Kreisel, Henry

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KREISEL, HENRY (1922–1991), Canadian author. Kreisel is among the few influential Jewish Canadian writers whose working life was spent in the country's western provinces. Born in Vienna, he escaped with his parents to London shortly before World War ii. He and his father were arrested by the British as "enemy aliens," and interned, through 1940 and 1941, near Fredericton, New Brunswick. There, Kreisel was influenced by numerous compatriots who would go on to become important Canadian musicians, philosophers, and academics after the war. An important contribution to our understanding of wartime Canada is his little-known "Diary of an Internment," written during 1940 and 1941. In Kreisel's view the internees were treated reasonably, and when they did work, the Canadian landscape presented them with respite. The diary provides us with a prelude to the appearance of one of the first Jewish voices in mainstream Canadian fiction.

Kreisel attended the University of Toronto upon his release from internment, (B.A., 1946; M.A., 1947) and began work on his first novel, The Rich Man, which appeared in 1948. It is among the first major works by a Jewish writer on Jewish themes to appear from a mainstream Canadian publisher. The Rich Man's action begins in the College and Spadina neighborhood where Kreisel lived upon settling in Toronto. It portrays the Spadina-area streetscapes and sweatshop work, and paints a rather downbeat portrait of the Jewish immigrant experience. The novel's startling narrative leap takes shape as the novel's main character – an immigrant from Vienna who works in a local factory – decides to make a return trip, at great cost, to see his family. The bulk of the novel then captures the creeping state of dread and helplessness experienced by Viennese Jews shortly before the war. The returnee from the goldene medine is mistaken for a rich man, and awkwardly allows his European relatives to believe he has made a great success of himself in Canada.

Kreisel did not publish another novel until the 1964 appearance of The Betrayal, which again takes up themes of doubled lives created by the challenge of immigration and exile. By then, he had earned a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1954. He devoted much of his energy to a long and productive scholarly and administrative career at the University of Alberta, which began in 1947. He was founder of the University of Alberta's pioneering Canadian literature program, and retired from university work in 1987.

As an Edmontonian, Kreisel's writing embraced the particularity of the prairie landscape, though prewar Europe and the Holocaust continued to haunt his fiction and memoiristic writing. Kreisel's short stories were collected in The Almost Meeting (1981).


S. Neuman (ed.), Another Country: Writings by and about Henry Kreisel (1985)

[Norman Ravvin (2nd ed.)]