Books

On writing in an unsympathetic land

A memoir describes a novelist’s struggles

John Bemrose October 9 2000
Books

On writing in an unsympathetic land

A memoir describes a novelist’s struggles

John Bemrose October 9 2000

On writing in an unsympathetic land

Books

A memoir describes a novelist’s struggles

John Bemrose

One day when Matt Cohen was a teenager, his father, an Ottawa chemist, told him a short cautionary tale. “I used to write plays in university,” the elder Cohen confessed to his son, “but then I grew up.” If this was intended as a warning against the literary life, fortunately it didn’t take. Cohen eventually turned

himself into one of Canada’s most respected writers, and when the 56-year-old author died last December of lung cancer, he had just won the Governor General’s Award for his finest novel, Elizabeth and After. He had also just finished his memoir, Typing: A Life in 26 Keys.

At heart, this trenchantly compelling book is about how difficult it was, not just to become a successful writer, but to

Typing: A Life in 26 Keys

By Matt Cohen

Random House, 237pages, $32.95

remain one in an unsympathetic land. The career of literature is still suspect in Canada, where a backwoods conviction about the essentially frivolous nature of fiction and poetry persists in far too many minds. But when you’re Jewish, and a cranky outsider by nature, the struggle to carve a place in the country’s literary culture, Typing suggests, can be that much harder.

This admission may surprise those who assume that Cohen, with his widely respected body of work (26 books, mostly fiction), was part of CanLit’s inner circle. But Cohen never felt that way about himself. Though a fierce supporter of Canadian culture, he admits in Typing that he was never fully able to embrace this country’s Englishlanguage literature with its predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, smalltown view of the world. “Canadian fiction did not open my soul to itself, or even remind me of myself,” he acknowledges. He was more drawn to the literature of Europe, and spent half of the past decade living there, where his own books sometimes enjoyed more success in translation than they had back home. Yet the great irony of his career, which he overlooks or ignores in Typing, is that many of his best novels, including his popular Salem quartet of the 1970s, as well as Elizabeth and After, bring to vivid life just the sort of small-town, nominally Christian

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communities from which he claimed to feel so distant.

Born in 1942 in Kingston, Ont., to a family of Russian-Jewish background, Cohen was a colicky, sickly, embattled baby, and he went right on being embattled for the rest of his life. Slow to find his true métier, he started off in science at the University of Toronto, switched to political economy (while hiding the change from his father) and spent a year teaching in the religion department at Hamilton’s McMaster University. He admits he was appallingly unqualified for this job, which he got thanks to the influence of his friend and mentor, the McMaster-based philosopher George Grant, whom Cohen thinks just wanted someone congenial to talk to. Conversing by the hour with the great man was Cohen’s real education, and while he ultimately had to reject Grant’s conservative religious views, he embraced (more hopefully than Grant himself did) his teacher’s vision of a national culture confident enough to survive American influence.

In the late ’60s, Cohen gave up the safety of academe and—based mainly in Toronto—began to write fiction full time. He describes candidly and perceptively the arduous, heartbreaking process of finding his own voice, something he finally managed to do in his 1972 volume of short stories, Columbus and the Fat Lady. Typing also offers some wonderful glimpses (not all of them sympathetic) of the dominant personalities during the golden coming-of-age period of Canadian writing and publishing. Especially poignant is Cohen’s portrait of Margaret Laurence in her sad, alcohol-plagued final years. As Cohen wrote Typing, he was undoubtedly aware he might die soon himself. A sense of urgency pervades the book, and while this rushes some passages, it also contributes to the indomitable liveliness of Typings homage to the writing life.

John Bemrose