Just What We Needed: A Critic with Duende

[First published in The Globe and Mail (21 May 2005): D2; reprinted in Barry Callaghan: Essays on His Works, ed. Priscila Uppal (Toronto: Guernica, 2007), pp. 363-66.]


Review of Barry Callaghan, Raise You Five:

Essays and Encounters 1964-2004, Volume One

Although nineteenth-century man of letters Matthew Arnold never ventured far, as poet or as critic, from the shallow end of the pool, he nonetheless achieved one piercing insight. Arnold knew that a great literature needs, and in some sense depends on, the co-presence of deep and passionate critical thought.

Prior to the mid-1960s, whatever one might say about isolated extraordinary writers, English Canada did not have a great literature, and showed few signs of wanting one. But since then, deservedly or not, we have had a torrent of extravagantly talented poets, short-fiction writers, novelists and, more belatedly, playwrights. This first of three volumes of Barry Callaghan's collected non-fiction writing permits a recognition—belated, but unambiguous—that we have also concurrently enjoyed the gift of great criticism.

This might seem a large claim to make on behalf of a body of work first published in what academics might sniff at as ephemeral outlets: the long defunct Toronto Telegram and magazines like Weekend, Maclean's and Toronto Life. But it was precisely because the pieces collected here reached readerships of tens and hundreds of thousands that they were able to embolden other writers of Callaghan's generation into believing that there could exist a Canadian readership receptive to piercing lucidity, to uncompromising intelligence, and to a depth and intensity of feelings perhaps best denoted by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca's term duende.

A quick comparison. Northrop Frye, the great encyclopedist among critics, whose Canadian and international reputation was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, did not have, despite his brilliant insights into the structural workings of literature and his ventures into social as well as literary criticism, the slightest tincture of duende. (His principled abstention from evaluative criticism may be one sign of this lack.) Barry Callaghan, in contrast, a self-described flâneur, or loiterer, with a bloodline that includes U.S. literary critic Edmund Wilson and political journalist I. F. Stone, has duende by the barrel-full. And he is in turn joyous, acerbic, celebratory and unforgiving in his evaluations.

Duende, which literally implies a state close to possession, was Lorca's term for the unflinching awareness of suffering and mortality that he found in the greatest flamenco singers and matadors of his native Andalusia. It is very clearly present in the first text collected here (also one of the most recent): a splendid meditation on the truths of story-telling and, indirectly, on the power of these truths to encompass and deflect the dark certainties of decay and death. It pervades the African landscapes that are hauntingly realized in two long travel pieces from 1979, which recount journeys to Albert Schweitzer's mission in Gabon and to Cardinal Léger's leper asylum in Yaoundé. And it overflows from a powerful sequence of texts within the first third of this volume.

This sequence includes a short account of being scornfully judged for remembering, at the Dachau crematoria, Mahler's incorporation of “Frère Jacques” into the agonized requiem of his First Symphony. There follows a translation of Andrei Vosnesensky's poem “Goya,” which encapsulates the agonies of the winter of 1941; a layered meditation on the Shoah, weaving together texts of Franz Kafka, Paul Celan, Samuel Beckett, Elie Wiesel and Eugène Ionesco; a review of Nikita Khruschev's autobiography, “a tale of murder, decline, and decay” whose “rudderless prose” and “incoherent half-truths” are set against “a backdrop of millions of dead”; and a brilliantly concise account of one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Mikhail Bulgakov's anti-Stalinist satire The Master and Margarita.

History and literature are woven together with similar subtlety in the concluding section of the book. These pieces, dating from the late 1960s, begin with a finely judicious review that pairs Isaac Babel, the short story writer who was one of Stalin's victims, with the poet Robert Lowell. This is followed by a brusque dismissal of Tom Wolfe's vacuous noisemaking, and an acid review of works by Michael Maclure, Edward Albee and Norman Mailer, whose “calculated hysteria” is judged with reference to William Wordsworth's long-distant assessment of “the multitude of causes ... now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind.”

A clever segue takes us into an extended account of Pierre Trudeau on the campaign trail in the 1968 election, climaxing with the famous St. Jean Baptiste Day riot, and to a sequence of further essays and reviews that invoke and anatomize with astonishing vividness the brief and ambiguous triumphalism of the 1967 Six-Day War, the nauseating violence of the U.S. assault on Vietnam, and the moral confusions of the antiwar resistance.

Other high points of this collection include Callaghan's deliciously astute deflation of John Updike's pretensions, his affectionate and respectful 1965 interview with Margaret Laurence (published only after her death in 1987), and a finely contextualized analysis of the bilious resentments that underlie Stephen Leacock's sometimes unfunny comic prose. Add to these perceptive reviews of Hugh Maclennan, Robertson Davies and Donald Creighton, who together with Leacock embody exclusionary tendencies for which Callaghan has little patience; and the luminous account of Yehuda Amichai in Jerusalem with which the book concludes.

This book is literary criticism and cultural history of a high order. If its author has, in his own words, been repeatedly “willing to be lucky,” he has also, in the fullness of his responses to the harsh complexities of the four decades across which these pieces were written, repeatedly displayed an exemplary moral courage. Rather than flinching before the charges of aggrieved stupidity, he has leaned in over the horns and struck, with a fine blade, to the heart.