Bay of Spirits: A Love Story

by Farley Mowat
360 pages,
ISBN: 0771065388

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So Many Farleys Having Fun
by John Moss

In his mid-eighties, Farley Mowat can be whatever age he likes. That's one of the nice things about growing old. You have access to all those younger selves inside. You don't have to be gracious, modest, or precise. You do have to be honest; it's expected of you, and there isn't time enough to waste on lies. Bay of Spirits is a book of old age but it's a book not of endings but of beginnings and doings, a book about past ages of the author, embraced, not wrung for nostalgia, but hailed and loved. It is a book about loving past selves, sharing the rage to live, falling in love, being in love, and about the sea, boats, friends, passion, compassion, righteous outrage, adventure, writing, having fun. It would be hard to find a book more honest, with so many Farleys, all having fun.
Some years back I attended a lecture by Jacques Derrida and listened as he charmed the audience with deconstructed notions of truth; and I thought, at the time, this is all about Farley Mowat. There had been a specious cover story in Saturday Night only a few months before, exposing Mowat as a storyteller. Mowat made things up! That's what storytellers do, but the literati, slow at the best of times to catch up with the past, devoured the banal revelations and excreted disdain. If I remember right, Mowat was publicly humbled, yet readers were not put off, and he went on to inform their lives with more bestsellers, connecting them with worlds large and small, both actual and imagined.
Derrida drew a clear distinction between what is "true" and the "truth". The difference is crucial to understanding how fiction may convey truth, how music and painting and dance and architecture all have the potential to convey truth, while none may be true except to its own conventions. The historian tries to sort out from among available facts what is true; the storyteller often suppresses or distorts facts to get at the truth. It is true that Conrad Black gave up his Canadian citizenship. The truth is that he is a citizen of Canada by virtue of birth and no fiat or indictment can change that. The true is relative to circumstance, the truth is absolute. It is true, Mowat manipulates empirical details. The truth he thereby obtains is irreducible, irrefutable, ineluctable. Most significantly, it is accessible.
His 1952 book, People of the Deer, begins with a journey through time, a quest by a young man for a reality that differs from the one in the war-ravaged world he has left behind. Does it matter how long he actually spent in the sub-Arctic? Does it matter how many months Pip pined for Estella? The author serves notice that only a fool could miss that this is the beginning of an adventure with moral and ethical implications, not of an anthropological case study. Through story, with a protagonist called Farley Mowat, the narrative forces the reader to confront terrible truths about a beleaguered people and about those responsible for their suffering. True? Maybe not. Truth? The north shifted in Canadian consciousness; its people became a little more real.
Bay of Spirits is a book of truth, the truth of a man who is engaged, outraged, thoughtless and thoughtful, delighted, delightful, perennially adolescent in his enthusiasms, his passion, and old now in years, in wisdom, in sharing the feeling that the world is slipping out of his grasp. The photograph on the front cover is the Mowat we know. The pictures tell the story. In the cover picture he is grinning from the deck of the Happy Adventure, perhaps in his late forties. Inside the back flyleaf, it's Mowat in his mid-eighties. And on the back cover, it's Claire as he fell in love with her: young, playful, pretty. Four decades later, she is still, one suspects, young, playful, pretty.
The pictures inside are of people Mowat encountered along the southwest coast of Newfoundland from 1957 to 1967, often with Claire in the early years, and always with Claire after they moved there (in part through their love of the place, in part to evade judgements on their 'subversive' relationship). The pictures are snapshots, not art. That is what this book is: snapshots, and artless recollections¨stories sketched without guile or pretension. However, 'artless', as in uninformed or lacking elegance, would not apply. Mowat writes a congenial prose that, if not high style, is as authentic as an old nickle, gleaming with Sou'west Newfoundland vernacular, buffed with saltwater words of sailors, ships, and the sea. One reads him as much for the rich vitality of his language as for the episodes and insights strung together by his passage through time.
Listen: "When Michael marry me I come to live here with his folks, and never was no cause to wish I didn't. He never give I a cross word in all our life. I'd never let nobody touch a hair 'o that man's head." You are listening to Emilia John, of an unnamed Mi'Kmaq settlement on Cape Despair. And listen: "One toime him and the mate had a fight¨we was in Gloucester and a big starm was called for¨he loosed our lines from the shore bollards . . . " I don't know a bollard from a buttock, but I'm in the grip of a story. And again, in a storm, after a 'crescendo' of metaphors: "Implausible as it may seem, we felt no fear of the imponderable forces raging around us. As the gale rose to a crescendo of sound and fury, we made love then slept sweetly in one another's arms while Happy Adventure surged around us." Yeats is there, Shakespeare and Faulkner, but I doubt very much if Mowat is baiting us with literary allusions. He is simply delighting in life and in language and the cultures that merge in his mind.
It's difficult to describe what Bay of Spirits is beyond saying it is a book by Farley Mowat. It's a book born out of the author's personality, out of what must be extensive and detailed notes. Yet it is not a memoir. There is no attempt to chronicle a sequence of events towards some autobiographical revelation or epiphany. One damn thing follows another (as Hugh Garner entitled his own memoir of a writer's life). Why did he write it that way? Because things happened that way. There is no rhetorical design, wherein the reader accumulates opinions and insights into the perfidy of man as a murdering animal, slaughtering whales, or into the grace of humanity living close to the sea. Nor does Bay of Spirits fall under the rubric of travel writing. Despite the map, the place names, the dates, the reader is often at sea in a lovely welter of navigational details. It is not about travelling or the places travelled¨the yarns, the small foibles of people met¨for the brief and sudden flashes into their lives somehow belong more to the storyteller's story than to the peoples of Newfoundland or St. Pierre and Michelon.
There is no narrative structure to Bay of Spirits, no thread stringing the sketches of people and places together beyond the embedded account of the writer's devotion to the woman he loves. The book's subtitle is "A Love Story", but Claire is curiously absent from the text. She is loved, that is clear. Mowat makes the reader fall in love with her, too, but not because of who she is; rather, because of how he feels. More is revealed about her as a person in the snapshots he took than through the words he uses to declare his affection. Likewise, there is surprisingly little in the book about the friends he sailed with. While Bay of Spirits is crowded with wonderfully realised 'characters', there are not many people. Not only Claire but also Jack McCelland, and especially Harold Horwood, are fascinating in their own right, yet they are spectral, at best.
I suspect this is because the book has been put together from detailed notes made at the time. What goes into such notes are names and idiosyncrasies and anecdotes arising from people met along the way. Travelling companions, whether the beloved Claire, the astonishing Jack McClelland, who perhaps shaped our culture more than anyone else in Canadian letters, or the remarkably witty and irascible writer, politician, and professional Newfoundlander, Harold Horwood, are not so much erased in the traveller's notes as taken for granted. When the notes are transcribed, they fade, become nearly invisible. I would like to have known the boat. She is, surprisingly in an account held together by sailing, not there as a personality, even though she's at the heart of innumerable anecdotes.
In an interview in The Globe and Mail (Sept. 23, 2006), Sarah Hampson writes that Mowat has sold altogether forty million books, while a review in the same issue by Alison Pick notes that he has sold fourteen million. Mowat was probably the source for both figures. Remember: true is one thing, truth another, especially in Farley Mowat's world. On the cover spine, the entire title of the book takes up less space than any single letter of the author's name. Farley sells. And why? Because it is a fine reading experience to hang out for awhile with such a passionate and engaged, articulate and nimble teller of stories, sharing with him the perspective from which he laments for and adores the worlds we share. ˛

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