A Bowering Literary History of Canada

Reviewed by Conrad Scott

George Bowering’s short essays in Writing and Reading portray a somewhat secret history of Canadian literary icons—but this historicization is perhaps familiar to many in parts (and to the select few more fully). In this book, Bowering remembers and reveals his personal experiences and takes on what has been a long and deeply embedded engagement with literature and culture in this country and beyond. His belles-lettres delve into memories accrued while also wading through more aesthetic questions of literary merit about craft, genre, technicalities, and philosophy. He covers poetry, prose, film, drama, music, translation, archiving, and criticism. He sides with Irving Layton and observes Robert Kroetsch, the listener. In remembering a championing of British Columbian writers like Sheila Watson and Ethel Wilson, he also reminisces about a walk with Alice Munro. Writing and Reading even features pieces that work on explaining some of Bowering’s own writing, as well as letters, responses, and a concluding “splinterview.” The list, as they say, goes on—which is fitting, since he also contemplates lists.

While moments in a handful of these essays might be taken as Bowering playing the curmudgeon (or, as he phrases it, “an old coot in the literature business”)—the chiding of enRoute magazine here, the somewhat technophobic nostalgia for the handwritten epistle there—Bowering always presents a loftier purpose as he also captures the elegiac and peoples his memories with value and poise, with humility and humour. In doing so, Bowering demonstrates not only that he is always a great student of art and literature, but also a critic interested in educating others. At one point in Writing and Reading, he pauses to illuminate us with his take on David Mitchell’s puzzle of a novel, Cloud Atlas (2004)—and Bowering’s point is not merely that he enjoys Mitchell’s clever formal construction, but also his style and narrative appeal. Readability is something that Bowering returns to as his essays take the time to consider what he believes matters in poetry and prose.

But Bowering also defends what he describes as the lifelong pursuit of trying to understand harder writing, such as with Judith Fitzgerald’s poetry or Michael Ondaatje’s titles, because Bowering relishes the necessary audience time and effort to engage with and understand such work as a function of the creator’s struggle to create, and the constant honing of their craft. For Bowering, the difficulty often becomes part of the pleasure of the text, of the composition. And it is in recognizing such moments through his long foray into, and friendship with, Canadian literature and its literati that Bowering apprises us of the importance of the by-play his titular duality necessarily enacts and enables. The writer must also be a reader; both roles cycle for them and continually enrich their oeuvre.

This review “A Bowering Literary History of Canada” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 30 Nov. 2020. Web.

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