canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


A Life of Sheila Watson
by F.T. Flahiff
NeWest Press, 2005

A Painter's Journey, 1966-1973
by Barbara Caruso
The Mercury Press, 2005

by rob mclennan
Matisse is dead and Utrillo is dead and last month
Picasso had one of his caretakers jailed for destroying
his dovesÖ
Today when I thought how hard it is for an artist to live
at all my heart was filled with compassion. There is
always someone to kill the doves--sometimes merely
a clumsy hand--sometimes, as Simone Weil points out,
pain turned to destruction--or as Iago: 'He has a certain
beauty in his life.'
-- Sheila Watson, Paris, 8 November 1955
Itís always interesting to read about the early life and works by established writers and artists to get a sense of where their works might have originated. Two recent books in this area are the biography of the late Canadian writer and teacher Sheila Watson, always someone to kill the doves, A Life of Sheila Watson by F. T. Flahiff (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2005) and the early journals of Paris, Ontario painter Barbara Caruso, A Painter's Journey, 1966-1973 (Toronto ON: The Mercury Press, 2005). Both share an interesting fact, in that both of them share a distance they bridge by writing in their journals, as Watson was increasingly distant from her husband, the poet Wilfred Watson, through his affairs, and Caruso, through not wanting to "talk too much" about her work to her own husband, the poet and publisher Nelson Ball; while wanting to be able to talk more about her work, and the processes and concerns of her day-to-day arts practice, but knowing the qualities of silence that made up both Nelson Ball and his own writing.

The late Sheila Watson (1909-1998) was the author of The Double Hook (originally published by McClelland & Steward in 1959), considered Canada's first postmodern novel. Reissued by M&S' New Canadian Library series in 1966, the book has long been considered an old standard (there was even a long-running Canadian-only bookstore in Montreal's Westmount district for many years named after it), influencing a multitude of writers across Canada, including George Bowering, who has written many times on Watson and her work, and even his own late wife, Angela, who wrote a thesis on the small volume, published as Figures Cut In Sacred Ground: Illuminati in The Double Hook (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1988). A spare writer, Watson's other works included Sheila Watson: A Collection (a grouping of short stories published as an issue of Open Letter, Third Series, No. 1, Winter 1974-5), Four Stories (an alternate version of her Open Letter collection; Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), and the novel Deep Hollow Creek (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1992), as well as her doctoral thesis, published as Wyndham Lewis and Expressionism (Waterloo ON: MLR Editions Canada, 2003).

Despite her small output and slow progression (Deep Hollow Creek was written just before she started work on The Double Hook), Watson's novel are essentially clear and sparse, and to know one work is to have to know them all. Even to listen to the opening of The Double Hook is to understand the clarity of such prose, so clear as to seem obscure, illusions alluding the eye, and the folds of the lines and the western hills, writing:

XXXXXXXIn the folds of the hills

under Coyote's eye

XXXXXXXXXXXXX
lived

the old lady, mother of William
XXXXXXXof James and of Greta

lived James and Greta
lived William and Ara his wife
lived the Widow Wagner
the Widow's girl Lenchen
the Widow's boy
lived Felix Prosper and Angel
lived Theophil
and Kip

XXXXXXXuntil one morning in July

Not just written as straight biography, Flahiff's also includes, as chapter nine, a journal she kept while she and Wilfred lived a year in Paris, France, writing through not only her own frustrations with her writing, but against her husband's, as Wilfred had a book published (through her prodding) with Faber & Faber, not long before the blow of having her own novel The Double Hook rejected by the same publisher (it was years before she was seen by others as the writer, as even she considered him more the "real" writer between them). Between their compatibilities and his dalliances, they remained married, but Sheila eventually moved to Toronto, where she schooled at the University of Toronto under Marshall McLuhan.

Sheila was forty-seven when she returned to Toronto. After the year in Paris, the city seemed provincial, ill-at-ease, and ungainly in its still developing skin. "The traffic rips and grinds along the streets," she wrote in October. "At the corners the halt and feeble wave ineffectual pandybats while the children scramble across the streets. Restaurants are staffed by the oppressed, the subnormal, and the disinherited." This Toronto sounds more like a suburb of hell--populated by the damned--than like the next best place to heaven it was in time to become for her. But even then the city had means of relieving her loneliness and rare bouts of bitterness. In this same journal entry, she sees from her room on Spadina Road "a ragged and bundled nest. A blue jay and some sparrows peck about the eavestrough--the blue jay metallic and mottled, svelte and imperious. Thank God for the companionship of birds." Human actions, including her own, seemed more ambiguous, and human presences more uncertain before the constancy and unselfconsciousness of animals. At the end of her first month she wrote:
October is finished.
XXXXHow can a month be finished? October has finished me. I have written nothing. The girl with the helmet of auburn hair who made love in the dip near Philosopher's Walk has gone off--the squirrels turn leaves with nervous haste--They sit up; life flows along their tiny muscles to their fingertips--they look--they fold their hands into the apex of their bellies--The air is filled with smoke--leaves break under the foot or lie drowned in the gutters. (p 177-8)
Reading such a personal account of Watson's life and movements, as well as many of her experiences in her own words, it becomes that much more frustrating that she wrote and published as little as she did. Would it be worth putting together a collection of her journal entries, much the way Ottawa-born Elisabeth Smart's were (published in at least two volumes), long after the publication of her own two works of fiction, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945) and The Assumption of the Rogues & Rascals (1978)? In a biography based upon journal entries and time spent with Sheila (Flahiff attended the University of Toronto the same time Sheila Watson did, even attending classes and socializing together), Flahiff has put together the best kind of biography: one that makes the reader not only want to read (or re-read) all of the subject's published works, but long for some potential lost works that still might exist out there in the world, to someday see light.

Still, one of the most interesting parts of the biography is closer toward the end, when the results of her influence begin to really make themselves known, in the works and admiration of writers such Michael Ondaatje, George Bowering, Angela Bowering and bpNichol. Flahiff describes a scene at one of her last public readings, at Harbourfront in the summer of 1983 for the publication of an anthology of Canadian Literature edited by Donna Bennett and Russell Brown:

It was an afternoon reading followed by a reception, and I remember that Sheila read "Antigone," and P.K. Page, who also read, said to Sheila that she would have given all her own work to have written "Antigone." After the readings, as we drank wine and ate cheese among large cardboard advertisements for the anthology, Elizabeth Smart, accompanied by an Antigone-like granddaughter, made her determined way to Sheila--they had never met--and attempted to kneel in homage before her. Sheila was startled and perplexed, as were bpNichol and Philip Marchand who were talking with her at the time. bp fell back, taking one of the advertisements with him. I remember Sheila and I remember Elizabeth Smart's determination and her granddaughter's poise in the midst of this slapstick and strangely moving scene.

In his piece "Breathing Life into the Line" in Barbara Caruso's issue of Open Letter, Douglas Barbour wrote:

Barbara Caruso's line drawings, in pencil and ink, are seen as minimalist; they use the basic form of the square. Lines, & lines alone, create whatever shapes appear there, or therein. Yet, though they are exact, they are also free. Apparently simple, the drawings call the viewer back: I must, & I want to, reread if I am to wholly appreciate the work.

**

The early drawings are simple, in comparison to the more recent ones, especially the series of alphabets and the full page experiments with broken lines (the spaces creating shapes within the drawing & also questions concerning what might seem to sink or rise: perhaps nothing changes on the surface of the page, not even apparently. Apparently nothing does. What a question to put in a drawing. (p 7).

How Barbour writes about Caruso's work, the minimalism of her sequential paintings, could easily be applied to her writing, working in a minimalism that belies its own complex layers, and working continually, a sequence of solid, and unbroken lines that almost demand the reader back. For such an accomplished painter, Barbara Caruso (b. 1937) is very hesitant about any of her own writings, and always manages to say so, even though this new book isn't even her first or even her second publication, after her collection of essays on writing and visual art, Wording the Silent Art (The Mercury Press, 2001), or her issue of Open Letter (Sixth Series, No. 4, Spring 1986), that included pieces on her work by poets/critics Douglas Barbour and bpNichol, some of her own writing (including some poems), visual art and an interview, and a checklist of published work compiled by bpNichol. This new book, A Painter's Journey, 1966-1973, comes straight out of journal entries she made throughout that period, as she and her partner, the poet and bookseller Nelson Ball (known for his sparse, spare, small and highly complex poetic) lived in Kitchener, Ontario and moved into Toronto, as well as their travels through Europe in 1971, after they both received arts grants from the Canada Council. As she writes in her introduction:

I began to write this book forty years ago. I did not know then that I was writing a book; I merely started a journal during a period of frustration. So began this record of my painting, my thoughts about my work and about the people who populated my world at that time. I was not a faithful diarist. There are gaps in this account. I have followed my journals to tell this story. I have also used my memory, my files and my letters to confirm anecdotes and clarify details. I have tried to retain the voice of my younger self. I am opinionated and critical of others in these writings and I am naÔve. I do not spare my friends, nor do I spare myself. My journals served many purposes and my reasons for writing evolved as my work progressed. Painting is a lonely job. Like many artists, I make my work alone in the privacy of my studio. I share that experience here. It is an artist's responsibility to get the work out of the studio and into a public forum where it can be seen. This is not easily accomplished. (p 7)
Through the space of time represented in the journals, they move from the early years of two young artists trying to make their way in the world, through the point of some first recognitions and successes, including publications, shows and Canada Council grants, but the first few years in Kitchener, Ontario, show as much of her frustration and immobility (and loneliness, as Nelson worked outside the apartment during the day) as they do her slow and steady progressions through painting.

22 August, 1966. Monday

I accomplished no work over the weekend, but Nelson worked on some poems on Sunday, while I did nothing more exciting than laundry.

I'm having difficulty settling to work. When I think about this next year, I see it as a repetition of this last one -- in some respects, that's not a pleasant prospect. The lack of company, the loneliness, is the most difficult thing to endure.

I worry about money. I don't know how we'll pay back Nelson's student loan in less than two years. The thought of staying here for two more years is horrid. The thought of having to put all of my earnings into paying back that loan makes me cringe.

Writing of her own day to day in her studio, she writes of her joys, disappointments, the mechanics and the small details of her work and the work she sees around her, all the time while interacting with a number of visual artists and writers that came through her attention, including a number of interactions that occurred through Nelson's own work as a poet and editor/publisher of Weed/Flower Press, that published important early works by George Bowering, bpNichol, Victor Coleman, John Newlove, Carol Berge, Anselm Hollo and William Hawkins (a number of which included cover artwork created by Caruso), and her own eventual work collaborating with writers through her Seripress.

Journals by Canadian writers/artists certainly aren't new, but they don't seem to happen as published works nearly enough, and can often offer deep insight into not only the individual artist and their own works, but into a particular period of artistic history throughout their own circles. Caruso's is rare in that it includes not only deep associations with the Toronto, and larger Canadian arts communities, interacting with Vera Frenkel, Greg Curnoe, Jack Pollock, Dave Tuck and Kim Ondaatje, but the writing ones as well, through her interactions with Ball, Nichol, Coleman, Hawkins, Jim Lowell, Newlove and so many others.

10 May, 1971. Monday

On Saturday, Nelson tipped the print for The Pre-Linguistic Heights onto card. I went over them, signed and numbered 100 and about 15 artist's proof copies. The prints generally look good, but I'm not pleased by them on close inspection. We put tissue over them and set them into envelopes. Nelson will deliver them to Coach House this week and he'll sign the 100 copies of his book. We stretched a new piece of canvas on the easel-boards yesterday for a 4 x 12 foot painting. I sized it and last night I put the edge-tape in place. I can begin today. I have been working over the sketches for this painting for ages. I determined the four colours (each repeated three times) this week. Everything seems to be right about it, but when I look at that tremendous expanse of canvas, I'm petrified. Later: I'm super-tense, super-excited. The painting is underway. I thought for a while that the positions of the reds and yellows should be reversed. I went over the drawing again, got out colour chips and tried it both ways. I decided to stay with the gathered reds. It is the riskier, but it will be the better painting if it works. I am applying the red now. (p 115)

What adds to the stretch of journal entries is that the volume includes the time that she and Nelson spent travelling around Europe after they both received Canada Council artist's grants, wandering the cafes, galleries and historic buildings of London, Amsterdam, Mainz, Paris, Avignon, Gordes, Nice, Pisa, Florence and Milan, returning back through Paris and London, before heading home.

11 October, 1971. Monday

I woke feeling much better today; Nelson is not quite as good. The sun came out around eleven o'clock, so we went out and bought apples, cookies, mints and chocolate.

This afternoon, I went to the Rijksmuseum while Nelson stayed here to sleep. I took an elevator to the second floor to look for Rembrandt's Night Watch (The Militia Company of Capt. Frans Banning Cocq). I went through Flemish and Italian rooms (14th to 18th century); I saw an El Greco crucifixion, Rubens, Tintorettos (that didn't really impress me), a Goya portrait (that really stopped me), some Italian gold-leaf paintings from the 1300s -- wonderful -- and so many pieces by artists I was only vaguely aware of, or didn't know at all.

The Night Watch and The Anatomy Lesson may be Amsterdam's shame. Magnificent as the Night Watch is, it is poorly housed, overshadowed by three large paintings by contemporaries. The painting has been cropped and looks cramped in its frame. However, it is better preserved than The Anatomy Lesson (destroyed by fire in the 17th century). Only the cadaver, one student portrait and the hands of another remain; seven figures are lost. The Jewish Bride, the little portrait of his mother, several small landscapes and interiors are hung among works by Rembrandt's students and contemporaries. I'd have preferred to see these works hung in isolation, not among contemporaries for whatever reason, but on their own to be compared only to each other.

I found the work of Jan Steen, but instead of going through the labyrinth of rooms I saw ahead, I went back to the Night Watch and found rooms with Pieter de Hooch, Emanuel de Witte and Jan Vermeer. There were three Vermeers -- the woman reading a letter, the maid pouring milk, and the small street. These have an incredible "white," the white of cool light. I went through these rooms twice, then slowly retraced my steps to the elevator.

Walking back to the hotel, I couldn't help thinking that Rembrandt is more present for me in the streets and along the canals than in the museum. (p 141-2)

Concerning her own work, Caruso describes many of her works extremely well, but there is still a frustration to not being able to see any of these in the pages of her journal; even though there are a number of her visual pieces represented in her Open Letter issue, not everyone has easy access to the journal, or her Toronto shows (since 1999, showing almost annually at Artword Gallery). The book itself begs two questions: will there be a follow-up that publishes a healthy amount of Caruso's visuals, and will there be another follow-up, continuing her journal entries further into the 1970s? I think either (or both) would be welcome. I would like to see more.

More on rob mclennan can be found on his blog: http://robmclennan.blogspot.com/

 

 

 

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