MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

NO SIDE BIRNEY DOESN’T SEE

Plus a beatnik Faust and a friend of Maugham's who bare and sell their souls

JAMES BANNERMAN July 23 1966
MACLEAN'S REVIEWS

NO SIDE BIRNEY DOESN’T SEE

Plus a beatnik Faust and a friend of Maugham's who bare and sell their souls

JAMES BANNERMAN July 23 1966

NO SIDE BIRNEY DOESN’T SEE

Bannerman on books

Plus a beatnik Faust and a friend of Maugham's who bare and sell their souls

IT HAS BECOME customary to call Earle Birney the dean of Canadian poets; and if “dean” is taken to mean the outstanding and respected senior figure of a group, then it may well be that he is. But the word has other connotations. It implies that a man has gone as far as he can go, and has neither the incentive nor the ability to develop further. And in that sense it certainly doesn't apply to Birney.

Why it doesn’t can be seen in his new Selected Poems — just over a hundred of them, chosen by him. The

earliest was written in 1921, the latest in 1965. And while it could be expected that such long practice would bring increasing competence, what has increased in Birney is a great deal more than competence. He has grown, and continues to grow, in the way that a tree grows; taller, stronger, leafier, with branches spread wider to catch and hold more light. And like a tree, Birney is rooted in the earth.

Many poets appear to write chiefly for other poets, and for a handful of lofty critics; and their earthiness, when they have any, is a matter of designed effect. But Birney is honest, and he is his own man. He secs the human condition as one who shares it with the rest of us; not as an observer from heights we can’t hope, and don’t really want, to attain.

In short he sees what we see, and opens our eyes to see more. That is why Selected Poems, which has a number of striking full-page decorations by Leonard Brooks, can give pleasure to all sorts of people, and doesn’t depend on acceptance by an intellectually incestuous clique. And it's a good thing for him that it doesn’t, since the nit - picking logrollers probably won’t accept it.

A CASE OF HUMAN BONDAGE, by Beverley Nichols, begins with a statement that: “This book is not an attack upon a dead man; rather it is the refutation of a libel upon a dead woman.”

The man is Somerset Maugham; the woman Maugham’s wife Syrie, whom he villified in his last book, Looking Back. And if Nichols had done what he said he was going to do, he would at least deserve credit for attempted chivalry. But he has made Syrie, who was a fashionable interior decorator, merely incidental to an oddly bitchy - sounding account of her husband’s long homosexual infatuation with his secretary, a young American named Gerald Haxton, and of the goings and comings and doings of their friends — generally a pretty effete set. And the relatively little attention Nichols does pay to the woman he claims to be championing makes her seem distinctly stupid, even more distinctly neurotic, and essentially trivial.

Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, its malicious overtones and gossipcolumn pettiness, this nasty little book (there are only 153 pages) has a certain fascination. One is constantly assuming that the author can’t possibly top the bad taste of some comment or other, and constantly discovering that he can and does. With a friend like Nichols, Syrie Maugham has no need of an enemy.

GOETHE’S OLD scholar Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles, an agent of the Devil, in return for his lost youth. In John Hersey’s novel Too Far To Walk, a young man named Fist, an undergraduate at a New England college, sells his soul to an agent of the Devil in return for his lost sense of identity.

Too Far To Walk is every bit as contrived as the Faust-Fist derivation suggests. Fist, in spite of Hersey’s evident wish to present him as a significant symbol of today’s unrest on the campus, is far less meaningful' than Faust. The old scholar wanted something almost any old person can understand that he would want, although few would be willing to pay so high a price for it. But in order to find real significance in Fist, one must first accept the idea that the young people of the 1960s are desperately seeking something they already have. For surely much of the restlessness and protest among university students can be explained by their active and growing sense of identity, and by the desire for self-determination which is a consequence of that sense.

Thus Fist is a special case; an eccentric, a flawed personality, rather than a valid representative of modern youth. Because of this Too Far To Walk lacks the broad application which might have given it value as social comment, and is instead no more than a piece of ingenuity. Even so it could have been diverting, and indeed here and there it is diverting; but considered as a whole it unfortunately isn’t quite ingenious enough.

Selected Poems, by Earle Birney. McClelland & Stewart, $5.00 A Case Of Human Bondage, by Beverley Nichols. Seeker & Warburg, $4.50

Too Far To Walk, by John Hersey. Random House of Canada, $5.95

JAMES BANNERMAN