Successful writers have a way of turning into public icons. Even people who have not read their works know all about them—their past, their marriages, their pets, everything the gossip-hungry media deem important. Popular historian Pierre Berton and novelist Morley Callaghan are particularly vulnerable, simply because both of them have been around so long and done so much. Callaghan, still producing novels and short stories at 84, and Berton, 66, the author of 33 books in as many years, have become almost as fixed in the national psyche as the maple leaf. That makes it difficult to say anything new about
them—a problem that plagues two new CBC television documentaries, First Person Singular, on Callaghan, and Getting into History, on Berton. The Berton film especially seems like a fond session with the family album rather than a glimpse behind the mask.
The images of Getting into History are uncannily familiar. Berton’s big lobster-red face and manicured white hair appear in a string of predictable situations, including oldtimer celebrations in his Yukon home town of Dawson, and on the panel of the long-running CBC TV show Front Page Chal^ lenge. Older fans will I also recognize a thinner ¿ Berton with the pencil I moustache he wore in 5 his earlier incarnation ^ as a journalist for The z Toronto Star and Mac? lean's. The archival material has been mixed with contemporary interviews with Berton’s friends, family and associates, as well as with the man himself.
Regrettably, everyone is on his best behavior. The off-camera interviewer, producer/director Donnalu Wigmore, never once asks the kind of potentially embarrassing or penetrating questions that Berton does when he conducts interviews. Admittedly, Getting into History does offer a few tantalizing, brief glimpses into Berton’s well-guarded inner life. He confesses that his writing satisfies him most when it gives him “a lump in the throat.” But no one asks him why and when the lumps come. The remark ends up as a testimony to the banal fact that Berton has emotions.
First Person Singular, on the other hand, yields a more satisfying idea of what makes its subject tick. Thanks to Callaghan’s candor, it gives the impression of a vital
personality who long ago dispensed with suffering fools or hiding behind excessive politeness. The opening shot catches that in a single image: Callaghan in full flight down a busy street in his native Toronto, arms and cane working furiously, an old man who still knows he has important business in the world. Unfortunately, the music accompanying that and similar scenes is so comically upbeat that it unintentionally parodies the man. But because of his unself-conscious openness, Callaghan emerges triumphant. He recites an impromptu lament for his dead wife, Lorette, and pokes wry fun at the pretensions of his home town: “There was always this pretending air about Toronto,” he says with deceptive sweetness.
As for Callaghan’s place in literature, First Person Singular offers the appraisals of several Canadian authors, including Timothy Findley, Margaret Atwood and Mordecai Richler. Curiously, none assesses the literary quality of Callaghan’s 12 novels and 100 short stories. Instead, each pays tribute to Callaghan’s trailbreaking achievement in proving that a Canadian writer could make both a reputation and a living.
In the end, it is the man, rather than the work, that impresses. Boastful and opinionated, Callaghan is also charming, acerbic and highly entertaining. His singular personality rescues an otherwise predictable biography with a chain of small but genuine surprises.
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