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The Vintage Book of Canadian Memoirs

by Fetherling, George, ed.
582 pages,
ISBN: 0679310622


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Lives Well Arranged
by Clara Thomas

From Margaret Atwood to Eric Wright this is a timely publication if ever there was one. Never have Memoirs been more popular or saleable, and never before, I believe, has there been a collection of excerpts from the especially rich and wide-ranging Canadian field. As one who has given courses for many years on Life-Writing, the commonly used academic term, I have witnessed the first hesitant and then increasingly rapid growth of enthusiasm among students and general readers for autobiographical writing and the answering growth of publications.

Fetherling has chosen twenty-two satisfyingly lengthy excerpts, most of them of twenty pages or more, from current writers, He divides their work among four sub-headings: "At Home and Abroad", "Getting Started", "Uprootedness and Family", and "Tragedies, Choices and Losses". These are the sections that every autobiography falls into naturally; their use in organizing this volume is obvious and satisfying.

When Mordecai Richler reminisces about his youthful two years overseas, especially in Paris, he is far from the sentimental romanticism of Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. This was the fifties, and Mordecai and his companions, while bent on literary careers, were often, in their conversations, self-consciously unliterary, dwelling instead on the pop culture and sports of their generation back home. Richler writes of his young self with a rueful, self-deprecatory understatement that fits perfectly with the tone and temper of the novels that made his international fame. The passage from Barry Callaghan's Barrelhouse Kings surprisingly and engrossingly deals with the sudden onslaught of acute arthritis that he suffered in his twenties as well as the difficulties encountered and overcome in his courtship and marriage to Nina, of Ukrainian immigrant background. And on we go, each author and selection well chosen by Fetherling to offer readers a wonderfully varied experience.

His introduction pleased me especially, for in it he pays tribute to the men who are Canada's major claim to fame in the field¨"The Three G's": Grove, Grey Owl and Glassco, each one of whom adopted a blatantly fraudulent persona and found a gullible public ready to accept it. Grove, with his story of his youth as a rich young Swedish aristocrat was only unmasked as a young German translator and would-be literary figure years after his death because of the determined digging of Douglas Spettigue, an academic who himself was often ostracized for his efforts; Grey Owl, a young Englishman who emigrated to Canada and devised for himself a detailed and complex Indian heritage, became, through his life style and writings, the most famous Indian of his time, was the best known internationally of the three. During his lifetime he was never seriously challenged. David Attenborough, famous film-maker, paid him the ultimate compliment a few years ago with his adulatory film starring Pierce Brosnan. Glassco, In Memoirs of Montparnasse, wrote of his young adventures in the Paris of the twenties ostensibly from the point of view of a mortally ill young man, while all the time producing the work decades later as a well-known poet and public figure. Fetherling has included a passage from Memoirs of Montparnasse in his collection. From the elegance of its writing and the combined pathos and interest of its ostensible origins, it is easy to understand why and how a generation was willingly duped.

This is a great book for browsing: try Atwood's memories of Marian Engel and savour true friendship; or Heather Robinson's affectionate treatment of the "formidable feminists" and especially the "terrible men" of the Winnipeg Tribune: "Some are still out there, scattered across the country, ornery as ever, noses twitching at the scent of bullshit, stubborn, smart, rude, still fighting after all these years. Here's to them." Timothy Findley offers a generous account of the actors and dramatists who helped him find his true metier in the writing of fiction, and Elspeth Cameron's excerpt, from her No Previous Experience, is a stranger-than-fiction, self-justifying account of her late discovery of herself as a lesbian. Nor has Fetherling neglected our multi-cultural dimension: Austin Clark and Cecil Foster from Barbados, Eric Wright from England, Wayson Choy, his Chinese relatives and forbears strong in his memory, Michael Ondaatje recalling his family's past in Sri Lanka, and Janice Kulyk Keefer's celebrating her Polish roots are among the writers honouring their ethnic backgrounds. These are but a sampling of the collection's variety.

The pricing of this book at $24.95 is another of its virtues: we have not previously had a collection of Memoir excerpts that could act as a resource text for the proliferating Life-Writing courses or popular Book Clubs. I cannot think of a better introduction to a burgeoning field or one as guaranteed to spark students' enthusiasm for reading further and deeper. George Fetherling is to be highly congratulated for bringing all these riches together¨and Vintage, a division of Random House, is equally praiseworthy for producing, at reasonable cost, an attractive and eminently readable volume. ˛

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