Don't Miss This Train

Review of Barry Callaghan, Between Trains (Toronto: McArthur & Company, 2007).

The finest short stories teach us to apprehend with renewed clarity a world that habit and tired assumptions have reduced to an indistinct blur, and at the same time explore through their dark suffusions of meaning the de-creative and transformative power of the story-teller’s art.

Barry Callaghan’s exhilarating new collection begins with an unfolding bundle of jests on just this subject. An older writer—who goes unnamed, though his speech rhythms, melancholia and hip-flask of bourbon all suggest Edmund Wilson—has joined the narrator at a small railway station to talk about story-telling. The two elliptical stories he tells touch on their own tutelary relationship. In the first, a bereaved horse-trainer fends off a younger man’s commiserations with a riddling colloquialism that perfectly makes the story-teller’s point about how “anything that’s really real in the past—like a death—keeps coming at you out of the future.” When the narrator doubts that this Yankee koan could actually be a story, he tells a second still briefer tale that “another writer once told me in Paris when I was about your age.” It’s Somerset Maugham’s gem about how the tables were turned on him by a schoolgirl whose class he had informed that any good story “is all about brevity, religion, mystery, sex, aristocracy and plain language.” She promptly wrote one that summed up his aesthetic: “‘My God,’ said the Duchess, ‘I’m pregnant. I wonder who did it?’”

Since Callaghan’s station-house story-teller will accept neither laughter nor complaint, he and the narrator sip whisky together, between trains, between the words that form a story and the pause in which its meanings unfold, in a silence “still as still waters could be.” That stillness, the older man has said, is what defines the best storytelling.

Midway through this book, in “Paul Valéry’s Shoe,” Callaghan writes movingly of the self-devouring struggle to bring a story to formal perfection, to the point at which it becomes true to itself. Yet the mastery evident throughout this collection is not merely formal: the truths arrived at through these stories’ laconic restraint, their unerring rightness of voice and tonality, are also, one feels, deep truths of the human heart—and dark truths, unflinchingly confronted, of recent history.

In “Dog Days of Love,” a story of wonderful tenderness, an old priest devotionally attached to the Shroud of Turin returns from reconciling two parishioners to his and their own imminent deaths to find his dog Anselm chewing the Holy face out of his replica of the Shroud. There ensues a strange transaction, a urine-soaked embrace in which the old man, comforting the animal that has cowered from his anger, blasphemously finds in its terrified and loving eyes what “must have been the real look in Christ’s eyes as He hung on the cross.”

A different tenderness, joyous and erotic, shines through “A One-Night Stand,” a delicate and tone-perfect story of love between an aging blues musician and a ventriloquist. Other stories take the reader, no less persuasively, into madness and violence—the deep mourning of a woman for her stillborn child, the haunting vigilante vengeance of a blue-helmet sniper on war-criminals in Bosnia, and the howling insanity of rural-gothic religiosity.

The collection’s longest, riskiest and most astonishing story, “Drei Alter Kockers,” hovers between these two poles of redemptive tenderness and violence. Two of the three old crocks of its title are Shoah survivors, one a hat-maker, the other a loan-shark and former Auschwitz kapo. The third, Al Rosenzweig, is a home-grown Toronto gangster whose friends, we learn in an earlier linked story, call him Piano—not because he once strangled with piano wire two mafiosi who wanted to take over the local gambling scene, but because for years he has played Irving Berlin and Cole Porter songs on the piano on Thursday nights for Shoah survivors at a Bathurst Street social club. This brilliant narrative stands comparison as a tour de force with the best of Isaac Babel’s stories of Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s Jewish gangsters; and it is perhaps not accidental that the hitman who gets the last word in this and another story shares the surname of Franz Rosenzweig, author of The Star of Redemption and one of the great Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century.

Between Trains is the work of a master at full stretch.

“Do yourself a favour,” Al Rosenzweig says in offering a slice of cheesecake, but might equally well say of this extraordinary book: “it’ll look good on you.”   

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.

Barry Callaghan and the Invention of Cultural Studies

I confessed to driving a Vega. But the truth was much worse. What I actually drove was a wretched little English-made Vauxhall station-wagon, marketed on this continent as the Envoy Epic--but epic only in its failings. [....] The literary theorist Stanley Fish has argued persuasively that literary academics--other than himself--are unrestrained masochists and drive ugly cars as one sign of their endless appetite for humiliation. Was this Epic of mine a precocious marker of professional orientation? 

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