Monday, March 23, 2009

That Summer in the Wilderness

My most persistent interlocutor has somewhat challenged the music instruction, and seems to wish me to return to literature and philosophical speculation. As one of the fabled Elwyn Street Irregulars, she was more of a late night dancer than a singer or musician, thus in the minority in terms of the rest of them, a number of whom had actually been paid a lot more than I ever was for their playing and singing. But she also wrote, and still does.
The coincidence is quite profound, because I had for the past forty-eight hours been reflecting on my lack of any memory of Ernest Hemingway speaking about music. All his fans know that he worked hard to qualify as an expert on the subjects, other than writing and writers, that meant a lot to him - hunting, boxing, bull fighting - and even painting, but as I remember him, he had no opinions on music. Probably I'll read something on that very subject the next time I take him up, but for the moment that's how it stands. If I find that he did say a thing or two, perhaps even quite a lot, I'll know I might have simply glided over it because by the time I got to him I was very much a musician, a bona fide troubadour of the folk variety who had also by then soaked up quite a bit of jazz and was about to take on a lot more. And I'm fairly certain he knew absolutely nothing about real music theory, so that would have left me even less interested in what he had to say, whereas in Morris West's "Second Victory" I was completely riveted - and also in patient despair - over a very small note about a seventh chord on the piano. Likewise over everything Robertson Davies had to say about singing in "A Mixture of Frailities", although I have since realized that there was much more to be learned than he could speak of.
But my challenger's timing is deadly, because I've now begun something with at least the working title of "Getting Along in the Bush". With two short stories down, and a million to go, this will be a good chunk of "The Skinner Family Legends". The Muse has finally come through with some of the oldest promises, and, once again, the in-house tech has advised me how to work the numbers on the blog. "Grizzly Gorman" will cheerfully appear in its own time without disturbing the numerical ordering of the individual posts. There are no deadlines, and leisure will have its exclusive way. Nor are there any ordinary magazines discussing publishing with me, so necessary length will also have its way, especially as I have recently had a professorial prod away from excessive brevity.
Leisure is something a writer needs, of course, when paying due homage to the man who ended his days just south of here, in Ketchum, Idaho, and there was something rather circular in that geographical identity too, because it was in Idaho, in the Saw Tooth Range, where I began my reading of Zane Grey, also a great lover and presenter of the great outdoors. The wilderness, the bush, the outback, aka Paradise until it was screwed up by Adam and Eve.
R.C. Zaehner writes very well about nature mystics. Sometimes I think my father was a bit of that strain, even though his father was a Christian. When my grandfather was quiet in the woods or on top of some mountain ridge, he thought about Jesus. But I don't remember my father ever having a sense of Christ, yet he loved nature and got an enormous amount from it. I suspect he spends a lot of his purgatory listening to Jesus pointing out all the times when what he thought was only natural was actually nothing of the sort.
But I was never a nature mystic, because of that light around my Grandad's head and the ongoing incidence of the rest of it. I was always a Christian contemplative, albeit Protestant of sorts, so when I got to Hemingway's descriptions of Catholic images and locations, especially in
Spain, it was like a preface not only to the Faith, but to Ignatius Loyola and the Carmelite mystics. It all went in like mother's milk, especially as I was actually bottle fed as a baby.
I have been in a Hemingway mode specifically now for some weeks, because of the huckleberry story, and this has become intensified by getting my hands on an old favourite, Morley Callaghan's "That Summer in Paris", his account of the months he spent reunited with Hemingway in France and also meeting Scott Fitzgerald and every other well known writer hanging about in the City of Light. I first read this very lovely book in the 64-65 winter, finding it in the Notre Dame library. It was one of the definite bright spots in that horrifying year, clarifying many questions about the complicated man I had used as a writing teacher, and promising a future that would see me both published and understanding of the black surprises I had come to in the Kootenays. When these things were accomplished, I promised myself, I would take up the book again and thoroughly enjoy the second read. Naturally, I never expected that it would be more than forty years before these circumstances came together. Nor, most important of all, did I have any inkling of the incredibly filthy thinking that would over come the language of worship in the Roman Catholic Church, the home from birth of Fitzgerald and Callaghan, and the new cradle for Hemingway.
As I said, I first read a library copy, and with Notre Dame vanished these many years - as God had warned me it would be, in the same time frame as I was reading the book - the edition I have now is a paper back, not a hard cover, and it seems it is back in print only because of grants from the Canada and Ontario arts councils. I am not ungrateful for the factors that made it possible for me to keep my promise to myself, believe me, but at the same time I have to wonder at the general state of illiteracy that requires such rescue from the neglect of a sine non qua. Merely as an obligatory text in any programme of creative writing alone, That Summer deserves to be kept alive without any sort of plugged-in life support. That this is not the case, throughout every corner of the English speaking world, proves that most of the people not only studying, but teaching, creative writing or the study of modern literature, have no real idea of what they're doing. Callaghan's 1963 text is a divine gift to the writing process, the heavenly ordained common priesthood of the scribes who will escape damnation, and the attempt to see it in any other light is a guarantee of, well, illiteracy.
I'm not speaking, it follows, of the simply mechanical inability to spell out and pronounce syllables, for all that, as good reading teachers know, the ability of a grade three or four class to do this is the equal of at least two Beethoven symphonies. I am speaking of the illiteracy of college presidents, bishops, magazine editors and book publishers, politicians and high school principals, and an unfortunate proportion of writers and all other fools of that ilk who allow themselves to be involved with the pages of babble that modern leaders like to call documents, or significant statements of policy.
I, of course, might have wound up in one of their unfortunate chairs, for I was a student in the UBC law school. But in the summer of 1956, taking a job with the Vancouver Sun, and being given the afternoon shift, of most happy memory, I had the morning to spend in a creative writing class, wherein I chose Papa Ernie as my mentor and read all fifty of his short stories, thus overcoming all sorts of bafflegab, including all the bad lessons from English class, both in high school and university.
This was not all Ernie's doing, of course. Literature is not God, but the occasion of God. But when we open the door to Christ, no matter what hat and cloak he comes in, we grow up. We give him a chance, and we prosper, in the real sense. Certainly I have prospered, hugely, not only as a writer, and now, in Getting Along in the Bush, I get my chance to say thank you. "Grizzly Gorman" is only the beginning.

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