REVIEWS

BOOKS

From a bunker in a Toronto basement, the guerrillas of fiction mount a new push

PHILIP SYKES October 1 1969
REVIEWS

BOOKS

From a bunker in a Toronto basement, the guerrillas of fiction mount a new push

PHILIP SYKES October 1 1969

BOOKS

REVIEWS

PHILIP SYKES

From a bunker in a Toronto basement, the guerrillas of fiction mount a new push

A CATCHY, declarative jingle on the national radio network says, There's something happening here, what it is ain't exactly clear, and it speaks with the same casual purposefulness you find in the basement of a Victorian house on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue, which is the home of the publishing House of Anansi. It is where something is happening for the generation of writers young enough to revere Leonard Cohen as an established giant. The difficulty of access — a handwritten sign on the house’s locked front door directs you around the corner into a side street, down the second driveway on the right, through the back-garden gate, down the wooden steps, past the furnace room and the cardboard boxes stacked with George Grant’s Technology & Empire — and the constant comings and goings of serious young people give it something of the feel of a bunker in the siege of Stalingrad. Here guerrillas of new writing plot daring forays. Here, at dawn, a young novelist rolls up his sleeping bag from the concrete floor of the furnace room and shouts that at last he understands his central character. And here the calm generalissimo, publisher Dennis Lee, issues an order-of-the-day: “We have one modest aim — to transform the climate in Canadian fiction, by letting the best young writers get into print, find an audience and get on with their next book.”

The order announces the appearance this month of the first Spiderline Editions — five novels by unknown young Canadians, inexpensively printed by the offset process to sell at $1.95 a piece. Lee is a poet, editor and talent-spotter who has just reached the untrustworthy age of 30 but is still the trusted counselor of young writers, who are sending him manuscripts at the rate of 400 a year and have convinced him that the novel is a developing form in both English and French Canada (see box).

Four of the first'five Spiderlines are in English:

Fallout, by Peter Such, 30, a story of Elliot Lake at the beginning of the uranium slump of the late ’50s, strong

in its delineation of white and Indian characters and its sense of the machine, of gouging earthmover jaws tearing up patterns of living with the rock and timber of the bush.

Eating Out, by John Sandman, 24, a comic study in human ineffectuality. An aging bum with the colloquial flow of a latter-day Damon Runyon narrates the attempted holdup of a Broadway hotdog stand. Everyone bungles his job: the holdup man finds himself mopping the counter, the cops forget what they came to investigate. Underlying the farce, an uneasy sense of social disintegration — as when a policeman looks at his potential witnesses and mutters, “They’re so nothin’, Harry. There’s so much nothin’ for them to say.”

Korsoniloff, by Matt Cohen, 26, in which a conflicted Toronto lecturer reveals his two selves through entries in his journal. It has a distinctive tone of calm and engaging irony (“We had come to love each other in a metallic sort of way”) marred by lapses into the precious and prosey.

The Telephone Pole, by Russell Maurois, 24, an ambitious experiment — violent, sexual, phantasmagoric — with the lives and fantasies of an assortment of rootless people in the seedy furnished rooms of English Montreal. The narratives of four sets of characters interweave, reflect one another, telescope weirdly, collapse and re-emerge like nightmares in the sleep of some all-experiencing consciousness. It is arguable that it is all too disconnected, profuse, shapeless, to be a novel; it is unarguable that the writing is mesmeric, formed with more than skill — with power.

The Telephone Pole is a significant selection, for Lee anticipates a growing Canadian interest in fiction of original forms and at unplumbed levels. (Graeme Gibson’s unorthodox Five Legs, published by Anansi this spring, sold 3,000 and is still selling.) Some of the more interesting young writers, Lee speculates, may be set on a course that will someday render the traditional realistic novel as rare as lyric verse drama. □

The tragedy of a man who didn’t belong

THE PUBLICATION of a novel in literary French for an English-Canadian audience does not appear, at first sight, the shrewdest business ploy. But consideration of the House of Anansi’s reasons for including Pierre Gravel’s A Perte de Temps in its new Spiderline Editions suggests it is more than a romantic gesture: A growing number of young English Canadians are seriously interested in the French language. The text comes with bottom - of - the - page translations of less familiar words. The novel deals with an underexposed contemporary figure — the Quebec terrorist. And it is a novel of quality.

With some faltering over unfamiliar verbs of sound and motion — sensuous verbs — I found the writing vigorous, direct and as easily comprehended as, say, the French of Albert Camus. The narrative of the 24 hours leading to the arrest of a young terrorist has the power and grip of the best man - on - the - run stories, from Crime and Punishment to Odd Man Out. It is haunting and, perhaps, more

important for the Anglo readership, it reveals a truth in its presentation of a Quebec bomber who is no monster but a fallible man, reliving his crucial decisions. Now choices that once seemed clear and positive — and he uses the word “joy” in recalling the early terrorist esprit — are clouded and ambiguous. The sureness has gone with comrades defected or jailed. The one who defected, anticipating the first bomb death, came to see terrorism only as evil. And the fugitive’s own rage — might it not stem from his father’s suicide, his loathing of a family deprived of assurance?

Gravel was raised and schooled with the bomb-setting generation. He knows its bruised psyche. When his runaway, Robert, wistfully hears the good-humored banter of a gang of road-drillers, he feels une impression empreinte de tristesse; il n’était pas à sa place. He doesn’t belong. In this novel the statelessness, the homelessness, the total loss of heritage of the revolutionary Québécois is stated with rare and tragic force.