||Fetherling Raw Materials
OF THE GENERATION OF Canadian writers that moved fromcanter to gallop in the 1940s, none seemed then, or seems now, more truly,deeply, and diversely talented than A. M. Klein, author of The Rocking Chair and Other Poems and The Second Scroll, his famous novel. And none had a briefer runnor a sadder end.
For about 20 years in the life of Montreal and ofCanada, Klein enjoyed a delicately balanced combination of public life andprivate calling. He put together a patch-work career in law, politics,journalism, teaching, public relations, and speechwriting to support himself asa poet, fiction writer, dramatist, and critic, all the while labouring invarious ways for Jewish causes. He was just on the eve of even greater literaryachievements, and who knows what political successes, when, in the early 1950s,he began a long slide into serious mental illness. The decline would bepunctuated by several suicide attempts. By 1955, he had stopped writingaltogether. He lived until 1972.
Klein has been one of the most seriously studiedEnglish-Canadian writers of his day, the object of a great deal ofscholarship - not only critical but textual and biographical too.
Last year Notebooks:Selections from the A.M. Klein Papers (Universityof Toronto Press), edited by Zailig Pollock and Usher Caplan, appeared.Unavoidably, I suppose, the title evokes the image of laundry lists and theroughest of drafts, of scraps and fragments crumpled and tossed in the rubbish.Nothing could be further from the truth. Notebooksis in fact a wonderful introductionto Klein`s interior and physical worlds and provides solid evidence of what hemight have been expected to achieve if ill health hadn`t intervened. It`s also,it turns out, a sketch of a very learned, very kindly, and often very funnyman.
The book draws on various kinds of material, rangingfrom two brief diaries Klein kept to a very polished segment of an untitlednovel, from his lecture notes on poetry at McGill to what he called his rawmaterial file. The last of these is especially revealing. "Neumann did asketch of me," Klein jots down one day, referring to Ernst Neumann, aMontreal painter. "Most unsatisfactory. Showed me grim and mean. Which Iam not always. Perhaps, since he always seeks me asking loans, that`s the wayhe sees me. I told him that the face he did had its geography correct, but itsclimate is all wrong." (The sketch is used on the front jacket of Notebooks.)
Along with these little responses to daily events, theraw material file is full of epigrams of a more deliberate, more polishednature. "Flattery is the utterance of compliments incredible to theflattered," Klein writes. "It is practically impossible to achieve."Or, even more cutting but a little chilly, "Greed is a kind ofintelligence." Best of all, and perhaps proud and a bit weary at the sametime: "My world is a fountain-pen moving on its axis."Certainly the fountain-pen is a recurring image in these pages. At onepoint he is amused by his own frustration: "Can`t write to-day. Nocigarettes. I must have incense."
If for no other reason than the phrase "rawmaterial file," Notebooks calls to mind TheIdea File of Harold Adams Innis, editedwith great skill by William Christian (author of the recent biography of GeorgeGrant) and also published by the University of Toronto Press, in 1980. Butthere is a deeper similarity. Innis, the economist and historian who wrote The Fur Trade in Canada and Empire and Communications,became, posthumously, one of thegreat heroes of Canadian nationalism and the political left. That he did so wasalways just the slightest bit mystifying, for he wrote in a style almoststupefying in its complexity and incomprehensibility a communications expertwho didn`t know how to communicate, in the words of his sharp-tonguedcolleague C. P. Stacey. Because it consists entirely of informal notes tohimself, often stray facts and connections gleaned from his reading, The Idea File shows the mind at work without the complication oftortured language coming between the book and its readers. It shows Innisworking beneath or around the language (if TheIdea File were a rock CD it might becalled Innis Unplugged). Partly as a result, it`s almost a cult object in somecircles. Someone I know once heard it seriously referred to as "an I Ching for our time."
Well, that seems a bit much. Anyway, the Innis is avery different matter from Klein`s Notebooks,as Innis was at the mercy of theEnglish language and Klein was its master. Yet the two books have somewhat thesame attractiveness, which they share with very few other Canadian literaryworks. Another example is Louis Dudek`s Notebooks1960-1994, just published byGolden Dog Press. Only in recent years, as Canadian literature has matured, hasthis sort of secondary, fragmentary material started popping up for generalcirculation. The appearance of such a book is nearly always a healthy sign.
Douglas Fetherling`s Travels by Night (Lester) was short-listed for the Trillium, Ontario`s book award.