SHUT UP HE EXPLAINED
A Literary Memoir, Vol. II
By John Metcalf
Biblioasis, 398 pages, $36.95
Martin Amis, who with his father Kingsley appears more than once in the engaging pages of John Metcalf's new memoir, Shut Up He Explained, has said that by the age of 70 a lot of writers ought to be kicked upstairs like a senile auntie or crusty grand-maman. The charm has long since faded, sadly, and she's only stinking up the place.
When an aging nabob of a nation's letters chooses to publish his memoirs, there can be similar cause for discomfiture. It's as though, having seen the reaper at the end of the tunnel, the old boy feels compelled to cull mouldering animosities, or the days of Oxbridge green and golden, before retiring to the attic with the Peak Freans and the sherry.
Double delight and relief, then, to see that as he approaches the age of 70, John Metcalf is still writing with the same élan that animates almost every line of his distinguished oeuvre. Despite occasional slackness and some syrupy nostalgia for mumsy-England, Shut Up He Explained (a companion volume to 2003's An Aesthetic Underground) is obligatory reading for anyone who cares about aesthetic vitality, the state of the nation's literature and the essential importance of very good sentences. It is also a moving record of time past and friends lost, a shimmering and often comic account of recent travels, and - Metcalf being Metcalf - a sometimes prickly if not intemperate j'accuse.
But therein lies part of the fun in reading Metcalf's non-fiction. Dismiss him if you will as the Pooh-Bah of Humbug, but no one in Canadian letters offends quite so well - or half as usefully - as he. Like Irving Layton before him, or Stephen Henighan now, John Metcalf will make you think very precisely about just what kind of literature you want in Canada, and about what kind of literature we in fact have. To read Metcalf on literary excellence, and on the techniques that make for it - as when, for instance, he spends an instructive chapter of Shut Up He Explained comparing the footling syntax and caricatures of Morley Callaghan to the precision and power of the early Ernest Hemingway - is to be powerfully reminded as to the centrality of style.
A long-time critic of the "deeply unhealthy connection between literature and nationalist politics," Metcalf has paradoxically become our greatest literary protector. No one - no one - has done more in this country to develop and promulgate a literature of which we can be proud. Against mainstream and commerce-driven preferences for "the mildly hysterical writings of Timothy Findley," the "creaking, fustian English" of M. G. Vassanji, or the "566 pages of Maritime Grand Guignol" that is Ann-Marie McDonald's Fall On Your Knees, Metcalf raises in Shut Up He Explained the bulwark of "the Century Club," or 40 books of short fiction published between 1900 and 2000 that represent, in his view, the best writing that Canada has produced.
Some of Metcalf's choices - Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant - will hardly surprise. More than a few - Annabel Lyon, Mary Brodsky or even masters Clark Blaise and Norman Levine - will be all but unknown to any but aficionados of the genre. After his list, therefore, Metcalf provides a critical discussion of each author's work. The result is a chapter of more than 100 pages. It could be used profitably by developing writers who aspire to more than, as Metcalf quotes Gallant, "pallid little 'I' stories," or it could be used, as well, in CanLit or criticism classrooms to provide for students an alternative to the Ideologiekritik and other gobbledygook they often get in place of aesthetic understanding.
But I suspect that many will find Metcalf's Hall of Heroes a bit of uphill work. Too often his critical apologia will consist of long quotations from book reviewers who merely echo Metcalf's views, or long quotations from the work of the writer in question at which Metcalf essentially points and says, "See?"
Metcalf is at his best in this singular book not when he is attacking or defending his contemporaries, but when he is rendering and remembering in a manner reminiscent of his fine short stories. When he visits Chekhov's White Dacha, for instance, or when he memorializes a sadly destitute and infirm Norman Levine, we see at work an enviable eye for small and transient (and therefore almost holy) detail.
A fan and ideal reader of Kingsley Amis, Metcalf says he wouldn't give "chopped liver" for the work of Martin, but Kingsley's brilliant son understands the marriage of Time and Talent, and Metcalf would do well to remember it. Savouring the talent on display in Shut Up He Explained left me hoping that, with his adorations and devotions so unequivocally in place, Metcalf will, as his own time draws a little closer, scabbard entirely his rattling sabre in favour of giving us a new collection of his diamond-precise and iridescent short fictions.
At work on a collection of new short stories, Adrian Michael Kelly is also guiding a group of university students in Oshawa through the aesthetic pleasures and pitfalls of Canadian literature.