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An Aesthetic Underground: A Literary Memoir

by John Metcalf

That John Metcalf has contributed to the development and publishing of Canadian literature is by now a matter of historical record. As an editor, teacher, author, critic, and pioneering anthologist of Canadian fiction, Metcalf was in the front ranks of writers and intellectuals who transformed the term Canadian writer from oxymoron to viable reality.

That he feels the need to keep reminding the reader of his status – and Canada’s lack of appreciation for his efforts – is just one of the problems with An Aesthetic Underground, Metcalf’s long look back at a life devoted to the pursuit of excellence in both his own and his adopted country’s literature. Not content with letting his deeds and convictions speak for him, Metcalf tirelessly champions himself as a voice of aesthetic righteousness in the uncomprehending Canadian cultural wilderness.

Metcalf was born in England, and in the opening chapters he presents a rather predictable portrait of the artist as a young snob. There is the heightened sensitivity and intellectualism that chafe against the coarseness and polite hypocrisy of British middle-class life; the emotional escape into the world of books and nature; the struggle against his hysterical mother’s efforts to channel his energies into more workaday streams; the recognition of his gifts by a begrudging schoolmaster who senses in Metcalf “abilities untapped” and agrees to tutor him; and the pivotal rejection of a teaching career and the decision, after emigrating to Montreal, to devote his life to the written word.

Being something of an Angry Young Man of the 1950s, Metcalf salts his portrait with plenty of boozing and skirt chasing – a nod to Hemingway, one of his literary heroes. Much of this material is lively and funny, and Metcalf does occasionally poke fun at his own position, but the humour is too often at the expense of such easy targets as the boarding house, the sadistic school teacher, and various ex-service types and tippling spinsters.

It’s hard to refute his grim sketches of post-war England and Canada in the early 1960s, but Metcalf’s snobbish tone and lack of empathy for everyone but those who share his calling overwhelms any sympathy for his views. A tendency toward the easy putdown or gross generalization – “Canadian literary studies and ‘scholarship’ have always been lax and undemanding” – is a continuous thread through the book. Effective polemicists always paint their target before filling it with lead, but Metcalf too often assumes that the reader requires only a few broad strokes and a friendly “Oh, you know what I mean” to come onside.

His sense of superiority to his surroundings and their inhabitants is relentless: “I suffered from the delusion that Canada could be improved”; “Canada will not read you unless you are validated elsewhere.” He even includes testimonials to his powers from other writers (including Alice Munro and Irving Layton), protegés, and critics, such as the one who wrote: “…the book (Metcalf’s novella The Lady Who Sold Furniture) is routinely mentioned as a landmark volume in histories of literature and guides to culture.”

When Metcalf stops exalting himself, he can be a fine writer. His descriptions of the British landscapes of his youth – the fields and creeks and ruins and crumbling old bookstores – are first rate, as is the chapter on the years Metcalf and his wife lived on a small farm. Particularly lovely is a gruesome (to urban sensibilities) account of some locals slaughtering and skinning a trio of hogs. The writing is tense and evocative, supporting multiple currents of emotional tension without breaking the documentary tone.

Most of the memoir concerns Metcalf’s struggles to champion the written word in a country that, especially when he arrived, had little sense of its own literature and culture: “The country lacked what would be called today an ‘infrastructure’ – the literary equivalent of roads, sewers, electric power, railroad tracks – and I’ve spent nearly all my life in Canada … attempt(ing) to help put the necessary infrastructure into place.”

Metcalf scores many points in these chapters, especially when he rails against the cultural infrastructures that did emerge in the late 1960s and ’70s. He despises the granting agencies, literary magazines, and academics that rewarded writers whose work and ideas corresponded to the narrow tenets of cultural nationalism popularized by Margaret Atwood’s Survival. Theme and plot and location, no matter how quintessentially Canadian, do not a national literature make, Metcalf argues. The writing, above all else, has to be good.

His case for a method of criticism based purely on the writer’s words and how those words sound to the ear is often sophisticated and astute (if a little one-sided). His line readings of selected Canadian writers reveal what an excellent teacher Metcalf must have been when his heart was in it.

Another problem, besides the shrill Metcalf tone, is that much of this material, along with many of the autobiographical sections, has been published before, giving An Aesthetic Underground a stitched-together, meandering feel. Still, it’s something of a revelation to read such bracing and obsessively personal criticism in an age when literary discourse has degenerated into the boosterism of the weekend book review.