Monday, March 23, 2009

Alex Good review Clark Blaise's Selected Essays

Over at Good Reports, Alex Good has posted a review of Clark Blaise's recent Selected Essays. The entire review can be found here. Here's the first bit:

It's fitting that this new selection of essays by Clark Blaise, edited by John Metcalf and J. R. Struthers, begins and ends with autobiography. Fitting in part because Blaise's fiction has always been transparently anchored in the material of his own life. The titles of the four volumes of his Selected Stories (Southern Stories, Pittsburgh Stories, Montreal Stories, and World Body) both register a personal journey and provide an index to a lifelong fascination with place. But fitting also in that this fascination with biography and geography has always been a feature of his critical as well as creative writings. "Let me start with the autobiographical approach," is how one of his lectures begins. Personal origins will help to "maintain perspective."

They will that, and more. William Carlos Williams has a line in one of his poems about how the pure products of America go crazy. Blaise picks it up a couple of times - readers can expect some repetition of language and anecdote in such a collection - the point being that writers are made as much as born, the pure products of their environment. This doesn't mean that Blaise endorses what used to be known as the "biographical fallacy" (ah, there were such a lot of fallacies back in the day), only that he thinks it vitally important to recognize where writing comes from. A quick look at the table of contents makes the point: "The Border as Fiction," "The International Novel," "American Fiction," "Some Thoughts on Canadian and Australian Fiction," "Notes on the 'Canadian' Short Story." In the first of these we are told that "intense regionalism" is a "national trait of Canadians" as well as "an urgent aspect of my personality." Canadians as a people are "regionally determined." And we aren't the only ones. Within individual appreciations the formative influence of biography and geography is repeatedly stressed. It may be "understandable enough" for V. S. Naipaul to reject the label of "West Indian writer," but still his "Caribbean work is [his] strongest, [in part] because it is closest to his experience of growing up." And here, to take an unhappier example, is how the table is set for a re-appraisal of "one of those famed 'pure products of America'," Jack Kerouac:

An impotent, alcoholic, ruined, middle-aged, mill-town Franco-American living in Lowell, and finally in St. Petersburg with his jealously protective, corrosively ignorant and loudly bigoted mother, or with a wife he alternately loved and hated while trying to divorce, is not a candidate for progressive opinions on race, class, or sexual politics.

To know what kind of cultural milieu Kerouac came out of, and Blaise does, is essential to an understanding the man and his work.

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