period, Bissell tells us, of which tittle is known. Already he was writing, and when a breakdown in his health took him back to Nova Scotia in 1936, he continued to write -and to promote himself as a writer. Or try to. His first publication was a story in Esquire in 1940 but as early as 1937 he had become a "star" of the letters to the editor department of the magazine, criticizing the stories it published trenchantly, even outrageously -- letters that brought him a queer little fame and correspondence with established writers of the day, Manuel Komroff for one. All this while he`d been offering himself again and again, as columnist, critic, or at least regular contributor, to the New Yorker and Judge (a humorous magazine). But unfortunately the material he supplied in support of his letters was stiff and unimpressive, as were the early stories he sent to Esquire and elsewhere. He did eventually become a regular columnist somewhat closer to home, at Saturday Night for the year 1947. Is this interesting? I think it is. Also the fact that he was a great admirer of the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, a somewhat baroque stylist who is not, I imagine, very much read nowadays. Or have I fallen into the trap of wanting to know more about the writers I admire, such as Buckler, especially if they`ve been reticent during their lifetime? We even learn a good deal about his relations with women, which, like so much else in his life, were carried on largely by correspondence. Although with one of them, as Bissell tells us -- quoting or paraphrasing Buckler, I wonder -- "things came to a happy climax," the affair very soon ended. However, the lady continued to write to him, now sending food packages and (somewhat ominously) self help psychiatry books. It wasn`t a happy life and its end makes dismal reading. None of his three later books had the critical success of The Mountain and the Valley, which, after it was reprinted in the New Canadian Library, was along with occasional Canada Council grants almost his entire source of income. His health deteriorated. He drank heavily to ease the pain of terrible headaches, which he blamed on a kick from a horse during his youth. He began to hallucinate and in 1981 was obliged to go into a "home" where he died in 1984. Faithful to the last, Bissell visited him in the summer of 1983 and, after more ambitious and demanding projects had to be discarded, arranged a small tribute, which Buckler enjoyed, at the "home." This is an affectionate book, not a "life," perhaps, but certainly a good sketch for a "life."

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