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Current Issue: #220 Tracking CanLit (Spring 2014)

Canadian Literature’s Issue 220 (Spring 2014) is now available. The issue features a wide range of articles and book reviews as well as a selection of new Canadian poetry.

Documenting Resistance

Reviewed by Len Falkenstein

James Hoffman begins The Ecstasy of Resistance, his authorized biography of George Ryga (1932-1987), by presenting his subject as something of a paradox—a famous, yet largely unknown, Canadian writer whose substantial body of work, with the exception of his groundbreaking 1967 play, The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, has long been unfairly overlooked: "As a subject for criticism he has invited either a rapid dismissal or a pat summation, both far short of the complexity of the man." Hoffman, however, is guarded in his own assessment of Ryga: "He may or may not be a great writer [.. .] he may or may not be, as some have suggested, a ’one-play’ playwright. He is, however, indisputably an important Canadian writer." In keeping with the modesty of this assessment, Hoffman states that in writing his book he set out not to make a case for Ryga’s merits but primarily "to make available the known data pertaining to Ryga so that the very necessary debate on his achievement can begin." While The Ecstasy of Resistance certainly succeeds in doing so, it is questionable to what degree the book satisfies another of Hoffman’s goals, that of capturing the "powerful Ryga voice!’ Although Hoffman’s thoroughness in documenting the details of Ryga’s life and works is impressive, the biography offers only limited insight into the personality and mind of a man whose reputation is based as much on the passion he embodied as a champion of Canadian cultural nationalism as on his literary accomplishments.

The biography is substantial, weighing in at 336 pages, including notes, an index, a bibliography of Ryga’s published works and photographs, and is organized strictly chronologically (indeed, Hoffman’s biographical approach is decidedly old-school in its adherence to the principles of linearity and causality). The most detailed chapters, and perhaps also the most informative and engaging, chronicle the formative years of Ryga’s career as a writer: his artistic training at the Banff School of Fine Arts, his early left-wing political activism and involvement in a series of censorship controversies related to his writing and his work as a broadcaster at an Edmonton radio station, his travels in Europe. Of the middle-aged writer of established reputation of the post-Rita Joe years who is the subject of the later chapters, the image that dominates is that of Ryga the "artist in resistance" (as he liked to refer to himself), the cultural warrior whose skills as a writer do not seem to have ever quite lived up to his ego and ambition. This is the Ryga who laboured tirelessly with little more than middling success on one project after another without ever reproducing the achievement of his landmark play, at the same time periodically vaulting into the public eye as a vociferous and trenchant commentator on Canada’s arts scene.

Hoffman’s study offers insights that will interest both those who know Ryga’s work well and those who know him only as the author of Rita Joe. How many would have suspected, for example, that although he gained fame primarily as a playwright, Ryga never cared much for theatre and expressed open antipathy to writing for the stage? Less surprising, but no less eye-opening, are Hoffman’s revelations of the extent to which Ryga and his family lived hand to mouth as he tried to make ends meet as a professional writer, circumstances that led him to pursue numerous dubious projects that he hoped (often vainly, as it turns out) would pay off financially. Ryga likened his plight to a form of prostitution and railed against it throughout his career as the all too typical lot of the Canadian cultural worker. (Notably, we learn, Ryga received one of his most lucrative pay-cheques by penning an episode of The Bionic Woman.) In terms of Hoffman’s contributions to critical debate concerning Ryga’s literary achievements, the biography makes it abundantly clear that Ryga was both highly prolific and an inveterate recycler of his own work. While the financial pressures Ryga was working under undoubtedly had much to do with this, the biography nonetheless inclines one to question the breadth of the writer’s imagination and originality. Hoffman’s thesis—for the most part he is content merely to describe Ryga’s work rather than analyze it—is simple but persuasive: Hoffman reads Ryga as a writer torn between two conflicting literary-philosophical traditions—the Marxist socialism that Ryga inherited from his ancestors and the "rugged individualism" that is the dominant ethos of the rural Alberta in which he grew up. Hoffman’s Ryga, then, is Ryga the Marxist Romantic, and many of the contradictions and failures that mark his writing, as well as his obsessive reworking of key tropes and themes, derive from repeated, unsuccessful attempts to reconcile the dichotomies inherent in his mixed political-aesthetic pedigree.

The biography is not, however, without some serious problems. Hoffman’s prose is often cumbersome and far from engaging. Consider the opening lines of the book: "George Ryga is a Canadian playwright. He participated in an uncertain theatrical practice that has only recently been established: it was in the mid-sixties, when Canada first acquired a professional theatre, that Ryga’s plays were first staged. Thus he worked in the very theatre he helped create." At other times, the style tends toward the melodramatic: "It was a momentous period, full of suffering and disappointment, of planning and hope; even as he nursed his injured hand, he discovered he could have a writing career." Hoffman’s reluctance to offer analysis or commentary that moves beyond the bare facts is also a source of frustration. As a non-Native playwright whose two best-known dramas, Rita Joe and Indian, centre on Native characters, Ryga has become a target of charges of cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Hoffman not only sidesteps this debate almost entirely, but also occasionally exhibits the same tendency towards generalization and stereotype that characterized Ryga’s 1960s pronouncements on Native issues. Of the final speech in Indian, delivered by the play’s Native protagonist, Hoffman observes, "the speech took on a universal resonance in its jarring poetry of the outcast: the rapid staccato of repeated phrases and names evokes for the first time on the Canadian stage an authentic, disturbing image of the contemporary Indian...." And while there was a great deal of drama in Ryga’s personal life—conflicts with his family, a brief flirtation with the Communist Party, a romance with a dissident Persian poet in Bulgaria, battles with the Canadian theatrical establishment, a long period of creative decline in the 1970s—Hoffman offers little more than a dry recitation of the bare facts of these events. One senses that Ryga, despite his fiery public persona, was a very private man, and that Hoffman, writing an authorized biography that he produced in close consultation with Ryga and his family, wished to respect that privacy. The result for the reader of the biography, however, is that the dynamic human being at the centre of the work remains largely elusive.

Marlys Chevrefils and Appollonia Steele’s The George Ryga Papers is an inventory of the extensive Ryga holdings in the archives of the University of Calgary. The catalogue, which runs to 338 pages, is clearly and attractively laid out, with each item concisely and helpfully labeled and annotated. The inventory is preceded by an "Archival Introduction," authored by Jean F. Tener and Juanita Walton, that outlines the rationale for the publication and explains the cataloguing methodology used in the inventory, as well as by a "Biocritical Essay" by Hoffman that distills The Ecstasy of Resistance into an engaging 18 pages. Attractively bound and illustrated with photographs of several documents in the archive, The George Ryga Papers will be an invaluable tool for Ryga scholars.

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MLA: Falkenstein, Len. Documenting Resistance. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 20 Dec. 2014.

This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #172 (Spring 2002), Auto / biography. (pg. 179 - 181)

***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.

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