The cornerstone of Toronto writer André Alexis’ collection of essays Beauty & Sadness (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2010), subtitled “Or the Intermingling of Life and Literature,” is the final piece in the collection, the essay “Water: A Memoir.” As Alexis mentions in the introduction, it’s the way he moves easily through memoir, recollection, books and writing in this final piece, making this, well above the others, the strongest in the collection.
I began to write Beauty & Sadness as I was finishing a novel called Asylum. I had originally planned a series of critical essays on literary subjects, but as I wrote my first essay, the idea of criticism began to perplex me. I’ve been a contributing reviewer to the Globe and Mail’s book section for some time. I take the consideration of works of fiction as a happy duty, a chance to reflect on things I love: literary universes, worlds of words. But it occurred to be that in doing the kind of reviewing I’ve done in the past – read, reflect on, draw conclusions about a novel or collection of short stories – I was stuck in a voice.
Over the past fifteen or so years, Alexis has proven himself a writer of magical talent, and his breakaway collection Despair is required reading for anyone interested in lively and inventive short fiction, great short story writing or simply anyone interested in reading very strange short stories. From Despair he moved to the lovely, lyrical Ottawa novel, Childhood (1997), a second collection of stories, Night Piece (1999), the play Lambton Kent (1999) and children’s novel Ingrid and the Wolf (2005) to Asylum (2008), a novel set in the unforgiving mediocrity of bureaucratic Ottawa, proving, unfortunately, that very few are capable of rising certain material above its own dullness (I’m more than willing to blame the material; I know Alexis is better than this).
What makes Beauty & Sadness so compelling to read is in watching a writer such as Alexis, after exploring fiction through a handful of book-length projects, turn to focus on what might be possible for him through the essay, turning to explore literature in a different medium before, perhaps, returning to composing fiction. Almost written as a reflection and assessment of his critical thinking on life and literature, this is a book in which we are able to watch the author explore and finally open up into his own critical voice, his own individual style of the essays, from a blend of critical and memoir, into his best thinking form. The other essays that make up Beauty & Sadness are more specific, a series of stand-alone pieces on the works of Samuel Beckett (alongside discussions on a break-up, and his own poetry compositions), Guy de Maupassant, Henry James, Jean Cocteau and Yasunari Kawabata, but it is really in the final essay where Alexis shines. Here, he spends time discussing Christian Bök’s Eunoia (2001), Russell Smith’s novel Muriella Pent (2005) and Roo Borson’s poetry collection Short Journey Upriver toward Oishida (2004) alongside the movement that took him from a childhood in Trinidad to later years Ottawa before finally moving to Toronto, and through the publication of his first collection of fiction, Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (Coach House Press,1994). In many ways, his “Water,” taking up pages 170-266, is the book you are reading as Beauty & Sadness, and all else, however compelling, serves as warm-up or filler, somehow beside the strength of that small, lyrical piece that perhaps wasn’t long enough to exist as a book on its own. This final essay is where we watch Alexis explore how he moved from a reader into a writer, navigating various personal and professional worlds to where he currently resides, father of one and author of a handful of compelling and critically-lauded works.
It’s almost always interesting to follow along as a writer works their own way through what they think about writing, and of course, one of the highlights of this collection is his take on the past decade or two of Canadian criticism, and his discussion specifically on a criticism practiced and encouraged by Ottawa writer and editor John Metcalf. For the lengthy career Metcalf has had as a critic, taking down otherwise “sacred cows,” how has he become a figure so many seem unwilling or unable to properly challenge? By itself, this alone is worth the price of admission, a call to considering what might happen next, through all of our talk of what writing works, and what doesn’t.
What Metcalf and Cyril Connolly before him have done is to declare the finesse of their own sensibilities sufficient to tell “good” work from “bad.” But, of course, they are the only possessors of their sensibilities. There is no basis for a universal aesthetic scale, unless the thought behind a sensibility is unpacked. Just to be clear; I’m convinced that Metcalf and I, if we sat down together and read a page from such and such a book, would agree, maybe eight times out of ten, on what is good and what is not. On the evidence, I think Metcalf and I have similar sensibilities. But those who have been influenced by him – Ryan Bigge, for instance – don’t possess the same credibility as Metcalf, though they allow themselves to make the same kinds of pronouncements.
So, one could legitimately say that Metcalf has turned a generation of critics away from “academic” evaluations of literature. He has insisted that pleasure is the most important aspect of any work (as Larkin did before him) and he made the critic’s own pleasure (or non-pleasure) the accepted content in an evaluation of literary works. Finally, he has, in anthologies like The Bumper Book, encouraged reviewers to vividly express their opinions, especially their unfavourable opinions, in the belief that a vivid put-down, first, is more entertaining and, second, leads to “discussion.”
For twenty years now, we’ve had the “discussions” that unfounded, pugnacious reviews bring. What knowledge or understanding have they given us? Ryan Bigge insulting Leah McLaren in the pages of the Toronto Star, Carmine Starnino insulting whoever doesn’t happen to share his preference for certain kinds of verse, Philip Marchand expressing the opinion that poets shouldn’t write novels, David Solway insisting that a perfectly understandable and well-crafted poem by Al Purdy is not good because he doesn’t understand it. The discussion is rarely helpful in building a lucid aesthetic. One of the very few clear aesthetic opinions shed by Philip Marchand, for instance, is his belief that anyone who does not appreciate the greatness of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is “simply deficient in taste.” A dubious opinion, given that Henry James, who surely has as great a claim to “taste” as Marchand, and the later Tolstoy, who felt that War and Peace was badly done, both disliked the novel. As with all Metcalf’s children – and all of the writers I’ve just mentioned have been edited or published by him – Marchand’s statement is about himself, his belief in War and Peace’s greatness. He offers no defence of his opinion, believing that none is required. And so we have come to the point where the fact of an opinion is more important than the basis for it. As I suggested, this is neither criticism nor reviewing but autobiography. Marchand is telling me something about himself. Starnino is telling me about his sensibility and how much he believes in his beliefs. Bigge is settling a personal vendetta with McLaren. Solway is demonstrating the depths to which he’ll stoop to belittle Al Purdy or Anne Carson or whomever it is he doesn’t like this week.