canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

If I Could Turn and Meet Myself: The Life of Alden Nowlan
by Patrick Toner
Goose Lane Editions, 2000

Reviewed by Shane Neilson

Fraser Sutherland devotes a full two-thirds of his July 1, 2000, Globe and Mail review of Patrick Toner's Alden Nowlan biography to biography. He recounts Nowlan's life just as Toner does; nowhere does he consider Toner's style. In the introduction to IICTAMM, Toner writes, "I have tried to construct this biography as narrative, allowing the reader to accompany Nowlan as he lives his life again in these pages." The rub: if Toner were to resurrect Nowlan, wouldn't the narrative be constructed in the first person? Instead, it is third person. This is the crux of the book's technical problems, along with Toner's obsessively microscopic focus. Numerous diversions into minutiae hinder his narrative.

Despite fine attention to detail, he simply can't devise a narrative engine with momentum to carry over his obsessive, extraneous ruts. A better writer would make this subject matter effortless; instead, IICTAMM is labour-intensive. For example, we learn of Nowlan's inconsequential boss at a Hartland newspaper, cheap enough to steam stamps off incoming envelopes for reuse. Is this relevant? Must we learn of all the bit players in Nowlan's orbit? Failing as compelling narrative, this book is a solid, sturdy account of an unbiographical man, doing an admirable job with Nowlan's particulars.

Unfortunately, Toner's unearthing becomes grand excavation; roots are ripped from the ground in all their knotted complexity -life is complex- but the tree is lost in the sworl of root. These roots have their biological place in the narrative. Particular praise must be afforded to the painstaking efforts made to exhume Nowlan's childhood and adolescent origins. Toner has included written and oral accounts of Nowlan's relatives that paint as true a picture as can be painted at this late date; these go beyond mere characterization of the book's protagonist. Instead, they detail not only Nowlan but also his ancestry and immediate parentage (save for the missing account of Grace, Nowlan's mother, who is in the book second-hand) in a manner much like that of Nowlan's poetic method: plain-speaking straight talk.

In this manner, Toner makes Nowlan exist in his distant past, amongst his family. Toner juxtaposes him with prose and poetic accounts of an adult Nowlan's artistic rememberings using a broad historical brush, not content to merely dwell upon Nowlan's life but also the lives surrounding him. The Canadian reading public typically suffers through biography that ignores a subject's roots, but Toner firmly unearths these, although he presents them with too densely.

This biography has its virtues. It is firmly grounded in Nowlan's written record, in his work and in work about him. Toner has interviewed nearly everyone, great and small. He has travelled to Calgary, Ottawa, and Fredericton in Nowlan's literary wake. His bibliography (a testimonial to thoroughness) will serve as a requisite launching pad for future biographers. Unfortunately, Claudine Nowlan -Alden's wife- declined to be interviewed; this strikes a blow to any biographical effort. Alden's mother also refused an interview; a reader wistfully wonders what either would have to say -or have already written- about him.

Toner also displays a knack of timeliness; he inserts Nowlan's poetry at perfect moments in his biography, allowing the narrative to transcend its contrived authorship, becoming full autobiography. Toner display a diligence here; he clearly has paid strict attention to Nowlan's body of written work, allowing it to pepper his biography with pure fragments of Nowlan's being (his writing). This is evidenced in the choice of title: If I could turn and meet myself is perfect, taken from the poem of the same name, and playing on the major theme of the biography: Nowlan the man was a fantastic enigma who invented his life as antidote to reality.

Who was Alden Nowlan? Toner apologizes: "But If I could turn and meet myself is not really his life, of course. Nowlan is playing another role, acting out another of his selves." Using Nowlan's writings is a double-edged sword: Toner often presents supposed fact that, in actuality, is taken from Nowlan's own writings. This is perilous because Toner systematically calls into question Nowlan's personal history; it is clear from IICTAMM that Nowlan wholly recast his origins, interpreting the present to his own imaginative ends, fiercely filtering the future through his own monocle.

Such a man is not to be trusted without independent corroboration, and Toner himself concedes this point in a recent issue of Atlantic Books Today. Luckily, Toner salvages his pseudoautobiography with his revealing interpretations of Nowlan's work. In the end, Toner's conventional legwork pins his subject down, though it is really his interpretations of Nowlan' work that render a snapshot of a paradoxically hidden man.

This is a long-awaited biography that convincingly pinions a version of an elusive subject. Those familiar with Nowlan's work will welcome the meticulous detail paid to the life; no one will appreciate the sludginess of the narrative.

Shane Neilson is one of The Danforth Review's Poetry Editors. He is a Nova Scotian poet who has published recently in Queen's Quarterly, The Canadian Forum, and Pottersfield Portfolio. 







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