When Morley Callaghan's first novel, Strange Fugitive, was published in 1928, the Toronto Globe didn't bother to review the book, but did print a long letter condemning the work for libelling the city of Toronto
AS THE FIRST subject of a tribute to a living writer held at the Wang International Festival of Authors in Toronto, Morley Callaghan was an admirable choice. Not only is he still active at 85, but he was the first modern Canadian writer in English to find an international audience.
The story of Callaghan's dazzling start as a writer is now legendary, from the first short stories published in the Paris magazines of the '20s to the contract for two books from Scribners in 1928, when Callaghan was 25. Those early stories employed a language so plain as to skirt the banal, which could nonetheless reveal the small moral crises of Callaghan's down?at?heel characters as if with a pure and intense light. Callaghan went on to write novels, the most famous of which date from the '30s and the splendid memoir of his year abroad, That Summer in Paris. It was from that memoir that Constance Beresford?Howe, one of the tribute's speakers, would quote Callaghan's words on style:
"I remember deciding that the root of the trouble with writing was that poets and story?writers used language to evade, to skip away from the object, because they could never bear to face the thing freshly and see it freshly for what it was in itself."
Two evenings before the tribute Callaghan was one of the festival readers. He crossed the stage of the Premiere Dance Theatre, slightly hunched and using a cane, with his white clown's hair unruly over his ears, to read from his new novel, A Wild Old Man on the Road. He was the only reader to sit, yet his voice was as strong as ever and as he fumbled to find his place in the book the audience laughed, not out of nervousness for an old man turned feeble, but comfortably, for a man obviously in control. Yet when he read there was a certain disappointment: the passage from his new novel was set in Montparnasse, and although the prose was as clear as ever, it sounded falsely sentimental, and the characters were less than convincing. Perhaps he had mined the memories of his Paris days once too often. The lenses of Callaghan's oval frames had turned rose? coloured.
Readers, critics, and fellow writers made up the large and buzzing audience the next afternoon. Once again the festival's artistic director Greg Gatenby had proved himself ?? in an age of movie? star hype and kissand?tell biographies ?? able to bring attention to a writer and his work. A full? page story had appeared in that morning's Globe and Mail and now David Gilmour of "Me Journal" was doing his stand?up before the CBC camera in the upper lobby.
The climax was to be an interview of Callaghan by his son Barry and then the writer alone offering reminiscences, but before that the audience heard seven speakers ?? two academics (David Staines and Clara Thomas), four writers (Graeme Gibson, Constance Beresford?Howe, Norman Levine, and Mordecai Richler) and one editor (Robert Weaver). Weaver suggested that Callaghan's stories have been unjustly overlooked lately; Constance Beresford?Howe laboriously proved how in an age of elaborate style Callaghan showed how to write with "dignity, simplicity, and force," and Levine noted Callaghan's understated religious impulse and his sharp perceptions on the need for pretence in our lives.
Most of the speakers attempted to conjure up the stodgy Victorian literary climate that existed when Callaghan began publishing. Charles G. D. Roberts and L. M. Montgomery were the celebrities of the day while the public was scandalized by the paintings of the Group of Seven. David Staines told how the Toronto Globe didn't bother to review Strange Fugitive, Callaghan's first novel, but did print a long letter condemning the work for libelling the city of Toronto. And Clara Thomas noted how William Arthur Deacon, the country's major critic, realized that he would have to do a good deal of "pick and shovel work" to help unsophisticated readers understand this young and powerful writer.
Despite their being of a later generation, all the writers present expressed an appreciation to Callaghan for the example that he had set. In the '40s Mordecai Richler had thought that "you couldn't be both a Canadian and a writer." Richler's talk was a crafted gem, showing him to be the consummate and constant professional. While the good writers in the country could now fill a "Canada Council mini?bus," he recalled a time when all the writers worth reading, including Callaghan, could have travelled together in the same taxi. Callaghan taught that "if you wrote well enough about your own time and place" readers beyond Canada "would pay attention." And his deep voice sounded a common note when he concluded, "We are all in his debt."
The interview, and Callaghan's reminiscences, turned out to be an anticlimax;
Barry Callaghan appeared uncomfortable as he asked a few leering questions about his father's attitude towards women, while Morley stiffened some spines when he asserted that all writers against free trade lived on government subsidies. For me, the real high point had already come at the intermission, when so many tongue?tied high school students and silver? haired ladies and intense young men. and women crowded around for autographs that the staff had to fight to get a chair through so Callaghan could sit down. One young woman presented for signing a 1929 copy of the Paris magazine This Quarter, open to one of Callaghan's finest stories, "Now That April's Here."
"Where'd you find that?" Callaghan said, looking up. "It's very valuable, you know."