Post Your Opinion
Morley Callaghan 1903-1990
by Joyce Marshall

MORLEY CALLAGHAN, who died on August 25 at the age of 87, was so much a person, so firmly, even stubbornly his own self, that I find that I can only write personally about him. We had a curious friendship, going back for more than 40 years longer if I twist the word to mean friendship on my side even though not yet on his. I first saw him during the fall of 1938. He was walking in the twilight on Yonge Street near Bloor, round the corner from where I was living. I`d been told that he often came down from his house in Rosedale and walked about the streets, "thinking out his books," and here he was -- a rather short broad man with a great head of very dark hair. (This was the muscular Callaghan, though I didn`t yet know about the incident, who`d felled Hemingway in the famous Paris boxing match of 1929.) 1 saw him frequently after that, at the same hour and in the same neighhourhood, but though I`d studied Such is My Beloved and read his other novels and his stories, it didn`t occur to me that I might speak to him. I was even in the same room with him once -- a meeting held to hear a talk by Ed Cecil-Smith, who`d commanded the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion that had fought on the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War. Callaghan slipped in, sat to one side near the door and, as soon as the talk ended, he slipped out again. This is what a writer should do, I thought. He comes to increase his experience, not to engage in social chitchat -- or to be introduced to people like me. For I thought of him as a forbidding figure, inhabiting a world that wasn`t yet mine and that I had no right to try to enter. Finally, in 1946, we met. My first book had just been published and I was introduced to him as "one of our most promising younger writers." Morley`s smile was bemused, surprised, a shade mischievous -- he had many rather complicated sorts of smiles. "But that`s what they always say about me," he said. And as far as I was concerned, I was in, Morley Callaghan had accepted and welcomed me. I`d always been a writer in my own mind. Now I was one in fact. After that I always felt that Morley and I knew each other. He must have felt something of the sort himself for it was his way to come up to me at literary gatherings -- we never met socially in the ordinary sense -- and without formal greeting begin to talk, about his work or mine, whatever happened to be in his mind. Once he informed me without preamble that I should get married. (I think what he had in mind for me was a wife, something every writer needs. He had a splendid one himself in Loretto.) To me he was always the same, though as the years went by his strong dark hair whitened and became skimpy, the flesh of his face fell away and we saw that there`d been a gnome hiding underneath. In his last years he was a small, even a tiny man but still full of energy. And he still had his variety of complicated smiles. Before I leave the purely personal, I want to acknowledge a debt I owe him. Sometime during the 1950s I showed an early version of a story of mine called "The Old Woman" to a magazine whose name I no longer remember. Morley had some editorial connection with the magazine and sent a message to me that if I`d call him he`d talk to me about it. I called and, very simply and plainly, he told me what the story was really about and how I could rearrange the material to give it pacing, clarity, and point. "Now get at it," he concluded. I did and, though the magazine had perished before I was finished, I soon got the story published and it has become through the years my most frequently reprinted story. I never thanked Morley Callaghan for this. Why? Perhaps I simply assumed that he knew. I thank him now. I thank him also for his books, though it isn`t as easy to find words for what they mean and have meant to me. Morley Callaghan was his own writer just as he was his own person. It`s interesting to note that he never started a school and, though all Canadian fiction-writers are aware of the debt they owe him, none to my knowledge has ever cited him as a major influence. He was for many years neglected in this country, though not, I maintain, by other writers. Honours that should have come to him earlier came late -- but they did come: a first Governor General`s Award for The Loved and the Lost in 1952, the Molson Prize, the Royal Bank Award, and other honours and prizes. And in 1982 he was named Companion of the Order of Canada. For me, when I first read Such is My Beloved, Morley Callaghan was a miracle. I`d been searching for some written words that spoke of my own place and people, and found nothing to satisfy me in the works of Frederick Philip Grove and Mazo De la Roche. And now here was someone who was Canadian, who wrote (though never in very explicit detail) about this country, and who wrote well. Furthermore, he`d made it. I admired his books, I rather liked the style, its determined plainness, its avoidance of elaborate figures or metaphors, of "fine writing" of any sort. But weren`t the books themselves a little too simplified, the characters as well as the events? A child of my time, I admired two sorts of writing: the stream of consciousness (Woolf, Joyce, Faulkner) and the realist political (Dos Passos, Caldwell). And here were novels I couldn`t help liking that fell into neither of these categories. Did I just like them, I wondered, because Callaghan was one of ours and I thought I should? I was less troubled by the stories -- "Last Spring They Came Over," "Now that April`s Here," A Predicament," and the others. Stories after all are supposed to be stripped, to omit, to hone in, and the Callaghan stories do this so magnificently, so often making something strong and beautiful out of what might be in less skilful hands a minor, even trivial incident -- a decision to buy a certain hat or bring a young man home. I see now what I wasn`t subtle enough to see when I was younger, that I was wrong to think that the novels required more than they contained -- more facts, a more complex rendering of character and motive. Everything is there that needs to be there. "Strip the style:` he himself wrote in That Summer in Paris, "and make the style, the language, all the psychological ramifications, the ambiance of the relationships, all the one thing, so the reader couldn`t make separations. Cezanne`s apples. The appleness of apples. Yet just apples." This he did and, when his method worked, the result is cool, simplified certainly, but finally and essentially more real than the real. George Woodcock has called the three novels of the 1930s, Such is My Beloved, They Shall Inherit the Earth, and More Joy in Heaven which, like most of us, he considers Callaghan`s finest work "novels of consequence." I would call them fables -- fables of innocence betrayed by social and moral forces it can never more than partly understand. I believe that these novels, like the stories, still repay rereading. Though they`re rooted in the mean poverty of the Depression, they have a strong moral force and do not date. I also admire The Loved and the Lost, a story of faith and lack of faith, and A Passion in Rome, which could be called a variant of the Pygmalion legend. There were later novels, the last, A Wild Old Man on the Road, only two years ago, and the occasion for a tribute to the author at that year`s Harbourfront International Authors Festival and a most amusing reading by "the old rascal" (as he`s been called) himself But these are not vintage Callaghan. Though he`d always been the least intrusive of writers, he seemed now to be writing more for himself than for us -- with bitterness in his picture of the neglected writer in A Fine and Private Place and nostalgically in what is clearly a search for the lost Paris of his youth in A Wild Old Man on the Road. He was at work on a novella, we`re told, when the final illness struck. I`m sorry he won`t be able to finish it, sorry above all that he won`t be present among us, old and frail but still writing indomitably as he had done for almost 70 years -- and from time to time smiling one of his smiles.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us