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The Names of Things: A Memoir

by David Helwig
299 pages,
ISBN: 0889842868

Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in Can Lit

by Robert Lecker
293 pages,
ISBN: 1550652109

The Cadence of Civil Elegies

by Robert Lecker
88 pages,
ISBN: 189695197X


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David Helwig and Dr. Delicious
by George Fetherling

The time is coming when the generation of Canadian writers that began publishing in the 1960s and flourished in the 1970s will start to pour the coffee on the campfire. Already their numbers have thinned a bit. Those still active are fading into respectability: the land of Festschrifts and honorary degrees, of diminishing pensions and persistent disease. In the future story of this drift towards infinity, David Helwig's memoir The Names of Things could well become a significant primary document. Although he spent most of his working life in Kingston, Ontario, where he taught at Queen's University, and now resides in PEI, Helwig always managed to be close to the centre of action somehow. He has met everyone. Indeed he published most of them during his long association with Oberon Press. But the value of his book also resides in his personal story and in its picture of the author as a case study.
The first new thing that readers of his many poetry collections and works of fiction learn from the memoir is that Helwig was a working-class kid, the son of a furniture refinisher. A scholarship to the University of Toronto, itself a kind of furniture refinisher, sanded off those edges (and graduate work at the University of Liverpool didn't put them back). He was born in 1938. Of labouring-class Toronto in the 1940s he writes: "The workaday world ambled along like the junkman's skinny horse, but there were breaks in its regularity, as startling to a child as a divine intervention." This is an interesting sentence indeed, made all the more mysterious by not being followed up, although Helwig does return to its confessional tone later, describing Niagara-on-the-Lake, where the family moved when he was ten.
"I survived adolescence¨we do somehow¨though I had begun to experience the pattern of moods that would be all too familiar in the coming years. A good deal of the time I was confident to the point of arrogance. A well-loved child, a clever student, I thought highly of myself and won all the prizes. Yet I could become prey to powerful hypochondriac fears, anxiety and cold panic occurring suddenly and continuing for weeks, to be kept hidden as much as possible.
I was scared. I would be shamed. There were great holes in the universe¨death, failure, humiliation¨and nothing could be counted on. I could fall, keep falling, nothing to save me."

One gets the feeling that emotional revelation isn't easy for him, but the attempts are admirable. Once he gets the hang of it, he uses his feelings to help describe the process of actually becoming a writer. "I was seventeen years old," he writes,

"and I had invented a man that I would set out to be, a man who was adequate to the appreciation of greatness, a man who had the right to explore his own ability to capture things in words, to experience and record. That was what I wanted, needed [Ó] I had given myself the gift of an ideal of life, one still not very common in Canada, the life of a writer [who could] create the world. No doubt there had been, from my earliest childhood, some unspoken message from my mother that I was to be special, but a writer wasn't what she had in mind. Poking around in the treasure trove of the old barn behind the house, I would come on things like an ancient schoolbook, find Keats's 'Ode to a Nightingale', and read the line, 'She stood in tears amid the alien corn,' and something in me shivered and caught its breath."

Still, he didn't publish his first book until he was twenty-nine and had been teaching at Queen's for five years. He made up for the late start with dozens of others: poetry, fiction both literary and thriller, essays, plays, and the valuable short story annuals he edited, which the Journey Prize eventually supplanted. There is a vibrant sense of craft in all of them and a calm and steady scrutiny. Why didn't he become better known? One reason is an excess of another of his virtues: loyalty. For a while his fiction was published by Penguin and others, but the great majority of his books (including an especially well produced one, Catchpenny Poems) were brought out by Oberon Press. And to be published by Oberon is to be published on sand.
"In the mythology of the time," he writes, a little defensively, "it is the House of Anansi that gets the most attention, as the place of discovery, bravery, new things¨deservedly to a large extent¨books by Atwood, Purdy, Ondaatje¨but it strikes me now that it also happened because Anansi, like Coach House, was in Toronto, close to the newspaper journalists who make the choices about what's important, and partly because Dennis Lee and Dave Godfrey had an instinct for discreet self-promotion." The more common view is that put forward by Robert Lecker in his own new memoir, Dr. Delicious: Memoirs of a Life in Can Lit, that Oberon was "renowned for its inactivity when it came to promoting its authors."
The writers of Helwig's circle naturally cross the pages, their way lubricated with his affection for them. The expat Edward Lacey, the pioneer Canadian poet of the gay sensibility, is one. Another is Timothy Findley ("delicate, sensitive") whom Helwig, an unapologetic amateur actor and singer, got to know on stage. Then there are his Kingston friends: the tortured poet Tom Marshall, the singular Bronwen Wallace who died so young, and Don Bailey whom Helwig met in 1967 when giving writing classes at Collins Bay Penitentiary, where Bailey was doing a stretch for bank robbery. Of elder figures, he has the most to say about Al Purdy ("a big man, affectionate, malicious, opinionated, widely read in an eccentric way . . ."). Strangely for a novelist, Helwig doesn't give these people, or anyone, much dialogue to speak, so we never really hear them. But The Names of Things is certainly a highly polished piece of writing in its structure and its tone.
One of his favourite devices is ending a paragraph of personal description with an ever-so-tiny backhanded observation. For instance, he describes a friend from undergraduate days as "a very fine pianist, assistant director of the Hart House Glee Club, and he played good jazz, school of Art Tatum. Though not too tall, he was good-looking, immensely personable when he cared to be, and at parties he would sit down at the piano and every young woman in the place would immediately join him there wanting to ruffle his hair or rub his back. Infuriating man."
Another example concerns Nancy Keeling (the mother of the writer Maggie Helwig) with whom he seems to have shared a peculiarly on-again off-again marriage.

"Though she was slender, pretty in the gamine style of Leslie Caron, there was a strong jaw that suggested defiance and determination, a notable streak of tomboy independence. She spent her summers pumping gas in a service station in an age when girls didn't do such things. She had been a figure skater and played on the college girls' touch football team, a speedy backfielder who, though she wasn't much at handling the ball, could outrun everyone on the field once she had it in her grip. Once, in public school, her oldest brother had discovered her in the middle of a fight in which she was thrashing one of the boys in her class. She was horrified that her brother separated them and then bought candy for the defeated boy. Surely, she believed, it was the winner who should be rewarded."

In short, a fine memoir, both as a record of a long and dedicated career and as a document in the history of the generation of writers stirred into activity by Expo and the other events of forty years ago. It provides a vivid contrast to Robert Lecker's Dr. Delicious, mentioned earlier.
In her book The Force of Vocation, Ruth Panofsky quotes some advice that Jack McClelland gave Adele Wiseman about her second novel. He begged her not to call it The Crackpot (which she did anyway). The title is appropriate to a light comic novel, McClelland said, but can only confuse or put off readers of a serious one. Somebody should have given Lecker the same lecture about Dr. Delicious. The title, which is based simply on the fact that lecker means delicious in German, makes it sound like a work that's either salacious or show-bizzy or both. In fact, as a subtitle indicates, the book is a memoir of a life spent in Can lit. Or perhaps one should say in and around Can lit. Lecker, an academic devoted to Canadian literary criticism, became entangled in publishing slapdash books about pop culture at its most ephemeral (including a pseudonymous one about Shania Twain that led to suit for copyright infringement, which he and his co-defendants lost).
With Jack David, another English prof, Lecker founded the journal Essays in Canadian Writing, which begat the publishing house ECW Press. The book is the story of how the press was forced to abandon its high purpose and became a specialist in quick-and-dirty trade books as the two partners, though their personalities differed, found that they shared a taste for reckless entrepreneurial behaviour.
As a publishing memoir, Dr. Delicious couldn't be more unlike Roy MacSkimming's survey The Perilous Trade, which is full of selfless souls pursuing their high-minded dreams to the end. By contrast, Lecker (and David, too, he tells us) were something else again. They became addicted to deal-making, often for its own sake, and steadily turned the firm into what it is today, a major supplier of hasty books about wrestling and such. Along the way, they kept hoping to sell it at a profit but never could, all the while accumulating more and more personal debt (including, at one point, $90,000 on their credit cards). The impression readers are left with is one of a desire to make money without conspicuous talent for it. Mind you, this is not the entire story.
Lecker is a Montrealer who studied at McGill and later at York where he came under the influence of Eli Mandel's brand of humanistic criticism. He arrived on the literary scene when Canadian cultural nationalism was at its zenith and the future of QuTbec in Confederation was in greater doubt than usual. For him, the two facts could scarcely be separated. "As a Montrealer living in Toronto when the PQ victory took place, I [came] to understand my commitment to Canadian literature as a political activity that would assert my own nationalism, my refusal to accept the separatist agenda."
"Jack and I were, at heart, relentless entrepreneurs," Lecker says rather needlessly, but he makes the two of them sound like Laurel and Hardy, stumbling from one harebrained scheme to another: recycling texts in different formats, packaging books for other (successful) publishers¨anything for cash. "The temptation was always to sign up the book that would get support from somewhere¨from the author; from the author's university; from a 'grant-in-aid-of-publication' which was really a way of supporting vanity publishing without calling it that; from the Aid to Scholarly Publications Program; from some kind of guaranteed sale to a company or individual; from a professor agreeing to a large-scale course adoption that would guarantee sales." Their company wouldn't have existed at all if they hadn't had their university salaries to subsidise it. In the process, they found themselves with a publishing programme that "was driven by nanve idealism combined with literary nationalism [even though] the fate of each book instilled in us more and more cynicism." In the end, things came unstuck.
Lecker defends himself against his own version of events by stressing his underlying seriousness of purpose. He writes: "Later, when the ECW list got bigger, I would love selling books to people at street fairs and conferences. Even if I sold it for half price, there was still the sense that someone was willing to put real cash in my hand for this literary artefact that I had helped to produce." But, like businessmen everywhere, he and David evidently valued growth for its own sake. Their infrastructure kept expanding and so did it the need for more cash flow. The constant hustling took them farther and farther away from their original mission and core values, as I suspect that any business student could have told them.
Lecker writes here in a prose that, in a ricocheting analogous to that of ECW's list, goes back and forth between intellectualism and low comedy. His style is gossipy, confessional and heavily caffeinated, and sometimes quite funny in the nebbishy manner of Woody Allen. Here is his description of an unsuccessful interview with a hiring committee at the University of British Columbia chaired by one Robert Jordan, the head of the English department:

" . . . hauled out the paper I was going to deliver the next day, a presentation on Dave Godfrey's experimental novel, The New Ancestors. It was full of commentary on Godfrey's postmodern aesthetic, much of which I didn't understand. The paper struck me as wordy and pretentious. All of a sudden I started to wonder how knowledgeable my audience might be, and whether I would survive. Early the next morning Jordan picked me up and drove me up to the campus [Ó] I was still obsessing about his title. I had never heard of a department 'Head,' only 'Chairman.' What did it mean about this department, that it had a single 'Head'? I imagined dozens of shrunken professorial bodies, like clustered homunculi conjoined at Jordan's rigid neck, their heteroglossic voices rising up collectively, pouring from his pursed mouth. It was as if Jordan was some kind of master thinking apparatus, while the rest of the department served as his appendages. I knew I was getting carried away by the whole Head business, but my visions, combined with Jordan's military bearing, unnerved me. He was still grimacing, more than ever."

In time, Lecker was hired by the University of Maine at Orono and eventually by McGill. At both places, his geographical distance from David and the Toronto head office led inexorably to a breakdown of the partnership.
Lecker presents himself as a person still in intellectual debt to certain nationalistic Canadian writers a half-generation older than himself, such as Dennis Lee. At one point he writes of how Lee "explored the idea that a way of speaking was (or could become) a mode of resistance. Lee's concept of cadence enables us to think of language and nation as forces that are at play in our physical bodies, in a visceral sense." He refers several times to Lee's long poem Civil Elegies. Towards the end we learn that Lecker wrote a monograph on the poem, which his publisher of choice, House of Anansi, rejected. This leads him (of all people) to say: "Once upon a time Anansi was a press that was willing to take some chances, go out on a limb to support different kinds of Canadian writing¨the writing that the big-name publishers would never touch. But it had become a bottom-line press like most of the others, withdrawing from CanCrit and memoirs because the sales just weren't there." This is hardly a fair or accurate description of the new revitalised Anansi. In any event, Dr. Delicious appears just as the resurrected monograph finds a home with Cormorant Press as The Cadence of Civil Elegies, a finely written and thoroughly thought-out piece of explication, the sort that ECW set out to publish all those years ago, before the marketplace intervened. ˛

George Fetherling's most recent book is Tales of Two Cities: A Novella Plus Stories.
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