Kroetsch, Robert (Paul)

views updated

KROETSCH, Robert (Paul)

Nationality: Canadian. Born: Heisler, Alberta, 26 June 1927. Education: Schools in Heisler and Red Deer, Alberta; University of Alberta, Edmonton, B.A. 1948; McGill University, Montreal, 1954-55; Middlebury College, Vermont, M.A. 1956; University of Iowa, Iowa City, Ph.D. 1961. Family: Married 1) Mary Jane Lewis in 1956 (divorced 1979), two daughters; 2) Smaro Kamboureli in 1982. Career: Laborer and purser, Yellowknife Transportation Company, Northwest Territories, 1948-50; information specialist (civilian), United States Air Force Base, Goose Bay, Labrador, 1951-54; assistant professor, 1961-65, associate professor, 1965-68, and professor of English, 1968-78, State University of New York, Binghamton. Professor of English, 1978-85, and since 1985 Distinguished Professor, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. Artist-in-residence, Calgary University, Alberta, Fall 1975, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Spring 1976, and University of Manitoba, 1976-78. Co-founder, Boundary 2 magazine, Binghamton, 1972. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference grant, 1966; Governor-General's award, 1970; Killam award, 1986. Fellow, Royal Society of Canada, 1986. Agent: Sterling Lord, 10 St. Mary Street, Suite 510, Toronto M4Y 1P9. Address: Department of English, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Manitoba R3T 2N2, Canada.



But We Are Exiles. Toronto, Macmillan, 1965; London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1966.

The Words of My Roaring. Toronto and London, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1966.

The Studhorse Man. Toronto, Macmillan, and London, Macdonald, 1969; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1970.

Gone Indian. Toronto, New Press, 1973.

Badlands. Toronto, New Press, 1975; New York, Beaufort, 1983.

What the Crow Said. Toronto, General, 1978.

Alibi. Toronto, Stoddart, and New York, Beaufort, 1983.

The Puppeteer. Toronto, Random House, 1993.

The Man from the Creeks. Toronto, Random House of Canada, 1998.


The Studhorse Man, adaptation of his own novel (produced Toronto, 1981).


The Stone Hammer: Poems 1960-1975. Nanaimo, British Columbia, Oolichan, 1975.

The Ledger. London, Ontario, Applegarth Follies, 1975.

Seed Catalogue. Winnipeg, Turnstone Press, 1977.

The Sad Phoenician. Toronto, Coach House Press, 1979.

The Criminal Intensities of Love as Paradise. Lantzville, British Columbia, Oolichan, 1981.

Field Notes: Collected Poems. Toronto, General, and New York, Beaufort, 1981.

Advice to My Friends. Toronto, Stoddart, 1985.

Excerpts from the Real World: A Prose Poem in Ten Parts. Lantzville, British Columbia, Oolichan, 1986.

Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch. Tor-onto, McClelland and Stewart, 1989.


Alberta. Toronto, Macmillan, and New York, St. Martin's Press, 1968.

The Crow Journals. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1980.

Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch, with Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1982.

Letter to Salonika. Toronto, Grand Union, 1983.

The Lovely Treachery of Words: Essays Selected and New. Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1989.

A Likely Story: The Writing Life. Red Deer, Alberta, Red Deer College Press, 1995.

Editor, with James Bacque and Pierre Gravel, Creation (interviews). Toronto, New Press, 1970.

Editor, Sundogs: Stories from Saskatchewan. Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Thunder Creek, 1980.

Editor, with Smaro Kamboureli, Visible Visions: The Selected Poems of Douglas Barbour. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1984.

Editor, with Reingard M. Nischik, Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature. Edmonton, Alberta, NeWest Press, 1985.



"An Annotated Bibliography of Works by and about Robert Kroetsch" by Robert Lecker, in Essays on Canadian Writing (Toronto), Fall 1977.

Manuscript Collections:

University of Calgary Library, Alberta.

Critical Studies:

Robert Kroetsch by Peter Thomas, Vancouver, Douglas and McIntyre, 1980; "Robert Kroetsch Issue" of Open Letter (Toronto), Spring 1983 and Summer-Fall 1984; Robert Kroetsch by Robert Lecker, Boston, Twayne, 1986; The Old Dualities: Deconstructing Robert Kroetsch and His Critics by Dianne Tiefensee. Montreal and Buffalo, New York, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994; Ledger Domain: An Anthology for Robert Kroetsch, edited by Charlene Diehl-Jones and Gary Draper. Stratford, Ontario, Trout Lily Press, 1997.

Robert Kroetsch comments:

(1991) My novels, often set on the open plains and in the new cities of the Canadian West, border on the comic and hint of the bawdy. The critic Linda Hutcheon has called me the champion of postmodern in Canada because of the experimental nature of my work. I think of myself as a storyteller trying to tell stories amidst the radical discontinuities of contemporary life.

* * *

Robert Kroetsch has been viewed as the father of Canadian postmodernism, and the novels that he has published over a period of more than thirty years explore issues of Canadian identity in a range of non-realistic modes. They have been accompanied by several volumes of self-reflexive poetic and prose autobiography and numerous theoretical essays, which, like his fiction, address ways in which notions of self, region, gender, genre, and nation are constructed. Kroetsch's work is centrally concerned with "the anxiety of influence," and he has habitually avoided historiographical accounts of the traditions that have shaped writers and cultures in favour of a Foucault-like archaeological mode of investigation, which suggests that texts contain multiple layers from earlier texts and that, however deeply one digs, it is finally impossible to arrive at an original source-narrative.

Throughout his career Kroetsch has drawn on a broad range of cultural intertexts ranging from Greek myths and eighteenth-century English novels to western Canadian oral tales and the mythologies of the Blackfoot and Cree nations. Oral elements are prominent in all his fiction, particularly in his magic-realist version of an Albertan tall tale, What the Crow Said, and his 1998 novel, The Man from the Creeks, which takes its initial inspiration from Robert Service's gold rush ballad, "The Shooting of Dan McGrew." Kroetsch's sceptical, postmodernist approach to his influences characteristically leads to their being reworked as pastiche or even parody. Nevertheless, his fiction engages with the politics of particular regional and cultural issues to a greater extent than that of many of his American postmodernist contemporaries.

Kroetsch was born in Alberta and is first and foremost a prairie writer, committed to realizing a sense of the distinctiveness of western Canadian experience, while turning away from the primarily realistic narrative modes of such precursors in the Canadian prairie novel as Sinclair Ross and W. O. Mitchell. He has written of the problem of establishing "any sort of close relationship in a landscape whose primary characteristic is distance," and his fictional practice is similarly concerned with the difficulties of encapsulating a sense of prairie experience within the closed form of the book. For the most part he has confronted this difficulty through the use of quest narratives. The Studhorse Man employs a comic analogy with The Odyssey, as the eponymous hero, Hazard Lepage, tramps the prairies in search of a mare for his stallion to "cover," so that the breed and his occupation may be preserved. Meanwhile, the narrator of the novel, Demeter Proudfoot, a Swiftian "madman" writing naked in a bathtub, embarks on his own abortive quest, as he struggles to write the definitive biography of Hazard, only to find his Boswellian endeavours culminating in a story that has more affinity with Sterne's Tristram Shandy. In Gone Indian, an American graduate student, attempting to write a thesis on the origins of the archetypal westward journey exemplified by Columbus's voyages, travels to Alberta and finds himself caught up in a carnivalesque, northwestern version of the quest for new beginnings. Badlands moves between two, inter-locking quest narratives: a third-person tale about a 1916 archaeological expedition hunting for dinosaur bones, symbolic on one level of the search for a prehistoric source, and a first-person account of the expedition leader's daughter's attempt to retrace her father's footsteps, and through so doing liberate herself from paternal influence, in 1972. The protagonist in Alibi is initiated into a similar quest for an originary source, when, at the outset of the novel, his mysterious employer instructs him to find a spa.

In Kroetsch's first two novels, But We Are Exiles and The Words of My Roaring, the quest patterns demonstrate the influence of the myth criticism that was highly influential in academic circles in the 1950s and 1960s. Both novels are focused on conflicts between an older and a younger man, Freudian struggles that reflect Kroetsch's belief that the storyteller has to find ways of rejecting the authority of the previous generation. They also employ classic mythic elements, such as the doppelgänger motif, the scapegoat figure, and the cyclic continuity of death and rebirth. They foreshadow Kroetsch's subsequent attempts to evolve a distinctive Canadian fictional practice, but provide little indication of the formal innovation that would characterize his subsequent fiction.

With The Studhorse Man, Kroetsch discovered the fictional terrain for which he is best known. Built around lacunae, digressions, and narrative unreliability, it is his first major statement, written in a postmodernist mode, on the problematics of writing about the Canadian West. Demeter's attempt to record the life of Hazard, a latter-day Odysseus whose comic misadventures mainly take the form of being lured into sexual liaisons with a series of women, may initially seem to celebrate western macho valuesand it is possible to read the novel as an elegy for the passing away of older male mythsbut it becomes increasingly clear that Hazard's biography, as narrated by the ambivalently named Demeter (the cult of Demeter and Persephone is a myth of seasonal rebirth centered on female genealogies), interrogates popular western male mythologies. The novel moves towards an androgynous conclusion, having along the way also redefined relationships between the Canadian West and East and the western vernacular and literary discourse. In Gone Indian the American narrator, Jeremy Sadness, travels to Edmonton for an academic interview, only to find himself confronted by the possibility of transforming his identity when he discovers that he has someone else's suitcase. Prior to his journey he has had frontier fantasies, centered on Grey Owl, the English-born fake Indian, Archie Belaney. Now he is able to effect a similar transformation in his own identity in the ambience of a rural winter carnival. In this novel Kroetsch's absorption with theory manifests itself in an obvious indebtedness to Bakhtin's writing on the carnivalesque, but once again this is translated into a vividly realized comic fable that is firmly located within the Canadian West.

Badlands also initially appears to be a male quest novel. The members of the archaeological expedition undertake a quest for origins that draws on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and various classical accounts of descents into the underworld. However, the male story is framed and punctuated by the comments of the contemporary female narrator, who suggests the futility of male adventuring. In the text's present, she journeys west, as her father has done before her, refusing to play the role of a waiting Penelope in the settled eastern environment of Georgian Bay. On one level, the novel belongs very obviously to the feminist climate of the period in which it was published, the 1970s, and its account of a journey into "prehistory" is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's Surfacing. On another level, through the use of its two narrative voices, it engages in a more dialectical debate about gender mythologies.

What the Crow Said is in many ways the strangest of all Kroetsch's western fables. It begins with a scene in which a young Albertan woman is impregnated by a swarm of bees, and the tall tale continues in this vein, relating a series of interconnected events that have more in common with Greek myth than the kind of action normally associated with the novel form. The story proceeds at breakneck pace, so that this comparatively short novel contains as much action as an epic. At the same time it demonstrates an obvious indebtedness to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, once again implicitly suggesting the need to explore and develop new conventions in order to evolve a fictional practice that can respond to the problematics of prairie "realities," seen here to be every bit as fantastic as those of Latin American "marvelous realism."

Kroetsch's quest for new forms takes a different turn again in Alibi and its companion-piece, The Puppeteer, in both of which notions of identity are radically unsettled, with Kroetsch exploring Lacanian themes of desire and concealment in elliptical texts that, despite their theoretical density, move with the swiftness and economy of a Hitchcock thriller. In The Man from the Creeks, Kroetsch tells a tale of the gold rush that once again sees the North as the last frontier. Ostensibly the narrative mode is more realistic than that of most of Kroetsch's fiction, and the ingenuous first-person narrator employs an oral register that has more in common with Kroetsch's first novels than his other more recent fiction. However, the Robert Service intertext is a highly self-conscious use of a literary source and foregrounds the extent to which the novel is mediating between a literary construction of an experience and other possible versions. While it can be seen to mark a partial retreat from fabulation and postmodernism, it is nevertheless typical of all Kroetsch's fiction in that its metaliterary elements emanate from a compelling narrative that makes extensive use of oral idioms.

John Thieme