Thursday, August 24, 2006

Letters & Openings

In opening a letter today, my thoughts, enveloped in the folds of my self-concerns, returned to the city of my birth.
It was a special letter opener I used which brought my thoughts back to Montreal, for in the early 1990s, while living and working in lower Westmount, my interest in books led me out to garage and estate sales, and it was at one specific sale that I purchased a brown leather case enclosing a pair of scissors and a letter opener with celtic scroll work upon the handle. The garage sale was at the home of the Montreal writer William Weintraub. To me it was an immediate treasure and I imbued it with literary value, not only for its provenance, but for the fact that it may have been used to open letters from his good friends Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore.
In their brown leather case, they have acted as a paperweight upon my various desks over the years and a reminder of a certain literary backcloth to my life. In the late 1990s, while assigned to help set up literary readings at the library where I was employed, I received a letter from William Weintraub in response to a request of mine asking him to read in our series. It was a rather Nabokovian moment as I retrieved the letter opener from its sleek brown leather case to open his letter. There was a sense of being enveloped in a circle of inverted irony.
Even if the circle was a bubble of my own invention, it was still a connection, however tenuous, with the cosmopolitan writers who found their origin in the flowering of Montreal english-language writers in the 1950s and and 1960s. {It was a time of developments and new sensibilities with novelists and poets such as Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, A. M. Klein, F. R. Scott, Leonard Cohen, Hugh Hood and others. New publishers arose such as First Statement Press, Contact Press, Delta Canada, Harvest House Publishers, McGill University Press and Tundra Books.} It was another cosmopolitan writer, Mavis Gallant, who was the catalyst for the friendship of Weintraub, Richler and Moore. Brian Moore moved to Montreal in 1949 and began work at the Montreal Gazette where he worked with William Weintraub, and it was there he met his first wife through his fellow reporter. She too was a reporter but for the Montreal Standard and a friend of Mavis Gallant who was then living in Paris. When Moore and his wife took their honeymoon, they went to Paris and visited with Mavis Gallant and met up with William Weintraub who was freelancing in Italy. Mavis Gallant had met Mordecai Richler in Paris and she introduced him to Weintraub who in turn introduced him to Moore, and so their life-long friendships began. [This information can be found in Brian Moore: The Chameleon Novelist by Denis Sampson (Doubleday Canada, 1998).]

Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959) and Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1960) are like bookends to my Montreal literary imagination. They brought an urban reality and a renewed vigour to the written word. Belfast born Brian Moore lived in Montreal from 1949 to 1959 and was already living in New York when The Luck of Ginger Coffey was published, but he had penned nine other books during that period from 1951-1957, seven of them pulp fiction thrillers under various pseudonyms, so if he didn't find his voice in Montreal, he certainly developed it there. But it was Richler, born and bred in Montreal, who continued to set his stamp upon the city's literary imagination with great characters and novels from Noah Adler in Son of a Smaller Hero to Barney Panofsky in Barney's Version. Mordecai Richler was a writer in the grand sense of the word and his journalism will survive along side his fiction. His schimmelpenninck smoking man-of-the-world public persona during the 1980s and 1990s was exciting and enlivening. I always thought of him as our Canadian Anthony Burgess.
William Weintraub's memoir Getting Started includes letters from his good friends Richler, Moore and Gallant. A volume I keep on my desk for convenient pleasure, ready at hand for the right moment. A volume where I rest the sleek brown leather case with its scissors and letter opener with the celtic scroll work on the handle. An aide-memoire to my Montreal origins. And so life goes on.

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