Titans at the Early CanLit Boom | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, September 08, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, September 08, 2018

Titans at the Early CanLit Boom

Literary Titans Revisited: The Earle Toppings Interviews with CanLit Poets and Writers of the Sixties. Edited by Anne Urbancic, DuNdurn, 2017

When we are at the verge of the third decade of the twenty-first century, and watching about more than ten thousand books getting published every year in Canada, it seems somewhat unbelievable that during the fifties of the last century the picture of Canadian book publishing world was very poor. Later on, the situation changed and the changes were mostly felt in the literary arena. The modernism that Canadian literary stalwarts initiated during the nineteen forties experienced a boom during the late sixties and early seventies. It is an everyday question who played the vital role in shaping Canadian Literature as 'CanLit' and thus giving it an identity in the world's literary map? There are so many aspects we have to research in the forthcoming days. Such a one has been unearthed by Anne Urbancic, the Victoria College professor in her compilation of the sixteen interviews and readings taken by Earle Toppings for a radio broadcast.

The interviews and readings include Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, Sinclair Ross, Dorothy Livesay, Gwendolyn MacEwan, Al Purdy, Earle Burney, F.R. Scott, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington, Raymond Souster, Eli Mandel and James Reaney. Every literati of Canada knows well about these bigwigs of CanLit. Autobiographies and memoirs by them, and biographies on them are also widely available. But Urbancic's new initiative will add many new values to all the books, no doubt, on CanLit history.

Who was Earle Toppings to interview these literary powerhouses of the 1960s and early 1970s of Canada? A 30-page interview with Toppings has been added as an 'afterwards' part of the book and thus the three hundred and sixty paged book has truly been a great resource for any study on Canadian Literature of the last fifty years. A short biographical sketch on the interviewed authors will help the new readers on the past of CanLit. References on the bios will also help many to explore a bit further.

All the interviews were taken at different times between 1969 and 1970. They heralded the emergence of the new wave and during that time, Toppings took the interviews which have recently been discovered and now presented for the common readers in book format. Those interviews reveal the insights of the writers, their emotions and motions as well. After some five decades it might not be easy for us to easily identify which poems Irving Layton or Gwendolyn MacEwen enjoyed reading from his or her own creation. When Layton wrote about his father in Waiting for the Messiah, he named his poem 'My Father,' but here we found Layton naming the poem on his mother after her name. The interview of Earle Burney enlightens the story of his writing the first poem in an Indian milieu. It sounds quite interesting when in his reading Al Purdy says, “all my poems are autobiographical,” and later on, connects his poems with the incidents of his personal life. When Miriam Waddington reads her poem which connects her past for being a Jew, it sheds a new light and thus opens a new horizon. All these rare snapshots are available in the long readings and interviews, a toiling outcome.  

“I suppose, poetry begins … has always begun … with the fabulous, the legendary, the dreamlike … and I've been fascinated with the way in which legend and dream and myth interact with reality … and fascinated for many years with the image of the maze or the labyrinth or the puzzle – the labyrinth being, of course, the mystic shape of reality itself – I suppose – in which a monster lurks” (p. 269-270) is an awesome read in the book. Eli Mandel started his reading with this extraordinary emotional outburst. Maybe, this expression of Mandel's was incorporated in some book or other, or may not be. But this compilation has proved its worthiness through all of them to many and sundry.  

The book presents sixteen stalwarts of that time but the present reviewer spent hours to understand why there are nine busts on the cover. An explanation of it could have satiated the general readers. More than that, a photograph of Toppings could have been added as he was also a pivotal role in watching all the expansion of the literature written in the vast land called Canada. 

Some of the interviews were set question-answer format. In some of them, questions were omitted. They were somewhat like readings, though it becomes clear that the interviewer gave necessary guidance in anticipation. The way the writers have been arranged is not clear. They are not alphabetical, neither are they chronological. Was there any other reason to arrange those in the given order? Maybe some logic has played behind which doesn't come up to the commoners.

Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Griffin Kelly and Vipasha Shaikh are the hard-working people who helped to transcript the hundreds of pages.  They deserve huge acclaim.

When Canada celebrated its centenary, Canadian literature went through an aspiring process. By the 1980s, the literary communities across the world began to realise what has happened to the till-date ignored literary arena of Canada. The affectionately used term CanLit is much matured now. Tens of books have already come out to focus on the many various issues of that era. Hundreds more could be expected in near future which will give a true picture of CanLit boom scenario. Literary Titans Revisited can be cited as an exemplary one, for the literary enthusiasts and for general readers as well. 


Subrata Kumar Das is a Toronto-based Bangladeshi writer.

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