THE NAMES OF THINGS
By David Helwig
DR. DELICIOUS: MEMOIRS OF A LIFE IN CANLIT
By Robert Lecker
Was it bliss in that dawn to be alive?
Just for the sake of neatness let’s make it an even decade: 1965-1975.
Some beginnings: Coach House Press, 1965; Quarry Press, 1965; Open Letter, 1965; Oberon Press, 1966; the League of Canadian Poets, 1966; House of Anansi Press, 1967; The Malahat Review, 1967; the Canada Council’s block grant program for Canadian publishers, 1972; Véhicule Press, 1972; The Porcupine’s Quill and ECW (the journal, the press came a couple of years later), 1974.
Some books: Beautiful Losers (1966), Civil Elegies and Other Poems (1972), The Studhorse Man (1969), Fifth Business (1970), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), St. Urbain’s Horseman (1971), Lives of Girls and Women (1971), The Bush Garden (1971), Survival and Surfacing (1972), The Temptations of Big Bear (1973), The Diviners (1974).
“That’s how things were in those years,” David Helwig, someone who was in the thick of it, writes, “an extravagant confidence everywhere. You had an idea, and you did it; new literary projects appeared on all sides.” There was “a growing excitement about Canadian writing all over the country.” It was “an age of poetry” (a.k.a. a time when poetry mattered). What rain brought forth this sudden flowering? National pride? Here’s Helwig again:
There was a growing market for Canadian books then; small press books by Canadian authors were reviewed in the newspapers whether or not they won awards – in fact there were few awards – and apart from McClelland and Stewart, there were no big press campaigns at the beginning of each season. Certainly Jack McClelland’s gift for PR helped along some of his authors, and in many ways helped make all the new Canadian writing fashionable. Canada had reached the stage in its development at which readers wanted to read Canadian books, and they went out and found them. Poetry was in vogue. Nationalism has its limits, of course, as a source of artistic values, but writing is easier if you no longer believe that all the action is somewhere else.
The questioning of national identity and its relationship to a national literature had been “building for years” (Robert Lecker now), “catalysed” by those NCL titles Jack (not David, McClelland) started bringing out in 1955. What drew Lecker, a student in those years, to CanLit was this debate. An academic perspective then (compare and contrast to Helwig):
Although I seldom spoke to my fellow students about this at the time, I think we shared the sense that there was a common purpose in studying Canadian literature, and that in many ways, committing oneself to that kind of study was a kind of conversion experience. On one hand we were becoming involved in the literature precisely at the time when so many books were appearing that were unlike anything seen before – from Kroetsch’s The Studhorse Man to Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid to bpNichol’s The Martyrology. Like many others, I was drawn to the experimental nature of these writers, but also to the growing debate that surrounded the evaluation of their work. While some critics (notably the “thematic critics”) were promoting an understanding of Canadian literature based on models of national self-recognition, others rejected this national bias in favour of criticism that embraced a growing interest in postmodern thought, and still others tried to find a way of marrying postmodern and national values.
Two recollections of what it was like living back in the day, as part of “the generation that made Canadian literature what it is today” (this from the back of Dr. Delicious).
But was it really so wonderful? Was this Canada’s literary Golden Age?
Another point of view: The Golden Age of CanLit is a myth, and like all myths it is a fiction created for a purpose. It is a construct necessary for academics (a common curriculum to teach, a guide for research), and something very good for publishers. Both Helwig and Lecker advert to the first Canadian canon: McClelland and Stewart’s New Canadian Library. It was, of course, a publicity stunt. Dismal books for the most part, but brilliant marketing. These were the Canadian books you had to read . . . even if they weren’t any good. Then take a look at ECW Press, of which Dr. Delicious provides a very personal history. Lecker, one of the founders of ECW, is fascinated by questions of canonicity. And how could he not be? Publishing such scholarly megaprojects as The Annotated Bibliography of Canada’s Major Authors and the Canadian Writers and Their Works series was nothing if not an act of canon building. And, in this regard at least, was it not successful?
The canon then, as Lecker writes, is “a pedagogical and critical creation, of no interest to the public.” Indeed, one might wonder whether a “popular canon” would be a contradiction in terms. As For Me and My House may be “a very tiresome book,” but is it in any less popular than the poetry of John Newlove? The opposite of the canon is nothing so coherent as an anti-canon, but rather the spawn of the free market, an endless turnover of cookbooks, genre paperbacks, investment guides for Canadian Dummies, and celebrity bios. Lecker is fascinated by ECW’s (and his own) schizophrenia in trying to have it both ways. “Somehow, I had reached the point where I was publishing an annotated bibliography of works by and about Stephen Leacock alongside a biography of Sarah Michelle Gellar called Bite Me!” He leads a double life: a creator, defender, and explicator of the Canadian canon, and a “publishing pimp” marketing books on extreme martial arts and wrestling. It’s obvious from such use of language where his own heart and values lie, and when he finally leaves ECW one can sense his relief at saying good-bye to Mr. Hyde. And yet in rebranding itself as “Entertainment, Culture, Writing,” the new ECW is clearly more in tune with the spirit of the age. That golden generation is gone.
The sense of a passing of an era is also felt in Helwig’s The Names of Things. “Many of my contemporaries in the arts are retired or exhausted or dead,” he calmly notes near the end. Robert Lecker, who wears his heart proudly on his sleeve, might have gone on for pages pulling something like that apart. Helwig lets it go. They have very different attitudes toward the past and how we understand it through recreating it in words. Of course neither book is a history, but a memoir. This isn’t what really happened, but what the authors imagine as happening to a “somebody/nobody” (that, obviously, is Helwig) who exists only in memory. At one point Helwig even confesses that one of his anecdotes might only be of a dream. What we have here then are two self-dramatizing characters consciously and unconsciously intent (if that isn’t a paradox) on concealing as much as they reveal. Perhaps not unreliable narrators, but ones that force us to read between the lines and come to some of our own conclusions.
Lecker, to take one example, is obsessed with the fight against Quebec independence. He is engaged on a very public level as an outspoken critic of the separatist movement, and these political opinions colour and influence his approach to CanLit as well. He is a political writer and a political literary critic, especially when it involves the issue of Canadian nationalism. Helwig may have similar opinions, but he isn’t sharing them. On several occasions he mentions having fierce political arguments with his wife, daughter, and friends, but there is no mention of what they were about or what side he took. The election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 is a major event in Lecker’s narrative, one that “permanently altered the political and literary climate in Quebec and dramatically shifted the centre of literary activity to Toronto.” Here is all Helwig has to say about it: “In November of 1976 Quebec elected the first Parti Québécois government. In the previous years I’d watched with fascination the growth of separatism.” No mention of what he found so fascinating about it, or what his opinion of separatism is.
This isn’t just to point out that Lecker is a political animal and Helwig is someone with other things to talk about. It is to highlight the difference in the two voices: the one hot and vociferous, the other cool and reticent. Early in his book Helwig mentions how, as a child, he “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.” Well hidden indeed! The entire memoir is written under the shadow of a recurring heart condition, and yet Helwig presents himself as almost a detached spectator of his body’s breakdown, watching the lines on his heart monitor like a program on TV. If there were any powerful hypochondriac fears, anxiety, or cold panic involved, he’s not letting on. His illness and heart problems become a literary device. It’s beautifully handled – he begins the book in a hospital bed with his own heart being monitored, and ends it with an evocation of the “tiny unborn heart” of his grandchild – but it’s a sort of writing that doesn’t tell you anything more than it has to.
Dr. Lecker certainly never says that he is a hypochondriac. Semi-alert readers, however, may come to their own conclusion from reading passages like the following:
I thought about guys my age, even runners like me, who dropped dead from heart attacks. That wouldn’t be so bad. Or a massive stroke. That would be okay. But there were all these other problems I didn’t have time for – brain cancer, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Parkinson’s (my father’s affliction), Crohn’s – a whole list of diseases that I stayed awake imagining, as if by imagining them I could hold them at bay. (Could you really get Parkinson’s if you were actively thinking about it? No, because those diseases always crept up on people when they least expected it, so if you did expect it at any moment, the disease would know that, and would stay away until it had a chance to surprise you. Obviously the trick was to always be thinking about it, and about all the other diseases that could sneak up on you.)
Why was my back so sore? One of the radiators had sprung a leak. There was a message from the dentist’s office, reminding me of my appointment tomorrow. I felt a tingling in my arm, and a burning pain in my chest. No doubt it was a heart attack. Because I knew it was a heart attack, because I got there before it had a chance to strike, it backed off. This strategy can be bothersome, especially when it reaches a peak. But I would rather be driving around town imagining that I am having a stroke than actually having one, wouldn’t you?
This is funny stuff, and the only question is how much of it Lecker intends to be funny. Surely his tongue is in his cheek with the bit about diseases like Parkinson’s sneaking up on you only if you let them. But what about the “No doubt it was a heart attack”? Or, later, this aside: “I was losing weight. Probably cancer.” When he defends himself against George Bowering’s teasing for dragging him off to a hospital in Tahiti after being stung by a bee (“George thought I was being silly, but I’m allergic to their sting”), how alert is he to the joke?
These are the challenges in reading memoir, a genre characterized by a highly artful selection and presentation of “the facts.” With Helwig one often wonders about what he isn’t saying, with Lecker, what he really means. Who is that “beautiful young woman” Helwig makes love to in that unnamed house in Kingston, on that unnamed street? When Lecker describes Paul Davies as being in love with Jack David there is clearly some not-entirely professional jealously involved. But how much?
They are, of course, very different books. Lecker is the critic and businessman, Helwig the prolific primary producer. The Names of Things is put together better, and includes a number of memorable, dramatic anecdotes. Dr. Delicious energetically spins a lot of industry-insider gossip alongside its central (unresolved) psychomachia.
As for the debate that first drew Lecker to CanLit in the Golden Age, it is still active. But today it’s more a debate between that imagined heroic period and our ability to identify a next wave.
It’s an old story in the arts: what was the New has become the Old, the Establishment, a covering cherub (to use Harold Bloom’s anxious symbol) to be overthrown. And while I don’t think they were giants walking the Earth back in the day, those “major writers” do have a giant position that dominates, and continues to dominate, the landscape. Like it or not, there is a canon, and the new writing has to position itself in relation to it, if only to be recognized by lazy critics. I think that’s regrettable. I think the official canon of the Golden Generation was overrated. I also think it’s a shame that so much media oxygen is spent keeping the reputations of writers like Atwood and Ondaatje preserved long after they’ve done work of any interest. And what’s even worse is how we so often look to contemporary writers to be imitators rather than challengers.
Literary debates are always being encouraged, not because of any particular delight in the struggle but because in the end it’s what makes literature stronger. Both of these books remind us of the spirit of battles past. Hopefully there will be many more to come.
Review first published online July 10, 2006.