Saturday, February 14, 2009

Clark Blaise: Our Greatest Unsung Writer

Or so says Philip Marchand in the National Post.

It is testament to the vagaries of literary reputation on this wilful and iniquitous planet of ours that Clark Blaise remains unknown to most Canadian readers.

For these readers the following introduction may serve. Clark Blaise was born in Fargo, N.D., in 1940. His mother was an English-Canadian woman who studied art and design in Europe. His father, Leo, was the second youngest of 19 children in a rural Quebec family. Fourteen of his siblings didn't make it to adulthood. Leo survived to become a professional boxer, bootlegger, salesman, among other occupations. He was barely literate and had an ingrained contempt, his son writes, "for anything that couldn't be sold, drunk or eaten."

Clark, their only offspring, was diagnosed as an infant with "a form of muscular dystrophy that was considered fatal," Blaise records. A thyroid extract saved his life, but left his body flabby and unco-ordinated. That the family left Fargo shortly after his birth and moved frequently during his childhood made matters worse - he was a "classic schoolyard punching bag" for a succession of new bullies in new schools. And what schools some of them were! In the late '40s, the family roamed the hookworm territory of northern Florida, in towns where students were "let out of school to watch Klan floggings, cross-burnings and lynchings."

For years he found relief in prodigious childhood feats of memorization - "I knew the county seats of every county in America," he recalls - but in early manhood he discovered the more therapeutic powers of writing fiction, a discovery reinforced by a life-changing seminar at Harvard with Bernard Malamud and by his stint at the famous writing program at the University of Iowa, where he met and married novelist Bharati Mukherjee.

In 1966, the couple moved to Montreal, where Blaise taught at Concordia (then Sir George Williams University) and joined The Montreal Storytellers, initiated by John Metcalf, which enjoyed surprising success doing readings across the city. These were "the happiest years of my life," he recalls. In 1978, the couple moved to Toronto, and two years later left Canada when the country, in Blaise's words, "turned racist." (It was a particularly nasty period of assaults on East Indians in Toronto.)

The rest is a story of teaching jobs at various institutions in the United States, near destitution at times, the awkwardness of Blaise finding his wife's acclaim, with the publication of her short story collection The Middleman and her novel Jasmine, overshadowing his. Through it all, however, he managed to write 18 books of fiction and non-fiction, including nine volumes of short stories. Some of those stories, such as "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster," rank among the best stories written on this continent in the past few decades.

These bare bones of a life story are particularly relevant in a review of Blaise's latest book, his Selected Essays, edited by John Metcalf and J.R. (Tim) Struthers (Biblioasis), because, as Blaise himself notes, "More than most authors, I am dependent on autobiography." Much of the power of his writing consists not just in the remembering of the drastic conditions of his childhood and adolescence, but also in the layered points of view he brings to that memory. Recalling his early student days, he writes, "I began to see the intellectual dimensions of my life; I wasn't just Southern, I was Southern from a Yankee perspective, and I was Yankee from a Canadian perspective, and I was Canadian from a French and English perspective, and on it went."

Blaise's stories, which are intimate, accessible and usually possessed of a strong narrative drive, practically vibrate with the tensions produced by this layering. Blaise, like every other writer, had to work through the ersatz stuff - he recalls in one essay how, tempted by the atmospherics that come almost automatically with any depiction of life in the Deep South, he wrote Southern stories "so swampy they should have been drained, then sprayed." But he learned, and his interest in the pure craft of the short story, dating back to early days with Malamud, remains strong. "The most interesting thing about a story," he writes in a characteristic observation, "is its beginning, its first paragraph, often its first sentence. More decisions are made on the basis of the first few sentences of a story than on any other part."

No matter how detached Blaise becomes in his discussion of literary craft and contemporary literature, however, he never ranges far from the nakedly personal. It is his most American quality - like Whitman he can honestly proclaim, "Who touches this book touches a man."

His candour raises one interesting question. Recalling his father's habit of abandoning promising commercial ventures and moving from town to town, Blaise writes, "Had we stayed in any of those towns and cities, we'd be millionaires now." It is tempting to speculate, in similar fashion, that if Blaise had stayed in Canada, instead of exercising his own form of wanderlust, he might have developed a stronger platform for his work and his reputation - in this country and perhaps even outside it. Canada is not so impervious to strong literary voices that it could have ignored long the continued presence of such a writer, blessed and cursed with such comprehensive awareness.

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