Hemingway once told Morley Callaghan that there are always four or five people in the world who are interested in good new writing. Understated and exaggerated, Hemingways remark offers little consolation to Morleys son, Barry, who quotes Tolstoys observation that the basis of all good writing is good reporting. Within this conversation of the Callaghans, Hemingway, and Tolstoy we already have the requisite four people, yet one cannot help but wonder at the extent of Barry Callaghans readership when he wrote columns for the Toronto Telegram in the sixties and seventies. While most Torontonians read The Star or The Globe and Mail, fewer subscribed to the Telegram. For those of us who missed Callaghan the first time around, Raise You Five provides an opportunity to read many pieces of good writing and reporting.
Callaghan is a man for all genres-poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama, and translation. An honest gambler, he admits to his fondness for cards and horses: poker face, bluff, trump, trot, and gallop keep his prose varied and interesting at every turn. Dedicated to the critical tradition of Edmund Wilson, he rejects the High Church and High Table of Robertson Davies in favour of the gaming tables and dissenters view of an Irish Catholic. A flaneur and a fox rather than a monolithic hedgehog, Callaghan ranges widely in his interests: in politics, he covers Kruschev and Trudeau; in literature, Auden, Updike, Marie-Claire Blais, Leacock, Sillitoe, Beckett, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kosinski, MacLennan, Pinter, Margaret Laurence, Mailer, Davies, and Yehuda Amichai.
As a critic, Callaghan offers insights into the creative process on the borderlines between fiction and reality. His first piece, True Stories, traces the fate of Paul Rabchuk, a Jewish immigrant from Galicia, who ends up in Saskatchewan. Callaghan tells his story in clipped, Hemingwayesque reportage:
He certainly didnt know how to tell his story.
I have told his story, the story of how he will be remembered.
It is who he will be.
Is it who he was?
I dont know.
Details may be wrong, but what is worth knowing in the story is entirely true.
Having played this God-game, Callaghan then digresses to biblical stories from the Garden of Eden to the Exodus from Egypt. These in turn lead him to an examination of his fathers curious, cold eye in life and in writing. He concludes the essay by binding together his fathers dying of cancer with the other stories: Perhaps that was our passing over, our coming out of bondage into a love, the telling of lies that told a story that enhanced the truth of how it was with us. The tentativeness of perhaps grants the possibility of these Oedipal truths.
Callaghans visual emphasis recurs in a short piece, The Eyes Have It, which begins with Huckleberry Finn, abruptly shifts to Tolstoys omniscient eye, then turns to Stendhals intimate I (the eye of the egoist), before ending with Huck Finns narration. Although there is nothing startling about Callaghans distinction between first-person and third-person narration, nor about the distinction between lhistoire (actual events) and discours (the manner of telling), his rapid shifts account for a degree of originality, nonetheless. A second piece, also titled The Eyes Have It offers a page from his Hogg Poems, to emphasize the visual dimension.
When Callaghan combines eye and ear, he further demonstrates his skills as a novelist: The Ogowé in Gabon is a river of swamps and pocket lagoons and a spongy shoreline. The Hemingwayesque prose captures the flow and stagnancy of this African river, in preparation for a meeting with the memory of Schweitzer: I tried to remember Albert Schweitzers face, his lank white hair, his thick nose, and the lines cut deeply into his face as if time were water. A walrus moustache hid his mouth, letting his eyes float free, like a half-truth. Uncovering the light in darkness in the heart of Africa as he greets lepers, Callaghan discovers a myriad of half-truths. Similar epiphanies recur in his quest for Cardinal Léger who devotes his later spiritual life to helping Africans.
The final essay in this collection, The Heart of the World, is devoted to Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, whose association with Callaghan has been highlighted in Exile, the literary journal Callaghan has edited for the past thirty years. This loving portrait begins in the holy city: Jerusalem has a heart as crooked as ecclesiastical sheets, as crooked as yellow thorn branches, dry in their silence. In the alleyways there is no sound of water. By a wrought-iron window in a stone house on a rise called Yemin Moshe, looking across a gully to Jaffa Gate, Yehuda Amichai the poet sits hunched forward, solid and fleshy through the shoulders, and his face is red from the sun. Through similes and parallelisms, the poetic prose captures the baked and frozen heart of the city, filled with blood and dust. Beside this portrait of Israels greatest poet is his wife Hana, who smokes a tiny pipe.
Amichai polarizes Jerusalem between the desert and the sea:
And Im like someone standing in
the Judean desert, looking at a sign:
He cannot see the sea, but he knows.
Amichai and Callaghan talk casually about Yeats and Ted Hughes, Lowell and Agnon, but Catholic Callaghan soon turns to an examination of Christian history in Jerusalem, since his visit coincides with Easter. Amichai has the last word in the volume as he recounts another true story about standing near Davids Tower while a guide instructs tourists on the citys architectural history. The poet becomes a target marker during the tour guides explanation: You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head theres an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head. But the apocalyptic poet shifts the focus: Redemption will come only if theyre told, You see that arch from the Roman period? Its not important; but next to it, left a little and down a bit, there sits a man whos bought fruit and vegetables for his family. The changed perspective from the monumental to the mundane is key to post-modern perception. Amichai seizes the casual moment by investing it with poetic significance.
Raise You Five is very much of its time, but Callaghan trumps the Toronto Telegram in these essays that go beyond local interest. With volumes 2 and 3 he should have a full deck: high fives to Barry Callaghan who deserves more than four or five readers. Michael Greenstein
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada