Blaise, Clark 1940-
BLAISE, Clark 1940-
PERSONAL: Surname is pronounced "blezz"; born April 10, 1940, in Fargo, ND; Canadian/United States citizen; son of Leo Romeo Pierre (a furniture salesman) and Anne (a schoolteacher; maiden name, Vanstone) Blaise; married Bharati Mukherjee (a writer and professor), September 19, 1963; children: Bart Anand, Bernard Sudhir. Education: Denison University, B.A., 1961; University of Iowa, M.F.A., 1964.
CAREER: Writer and teacher. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, acting instructor in English, 1964-65; Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, assistant professor, 1968-73, associate professor, 1973-76, professor of English, 1976-78; York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, professor of humanities, 1978-80; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, professor of English, 1980-84; David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia, Canada, visiting professor, 1984; Columbia University and New York University, New York, NY, adjunct professor, 1985-89; Sarah Lawrence College, New York, NY, adjunct professor, 1987-90; University of Iowa, Iowa City, director of international writing program and professor of English, 1990-98, professor emeritus, 1998—; University of California-Berkeley, visiting professor of writing, 1998-2000; California College of Arts and Crafts, distinguished visiting professor, 2001—. Visiting teacher at summer writing workshops, including Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, and Saratoga Springs, NY. Has conducted writing workshops in India, Singapore, Germany, Haiti, Holland, Argentina, Australia, and Estonia.
AWARDS, HONORS: President's Medal, University of Western Ontario, 1967, for best short story in a Canadian publication; Great Lakes College Association prize, 1973, for best first book of fiction; St. Lawrence Prize, 1974, for best book of short fiction; Fels Award, 1975, for best essay in a literary quarterly; Canada Council senior arts grant, 1976-77; Books in Canada Prize for best first novel, 1980; National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1981; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; book of the year award from Canadian Booksellers' Association, 1995.
(With Dave Godfrey and David Lewis Stein) NewCanadian Writing, 1968, Irwin Clark (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1968.
A North American Education: A Book of Short Fiction, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1973.
Tribal Justice (short stories), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1974.
(With wife, Bharati Mukherjee) Days and Nights inCalcutta (nonfiction), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1977.
(Editor, with John Metcalf) Here and Now, Oberon Press (Ottawa, Ontario, Canada), 1977.
Lunar Attractions (novel), Doubleday (New York, NY), 1979.
Lusts, Doubleday (New York, NY),1983.
Resident Alien, Penguin Books (New York, NY), 1986.
(With wife, Bharati Mukherjee) The Sorrow and theTerror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy, Viking (New York, NY), 1987.
The Border as Fiction, Borderlands (Orono, ME), 1990.
Man and His World (short stories), Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1993.
Here, There, and Everywhere (lectures), Meiji University Press (Tokyo, Japan), 1994.
If I Were Me: A Novel, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
Southern Stories,, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation ofStandard Time, Pantheon (New York, NY), 2000.
Pittsburgh Stories, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 2001.
Montreal Stories, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
International Stories, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 2005.
Work represented in more than ninety anthologies. Contributor of stories to magazines, including Shenandoah, Tri-Quarterly, American Review, Tamarack Review, and Journal of Canadian Fiction. Frequent book reviewer for newspapers and periodicals.
SIDELIGHTS: Clark Blaise is noted as a writer with an extremely wide and versatile range. According to an essayist in Contemporary Novelists, "Blaise's short stories and novels are marked by their preoccupation with the tensions between a host of metaphorical extremes. Blaise is attracted to raw experience, spontaneous impulse, grotesque realism, uncultured thought: simultaneously, his is a polymath who needs reason, order, intellect, and learning. . . . His fiction is driven by the strategies he employs in his attempt to make them coincide."
Blaise once told CA: "As a native-born American with foreign parents, and as a child who attended an average of two schools a year in twenty-five different cities, I grew up with an outsider's view of America and a romanticized exile's view of French-Canada. In 1965, for personal reasons having to do with a crisis of purpose and identity, I 'returned' to Montreal and claimed this area of the continent for my writings. I am a Canadian citizen. My interest is in 'tribalism' on the American continent, and in all groups who refuse amalgamation and prefer codes and taboos of their own."
Blaise's first two collections of short stories, A North American Education: A Book of Short Fiction and Tribal Justice, reflect his concern with "tribalism." According to Val Clery in Quill and Quire, the theme of both books is "the rough ambiguous justice meted out to the individual by the ethnic, geographical or religious tribes that inhabit North America." Clery believed this is an apt theme for Blaise, who was exposed to many "tribes" because of "his father's vagrant pursuit of a livelihood as a furniture salesman in the small towns of Florida and the cities of the American Middle West." Of Tribal Justice, a reviewer for the New York Times Book Review remarked that the stories "offer sudden, brilliant revelations of feeling or mood or character . . . [and] have the fresh, if apprehensive, vision of a new boy in a new place."
Days and Nights in Calcutta, coauthored with his wife, novelist Bharati Mukherjee, is the result of the couple's journey to visit Mukherjee's family in India. Each wrote approximately half the book, and while the two are observers of the same general scene, their observations reflect two very different points of view. New York Times reviewer Anatole Broyard commented: "Blaise brings to Calcutta the surprised eye of an outsider. . . . He is continually discovering India and is just as continually struck by its incongruities as seen through Western eyes. [His wife] is more immersed, tending to muse over her country, to mingle its history with her own." William Borders, writing in the New York Times, said that "the two have written an unusual book. . . . Its theme, not surprisingly, is cultural alienation."
For his first novel, Lunar Attractions, Blaise chose an outsider for his hero and again used alienation as a theme. David Greenwood is "a boy who doesn't quite fit the patterns established by society," observed Joseph McLellan in the Washington Post. McLellan continued: "This is all fairly standard material for a 'sensitive first novel.' . . . But there is a refreshing difference [because] David Greenwood is a real, three-dimensional human being. . . . the things that happen to him are believable."John Yohalem, writing in the New York Times Book Review, declared: "Mr. Blaise is a thoughtful and entertaining writer, a rediscoverer of childhood with a good memory for his reactions the first time he passed through. . . . [He] is a born storyteller and an easy writer to like, to savor."
Blaise's work is always autobiographical to some degree, and the author himself told Contemporary Novelists, "I would agree with critics who see my work as courting solipsism, and much of my own energy is devoted to finding ways out of the vastness of the first person pronoun." Indeed, the protagonists of Blaise's first two novels, Lunar Attractions and Lusts, are writers struggling in some sense with the role of the artist's life in his writings. Despite an avowed intention to steer clear of the first person in future writings—a declaration Blaise made in an interview with Barry Cameron conducted in 1980—his work instead became a more complex, interweaving of points of view including rather than avoiding the first person. "While Lunar Attractions proved that Blaise could master the novel form, it also demonstrated that his fundamental attraction to self-reflective writing remained central to his art," Robert Lecker commented in Contemporary Novelists. Similarly, Lusts, centers on the correspondence exchanged between a Chinese-American biographer and the husband of her deceased subject, a poet who killed herself at the height of his wife's success. Despite the surface dissimilarities, Mark Abley noted in his review in Maclean's that Blaise shares with his characters a sense of being the outsider, and thus, "Blaise . . . has turned his highly personal sense of displacement into a graphic metaphor for the experience of modern life in North America."
Resident Alien, a collection of short fiction and nonfiction pieces that followed Lusts, blurs the lines between autobiography and fiction even further, exploring the nature of identity, particularly as it relates to place. Blaise's stories and essays comment upon and undercut each other, making Resident Alien "both the most satisfying and the most provocative of his works" to date, according to David Jackel in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Among Blaise's more recent works is I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography, a more straightforward look at the author's peripatetic youth. The book "provides much insight into how geography confers character," a Publishers Weekly critic contended. The same reviewer singled out for praise the "geographic lushness and a sense of mystery" that pervade I Had a Father.
With Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, Blaise moved from autobiography to biography. The project started for him in 1997, a year in which, according to John Bemrose in Maclean's, Blaise did not have enough time to accomplish everything. During this time, he was reviewing the manuscript of his autobiography, and "the phrase 'time zones' leapt out at him," explained Bemrose. This led the author to begin researching the inventor of the time zone and standardized time. Time Lord explores one Victorian entrepreneur's contribution to world culture, namely, the standardization of time through a twenty-four-hour day in which all clocks are set corresponding to Greenwich Mean Time. The book not only includes a biography of Sandford Fleming, the leading proponent of standard time, but also includes reflections on the way great novelists respond to time in their works, as well as ruminations on time in an age of computers. A Publishers Weekly critic found the book to be "an important history of ideas . . . [written] with perfect pitch and graceful narrative." Bemrose deemed the work "a dazzling meditation on social change," and added that the author"shows how new technologies . . . have shaped our perceptions of time, plunging us into a temporal crisis from which we have never entirely emerged." A Booklist correspondent praised Blaise for taking readers "far beyond Fleming's nineteenth-century formula for keeping clocks into the mystery of time itself." Lee Wade, in his review of the book for Library Journal, noted, "Today, it would take a bold advocate to defend Fleming's rational and progressive scheme, which is why Blaise's unabashed celebration of 'the time lord' is so refreshing."Julia Keller, review ing Time Lord for the Chicago Tribune, pointed out that Blaise's "literary background is evident in its pages."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Clark Blaise contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
This is being written in Christmas week, 1984, in Iowa City, Iowa. I am forty-four, unemployed (I should be saying, bravely, self-employed as a writer), with a son in university, a son in high school, and a wife who has just started teaching in Montclair, New Jersey. The house I own has a literary history. It was in this house nearly a decade ago that John Irving wrote Garp, and the pillar-support of my garage bears the evidence—the autobiographical evidence, let us say—that writers turn life to metaphor, and mild misadventure into meaningful catastrophe.
Children and writers are both liars. The child's lie is uninteresting, a moral nullity, for it is based on denial—"I didn't hit her," "I didn't take it," "I didn't see it," "I didn't know," "You never told me." The writer's lie is all-inclusive, Faustian—"I was there, I suffered, I was the man." An inch of experience, a glimpse, a memory, a word, any special authenticating detail and the writer rushes in to claim a mile of responsibility. "I knew it," the writer says, "I saw it happening. It is my fault; I take the blame." Without that greed for guilt and punishment there is no art.
I have just finished writing an overt autobiography, a mixture of nonfictional essay and autobiographical-seeming fiction entitled Resident Alien (Viking, 1986). It will appear (as of this writing) in about a year. I thought I was done with my Self, those dozens of fictional self-portraits I've executed through the years, and now I'm forced again to come clean, to claim more for my burdened memory than I can deliver. I'm tempted now to become a child and to say I don't know nearly a fraction of the things I've claimed to know, as a writer. I don't know the South, or Pittsburgh, or Canada, or India. I don't know languages, women, I was never a genius, I don't think the moves in my childhood made my life especially unhappy. I was never a Catholic or a Jew, I never lived as a Franco-American, I was never as poorly-off as the characters in my fiction, I never suffered their brutal derangements, I've not read as much as I've claimed, and I'm not the assured middle-aged, genial, avuncular, esthete that I seem.
And yet, I am all those things, and more.
You see how dull real autobiography can be. I jazzed up my life for Resident Alien, while holding to the essential outlines my parents gave me. My first four books of fiction—the two story collections and the two novels—were scatsongs on a jangling but still intact pool of memories or linked possibilities from the life I had led. I held on to the flimsy memories of where I'd lived and what I'd seen; I let it serve as a garage-post to my own sense of loss and suffering. This time, I will scrape together all that I have not used before, and try to serve it in newly designed bottles with different labels. It can't be helped if it comes out sounding like the same old fiction.
Most male writers I know, or have read about, had artistically inclined mothers trapped in unhappy marriages to resolutely feckless husbands. My mother was from a stern prairie family in Wawanesa, Manitoba, where she was born, the eldest of ten, in 1903. Her father was the town doctor who later became the head of Canada's major insurance company, The Wawanesa Mutual. After he retired (early, because of encroaching Alzheimer's disease), the family moved to Winnipeg. My mother took a teaching degree at Wesley College, Winnipeg, in 1927, and spent three years teaching in Saskatchewan and Manitoba schools in Dauphin, Minnedosa, and Guernsey. Her students were generally the sons of Ukrainian farmers—or the farmers themselves—often older than she. The custom of the times was to give the village schoolteacher free room and board (she only earned a thousand dollars a year), and so, scrupulously, she saved. She was saving for nothing less than her deliverance.
She had a plan which her father had refused to finance. He was a patriarch, accustomed to pure devotion from his eight daughters. He gave them all his will, often in defiance. She wanted to be an artist, a designer, a calling which he firmly disapproved. She had the talent from an early age—I've found her early sketches and had them framed—and it might have been the example of her will, more than her talent, that allowed her younger sister Ruth to get the California training she demanded. My mother wanted to go to Europe. She wanted to be, and this, I confess, is my conclusion, sophisticated. In 1930, she left for England (where else would a Canadian girl go?), and then to the continent. She sought, and discovered, the Bauhaus. And in the areas around that citadel of functional modernism, she found the Miessen ware, the Dresden porcelains, the ornamental culture that predated that cost-efficient, reductive geometry.
The poles of her taste define her character. Up-to-date and rational in nearly everything. Ferocious and self-denying in her independence. Punctual, responsible, scrupulous, ethical, excruciatingly fair-minded. Brave. A Bohemian and atheist of her time and place. For a literary analogy, I think of her in Huxleyan terms—scientific background, skeptical mind, bright and witty, with undertones of mysticism that pulled at her until she capitulated. Though she travelled the permissible world (Europe) in exciting times (the rise of Hitler), she retained the innocence of small-town Canada. She could not abide filth and Catholics, an effective barrier to wider travel. She was drawn to the occult—like many Englishy types—she had a talent for reading tea leaves. She could go into trances, and she quit it all when she felt herself getting "strange" and being perceived as just a little queer. All that atheism and rationality had to have an outlet. She'd rejected the organized religions of her day, but attended Theosophist lectures, read books on Buddhism, believed in reincarnation, and revered George Bernard Shaw. She had an enlightened Canadian's outlook on race and Empire: pro-India, pro-black, pro-American, anti-Imperial. (Canadian nationalists of her generation saw Britain, not America, as the natural enemy; British institutions, not American policies, as the Yoke.) When she finally returned to Canada in 1937 to take over the head decorator's job at Eaton's Montreal store, she was thirty-four and unmarried. Her Montreal friends were all "bachelor-girl" professors at McGill. It was a world ready-made for her, and one she barely avoided.
From all that I know of the writing process, she was an ideal writer's mother. A prototype. She'd had dazzling experiences in the world, the larger world of Europe, and she could retell those stories for me, endlessly. She could illustrate them. I had an early drawing-talent—that was a link. If she was the ideal mother, I was probably the ideal son for her: appreciative, verbal, quiet. Through me, her ambitions would live. I don't mean to imply she was a stage-mother pushing me to performance, but the withdrawal of her approval filled me with awful terrors. I was raised, simply, to see my mother as an ally.
Being her ally meant equipping myself with the literary, artistic, and historical facts necessary to carry on a discourse. It meant appreciating certain facts and observing certain rituals; it meant always having something interesting to say. It also meant avoiding vast areas of coarseness, sexuality, and unwholesomeness.
Which brings me to my father.
I know very little about him. He was born Leo Romeo Blais, the youngest of eighteen, the son of Achille and Gervaise (Boucher) Blais, in Lac Megantic, Quebec, in 1905. The family bounced between New Hampshire and Quebec for most of the first two decades of this century (part of a national pattern of migration), settling long enough in Manchester, New Hampshire, for his sisters, Lena and Bella, to marry. There was one brother, Olivier, who fought for the Canadian Army in the First World War, then married a Frenchwoman and spent the rest of his life in France. My uncle, and the cousins I've met, and their children I've heard about, have probably balanced the ancient demographic books of emigration. He had another sister, Corinne, who survived into her twenties. Thirteen others never made it, including six who died in one week in the 1919 influenza epidemic. At least, my father said so. My father combined the child's and the writer's art of lying; he lied to claim legitimacy, but he lied as well to avoid accounting.
The male writer's relationship to his father is often tension-filled, a case of bad receivers and bad transmitters, of static and silence. I wish I knew my father, for certainly a complicated man existed there, though he chose to show very little of it. He manufactured vast complexities, like a child, and like a child's lies they were uninteresting fabrications. He was ashamed of his origins (my mother had added the final "e" to our name, which he liked), so he never admitted to anything other than a Boston birth. He was ashamed of having no education, so he claimed nothing less than Harvard, sometimes Dartmouth. He was ashamed of the illiteracy of his family, and of his own difficult time with letters, so my mother handled all correspondence. He was ashamed, in short, of everything a son would find infectious and even exciting; all the occasions for pride were systematically obliterated. Thanks to my mother's storytelling abilities, and her pride in family accomplishments, I can reconstruct western Canadian life confidently. I enter my mother's world with ease and assurance; I know I will be received as a proper native. But my father never once spoke to me of his childhood and manhood, never spoke of his two earlier marriages (I learned of them only after my parents' divorce), and I witnessed the disintegration of his fourth and fifth marriages. He died on the last day of 1978 in Manchester, the victim of clots and vascular collapse, in pain and virtually alone, on his way to the medical facilities at Dartmouth.
And yet, of course, it is of my father that I write. He was the great mystery in my life, the great unknown teasingly at hand. My mother's life is the pedestal; his is the statue. His language, his origins, his life before my birth, his indifference to me, his rejection of all my ambitions. He was an athlete, a former boxer, a skier, a skater. He was a salesman, a violent, aggressive, manipulative man specializing in the arts of spontaneous misrepresentation. And he was glamorous: short, dark, and handsome. As a travelling salesman, he had women in every town; he drank to excess every night, and hit the road at daybreak every morning. After a critical accident, he took himself off the road and started a second career as furniture-buyer for various department stores, and in each of those small towns throughout the South and Midwest (we moved on the average of three times a year for my first fifteen years), he found new women. Their sons and daughters were invariably in my class at school; they became my ersatz brothers and sisters and we kept a strange silence about our secrets. How I loved those girls! How I suffered from the bullying of those boys! (I used some of those feelings in the first part of my novel Lunar Attractions (Doubleday, 1979.) That strange silence, the strangled truths we knew but couldn't communicate, is an essential part of the fiction I write and the fiction I most admire.
Anyone who has read my fiction knows how I have combed those feelings, how the anguish of separation from my father's world is an incurable ache. As I read over my stories from A North American Education (Doubleday, 1973) and Tribal Justice (Doubleday, 1974), and even from Resident Alien, I see how I have extracted a certain revenge. The father in those stories is often crippled by drink or an accident, often beaten. In my novel Lusts (Doubleday, 1983) he is dying of cancer; only in Lunar Attractions is he arrayed in his glory. There are only isolated moments of unity: at the close of the title story in my first collection, the offshore hurricane brings father and son together; in "The Bridge," the father and his mistress save the boy from sunstroke. The violence of my feelings sometimes frightens me; the consequences perhaps of a strangled Oedipal fixation on my mother. I have never escaped the family as the source of all my fiction and I doubt that I ever will.
Look, I want to say, fiction is really very simple to understand. Northrup Frye has called it all part of a Great Code. Joseph Campbell has related it all to a single hero and a single set of tests. Of course, culture and language and experience all mitigate the single story, but the great novels all say the same thing. They say: once upon a time there was unity. Once upon a time we floated in a basket under a benevolent sun on a serene ocean. Our lungs were pink as seashells, our arteries supple, our senses super-keen. And then a rupture occurred—call it a Fall, or consciousness, or some other Great Truth—and we are tipped from our basket into a monster-filled sea, under a scorching sky. There is no one to support us, and we struggle to find the shore. The great writers dramatize the struggle, they write from the consciousness of loss, from the knowledge that the natural world is an illusion of Eden, that social comforts have been purchased with the coin of forgetfulness. I think of the writers I most admire—Hemingway, Faulkner, Mann, Nabokov, Babel, Kafka, O'Connor, Malamud, Handke—and I realize that in each of them, a world is described, ironically, that has been severed from all that gives meaning, or dignity, to man or his discourse. I've called it "the Great Truth" that any writer must have in his head: for Hemingway it was the nihilism of the first war, for Faulkner it was slavery, for Mann the destruction of bourgeois society, for Nabokov it was expulsion from Russia, for contemporary Europeans, especially Germans, the awareness that their McDonaldized Europe is an infernal undergrowth fed by corpses.
I'd been born with a muscle condition, variously described as a dystrophy and "amyotonia congenita" (invariably fatal); I didn't walk till I was three and a half; I was, and am, pudgy and slow and lacking in good muscle tone despite dedicated efforts to control it. Naturally enough, the lack of physical grace, coordination (my only advantage over my father is that I outgrew him by six inches), and aggressiveness has made me, perversely, a lover of all sports. I am of that generation of small-town Americans for whom team-loyalty was a stepping-stone to some larger sense of purpose and steadfastness. However bad they were, those minor-leaguers were ours, they represented us, their losses were a test of our tolerance. I've never felt comfortable among winners in any competition; perhaps that's why I'm a writer and not a salesman.
Many of my friends from high school and college and on up find it an aberration in my otherwise respectable self. Something, they were sure, I'd outgrow—in fact, it would be a convenient benchmark of my maturing. Three hours a day in baseball season I am rooted to radio or television. Football weekends, basketball midweeks, hockey anytime. If anything, the off-season dreaming and the in-season attention has sharpened over the years. I remember moments in my southern childhood of catching a touchdown pass (characteristically, the first pass I ever caught, when I was seven and playing with kids much older on a dusty street in Leesburg, Florida, was immediately after telling myself, "it's not hard to catch. They keep throwing to me and I keep dropping it because I think I can't do it. But throw it again and I'll catch it and no one is around me because they think I can't do it." George Stewart threw it again, and I caught it, and I remember his tattooed older brother, Bunky, looking at me in wonder.) I remember one other time, in a schoolyard in Cincinnati, in the Avondale black ghetto. The quarterback lofted a pass to me and I caught it on the run, one of those perfect moments when the vectors of flight laid the ball on my fingertips with feather-lightness—I didn't know I'd caught it and neither did any of the incomparably faster defenders. I just ran and ran to the end zone, a legendary white boy for one afternoon.
Hey, man, way to go.
Years later, Sport magazine sent me on assignment out to both coasts to follow the Montreal Expos and report back on why they weren't winning. Dugout, locker-room, field, and press-box passes. Long talks with The Guys, the coaches, the opposition, the Hollywood types who follow them. Twelve hours a day of sheer, underbelly baseball; it still sustains me.
I am an autobiographical writer. Nearly all of my work is in the first person; there is a recognizable (even repetitive) "world" to my writing and to my characters. I've not veered too sharply from the path of "givens" in my life. That I am obsessed with the Canadian reality—the mysterious and unknown and the clear and confident, so close at hand. That I am the man-child of such disparate forces, that French and English, America and Canada, Pittsburgh, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, and the deep rural South all mingle in me. That India, through marriage, should have become a vital test, an escape from all my subjectivity.
More than most authors, I am dependent on autobiography. Raymond Carver, in his Paris Review interview, cited my work as "purely autobiographical," which is not exactly true—only the outline and the first-person mode of telling are autobiographical. The content is imagined. Until now I've avoided quoting from Resident Alien, but since I've said this all before, and said it better when I thought I was saying it for the last time, I'll quote it one more time:
Where does the impulse come from, and why, after fifty stories and two novels, does the voice and the shape and the subject-matter remain fundamentally the same? Why am I wedded like a reborn Wordsworth to the epic of my own becoming? I've hounded my life like a tied-up dog, digging it up, soiling it, as though where I've been and what I've seen is somehow prototypical, epic and exemplary, rather than sheltered, eccentric and utterly accidental.
The cataclysm in my life was my parents' divorce. Absurd, I know; it was the most predictable of occurrences and it happened late enough in my life—nineteen—when all parental obligations had been met. But no matter how calmly I took it, I realize that I never accepted it, never forgave it, never really survived it as the person I was. Their divorce formed a knot in my character; my life collapsed around it like a compacted star.
I am dependent on a world made explicable by my mismatched parents in their improbable, even heroic, marriage. So long as they are together, all things are possible. Their incongruity calls up, and somehow justifies, the harshest and most beautiful images of my experience and my imagination. Most of my stories are told from an undisclosed adult perspective, in the first person, and most take place in childhood and adolescence, at a time when the parents are together, when the potential for divorce, the logic for divorce, the imperative for divorce, were being ignored. Life without their unspoken, unacted, erotic violence is literally unimaginable to me, just as life after their divorce seems lacking in moral authority. I need the shelter of their marriage; their complications and polarities are still the food-source of what Edwin Honig has called their "aging embryo." They function for me as God served Nietzsche—keeping a few things impossible, while justifying everything else. They are the heavens and the landscape of my imagination—the indispensable maps leading north and south, into French and English, to Europe and beyond.
I will never surpass my parents in their passion, their guts, their improbable adventures. While I am clearly the inheritor of my mother's genes—for art, for contemplation, for thick legs and deepset eyes and I fear, a certain gene for Alzheimer's disease (she lies now in a Winnipeg nursing home, eighty-one and utterly, utterly lost)—I've also taken over my father's wanderlust, his self-made vanities, his inability to settle on a single role in a single place. I am steady in my profession of writing and there it ends.
My father could not hold jobs. He was unstable, he got drunk or abusive, or impatient. His desperate climb from the deepest pit of rural Quebec obliged him to accept any job, anyplace, that offered more money than the job he had. Being a salesman, he of course was gullible. If he heard of a horse to bet on, he'd bet. Of an innovation in appliances, cars, or medicines, he'd buy. Of a better job, he'd jump. Aesthetics, inconvenience, hours, played no part. I share his impulses; I honor the concept of rootedness, yet I've behaved abominably. In another context I've called myself a Bluebeard of the Interstates.
I was born in Fargo, North Dakota, where my father was furniture-buyer for Sears. It was his first American job. In 1940, many Canadians feared that the War was already lost. England would fall; Canada would be occupied. If not, Canada would fight on, alone. Newfoundland, a British colony, would be occupied like the Channel Islands. Quebec would refuse to fight an "English" war (in this, my father as well as Pierre Trudeau were in perfect agreement), and the brown-shirt fascists of Adrien Arcand were poised for a putsch. America was viewed as secretly fascist. I own a book, written by a Canadian diplomat, called Canada: America's Enemy, published in 1940, in which he urges an invasion by the U.S. to preempt the coming collapse of the Commonwealth. The move to North Dakota, then, was seen as a way of protecting their precious cargo. America would never go to War.
We moved a few months later, still with Sears, to Cincinnati. A year later to Pittsburgh. In 1945, to Atlanta where my father launched his first business. It failed, and he was forced to go on the road. We moved to northern Florida, the towns of Leesburg and Tavares in the lake-rich, citrus-laden hills. In 1947 he suffered his near-fatal accident, and we slid into desperate poverty. I went to one-room schools with teenage morons. It was three years before we saw electricity and indoor plumbing again. And those were the years that gave me my first writing world. I was a Southerner, I breathed that air and suffered those parasites, and was awed by all I saw. When my father recovered his health, he went back to furniture-buying, in West Palm Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, and Jacksonville.
Had we stayed in any of those towns and cities, we'd be millionaires by now. The people we knew, our old neighbors who'd come down South just after the war, they've made it, just as my father had always dreamed. They have gates in front of their houses, Continentals in the drive, yachts in their backyards. By the early sixties, when I backpedalled South one last time at the beginning of my writing life, my father was living in a Pittsburgh rooming house with five paroled drunks in a kind of halfway house for the deranged and unemployed.
In 1950, pursued by accumulated demons, we fled one night to Canada. Back to Winnipeg, to live in my grandmother's house, under the shelter of their fame and money. My background till that time was as self-made as any child out of any book. I drew pictures, I memorized lists and texts and bird-guides and fish-books, I listened to baseball games from places that could thrill me, names like Shibe and Briggs and Fenway. My schooling had been haphazard, amounting to three dislocations a year, in shanty-cars and unpainted one-room shacks, in the deep, segregated South. These are the years of the deepest sense-impressions I've ever received, of colors and smells and tastes that are as clear to me today as they were then.
When I came to Canada, it was the beginning of reason. For the first time, there were people I respected—my aunts and uncles and gifted teachers—to put my life in a context. I was a freak, with my Southern accent and my self-taught ways. Yet I was also of The Family, a famous family, and perhaps my skills at drawing and my feats of memorization (I knew all the capitals of all the political divisions in the world; I knew the county seats of every county in America; I knew all the kings of England and Germany and France; I knew the call-letters of the major radio stations) were more than mere idiot-savanterie; maybe there was a guiding intelligence, despite the fact that I, at ten, had never worked a math problem or written an assignment. The teacher was faced with a dilemma, either to install me three or four years back, or keep me in grade five and force-feed me like a goose, with penmanship, math tables, British history, and formulae.
Less than a year later, we were back on the road to Springfield, Missouri, Cincinnati—city of my immaculate reception—and finally Pittsburgh. From grade eight till graduation and slightly beyond, I was a Pittsburgher. It is a city of natural confluences, ethnic and establishment, sports and intellect, working-class and upper management. I loved Pittsburgh, and I hope I have done justice to it in Lusts and Lunar Attractions and several stories. My father, after getting fired from the first job that brought him there, and taking us to Montreal where for a crazy couple of weeks he thought of resettling (he'd done something very bad, that day of his firing), decided to return to Pittsburgh and start a furniture store of his own. My mother to sell and to decorate; he to sell and order. They were, by then, fifty years old. And for six years, and through two stores, until I began college at Denison University, they prospered.
There too, had another woman not interposed herself, they might be millionaires today. They had their shot. In 1962, I saw everything being auctioned off, our only house sold, my parents dispersed to rooming houses. My mother returned to Canada and to teaching, my father remarried and went to Mexico. He'd bagged a great deal of money in the liquidation (my mother got twelve thousand dollars from it, thanks to smart accountants and her ethical refusal to contest a thing). The new wife took it, brained him, and deserted him in Mexico. He made his way back to Pittsburgh, to the halfway house, then worked his way back down to Florida, to a nephew of his he'd never met. The nephew introduced him to his last wife, a widow from New Hampshire, and the rest belongs to a different story.
Now, at last, I can speak of the writing. I went to Denison University in Ohio, hoping to be a scientist. For two years I was a geology major, then I discovered writing. Eventually, thanks to Paul Bennett, a great teacher who has headed Denison's writing program for nearly forty years, I learned that there was an outlet for all the suppressed quirkiness in my life. I wasn't just another lovesick suburban mooncalf from Pittsburgh dozing through endless science labs, looking for Friday night dates. I had known worlds before their passing; I had seen extinct animals—Florida cougars, ivory-billed woodpeckers, Key deer; I had witnessed the Klan in power, floggings, segregation; I had parents with different nationalities, different languages were spoken in my house; I had lived without conveniences and in different countries: my life, if viewed from just a degree or two off-center, was in fact a riot of color and drama and story.
If, that is, I learned to lie like a writer and not like a child. I dropped out of school, overwhelmed by what I'd learned, battered by my parents' divorce. I went to Florida to work, started reading a novel a day, and declared myself an English major. I took out loans to see me through a senior year, I wrote, and when I graduated in 1961, I was editing the campus literary magazine and I had won the writing prizes. My stories were Southern in the extreme, so swampy they should have been drained, then sprayed. I thought I was Southern, the inauthenticity of my accent, the brevity of my exposure to that world wouldn't bother me for another few years.
What about those stories, I wonder now. The stories are all linked by water. My first story, "Broward Dowdy" (it's in Tribal Justice, but was written first at Denison, then eventually published by Shenandoah), is about a moss-picking family I'd known, deep in the swamps by the shores of Lake Harris. My second, never collected, was published in a short-lived magazine called Chrysalis and was called, rhapsodically I felt, "Giant Turtles, Gliding in the Dark." It was a remembered response to the glass-bottomed boat rides I'd taken as a child through Silver Springs. The third, "Relief" (also in Tribal Justice and first published in Shenandoah), concerns the same shanty-settlement on the shores of Lake Harris, this time during the confusion of a hurricane's passing. (Is this the time to acknowledge the bravery of editors who take a chance on beginners? James Boatwright has published five of my stories; I owe him a lot and have met him, very briefly, only once.) In all of those stories, there is no hint of Canada, of our temporary residence, our highborn Yankee origins. A fourth story, "Growing Pains," first written in Bernard Malamud's seminar at Harvard, was published in Carolina Quarterly (in an issue with two young writers later to become friends, Leon Rooke and Raymond Carver), and concerned Erskine Caldwellian manipulations of rape, incest, and retardation among those memorable moss-pickers. I picked up the tone, slightly, using a more literate narrator, in another Shenandoah (and Tribal Justice) story, "Notes beyond a History." All very murky and gothic, but nevertheless, deeply felt at the time. There were other stories, some from Denison, some from Harvard, "A Fish Like a Buzzard" and "Saranac, in October," that have never been collected and reside now with the hundreds of other drafts and letters and attempts at novels, at the University of Calgary.
Before the South passes entirely out of view, however, I'd like to resurrect one sentence from one of those stories. It's a line I'm proud to have written, and I think it continues to live for me after twenty years because it's really about writing, more than the scene it describes. It's from "Relief," discussing the meteorological phenomenon of a "seiche." When air pressure suddenly lessens over a large, enclosed body of water—as when, for example, the eye of a hurricane passes over an enormous lake—the water withdraws to its center, forming a dome. (A tornado over open water gives a waterspout.) That dome of water then relaxes when the eye retreats, and a kind of bore-tide can come crashing out of nowhere into the recently uncovered shoreline. This scene describes the retreat of the water:
We looked out again, beyond the inlet which now was guarded by logs that had been submerged. On the open lake the wind blew whitecaps off the tops of swells. There were ripples now on the inlet. The stench of mud, as it dried, made even the migrants back off. The inlet—now shrunk to the outline of its deepest depressions—roughened, and the congregations of fish frothed to the surface, drinking in air with little gasps. We stood at the end of the dock and looked into the water. There were boats, far below, long sunk, housing bass and larger turtles. We hadn't known that the inlet was so deep.
It's that little aside—"now shrunk to the outline of its deepest depression"—that still has some residual power over me, for I think now it strikes close to the heart of my Southern experience. I was not a Southerner and could never be, but the memorable qualities of Southern poverty rubbed me against the deepest depressions in the available (white) American culture of that time. It has always been water—the water, for example, at the end of "A North American Education."
There was another Sunday in Florida. A hurricane was a hundred miles offshore and due to strike Ft. Lauderdale within the next six hours. We drove from our house down Las Olas to the beach (Ft. Lauderdale was still an inland city then), and parked half a mile away, safe from the paint-blasting sand. We could hear the breakers under the shriek of the wind, shaking the wooden bridge we walked on. Then we watched them crash, brown with weeds and suspended sand. And we could see them miles offshore, rolling in forty-feet high and flashing their foam like icebergs. A few men in swimming suits and woolen sweaters were standing in the crater pools, pulling out the deep-sea fish that had been stunned by the trip and waves. Other fish littered the beach, their bellies blasted by the change in pressure. My mother's face was raw and her glasses webbed with salt. She went back to the car on her own. My father and I sat on the beach for another hour and I could see behind his crusty sunglasses. His eyes were moist and dancing, his hair stiff and matted. We sat on the beach until we were soaked and the municipal guards rounded us up. Then they barricaded the boulevards and we went back to the car, the best day of fishing we'd ever had, and we walked hand in hand for the last time, talking excitedly, dodging coconuts, powerlines, and shattered glass, feeling brave and united in the face of the storm. My father and me. What a day it was, what a once-in-a-lifetime day it was.
Water has always summoned up the binding images of terror and of love. It did so with the giant turtles grinding their beaks under my Florida pillow, it did so with the ghastly images of alligator garfish, of alligators themselves, of water moccasins, of mudfish, and later in my Canadian stories, of the leeches covering my character's body ("At the Lake" in Tribal Justice).
The novella "Snow People" begins with a broken jaw—a baseball off the bat of the same George Stewart who once threw me a touchdown pass—and a quick memory of being saved by George from drowning the summer before (true, as a matter of fact, on both counts); the opening scene of Lunar Attractions has the boy and his father fishing on a Florida lake in a pastel sunset, when an alligator shatters the stillness and breaks forever the bond that had formed. I ended the novella "Continent of Strangers," set mainly in Sweden, with the spurned American lover standing in the Baltic breakers as a Finnish girl comes to join him, and I had begun with his fantasy, arriving in Europe on his first, romanticized trip, of crashing and being joined in the life raft by his Icelandic stewardess and washing up on the shores of Greenland. Well, all stories are the same, banal in their retelling, redeemed by their details. They contain the memory of a unity shattered, and the painful crawl back to shelter. We participate in myth as we write, by whatever disparate paths we take to get there. For me, water—for some unknown reason—has always held the secret of every revelation.*
I am one of those writers who would have had a career, thin and obsessive no doubt, if he'd fallen in a manhole at the age of twenty and never come out. Of my Self up to twenty, I am in complete sympathy. I seemed, unconsciously, to have absorbed the movies, the songs, the sports, the politics, the landscape of the American forties and fifties. What I didn't absorb I can convincingly distort, or fabricate.
In 1961 I graduated from Denison and headed for Harvard. I'd read Malamud at Denison—one of two people to do so—and he was for me the personification of all I admired, all I wanted to be. Real writers were rare on American campuses in those years—I'd never seen one. When I met Malamud for the first time, handing him my "Broward Dowdy" story from the Denison literary magazine, I was shaking, my mouth was dry. When he accepted me to the class of ten (the others were all Harvard students, or nearby locals), I felt the first validation of my life. I was at Harvard; I was with Malamud. Now my education could begin.
In every sense, it did. Bennett had given me confidence to trust my story (to "lie" in that special sense of telling the truth); Malamud began the rigorous process of getting me to think about my material. He stressed the dramatic element—every part of the story had to dramatize, had to characterize. Nothing that failed that test could remain, however pulsatingly "beautiful" it might be. (I had a lot of pulsatingly beautiful images in those days; I was the Cambridge Faulkner.) I began to see the intellectual dimensions in 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. Two years later, when I was writing for an M.F.A. degree in Iowa, I began seeing those successive layers and learning how to frame them. I put a frame of "the War" around the core of "Broward Dowdy" and Shenandoah took it. I wrote "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster," the first of my stories to use my parents, recognizably, and Florida, and Canada, and my barely recalled French uncle who'd visited us just after the War. I wrote "Grids and Doglegs," a Pittsburgh story that borrowed from the family I had lived with when my parents were starting their store, the love I'd felt for all those ersatz sisters, the movingly intellectual qualities of Pittsburgh—the Carnegie Library, the Museum and Planetarium—and its proletarian excesses—its devotion to the losing Steelers and Pirates and Pitt Panthers—and my anguished attempt to find a place for myself between them.
There are two more things to talk about: marriage and Canada. After Malamud's course I wrote more stories in Boston and worked in a bookstore, but I knew that I was one of those writers cut out for teaching. I wanted out of my eight-hour-a-day, $37-a-week job. Malamud had given me the only "A" in his course and that grade—I've learned—was a kind of promissory note always to help me. I had heard of Iowa, and though Malamud had come up the hard way and was fundamentally opposed to artificial writing communities, he believed in supporting talent wherever it led. I entered Iowa in February 1962, with a scholarship from Omaha Power and Light.
My teacher was Philip Roth. His interest in me was confined to the Malamud-connection (odd that I, still the unreconstructed Southerner in my writing, should know Malamud, and he, later to be linked through dozens of pseudo-scholarly articles and The Ghost Writer [Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1979], knew him not at all). I wrote more Southern stories, took his literary seminar devoted to books he'd been told to read but never had (Young Torless, The Good Soldier, The Confessions of Zeno, and many others), kept reading a book a day (as I'd been doing for the past three years), and prowled the stacks of the library, reading every story in every English-language quarterly in the world. (I was becoming a goddamned expert. Those are names, however obscurely they began, that dominate the scene today.) Roth left and I started learning from R. V. Cassill, and Cassill—a difficult and demanding man—had much to teach, as well as to preach. Where else in America in 1963 would a self-conscious young writer be asked to analyze, exhaustively, the fictional techniques of Jean Stafford in The Mountain Lion (Harcourt Brace, 1947)? Yet the qualities that made him difficult also made him brilliant; he could analyze a work, making every part fit, bringing out every nuance, with the special insight of a paranoid overhearing imagined conversations.
I was learning literature from masters, but I was learning critical responses from my peers, my friends. The Writers' Workshop in the early sixties remains for me a touchstone of dedication; even a partial listing of our classes contains the saplings if not the forests of contemporary American writing. Ray Carver, Joy Williams, Bette Howland, John Yount, Mark Strand, Jim Tate, Charles Wright, Marvin Bell, Andre Dubus, Phil O'Connor, Mark Costello, Ted Weesner, Bill Harrison, Jim Whitehead, Paul Friedman, John Stewart, David Benedictus, Jerry Bumpus, with bigger names (novelists, not story-writers)—John Irving, Tom McHale, Ma Babar, Nicholas Meyer—massing in the wings.
I have written of this, exhaustively. Read Lusts, read Resident Alien, read Steve Wilbers' history of the Writers' Workshop. I believe in communities of writers, artificial or not. I tolerate their excesses and pretensions all in the name of energy and performance. In the twenty years since I've left the Workshop, I've founded a similar program in Montreal, served in one in Toronto, and have settled in Iowa City, after a year of teaching. If I am to teach for a living, which seems inevitable, it must be writing courses and it must be where serious, ambitious students gather. Anything else raises the inflation and pretension level too high.
I have left the hardest part for last. Surviving childhood and becoming a writer is the painless part of living. Marriage, fatherhood, citizenship, meeting the expectations of manhood—those are the crushers.
I met my wife, Bharati Mukherjee, on my first night in Iowa City, in February 1962, at the home of Paul Engle. She'd entered the workshop from Calcutta that September, and was staying in the dorms. Whenever people were to be impressed, Paul would bring her out. Impressive she is; the most beautiful woman I had, or have, ever seen. The most improbable move of my lifetime of moves was the move I put on her. The early sixties, in its widest divergence from the mid-eighties, was still a time of marriage. Everyone was married, no one had divorced. We all lived in cramped apartments with playpens and diaper-hampers, and those of us who arrived without wives or children felt the ache of incompletion. (Roth caught the mood perfectly in Letting Go [Random House, 1962]. You were not "mature," not complete, until you married. You were an existential neuter, pontificating on experiences you'd only read about.) I, too, was married before I left graduate school; I, too, had a son before graduating.
A man like myself, so aware of the failings of his father, enters marriage and fatherhood with a clear set of priorities. The child shall be loved, the wife shall be first of all, one's closest friend. I had taken on not just a wife with special talents and very special charms—I had taken on an alien culture, the widest possible world available to me. Indian men often married American women; the opposite only rarely occurred. Bharati received death-threats from men—spurned suitors—in the Indian community. Her reputation, impeccably upright until my proposal, plunged overnight into lewdness. (How else would a good Indian girl meet an American boy? Every Indian knew—knew existentially—Americans were only interested in fornication and imbibing strong spirits.)
The child slowly became a man in marriage. We graduated and took jobs in Milwaukee for a year, Bharati at Marquette, I at the city campus of the state university. For the first time I saw myself eclipsed; it was she who (naturally) garnered the attention, whose contract would have been extended. I, with my Shenandoah acceptances, my refusal to go for the Ph.D., was terminated. We returned to Iowa a year later so that she could finish her Ph.D. requirements—one of those hellish years for a young mother and a still-incomplete husband—and I could plot our next move.
It was now 1966. I had been involved in the teach-ins in Milwaukee, my mother had returned to Winnipeg, and my Southern stories were losing their steam. I wrote a novella, "Thibidault et Fils," set in Franco-American New England, and it was taken by Prism, in Vancouver. I was learning to lie, claiming knowledge of French and Catholic life that I had brushed against for less than a week in my life. I wrote "The Fabulous Eddie Brewster," finding the inventions, the resonances, absolutely natural, and it was taken by Canada's leading quarterly, the Tamarack Review. I had found a voice, which means, finally, I had found something I commanded.
The conclusion was simple—my mother had triumphed; I was a Canadian after all. All that was unforced in my life came from Canada. The stutterings in my life were all American—the moves, the squalor, the terrors, the poverty. McGill offered Bharati a lectureship, and me a nighttime job teaching English. We immigrated in the summer of 1966, skirting Toronto for which I had a Montrealer's scorn. It would be bilingualism-or-bust; I would be the crowned prince of a coming renaissance. Single-handedly, if necessary, I would forge a national identity that was continental in scope and truly national in expression . . . all I had to do was follow the simple outline of my life.
I make it sound arrogant only from residual regret and instinctive irony. I was a young writer seeking his voice, and that is one of nature's irresistible forces. Speaking entirely for myself, the decision was correct, and my work in Canada and on the behalf of Canada is, on the whole, honorable. I recreated as best I could an Iowa in Montreal at Sir George Williams University (now Concordia); I wrote stories, read them in high schools and colleges, edited books, taught a generation of younger writers in Montreal, Toronto, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, wrote for radio and television, and knew, for a few years, a kind of national prominence that is possible only in a smaller culture. And all that while, Bharati—Canadian before me, a published novelist (The Tiger's Daughter, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; Wife, Houghton Mifflin, 1975) before me—did not receive a single invitation to read, did not receive a fraction of the reviews given even to chapbooks by our students.
Simply, I was the prodigal son, the American who'd returned to Canada, who knew some of the stories and some of the keys to turn. Bharati was the exotic whose material was Indian (bad enough) or American (far worse). We had achieved comfort in Montreal with dual tenured professorships, with foreign travel as a matter of course, a house in Westmount, children (a second son) in private schools, but we'd achieved it in a failing society.
Rene Levesque's independence-minded Parti Quebecois was elected in 1977. Overnight, the English-speaking community of Montreal withdrew to Ontario or the West. The literary community that we drew from, that our writing program had practically created, vanished overnight. York University in Toronto offered me a position at a time when Montreal teachers were accepting watchman's jobs in Ontario. Mine was a vast promotion. Bharati won a Guggenheim grant. It looked, as a sportswriter once said, like it would last forever.
That's when, thanks to a Federal government initiative against "nontraditional" immigration, Canada emptied its spleen against its "visible minorities." Pakibashing was alive and well on the streets of Toronto and Vancouver. We'd been protected from it in Quebec, as happily French-speaking Anglos; in Toronto my reputation kept growing, while Bharati found shopping impossible, even in our tony neighborhood. We stayed the minimum two years and then we applied for immigration, fourteen years after that happy day in Windsor in 1966. We were now Canadians with two kids, forty years old, with seven books between us, and a job to split at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
That takes me back to the beginning paragraph. I'm starting my third life now, in my early forties. The old American life of Pittsburgh and the South is irretrievable. Canada is still alive, as Resident Alien will show, but a new America has taken hold. I wrote Lusts during my National Endowment year; I wrote Resident Alien under a Guggenheim, the same year I quit Skidmore and moved to Iowa. Our children demanded Iowa—it was the first school system they truly loved.
This year I've written my third novel, Embassy, my first book without Canada, without adolescence, without identity crises forming the core. Bharati has found her voice, not as an Indian in exile but as an Indian immigrant, and her first book of stories, Darkness, will be published in the summer of 1985. She lives thirty minutes by bus from the Port Authority, in an apartment in Upper Montclair. I live here, surviving on a second mortgage, readings, and hope. In six months I will join her.
Despite my best efforts, this is still Irving's old place, still the Garp house. I'll point out the garage-post when I sell it, for surely in this town I'll be selling to someone who knows modern books. I am aware, reading this over, how long forty-four years really is. What a privilege it's been, witnessing things that are gone for good. That's the kind of writer I am—a memorialist. Writing this piece today, December 20, 1984, in one long burst, I see old areas I've never exhausted. The love of those ersatz sisters, the odd relationship between the children of a man and his mistress—there's a story there. When Embassy's done, I'll write it.
Clark Blaise contributed the following update to CA in 2005:
I discovered my Americanness in Canada, and my Canadianness after I returned to the United States. Libraries classify my books as "Canadian" although I was born, and have lived most of my life, in the United States as an American. Yet, I cannot deny that I am psychologically a child of my parents' Canada, French and English.
It is the self-defeating paradox of my writing life that I was never more an "American" writer than when I lived in Canada (1966-1980) and wrote the stories that made up A North American Education and Tribal Justice, and the novels, Lunar Attractions and Lusts (begun in Toronto, completed in Iowa), and never more the "Canadian" writer than in my American-written books, in particular, The Sorrow and the Terror (with Bharati Mukherjee), Resident Alien, I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography, Man and His World, and most notably, the biography-cum-intellectual history, Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time. The four volumes of my New and Selected Stories (Southern Stories, Pittsburgh Stories, Montreal Stories and International Stories) have appeared (2000-2005) only in Canada with my long-term Canadian publisher, Porcupine's Quill, while I've been living in California and New York. My most "American" book (in that it doesn't mention Canada at all), is the Asia-and-Europe set counter-picaresque, If I Were Me (1997); it too has appeared only in Canada, although its protagonist is a Brooklyn-born Jewish sociolinguist.
It is the nature of the border-crosser to be the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Reestablishing myself in 1980 as a forty-year-old immigrant to the United States and having to go through naturalization into the country of my birth and upbringing, is, I suppose, a predictable complication for someone who has lived on both sides of a border, who has claims on both sides and who wishes, profoundly, to continue living inside the shadows they cast, claiming both identities. Border-dwellers are like the sly and furtive rabbits hiding inside Frost's "Mending Wall" ("good fences make good neighbors"), flushed only by storms, and hunters.
For our first job in the new/old country, Bharati and I split a single professorship at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The Degas-evoking racetrack and ballet-resort town had fallen on hard times throughout the sixties and seventies; we came from go-go Toronto with just enough house-sale money to buy one of Saratoga's glorious twenty-room relics with a five-room carriage house behind. It was in Saratoga that I began jogging; and for the next fifteen years, in twenty-five states, eight provinces and fourteen countries, until my knees gave out, I put in my daily four miles and knew the only period of off-the-rack body shape that I've ever enjoyed.
We soon discovered, however, that one salary could not maintain us and our two sons, so, while one of us taught at Skidmore, the other accepted a job wherever it opened. Bharati went to the Writers Workshop at Iowa for a year, then she returned to Saratoga and I went off to Iowa. I took the boys with me—it would be Bart's senior year, and Bernard was in the eighth grade. After their first day in Iowa City schools they held me to a promise: "we will stay here till Bernard graduates." They had gone to five different schools in two languages and four countries in the past five years. They were fed up, and Saratoga's school was unbearable. I was doing to them on a grander scale than what my parents had done to me (I'd only gone to thirty schools in my first eight years). And so, in 1982 we resigned from Skidmore and moved to Iowa City without a job, and bought a house with our Saratoga proceeds.
The eighties were our decade of testing. We'd given up a country because of racial violence against east Indian immigrants ("Keep Canada Green—Paint a Paki" read the favorite bumper sticker of the time), surrendered two extraordinary jobs in an exciting city (we've never been able to hold comparable jobs in the same city since leaving Montreal), and taken on a new country and literary culture that took no notice of two middle-aged Canadians. We had to bridge four years as freelancers and part-timers while Bernard breezed through a very happy high school experience. Blind trust, a faith in writing, has often been our only ally.
In the lowest time of our life, particularly in Bharati's, one winter morning in 1984 when money was tightest and prospects non-existent, she received a providential (and as it turned out, a resurrectional) phone call from Emory University in Atlanta, inviting her to teach a semester. She hadn't published a book since our joint Days and Nights in Calcutta (1977), and had begun to doubt that she would write again. Bharati's agent even told her there was no market in writing about Indian immigrants. How did it happen? Our old Iowa classmate, the poet James Tate, on a brief stay at Emory, had suggested her name. We hadn't seen Jim in fifteen years. He wasn't exactly a stranger, but his kindness saved a life and re-ignited a career. Three months after arriving in Atlanta she had written an entire story collection, Darkness, about Indian immigrants in Canada, Germany, and the United States. It was published a few months later by Penguin Canada. I was invited to Emory the following semester, and then asked to run their summer writer's festival. It was my first return to the south since leaving Florida in 1950. My mantra, through good times and bad has always been: trust to the writing.
The next year I was invited back to my old university in Montreal as visiting writer, flying up two days a week; then for a semester in Nelson, British Columbia—my first time in the mountains, in the West, keeping an eye on fermented-apple-drinking bears sleeping it off in the apple trees, living in a motel and sending my measly Canadian salary back to Iowa—then to Saskatchewan for a summer, teaching on an Indian reservation, carrying a small fence post with me on my morning jogs when the half-wild dogs took too great an interest; then back to Emory for another semester and another summer, and the same for Bharati. One of us was always able to stay in Iowa City to provide a home life (by then, Bart was enrolled at the University of Iowa). I wrote an espionage novel, Embassy, based on the years we'd spent in India; it failed and was not published—too much Graham Greene, and not enough Robert Ludlum, according to the only person who read it, my friend David Morrell. I did baseball journalism for Sport, more sports commentary for TV Guide Canada, book reviews, travel pieces, stories.
I'd always thought of our marriage as heroic, larger than life; we were a legendary writing couple who'd taken big risks for the hope of big payoffs. By the mid-1980s I was asking, "where had it gone? What heroism, what legend, what success?" When we married in 1963, there were very few intercultural marriages like ours. We were parents by twenty-four. I'd thought nothing of pursuing my lifelong identity crisis by taking on Canada, pulling a reluctant wife with me; we wrote early and often, won prizes and got attention, and then the early fame, the confidence, all began to slip away. In Toronto in 1979, our younger son developed diabetes, and our older son kept an even more dangerous medical secret from us and himself. Canada, particularly Toronto, turned racist, and we left it. Bharati couldn't write; I wrote, but my fifth book for Doubleday, the novel Lusts, received very few reviews and no in-house support. I had stumbled onto the new publishing reality: Lusts was expected to build on the reputation I'd won with Lunar Attractions, and its opening pages had earned me a National Endowment grant, but the finished book failed to earn back its advance. Our good luck and boldness had deserted us. What we had were two stalled writing careers, itinerant teaching gigs, and an inability to put milk and orange on the same table.
A tragic event occurred in Canada on June 23, 1985. An Air India 747 bound for London and Bombay from Toronto and Montreal exploded in midair about 110 miles off the southwest coast of Ireland, killing all 329 aboard. At nearly the same time, a suitcase from a second Air India 747 exploded in the Narita baggage-handling shed, killing two workers. One plane had arrived early, the other was late; it was forensically established that bombs brought both planes down and they had been timed to explode simultaneously on opposite sides of the world and to kill over seven hundred. Until 9/11, the 331 deaths were the bloodiest air-terrorist incident in history. A Calcutta classmate of Bharati's had been aboard. I think every Indian in Canada knew someone who had perished. As it was a late-June flight, the first flight after schools closed, the majority of victims were women and children; the husbands had stayed back. Everyone suspected terrorism. Everyone suspected "Sikh terrorism," a pay-back for the Indian Army's invasion of the Golden Temple in Amritsar the year before. Japanese forensic experts extracted bits of embedded plastic from the body of a baggage handler: the plastic had come from a radio-tuner, the registration number was lifted, and the purchase traced to a ship's electrician in a small town on Vancouver Island. His name was important: Inderjit Singh Reyat. Sikh, yes, but more importantly, a fundamentalist, baptized Khalsa ("the pure"), part of a network of temples (gurdwaras) on the west coast whose priests openly called for war against India, independence for Punjab, and who intimidated less militant Sikhs, even to the point of assaults and threatened murder. No one had expected that the Khalistani call for vengeance would be played out in open, liberal, uninvolved Canada. The victims' families in Canada were demanding a formal parliamentary investigation. If such a tragedy had happened to "white" families, if an Alitalia plane had gone down, would the government have been so dilatory?
As the one-year anniversary approached and the Canadian government had showed insufficient urgency in pursuing the killers, victim-families were going on record, accusing the government of racist indifference. (A standard Canadian defense: "This is a peaceful country. Why don't you people keep your messy problems on your side of the world?") The outraged cries of Indians in Canada, their sense of alienation, were all too familiar to Bharati. That spring semester I was in Atlanta, she in Iowa. "We should write the book," she declared. At that time, following the success of Darkness, she felt more empowered than I. And so began our second India-centered collaboration, the book that was to become The Sorrow and the Terror: The Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy. Bharati's Darkness publisher, Penguin Canada, bought the proposal immediately. The United States was not interested in terrorism, especially in a Canadian event with complicated names and an Asian provenance, even though, as we were able to demonstrate, many of the Khalistani cells had American collaborators, and many anti-Indian plots were hatched in the United States, not Canada. (The same complacency that drove the Canadian tragedy clearly explains the U.S. failure to react to intelligence pointing to the 9/ll bombings.) Since I was the more mobile partner, I took weekly trips to Toronto and Montreal to interview victims' families, and to meet in odd corners of shopping malls with shadowy members of India's vast overseas counter-intelligence network, often shaved, unturbaned Sikh themselves. There were Canadian police, politicians, RCMP, and informed members of the Indian community from all sides of the issue; there were trial documents to read and ongoing trials to attend. I spent three days a week in the Toronto Research Library Xeroxing old newspaper files (no Internet in 1986), and three days back in Emory. For several months in 1986-87 we lived the lives of investigative reporters; it was a time of large emotions: rage, sorrow and cynicism. There were death-threats against us, and RCMP protection.
In the summer, we went out to Vancouver and since by then we had learned the still-unpublished names of the chief suspects, we simply called them up, posing as financial journalists, and talked to them as well. (Those suspects, in 2003-04, were finally named and brought to trial.)
In 1985 I received a Guggenheim grant for the opening pages of a new project, a combination of fiction and autobiography called Resident Alien. Penguin Canada published it in the same short-story series as Darkness: four related Canadian/American stories about a French-Canadian family, starting out in Florida and Pittsburgh as the Porters, ending in Montreal as the Carriers, the fiction surrounded by two long autobiographical essays. The intent: a picture of the fiction-writing mind, building story from fact, growing increasingly invented, less tethered to autobiography and the fictional voice takes over. The model was V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State. Resident Alien was my resurrection: in it, I remembered my Winnipeg, Anglo-Canadian childhood, an experience I had always avoided. I took on a first-person French-Canadian consciousness from a world and time I had never lived through. The last two stories, "North" and the novella-length "Translation" were my first wholly invented stories. A few copies were imported into the United States, enough to earn a long and poisonous New York Times Book Review half-pager by the distinguished novelist Paul West, which effectively killed it. (In 1988, when I was inducted as a "Literary Lion" by the New York Public Library, the group photo has me standing next to West.)
In 1986, when our younger son, Bernard, was accepted to Reed College in Oregon, we sold the Iowa house and moved to New York. Bharati secured a professorship at Montclair State in New Jersey. I got a series of adjunct professorships at Columbia and NYU; we rented in Upper Montclair, Long Island City, and as subletters in Manhattan. After a year, she was offered a professorship at CUNY-Queens. We were now paying for a child in college. We both taught evenings at Columbia and NYU and I even added Sarah Lawrence twice a week. The necklace of part-time jobs—five thousand dollars each with no benefits—plus Bharati's professorship in New Jersey and then at CUNY-Queens, kept us in Manhattan at a subsistence-level. Still, Bharati wrote her second story-collection, The Middleman and Other Stories, which won the 1988 NBCC award, and the follow-up novel Jasmine, a New York Times front-page review, much of which detailed the Iowa life we'd just lived through, seen through the eyes of a plucky, young, widowed illegal immigrant. Following a long decline into Alzheimer's disease, my mother died in a Winnipeg nursing home in 1987. The money I inherited, twenty thousand dollars, was the untouched amount she'd been left in her divorce twenty-six years earlier. With it, we were able to buy the cheapest co-op listed in the Village Voice: the windows rattled, the mice and rats ran free, nothing worked, the lead-drenched plaster crumbled, the light sockets sizzled and snapped.
In 1986, I was driving from New York City north to Saratoga when the car radio announced the news that an American author had died. It got my attention, of course, and I waited to hear the name, my mind riffling through the Rolodex of possibilities. The only name I would never connect with death was that of my friend, mentor, and father figure, Bernard Malamud. He had died in the kitchen of his New York apartment while preparing a little lunch, on a break from his morning writing. Writers don't die in the middle of projects; they can't, there's some sort of divine energy that props them up. So many times I'd had lunch or dinner with Bern and his wife Ann in New York, or in Bennington; there was always some cold meat, good bread, a shared beer, a walk and a talk.
I have known two great men in my life: the Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and Bernard Malamud. Their every word and gesture, and of course their films and books, celebrate a confident and unshakeable vision of the world, and of humanity. Passion and clarity, nothing showy, nothing extraneous; if the material is there, it will speak for itself, in its proper manner. I've come to realize, over the years, that I was writing for Bern, and probably still am. He called fiction "the multifarious experiences of the human heart" (unflinchingly, in the ambitious, form-stretching '60s); "dramatize, dramatize," he urged, far more the Jamesean than most casual readers would have thought.
In 1989, I was invited back for a year to the Writers Workshop at Iowa, and while I was there, Bharati was offered a major position at the University of California-Berkeley. We took a trip out to San Francisco in January 1989, to walk through the campus eucalyptus grove in just the lightest jackets, to see the alternate life, perhaps a reward for the decade we'd managed to survive. She was a hot ticket, perhaps the hottest in academe that year. To put it mildly, I was not. The sobering disparity sent me back to Iowa where a new position was opening up, that of director of the international writing program. It is a residency program, started by Paul Engle and his wife, for thirty-five authors from all parts of the world. The writers come to Iowa for three months in the fall of every year, their passage and residence paid for, largely, by the U.S. State Department, to associate informally with writers in the Writers Workshop, give talks and readings in Iowa and around the country. Iowa is America's most genial face; when the program was started in 1965 there was little doubt it had a soft propaganda aim. It's true as well that over the twenty-five years of its existence, the original impulse had diffused. The writers had little contact with the university; they were seen as amiable but disconnected presences. I applied, and became the IWP's second full-time director.
The university, however, had new expectations. The writers were to be younger, more fluent in English, and I would not be inheriting access to the Engles' extensive fund-raising network. And so, for the 1990s, I became a fund raiser and world traveler, the wineglass tapper at the end of banquets, the visitor to a dozen different arts organizations on every continent but Africa (there we still counted on the State Department to find and bring the writers). For nine years, I was a faithful annual visitor to any country capable of sending us its writer, and when the writers were there, I did the television and radio interviews, introduced them at readings, and accompanied many of them on their national tours. In the second semester, the fund-raising half of the year, I was able to spend weeks in San Francisco with Bharati, and to write the stories and draft new books.
Thanks to some autobiographical proddings, and perhaps an increased use of French in my Iowa job, I went back to my father's Quebec, researching what I could of his family tree, his birth and the early years he never talked about. The book I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography was published in the United States and Canada to some slight attention, but general confusion. Was it my autobiography seen through the lens of my father's Quebec identity—or his sketchy biography, clouded by my own eager interventions? Both are true (hence the subtitle), and it has pleased me, over the past decade, to have been included in a number of Quebec and Franco-American events, an assertion of a legitimate strand of my complicated identity and a demonstration of how removed from it I truly am.
In 1993, I established a connection with Porcupine's Quill, a small, arts publisher in Erin, Ontario. Perhaps I should say they came to me in the person of John Metcalf, one of the original "Montreal Story-Tellers" from those late-sixties, early-seventies years when five of us drove around Montreal island, reading our stories to high school students. John, who has become the major anthologizer and editor of short stories in Canada is the Quill's senior editor and in that capacity has taken on the preservation of my work in a series of beautifully presented volumes of stories. Man and His World appeared in 1993 (stories now totally invented, I've exhausted the usable autobiographical elements in my life); 1997 saw the novella-as-stories If I Were Me, in which I luxuriate in my Iowa-based travel experiences, sending my character, Gerald Lander, to Japan, India, Israel, Estonia, and Poland as well as New York, Chicago, and Boston. The remaining project, perhaps a twilight experience, has been to bring the earlier, long-out-of-print stories back to new readers. In 2000 came the Southern Stories (incorporating the Florida-based stories of my first two books, plus two previously unpublished stories from my undergraduate, Denison writing); in 2002 The Pittsburgh Stories, continuing to piece together an adolescent narrative from Tribal Justice, Lusts, Resident Alien, and Man and His World, plus two new stories, and in 2003 The Montreal Stories (including two new ones), and finally, in early 2005, the stories of the broader world, called World Class, largely the sum of my writing in the 1990s.
That catches us up, except for the two biggest items of my writing life. In 1997, in Iowa, I was writing a sequel to the book on my father—my mother's Saskatchewan and Manitoba childhood, her European art education and pre-War Montreal return—when a word I'd used, "time-zone," suddenly caught my eye. It seemed, that night, a strange word. I had meant only to say "our lives are like time-zones," meaning that one life can contain so many multitudes, just as a time-zone passes over cities and oceans, swamps and tundra, languages, races and religions, so I went to the encyclopedia, just to inform myself of its origins. And there, spilling out before me, came my next book. Time zones originated in the Prime Meridian Conference of 1884, convened by a Scottish-born Canadian engineer, Sandford Fleming. He and I were both fifty-seven years of age. The more I read, the more fascinated I became; I could see the outlines of my mother and my maternal grandfather in the stolid, inventive, persistent figure of Fleming. I felt that I knew him, and his world, far better than I knew my father's or even my own. I looked him up online, accessed a museum in his name, secured some of this scientific papers, wrote a thirty-page proposal for Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time. Pantheon and Knopf Canada immediately bought, it with a generous (for me) advance, large enough to pose a certain dilemma. Six foreign publishers bought in. Quit the teaching, the dilemma said, devote yourself to this book.
The university unconsciously helped with the decision; it cut its subsidies to the IWP, and a new administration (my third dean and third president in nine years) seemed determined to run it into the ground. (After a year of drama, and a new president, the University came around and acknowledged the unique importance of the IWP and has re-constituted it with more money and an energetic administration). And so, in June of 1998, I sold my house in Iowa and moved permanently, I thought, to be with Bharati in the Bay Area. The separations and hard times seemed to be over. I even taught happily at Berkeley on an adjunct basis.
Our lives can never be planned so exactly. The long-buried medical problems of our older son began to manifest themselves; it is a form of muscular dystrophy. It is my genetic contribution, just as it was my father's, the French-Canadian component, one might say, the genetic contribution of a confined gene-pool. My father, a prizefighter, showed no signs of any complication (except perhaps an exaggerated musculature; his muscles might have remained flexed even in repose); I am "light" myotonic, with sixty replications of my genetic makeup; our son has three times as many, with obvious implications.
And so, when an opportunity arose in 2002 to take a job in eastern Long Island at Southampton College, I took it, and for the past three years have been living again separated from Bharati but for summers and sabbaticals, but keeping a weekend home available for our boy, his wife, and adopted granddaughter who live in our now-renovated upper west side apartment. So we have three dwellings: Manhattan, Southampton, and San Francisco. Bharati's novels of the nineties—The Holder of the World, Leave It to Me, Desirable Daughters and the latest, The Tree Bride—command serious attention and decent sales, but not the frenzy of Jasmine and The Middleman.
My New and Selected Stories have been preserved in four handsome volumes; a collection of my speeches and essays will come out in 2006. Time Lord is still in print, as is Lunar Attractions. I have added a couple of chapters to I Had a Father, though it still requires a publisher to rescue it from oblivion. Meanwhile, I am retired, free to write full time. Southampton College has been reabsorbed by its main campus, Long Island University, in Brooklyn. I will not be making the commute. The house we bought in Southampton—my first swimming pool!—will be sold, and perhaps we'll find a smaller place in New York to be close to the next generation. By then, I hope, I'll add a novel or two, now that the traveling itch has been scratched and time, one of my few areas of expertise, again seems to have fallen in my lap.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Authors in the News, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1976.
Blaise, Clark, I Had a Father: A Post-modern Autobiography, Addison-Wesley (Reading, MA), 1993.
Cameron, Barry, Clark Blaise and His Works, ECW Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1983.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 29, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984, pp. 69-77.
Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 53: Canadian Writers since 1960, First Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986, pp. 76-81.
American Enterprise, September, 2001, Philip Jenkins, review of Time Lord: Sir Sandford Fleming and the Creation of Standard Time, p. 54.
Booklist, March 15, 2001, Bryce Christensen, review of Time Lord, p. 1337.
Books in Canada, August-September, 1983, pp. 24-25.
Canadian Fiction Magazine, fall, 1980, pp. 46-64.
Canadian Forum, November-December, 1974, pp. 20-21; April, 1977, pp. 38-39.
Canadian Literature, autumn, 1973, pp. 114-116.
Chicago Tribune, May 29, 2001, Julia Keller, "Author Profiles the Man Who Gave the World Time Zones."
Essays on Canadian Writing, summer, 1981, pp. 154-168; spring, 1982, pp. 5-25; pp. 26-67.
Fiddlehead, summer, 1979, pp. 137-140.
Imperial Oil Review, Volume 58, number 6, 1974.
Journal of Canadian Fiction, fall, 1973, pp. 77-79.
Library Journal, April 15, 2001, review of Time Lord, p. 129.
Maclean's, August 15, 1983, p. 43; May 7, 2001, John Bemrose, "An Idea Whose Time Had Come: Sandford Fleming Invented Standard Time in Response to the Railway Revolution," p. 61.
New York Times, January 25, 1977; February 19, 1977.
New York Times Book Review, September 29, 1974; April 22, 1979, pp. 14, 32; April 22, 2001, Carla Davidson, "How Late It Was," p. 21.
Publishers Weekly, February 8, 1993, p. 65; March 12, 2001, review of Time Lord, p. 74; October 6, 2003, review of Southern Stories, p. 61.
Quill and Quire, October, 1974.
Times Literary Supplement, May 14, 1976, p. 588.
Washington Post, February 24, 1979.