By Clark Blaise
It’s fitting that this new selection of essays by Clark Blaise, edited by John Metcalf and J. R. Struthers, begins and ends with autobiography. Fitting in part because Blaise’s fiction has always been transparently anchored in the material of his own life. The titles of the four volumes of his Selected Stories (Southern Stories, Pittsburgh Stories, Montreal Stories, and World Body) both register a personal journey and provide an index to a lifelong fascination with place. But fitting also in that this fascination with biography and geography has always been a feature of his critical as well as creative writings. “Let me start with the autobiographical approach,” is how one of his lectures begins. Personal origins will help to “maintain perspective.”
They will that, and more. William Carlos Williams has a line in one of his poems about how the pure products of America go crazy. Blaise picks it up a couple of times – readers can expect some repetition of language and anecdote in such a collection – the point being that writers are made as much as born, the pure products of their environment. This doesn’t mean that Blaise endorses what used to be known as the “biographical fallacy” (ah, there were such a lot of fallacies back in the day), only that he thinks it vitally important to recognize where writing comes from. A quick look at the table of contents makes the point: “The Border as Fiction,” “The International Novel,” “American Fiction,” “Some Thoughts on Canadian and Australian Fiction,” “Notes on the ‘Canadian’ Short Story.” In the first of these we are told that “intense regionalism” is a “national trait of Canadians” as well as “an urgent aspect of my personality.” Canadians as a people are “regionally determined.” And we aren’t the only ones. Within individual appreciations the formative influence of biography and geography is repeatedly stressed. It may be “understandable enough” for V. S. Naipaul to reject the label of “West Indian writer,” but still his “Caribbean work is [his] strongest, [in part] because it is closest to his experience of growing up.” And here, to take an unhappier example, is how the table is set for a re-appraisal of “one of those famed ‘pure products of America’,” Jack Kerouac:
An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while trying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics.
To know what kind of cultural milieu Kerouac came out of, and Blaise does, is essential to an understanding of the man and his work.
The biographical bent is just one aspect of Blaise’s critical perspective, albeit, I believe, the dominant one. But the book also contains valuable discussions regarding the craft (or “plumbing”) of writing, as well as more general historical/thematic reflections on literature and culture. Particularly good are the observations on how Americans look at Canadians, and how we look at them. Observations that are, in turn, informed by personal experience.
The tone throughout might best be described as restrained. Anyone looking for red meat will soon find they’ve come to the wrong place. Blaise will confess to having a “problem” with V. S. Naipaul, but that’s about as far as it goes. Even his essay on Kerouac is sympathetic, not a hatchet job. One often has the sense that something is being held back. How, one wants to know, does a respected writer and teacher of fiction like Blaise feel about the fact that the biggest event in his writing life, the one that finally gave him financial independence, was the publication of a slim book of popular history (Time Lord)?
His attitude toward Montreal provides an interesting test case in critical tact. Several references are made to his leaving Montreal because of racial intolerance, but there are few specific details. Even allowing for a desire not to dwell on the negative, how does such a major life decision fit with his assertion that “Montreal is the ‘hometown’ (out of thirty) that I claim. . . . The happiest years of my life were spent in Montreal.” While it’s true that he has fond memories of the Montreal Story Teller Fiction Performance Group (recounted here in “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Pup”), readers of Montreal Stories will find a city primarily characterized by bad weather, dirt, poverty, vermin, suspicion, and hostility: “dead, repressive Montreal.” Truth, no doubt, lies somewhere between these poles of resentment and nostalgia. But it is typical of Blaise’s critical approach to cultivate a state of reserved ambivalence.
It is the border, again, being expressed as a state of mind.
Review first published online March 23, 2009.