To all but one of the friends of the young Canadian member of London’s literary set, George Woodcock’s decision to return to his roots was deeply perplexing. That friend was British essayist and novelist George Orwell, and even his assessment of Woodwock’s 1949 abandonment of a promising career in Europe was guarded: when he learned of Woodcock’s plans, he remarked that Canada was “the sort of country that could be fun for a bit, especially if you like fishing.” But the country he had left as an infant was to prove fertile ground for the Winnipeg-born Woodcock. Now, at 80, he is a celebrated man of letters, the prolific author of more than 75 books. His astoundingly broad canon includes poetry, plays, literary criticism, travel books, biography, history and even an opera libretto, most of it written in his Vancouver home and much of it translated into languages as disparate as Spanish and Mongolian. According to British Columbia poet and critic Robin Skelton, on the occasion of Woodcock’s birthday in May: “In a properly constituted society, his 80th birthday would have been celebrated with the issuing of a postage stamp, the striking of a medal and a burst of cannon fire on Parliament Hill.”
A dramatic outpouring of that order would clearly discomfit the soft-voiced, somewhat shy author and editor, who prefers to let his work speak for itself. Often described as a “gentle anarchist” for his belief that power belongs in the hands of people rather than institutions, Woodcock has pursued a careermarked by collisions with authority, freewheeling skepticism and high adventure in faraway places. A pacifist, he refused to fight in the Second World War and instead was pressed into service as a market gardener in Britain. Later, he was denied entry to the United States because he refused to renounce his anarchist beliefs. In Power to Us All, one of two Woodcock books published this year—a year marked by ill health and lengthy hospitalization—he urges that civil disobedience be entrenched as a tool in Canadians’ political arsenal. Such a course, he
writes, “more than once has changed the attitudes and destinies of nations.”
But he is hopeful about the course of current events. During an interview in his twostorey white frame home in Vancouver’s Kerrisdale district, surrounded by mementoes of trips to India, China and the South Seas, Woodcock said that the “miracle” of the Soviet empire’s collapse came about because “people woke up to the fact they could take their freedom.” And the defeat of constitutional changes in Canada’s October referendum “will give people a taste that they have a certain amount of power.” Said Woodcock: “You have to get power in the right hands— and the right hands are those of the people.” Much of Woodcock’s wide-ranging writings has a strong political flavor. His often-reprinted 1962 book, Anarchism, is a contemporary classic. His 1966 book on Orwell, The Crystal
Spirit, won him a Governor General’s Award. But there are many other rooms in the mansion of Woodcock’s mind. As founding editor of the influential quarterly Canadian Literature in 1959, he both documented and fostered the nation’s increasingly vigorous literary climate. He has written countless studies of Canadian writers and artists, history and travel—several of them about British Columbia, where he and his Austrian-born wife Inge established their new home more than four decades ago “because we wanted to see what was at the end of the road.”
Now, Woodcock is venturing into new territory. He is working on his first novel, one based on “curious events in a small town in the interior of British Columbia.” There is a second project—a new translation of French novelist Marcel Proust’s 16-volume Remembrance of Things Past. He says that the old translation is another wrong that has to be righted: “I dislike it intensely.” Ill with a heart ailment, he had by this month completed barely 100 pages of the first volume. Still, his prodigious commitment to his craft is clearly equal to the new tasks, just as it has been to so many others in a long life crowded with achievement.
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