On Clark Blaise’s short fiction
I met Clark Blaise in the fall of 1967, when we were both twenty-seven and both teaching in the lower ranks at Sir George Williams University in Montreal. Clark had arrived in Montreal in 1966, and had been teaching English as a Second Language to recently arrived citizens—the real-life experience that informed his now much-anthologized story, “A Class of New Canadians.” He was therefore an old hand at the city by the time I got there, so he was a fount of information and I was a newbie, even though I was five months older than he was.
Sir George was named after the founder of the YMCA—this information from Clark, an amazing accumulator of information—and was later to be subsumed into Concordia. In 1967 it was a curious place—certainly not anyone’s idea of a venerable ivy-covered grove of academe. It was housed in a great big brand-new block of a building, with escalators and fluorescent lighting. You taught a course in the daytime to a group of sullen, silent nineteen-year-olds who resented not having got into McGill; then, in the evening, you taught the same course to a clutch of beady-eyed adult “returning students,” who wanted a degree in order to climb up a rung on whatever ladder they were on. They were highly motivated and not afraid to speak their minds. They plunged in, they discussed everything, they demanded extra reading.
On the days I was teaching both day and night, I’d eat in the cafeteria and drink a lot of coffee there, and that’s where I’d see Clark. Though we were not teaching “creative writing”—that particular entity had not yet manifested itself in Canada, except for a single example in British Columbia—we were both known to be writers, though I had published only a volume of poetry and Clark’s first book of stories, A North American Education, was six years in the future. Nonetheless, he’d been appearing in various prestigious literary magazines, most but not all of them in the United States, and I had a nascent novel. We were promising young writers—in the eyes of others, it seems, and also in our own eyes—so writing is partly what we talked about.
The rest of the time Clark was very amusing on many subjects, himself and his double-jointedness and his fractured, peripatetic childhood and his various travels and dislocations included, but especially about the many different languages he spoke. He would give examples, transforming his body language and timbre of voice for each. At that time he was learning Russian; his eyes would become shrewd and mistrustful, his shoulders would rise, his hands would open, his smile turn falsely genial. “Tovarich! sdelay mne odolzheniye, pozhaluysta! Comrade, do me a favour, please!” The Soviet Union was still in full swing, so the effect was sinister.
But then he’d morph into a restrained Frenchman, then into an unbuttoned, casual Québeçois: his father had been from Quebec, so his accent was spot-on. German was also on offer, as I recall, as was a Southern drawl. When you’ve been dragged around as a child as much as Clark had, you become adept at camouflage. Think of him as a cuttlefish: when in a clump of seaweed, look like seaweed. He could “do” someone from almost any background. And of course, in order to blend into a background, you need to observe that background closely: its textures, its smells, its symbols, its furniture. Perhaps the richness and accuracy of detail and the attention to the nuances of dialogue for which Blaise has been so justly praised has come in part from these early experiences. To avoid being prey, how do you hide in plain sight?
For a fiction writer, such a talent can be both an asset and a liability. If you don’t have just one single “identity,” you aren’t confined to it: your range is cosmopolitan. But when you have so many possible identities at your command, where is the centre? Are you a trickster figure, wandering the margins like Odin in disguise, always observing but never fully rooted? Is your “identity” the fact that you aren’t definable by your membership in a single group? Are you a shape-shifter like werewolves and gods? Are you a conglomerate, like Walt Whitman, who announced, “I contain multitudes?” Was he a part of all that he had met, like Tennyson’s Ulysses, or was all that he had met a part of him, as is the case with all-devouring dragons? Where was the boundary line between self and surround? Were roots a good thing to have, or did they render you parochial and xenophobic? What is “belonging,” and why exactly would you want it? If you “belong,” do the demands of others exceed anything you may expect to gain from them in return? What do “national boundaries” mean, anyway? In asking such questions, Clark was well ahead of his time. This clutch of themes was to preoccupy him in his fiction, appearing in many variations and through many personae over the next fifty-odd years.
Clark had been through the University of Iowa’s writing program (worshipped like a god by those few who actually knew about it), and had attended approximately twenty-five schools when growing up, and had met a lot more writers than I had, and had also read more modern novels, though I had the edge when it came to obscure Victoriana. He was like a sort of slot machine: you inserted a question about writers or writing, and out would come the answer.
This next factoid may seem bizarre in retrospect, but Clark was an early reader for the manuscript of my first novel, The Edible Woman. which I was revising, having written it back in 1964–5. In return, I sometimes baby-sat for his two adorable sons, Bart and Bernie, when he and his sophisticated wife, the writer Bharati Mukherjee, also a writer, wanted the odd evening out.
In 1967–8 we were living through a time of rapid transformation, though of course we didn’t quite grasp the extent of it. The sixties had already seen many tumults. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the assassination of John F Kennedy had frightened us in the early sixties; the Civil Rights movement in the United States was ongoing, and was to impact Sir George in the winter of 1969, when students occupied the computer centre and destroyed equipment in a race-related protest. The Vietnam War had spurred a flood of war-repudiating refugees coming to Canada—200,000 of them by the end—but that too was in its early stages. Quebec separatism was simmering behind the scenes, but was not to burst forth for a couple of years, complete with bombings, kidnappings, a murder, and the War Measures Act. It was thus still possible to publish bilingual poetry anthologies in Canada, with anglophone and francophone poets sharing the pages. Similarly, the second wave of the women’s movement was still subterranean: the first I would hear of it would be in 1969, when I was no longer in Montreal. The Summer of Love had not yet happened. Drugs were around—marijuana and LSD, as I recall—but they were not endemic, and people were not dying en masse of overdoses. The Moon Shot was a year and a half in the future.
Despite crises and percolating uproars, 1967 was an oddly hopeful year, especially in Montreal. Expo 67, an international “World’s Fair,” was being held there—I arrived just in time to see it—and contrary to low expectations and advance doom-saying, it had been a great success. Little Canada had pulled it off! In the fifties and early sixties we’d got used to Canada being decried for its provincialism or else just ignored: this, after a brief moment of wartime prominence during which Canada had punched well above its weight.
This international-triumph optimism coincided with an energetic mood among young writers, both anglophone and francophone, that diverged from that of the generation preceding them, especially among fiction writers. Those earlier writers—few in number though they were—had gone to the UK or to the United States, or to Paris, it being a truism that there was no action in backwater Canada since hardly anyone was interested in reading, and certainly they were not interested in reading second-rate, moose-ridden, pallid Canadian writing, and if you wanted to make yourself known or even get published, you had to do it in a culturally central place.
But suppose you re-located, what were you to write about? You could hardly pretend to be English or French. “American” was a little more possible, but then you’d be competing with giants. And if you wrote as a Canadian, who in the United States or England or France would want to hear from you? Who even in Canada wanted to read about boring old mediocre Canada? A couple of years after 1967, a US editor—I had one by then—asked me if I knew any well-known writers who might provide a quote for my book. I said I knew some in Canada. He replied, “Canada is death down here.” That was the dilemma.
The sixties generation of Canadian writers responded by forming magazines and publishing houses, largely as a means of publishing themselves and their fellow writers. There were a few branch plants—offshoots of larger international publishers—that did a bit of Canadiana once in a while, and one house—McClelland & Stewart—that had recently decided to specialize and become “the Canadian publishers,” but a lot of us were poets and experimental short fiction writers, and those forms—then as now—were hard sells if you were looking at more than a few hundred copies. The House of Anansi—co-founded by Dave Godfrey, known to Clark via Iowa, and Dennis Lee, known to me via Victoria College at the University of Toronto—had just begun. (Coach House preceded it by a year or two; others were to follow.)
Many who would later become pre-eminent as story writers had not yet published; Alice Munro, for instance; Carol Shields; David Bezmozgis, Austin Clarke. Mavis Gallant was publishing in the New Yorker, but none of us knew she was Canadian. We did have Robert Weaver’s Canadian Short Stories in English, with Morley Callaghan and Stephen Leacock, for instance, but those people seemed very old to us. We had literary magazines, a few. How did young writers of that time find one another? We were passed along by letter, often through the editors of small ventures; or through bookstores; or through readings, which did happen then. We sought one another out.
The first books the House of Anansi published were poetry collections and books of stories, because that’s what young writers were producing then. Novels were full-time commitments, and how to support yourself while composing one? But you could write poems and stories while studying or holding down some other kind of day job. (The “grant economy” and the “creative writing school job” were not yet available to us.) Then you’d submit your poems and stories to small magazines—you did this yourself, as none of us had agents—mailing them out with a self-addressed, stamped envelope, every page numbered and with your name at the top in case someone dropped your priceless work of art on the floor and the pages got mixed up. Then you waited for the reply. Mostly it would be a rejection letter, but sometimes not.
We didn’t expect to make much money doing this, but sometimes you did make a bit. Clark recalls how, in the early 1970s, he was able to publish a story in Fiddlehead (a literary magazine) for $40, and have it broadcast on CBC radio on Robert Weaver’s program Anthology, for the (then) large sum of $125, and also read it aloud via the Montreal Story Tellers’ Performance Group, for a further $40. Print, audio, in-person: platform diversification had already set in. The Montreal Story Tellers’ Performance Group deserves a paragraph all to itself. This enterprise seems impossibly quixotic, but in this it was of its time—a time of quixotic enterprises. There, in the midst of Quebec Separatism, were five anglophone writers, going about to English Catholic secondary schools in Montreal and reading their stories to the doubtless bemused students. The outfit was the brainchild of John Metcalf—himself from England—and included Hugh Hood (from Toronto), Ray Smith (Cape Breton), Ray Fraser (New Brunswick), as well as Clark Blaise himself (North America). Ironically, Blaise from “everywhere” (in Hank Snow terms) was the closest thing to a Montrealer that the group could proffer. According to Blaise, “We proudly wrote the kind of stories that wouldn’t make it into any anthology…then on the market. I’ve got to give the priests credit: they never questioned our sex-and-liquor-heavy plots. In fact some of the priests invited us back to their offices, opened a desk drawer and pulled out a whiskey bottle and glasses.”
How long ago such a situation now seems: what high school teacher, priest or not, would take such a risk today? You’d turn up on social media as a corrupter of fiction writers, if not of students—exposing them to such unchained, let-it-rip fiction. But as Clark and I sat chit-chatting and drinking our evil coffees in order to crank up our energy for the evening classes, the Montreal Story Tellers had not even been dreamed up. What were we thinking, those two twenty-seven-year-olds of over fifty years ago? What reasons had we given ourselves for doing what we were doing? Why had we given up other possibilities (he as a geologist, I as a biologist) to devote ourselves to the fickle gods of word and story? It was not a choice that anyone made easily, back then. Fame and fortune were not assumed to await us. There was not a long queue of youngsters longing to be writers, or certainly not in Canada. It was an eccentric thing to be doing, and pretentious, if not morally suspect and perhaps a little insane. We were at least partly aware of the dangers, as I recall: apprentice yourself to the craft, chain yourself to the sullen art, eat your heart out, achieve a bit of success, go down in flames amidst bad reviews and derision and the fallout from literary feuds, or else just waste away in obscurity. Why would you not wish instead to be a doctor or a lawyer or something safe and respectable?
So why did we feel that glittering possibilities awaited? Because we did on some level feel that. Cultural space was opening up; the elders, though few in number, were taking an interest; we had a peer group of sorts; a reading audience was possibly forming. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, as Wordsworth famously said; though he also said, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness, But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.”
I’ll leave us there, in the over-lit cafeteria of Sir George Williams University, beginning in gladness, dreaming our writerly dreams, exchanging our writerly gossip. (We had not yet encountered the despondency, not in any serious form; we have escaped, so far, the madness.) Did Clark know he would become one of the pre-eminent story writers of his generation? Probably he did not. But probably he intended to bust himself trying. We were nothing if not dedicated.
“What was that writing thing I was doing, then? Why was it so important?” another writer—an octogenarian—said to me recently. It’s a good question, especially now; in the midst of so many crises—environmental, political, social—why write? Isn’t it a useless thing to be doing? Maybe, but so maybe is everything else. We know what we know about the Great Mortality of the fourteenth century because some people wrote things down. They bore witness.
Let’s suppose that this is what Clark Blaise has been doing.
So, future readers—or even present-day readers—if you want to understand something about what life was like in the restless, peripatetic, striving, anxiety-ridden, simmering cultural soup of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, read the stories of Clark Blaise. He’s the recording angel and the accuser, rolled into one. He’s the eye at the keyhole. He’s the ear at the door.
—Excerpted from This Time, That Place: The Selected Stories of Clark Blaise (Biblioasis, 2022).
From CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022).
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