Thursday, May 31, 2012

Rereading Sheila Watson and Elizabeth Smart at the Garneau Pub, Edmonton

[I originally presented this piece as a talk at the ottawa international writers festival in April, 2008, and it soon after appeared online at The Danforth Review. Considering the journal is no longer online, and with Smart’s 100th birthday coming up next year, I thought this was worth repeating.]

In the winter, on very cold days, you can see her small figure, wrapped up in a huge, yellowish fur coat of indeterminate ancestry, walking across the snow-covered campus of the University of Alberta. She seems vulnerable, fragile almost. A strong gust of wind might blow her away. But that’s an illusion. The small figure creates a space of its own, asserts itself, and yet seems an integral part of the landscape. So also in her house, where she and Wilfred have created spaces in which both, strong individuals, can function separately and together. Paintings, pieces of pottery, Eskimo carvings, Indian masks create the stillness in which these two figures move.
            Henry Kreisel, “Sheila Watson in Edmonton”

I’m already off-topic, wanting to talk about two essential novels but already outside, wandering the dusty grey streets of the Alberta capital. How is it my day-to-day experience of Edmonton, after my first three months, became immersed in Sheila Watson and Elizabeth Smart? How is it that the ghosts that haunt my wandering the city streets became women writers from away who, for whatever reason, ended up being known, forgotten and known again for writing they had done so much earlier? Two women, too, who might have wanted more from themselves than these singular novels, each producing a lyrical prose masterpiece, but somehow the rest of their writing lives could never get out from under the shadow of their earlier, and difficult, pieces. For west coast Watson, it was her novel of the British Columbia interior, The Double Hook (1959), and for Smart, Ottawa born and bred, it was By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945). For either writers, it wouldn’t be until the 1960s and even later that they would develop a reputation at all, and by then they held a near-cult status. In the end, how did either of them relate to the city of Edmonton? In the end, does it even matter when reading their books?

                In the folds of the hills

            under Coyote’s eye


            the old lady, mother of William
                    of James and of Greta

            lived James and Greta
            lived William and Ara his wife
            lived the Widow Wagner
            the Widow’s girl Lenhen
            the Widow’s boy
            lived Felix Prosper and Angel
            lived Theophil
            and Kip

                        until one morning in July

Sitting in the Garneau Pub on 109th Street in the Strathcona neighbourhood, in part of what once called “new Edmonton” until the forced amalgamation in 1904 with downtown, the sports bar with three televisions on sports, often two on one game, and part of the geography Edmonton author Todd Babiak wrote about in his third novel, The Garneau Block (2007). In a review of the book the Globe and Mail, Cynthia MacDonald opened her commentary with:

The city of Edmonton has received harsh treatment from many of the famous writers who've passed through it. Mordecai Richler called it "Canada's boiler room." Margaret Atwood offered her opinion in poetic form: "only more/ nothing than I've ever seen." Passing through some 25 years ago, Jan Morris was even more blunt. "The longer I stayed in the place," she wrote, "the more I wondered why on earth anyone would want to live there." It made her think of Beirut.

But still, these are novels started, finished and published well before either author had even arrived in this highway boom town. “When and where does a book begin?” It’s one of the lines friend, critic and later biographer of Sheila Watson, F.T. Flahtiff, wrote in the first line of his afterward to the paperback edition of The Double Hook. As Watson herself wrote of her character Ara, “It’s not for fish she fishes […].” When I was seventeen years old, one of the books that the eventual mother of my child would hand me to read was a copy of Sheila Watson’s infamous novel, The Double Hook, a small edition published by McClelland and Stewart as a New Canadian Library paperback. The first part of his introduction reads:

            When and where does a book begin?
On its first page, of course, with each reader and each new reading; with its recovery – or its discovery: here and everywhere, now and always.

Reading coyote and the interior of British Columbia, when I initially read Watson’s first published novel, I missed completely the murder on the first page, enjoying but not understanding what it was I was taking in. By page fifty or so, seeing the mention of Mrs. Potter’s death, I had to return to the first page, to read over again what I had missed. When the hell did that happen? Where or how does a book begin? From the wheres and the when of biography, Watson’s life when the construction of the book would have started, or very simply from the opening line of the first part, “In the folds of the hills // under coyote’s eye…” Or this section, beginning at the bottom of the same paperback page, that reads:

Still the old lady fished. If the reeds had dried up and the banks folded and crumbled down she would have fished still. If God had come into the valley, come holding out the long finger of salvation, moaning in the darkness, thundering down the gap at the lake head, skimming across the water, drying up the blue signature like blotting-paper, asking where, asking why, defying an answer, she would have thrown her line against the rebuke; she would have caught a piece of mud and looked it over; she would have drawn a line with the barb when the fire of righteousness baked the bottom.

What brought me back to Watson, and Smart as well, was as much geographical as anything else, my nine months in Edmonton at the University of Alberta, where Sheila Watson taught from 1961 until retiring in 1975; how could I not see her in my future, taking copies of what little I had with me west? Another part of my return, a hopeful return to fiction, with two incomplete novels that had been set aside for eighteen months while I completed a number of other projects, including a few editorial projects, a collection of literary essays and a travel book about Ottawa. By the time Watson got to Edmonton, she was still writing, but somehow nearly done; she was nearly done but for pieces in the journal she’d founded, White Pelican. What effect did Edmonton have? Edmonton, where after some twenty years of marriage, the first house she and her husband, Wilfred Watson, owned, just west of the campus, on Windsor Road. Edmonton, where she taught for fourteen years, and oversaw more theses than anyone else on faculty.

What are you saying? Greta asked. You don’t even know. You don’t know a thing. You don’t know what a person knows. You don’t know what a person feels. You’ve burned and spilled enough oil to light up the whole country, she said. It’s easy enough to see if you make a bonfire and walk around in the light of it.

In the Garneau neighbourhood of Strathcona, one of the neighbourhoods Watson would have known, just the other side of the campus from the house where they lived in Windsor, at 8918 Windsor Road. Part of the appeal of Watson, is the internalization of region, of place; not the problem of place but taking it deeper. Given that Watson sent a draft to University of Alberta professor Frederick M. Salter, an early champion of the novel while still in manuscript, it seems appropriate that her writing desk sits in the reading room named for him at the University of Alberta. How does one book or one author or a series of same hold on so to the imagination?

Elizabeth Smart, born in Ottawa to a prominent family, is known predominantly for the heartbreaking lyric prose of her By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, originally published in England in 1945. Her infamous first novel was misunderstood, dismissed and unseen by readers in her home country, and finally went out of print for twenty years, only to be rediscovered in the 1960s in a reissue finally available to Canadian audiences (it, along with a later title, The Assumption of the Rogues and Rascals, remain in print). No matter what else she wrote or produced throughout the rest of her life (she began publishing again after decades of silence in the late 1970s), it’s for her first novel she’s known, both for the writing itself, and the situation of what the novel came out of, namely the doomed love affair she had with the married British poet George Barker, with whom she had four children, and received not a speck of support (he eventually had fifteen children with five different women, and never, through the process, left his wife). For Elizabeth Smart, it is very easy to let her work be overshadowed by her biography, but to hear the prose of her heart does away with all else, just as much as it reinforces, as the beginning of the final chapter, part ten, begins:

            By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept:
I will not be placated by the mechanical motions of existence, nor find consolation in the solicitude of waiters who notice my devastated face. Sleep tries to seduce me by promising a more reasonable tomorrow. But I will not be betrayed by such a Judas of fallacy: it betrays everyone: it leads them into death. Everyone acquiesces: everyone compromises.
They say, As we grow older we embrace resignation.
But O, they totter into it blind and unprotesting. And from their sin, the sin of accepting such a pimp to death, there is no redemption. It is the sin of damnation.

It certainly didn’t help that her mother her harshest critic, interfering whenever she could, from as far a distance as possible, including having all the copies of the 1945 edition of her novel that made it into Canada seized and destroyed, with the help of family friend Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. Even when the novel was subsequently reprinted, her mother only responded with a similar ugliness. But still, Smart’s return to Canada in 1982 to become writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta (at the invitation of the previous writer-in-residence, poet Patrick Lane), was frought with its own peril, including the fact that it was mere months after the death of Smart’s youngest daughter, Rose, from an overdose, as author Kim Echlin writes in her magnificent Elizabeth Smart: A Fugue Essay on Women and Creativity (2004):

In 1982, a few months after Rose died, Elizabeth returned to Canada for the last time. She went to Edmonton as a writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta and then stayed on in Toronto for a second year, spending time reacquainting herself with the country of her birth. Although she met Alice Van Wart, who edited her final prose collections and her journals, Elizabeth found Canada “stifling” and was generally disillusioned with the “poor caged Canadians.” She found nothing in Canada worth staying for, and finally returned to her family, The Dell, and Soho.

What is it about these solitary, determined women that appeals so? What is it about those solitary masterpieces of lyric prose, pared down to the bone? When I walk the cold, winter streets of Garneau, I don’t think of Robert Kroetsch writing wild horses loose across the High Level Bridge in The Studhorse Man or even any part of Todd Babiak’s Garneau Block, but instead the reams of unwritten between two women who gave their time to Edmonton and the University of Alberta very close to each other but not meeting there, as Watson was long gone by the time Smart arrived in 1982. Recounting the Toronto introduction of Watson and Smart in his biography of Sheila Watson, F.T. Flahiff writes:

I remember on one of her last visits—in the summer of 1983—she [Watson] read at Harbourfront in connection with the publication of an anthology of Canadian literature edited by Donna Bennett and Russell Brown. It was an afternoon reading followed by a reception, and I remember that Sheila read “Antigone,” and P.K. Page, who also read, said to Sheila that she would have given all her own work to have written “Antigone.” After the readings, as we drank wine and ate cheese among large cardboard advertisements for the anthology, Elizabeth Smart, accompanied by an Antigone-like granddaughter, made her determined way to Sheila—they had never met—and attempted to kneel in homage before her. Sheila was startled and perplexed, as were bpNichol and Philip Marchand who were talking with her at the time. bp fell back, taking one of the advertisements with him. I remember Sheila and I remember Elizabeth Smart’s determination and her grand-daughter’s poise in the midst of this slapstick and strangely moving scene.

For both novels, there is the lyric as opposed to a more straightforward line. For Watson, it was the passionate stripped down matter-of-fact prose writing the trickster Coyote, and a prose later emulated by writers such as Ondaatje, Bowering and even Elizabeth Smart herself. For Smart, it was the heartbreaking and classically dense prose of lyric heartbreak that fish-hooked her insides out of her, and a novel that competes only with British writer Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey as the book most quoted in song lyrics by pop singer Morrissey, former front-man of The Smiths. How does a book by an Ottawa-born former socialite become such an influence? But I will leave the last words to Smart herself, from an earlier part of her novel:

And so, returning to Canada through the fall sunshine, I look homeward now and melt, for though I am crowned and anointed with love and have obtained from life all I asked, what am I as I enter my parents’ house but another prodigal daughter? I see their faces at which I shall never be free to look dispassionately. They gaze out of the window with eyes harassed by what they continually fear they see, like premature ghosts, straggling homeward over the plain.

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