Register Thursday | March 22 | 2018

Paging Mr. Superman

Rescuing Irving Layton from the nationalists

My edition of Irving Layton's A Red Carpet for the Sun is in as good a condition as the poet was when he died. The spine has come undone, the front and back covers have only a loose relationship with the book itself and the pages are liable to take flight at any moment.

In medical terms, Layton died early in the morning of January 4, 2006 at the age of ninety-three, but by some accounts he had died some years before, possibly as early as the mid-nineties. By the time the Nobel Prize-nominated poet was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 1994, his poetry had become increasingly hard to find. By 2000, when he was admitted to the long-term care facility where he was to spend his final days, Layton's name had all but disappeared from university reading lists and his books were out of print. It took the event of Layton's death to get people remembering that he had been alive.

In matters of death, the Canadian Literary Establishment moves quickly. By the time Layton's ashes were scattered in the winds atop Mount-Royal, CanLit had moved to stake its claim to the poet. Obituaries across the country rushed to quote Leonard Cohen calling him "our greatest poet," the sentiment buttressed by expert reassurance that Layton had left a dozen poems that could serve as his ticket to immortality. Peers called him "colorful" (the diplomatic euphemism for giant prick), trolled through an endless series of anecdotes and, for good measure, quoted from his poems about his sexy students. The manufacturing of the posthumous Irving Layton was almost complete: Layton as sexual novelty, Layton as token madman, Layton as throwback-the end product being Layton as a Canadian poet.

Irving Layton is among a group of artists Canadian nationalists would love to claim as their own. Layton-like novelist Mordecai Richler and painter Jean-Paul Riopelle-has name recognition abroad. He is what is called a "cultural export;" a literary commodity. According to some, Layton and company participated in the creation of the regulated national identity that emerged in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Layton is often mentioned in the same sentence as Al Purdy, but where Purdy would win a Governor General's award for a collection called The Cariboo Hunters (1965), Layton won his for A Red Carpet for the Sun (1959). Warnings about book cover judgments aside, the two titles are telling; Purdy's "Canadian-ness" is central and explicit whereas Layton's is incidental.

Layton was one of several writers with important ties to Montreal who reached artistic maturity during the nineteen-fifties, writers who didn't so much contribute to the development of CanLit as they did bushwhack an alternative path for readers to follow.

Add Layton's writings to the body of work left by Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, A.M. Klein, and to the still-growing contributions of Mavis Gallant, P.K. Page and perhaps even Leonard Cohen-taken together, these writers offered a new perspective on the country's history, and dared to speak against the hollow forms of Canadian identity being peddled in the cheap art of the day. Where those who came before were awed by Canada's vastness, Layton and company were among the first to feel claustrophobia; to feel that the emptiness of the country's landscape-natural and otherwise-was limiting.

Layton's work in particular was aimed at giving his readers the tools needed to resist subsidized forms of collective myth-making. He was among those writers who encouraged self-consciousness with respect to one's identity, both on a cultural and a personal level. Whether looking in the mirror or at the Canadian flag, these writers wanted to be fulfilled by what they saw. For all of Layton's self-assurance and swagger there is an equal amount of disappointment; sadness tinged with the desire to grab people by the throat and shake them until they hear his indignation. "When reading me, I want you to feel / as if I had ripped your skin off," he claimed in his poem "Whom I Write For." Layton, and others, demonstrated that problems identifying with one's home and native land can be solved by fashioning allegiances on more personal terms.

"Like most Canadians of my generation, I suffer from a very fragmentary sense of country," Mordecai Richler told the CBC upon returning to Saint Urbain Street after spending more than twenty years abroad, having made his reputation.

"It's very difficult for me to think in terms of Canada," he said. "My identity is Montreal."

Canada was a small place in the fifties. The country was still missing many of the trappings of statehood, like a flag, and Britain's traditional influence on Canada's ideological history was being supplanted by a newly charged American culture. Our country's cities were still, for the most part, provincial places where sensibilities leaned more towards the Victorian than the Romantic. The popular poetry of the time featured canoes and the construction of the Great Canadian Railway. The metaphors of the day were trite and the appreciation of literature was considered little more than a parlour game. It was a situation that led Klein-Layton's mentor-to wonder, in "Portrait of the Poet as Landscape," at the poet's conspicuous absence. "We are sure only that from our real society / he has disappeared; he simply does not count, / except in the pullalation of vital statistics."

The lesson Layton learned, and the one he would pass on to others, is that in the face of blinding materialism and other such evils, the poet has a "vocation to lead his fellowmen towards sanity and life."

Of course different writers tackled this challenge in different ways. The obvious antidote to the shortcomings of Canadian society was escape and so many left for Europe-the Disneyland of High Culture. Richler left when he was nineteen; Gallant wasn't much older. Norman Levine left, but returned long enough to write Canada Made Me. Levine then left again to grow bitter in the south of England for the twenty years it took for a Canadian publisher to be able to stomach his savage portrayal of the country.

Levine's book, based on a three-month cross-country trek, ends with the narrator noting that Canada is an experiment doomed to fail. "It was foolish to believe that you can take the throwouts, the rejects, the human kickabouts from Europe and tell them: Here you have a second chance. Here you can start a new life." When it was published in Britain in 1958, Richler said it was "far better than any book I've read about Canada." It wasn't published in Canada until 1978, but is now considered a "laconic classic," in the words of the Globe and Mail.

The current conception of Canadian literature features those from abroad coming to Canada and writing here. Think of today's stalwarts: Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry, even rising star David Bezmozgis. Their stories fit Margaret Atwood's bill of a "literature of survival." Their messages are decoded by the country's literary journalists through the rubric of the Canadian experience and their values have the blessing of Heritage Canada.

But for Levine, Richler and Gallant, Canada was not the refuge-it was what needed to be left in order for the writing to begin. The Canada they left and wrote about had yet to go through puberty, had yet to develop the intense self-consciousness that breeds ego. That these writers first met with success abroad was a sign that the existing Canadian rubric offered a dim view of their work. The country, almost in spite of itself, grudgingly handed over their royalty checks.

During the acne-ridden coming-of-age of Canadian literature, two successive and dominant views of the country's writers emerged: The Canadian writer as outsider-looking-in, and the Canadian writer as outsider-looking-out. The first generation-Levine et al-spoke out against a Canadian identity that was paranoid of its own fragility and offered rigorous discourse to counter pipsqueak expressions of nationality. The second, later, generation faced off with more established collective myths and could afford to take the country for granted. Both are free to examine the bizarre formations of Canadian spirit as visitors might the latest acquisition in a contemporary art museum.

Layton straddles both perspectives. On one hand, he was born in Neamtz, Romania-his parents moved to Montreal in 1913 when he was a year old. He nurtured his sense of Jewishness, and maintained in many ways the image of the newcomer to a strange land. But although Layton never physically left Canada, he did so in a metaphorical manner. He left Canada in the sense that he embarked on an intellectual journey to cull the influences that he found lacking in the country. The Greeks, Nietzsche, William Blake, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound. Scant are references to Canadian poetry in Layton's work. He engaged British and American artistic currents in order to slice through the thin walls of Canadian sensibilities.

One of the Layton anecdotes that came up in several obituaries featured the poet in front of the high school class he taught on the first day of the term. Layton wrote the number ninety-nine in the top-left corner of the blackboard before adding a decimal and filling the rest of the space with nines. He turned to the class and said, "99.99999 percent of the people are Philistines." Student Moses Znaimer, who later founded a media empire, remembered thinking, "I don't know what a Philistine is, but I'm not going to be one of them." Layton was a teacher throughout his life, and such were his lessons. The greatest fear expressed in his poetry-and apparently in his classroom as well-was that any given person wouldn't take the time to create an individuality for themselves in an age of commodified identity; that they would instead remain silent during what Layton once called the "huzza of battle."

There is a sense of violence in Layton's search for private beauty in a complacent society, palpable, for instance, in the strained hallucination of "Paging Mr. Superman." "Five men and one solitary woman, / Who hearing Mr. Superman called / Looked up at once from the puddle of their / Lives where they stood at the edges making / Crumbling mud pies out of paper money."

Many find fault in Layton's bombast, accusing him of "playing for the camera." One prominent Montreal writer confided in me that Layton, who had married five times, managed to design a poetry career entirely devoted to picking up chicks. But there was a calculated criticism of the status quo in Layton's actions. Layton, unlike other poets, had the gumption to expect his poems to be read by a large audience. His poems are not insular. They are not speaking to a community of poets, but to the community.

Looking at Layton's work through the nationalist's lens leads the reader away from his more unsettling and important poems. Layton in this respect is nothing more than a "controversial figure" who served as the spokesperson for a generation of writers. Layton's clandestine adoption by the nationalists left his creative allies seething; Montreal poet David Solway proclaimed while eulogizing his friend that "CanLit tried to bury (Layton) before his time, without realizing that its own literary and academic sensitivities were the walking dead."

Layton had no time for such petty considerations as national identity. He was too busy bringing us the news in a way that he was sure would make us listen. His story is not one of survival; it is about the freedom we have to eviscerate ourselves and then build up our own, more personal myths. It bears remembering that Layton's coffin was not draped in the flag, but topped with white roses.