Appreciating Robert Kroetsch feels very apt right now, since we seem to be stuck in an endless winter straight out of the novel What the Crow Said. Critics who don’t live in Alberta might categorize that novel as a postmodern tall tale with magic realist influences. We Albertans know what it really is: a weather report.
Kroetsch’s fictions do reflect an Albertan reality. Then again it seems that with every passing day Alberta becomes more of a Kroetschian fiction.
The piece titled “I wanted to write a manifesto,” from Kroetsch’s collection on the writing life, A Likely Story (1995), isn’t manifestly a work of fiction. It’s a memory piece about a formative moment in the writer’s life. Still, I find that the piece takes me, as a reader, through a shifting borderland between fact, memory (sometimes my own), and story, a place that I like to call Kroetsch Country. In Kroetsch Country you must abandon your assumed notions about a lot of things, for example boulders. And genres.
Is this an essay? A memoir? Maybe it’s a memoir hiding a manifesto in plain sight.
A purloined genre.
The title tells us the writer wanted to write a manifesto, but thereby implies that it didn’t get written. So maybe this piece is really a brilliant excuse for not writing a manifesto. Maybe it belongs in the time-honored “dog ate my homework” genre. Perhaps much of what we call Canadian literature is just brilliantly disguised excuses. For not being Americans, for example.
I think I just came up with that idea, but didn’t Kroetsch already say it somewhere? Even if he didn’t, I still feel I should credit him with it.
In Charles Darwin’s 1872 work The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, he characterized the joyous playful behaviour of dogs as “flexuous movements.” I find that a pretty good description of what it’s like to read Kroetsch. This memoir piece is one of my favourite examples of his ability to dance language and form into “flexuous movement.”
There’s a story about the composer Handel that feels appropriate here. One Sunday Handel attended Mass at a country church, and near the end he asked the organist if he might have a try at playing the people out. The organist grudgingly consented. So Handel sat down at the organ and played. He played with such beauty and skill, he gave so much more than was necessary or expected, that the congregation lingered in the aisles in silent admiration. The envious organist whispered to Handel that he had botched the job-the people weren’t leaving-and he brushed the composer aside to show him how it was done. As soon as their own organist started playing again, the people exited the church with their usual haste.
Kroetsch is our literary Handel. He doesn’t do what he’s supposed to, beautifully. He doesn’t get to the point, insightfully. Just when you think he’s playing you out, you find yourself sticking around for more. He writes an essay that doesn’t behave like an essay. He writes a manifesto that’s a memoir, or both, or a detective story about a missing genre.
Miss Boyle, the teacher remembered in this piece, reminds me of that country organist. Kroetsch recalls how he came to Miss Boyle’s first grade class already knowing how to read and write, and so upset her system. To please Miss Boyle, Kroetsch was forced to pretend he didn’t know how to read and write, and so he learned it all over again.
The Miss Boyles of the world, and I confess at times I pose as one of them, know how a proper memoir, or essay, is supposed to be written. In these proper essays the job gets done properly. A reader is given everything in its place, a proper beginning, middle, and ending. A reader reaches the ending without any uncomfortable surprises and hurries out, having got what she came for.
This doesn’t happen in a Kroetsch piece. You’re reading along and suddenly the narrator gets hung up on the impossibility of a memory, or the possibility that his language is falling apart even as he uses it. There are sudden tangents, non-sequiturs, hollowings-out of meaning reminiscent of Zen koans. The narrator interrupts the story he wants to tell with other stories, none of them conclusive. He darts around, backtracks, puzzles over things before moving on. The essay as loiterature.
But I was getting to that formative moment in the writer’s life. It’s an incident from Kroetsch’s childhood that he sees as being one of the first times he became a writer. He doesn’t believe that one day he was not a writer and then somehow the next day he was, end of story. He says that he became a writer many times.
Or maybe he’s saying that this becoming a writer happens every time one sits down to write. You start to learn your alphabet all over again.
Then again, maybe Kroetsch is saying that the self is nothing other than the stories it tells itself. The self IS this storytelling activity.
And here I’m afraid that, unlike Kroetsch, I’m going to have to give away the ending too soon. What this piece lingers toward so wonderfully is the memory of a frozen winter Sunday at the Catholic church near Heisler that Kroetsch attended when he was a boy.
That church, Kroetsch tells us, was unfinished. The steeple was never built because the farmer who put up the money decided he was no longer a believer. He’d had no idea how much steeples cost. I quote: “As a result of his change of heart [the farmer] was killed in a farm accident and his wife went mad. She became a witch who chewed gum a lot and then put wads of gum in quart-sized sealers because she knew the devil was trying to get hold of some of her spit.”
But I digress. Or rather, Kroetsch does.
After Mass had ended that frozen winter morning, Kroetsch, a small boy then, reached up to dip his fingers in the marble font and found, to his horror, that the holy water was frozen solid. The priest’s blessing, which was supposed to make the water sacred, hadn’t changed it in any way. It had turned to ice, which meant it was just ordinary water, doing what all water does below zero.
I have to say that the first time I read this passage, I didn’t quite get it. At that time I had just written a novel that featured a glacier as a main character, and as a result I’d developed a respect for ice verging on spiritual awe. That a liquid can transform into a solid and back again seems to me next to miraculous. So it took me a moment to understand Kroetsch’s dismay at what his fingers encountered that morning.
And he was dismayed. He was shocked, horrified. Father Martin, the parish priest, was loved and trusted. He avoided any activities outside his priestly role. When he blessed holy water, they all knew it was blessed: “[Father Martin] knew what he must do – and didn’t bother himself with questions. One time when visiting home, I asked him about a priest who was a friend of his. ’Oh, Father Hickey,’ Father Martin said. ’He’s in Rome now. Studying theology. Whatever that is.’”
Kroetsch is probably the furthest thing from a religious writer you could find, but in that moment of life-changing shock at the absolute ordinariness of water, I hear an echo of some lines from the mystical Indian poet Kabir: “There is nothing but water in the holy pools. I know, I have been swimming in them.”
Kroetsch doesn’t bring us to that moment of frozen disillusionment, or enlightenment, until near the end of the piece. Digression is how he gets to the heart of the matter, and on the way there he tells quite a few stories, often apparently just for the fun of it. But the piece doesn’t feel cluttered, or scattered. As a reader I begin to look forward to these flexuous movements, these strategies of surprise and deferral.
If Kroetsch has a narrative credo, it’s probably “never tell the reader anything until she’s dying to know it.”
Along the way to the holy water font, Kroetsch catalogues the seedy particulars of his secret love affair with an erratic boulder. He tells the story of the two hired men digging a well in the farmyard who ask the hopelessly spoiled and lazy young Bobby Kroetsch to fetch a bucket of drinking water. He does what he’s told, but urinates in the water, then brings the bucket to the men and tells them he’s peed in it. They don’t believe him. “You did not,” one of the men asserts, then takes the pail and drinks. A reader may begin to wonder why this story is being told, or if it’s even true. “You did not,” the reader might say, and keep reading.
Kroetsch the boy couldn’t hold his water but Kroetsch the writer can. He holds onto his holy water story even longer to look back at a poem he wrote when he was seventeen, a poem that troubled him deeply because it was not at all what he’d set out to write. It was a heavily moralistic piece about a dying Japanese samurai, punished for taking the law of God as vain: “And now he lay broken, inert, inane.”
What Kroetsch discovered by way of that early poem was that “somewhere in the generosity of literature was a tyranny that was making me write a poem that I did not want to write.”
In this statement I hear a clue as to his writerly strategies of deferral and self-erasure:
if the literature and language we’ve inherited have this kind of pervasive, almost invisible power over us, then the writer’s flexuous movements, the darting in and out of stories, backtracking, breaking off, disappearing, are a way of resisting such tyranny.
As I say, Kroetsch eventually gets to the incident of the holy water font, but to my surprise he doesn’t stop there, even though that moment makes for a terrific punchline. It’s like karma for peeing in the drinking water. No, instead Kroetsch goes on to tell another story, about an event that happened years later, when he was already an established writer and went to visit his grandfather’s sister in St Cloud, Minnesota. He meets this ancient woman, Aunt Rose, who doesn’t seem to recognize him, though it’s hard to say for sure because she doesn’t speak. She opens her mouth as if to answer him but says nothing. Kroetsch is bothered by this, but later realizes what a gift Aunt Rose’s wordless mouth really is. Her mouth, he says, was a nest.
It was a riddle he must offer his answering into. It was the holy water font.
I think I know what he’s saying about the power of metaphor. I also had a Catholic boyhood. The holy water font in our modern, well-insulated church in Grande Prairie never froze over. But once, while leaving Sunday Mass, I dipped my fingers into the marble font at the door only to find that it was bone dry. And like Kroetsch I’m sure I glanced up in horror at the adults around me. They all dutifully dipped their fingers in nothing at all and made the sign of the cross as they always did, and hurried outside, eager to get to their lunches and football games on TV.
(I now wonder if my horror may also have been partly guilt and fear of punishment. I served as an altar boy in those days, and though I don’t remember this for certain, one of my duties may have been to keep the holy water font filled).
For me, Kroetsch Country is in some ways the landscape of my own past, my own becoming a writer. But I also cherish his work because it reminds me not only to look carefully at what’s there, but to stop and take a good look at what’s not there.
To look intensely, but also playfully, tenderly. To remain vulnerable to shock, wonder, even love.
An old woman’s mouth could be a nest. A boulder could be a lover. Water could be ice.
Kroetsch reminds me that those disquieting moments when things don’t fit, when things don’t appear as they should, when they don’t appear at all – those are moments not to rush past but to read and write one’s way into.
When I was a student in Rudy Wiebe’s prairie fiction class we took a field trip to Kroetsch Country. We visited Heisler near the Battle River and met Kroetsch’s cousins Del and Jeanne. They showed us a film about their famous cousin. Later we visited the author’s old family farm. A man dressed in jean coveralls and a dirty red bandanna greeted us. He looked like an actor who had been hired to play a farmer for our visit. We remained skeptical. You have to understand, we were young urban sophisticates. We didn’t quite believe in farms.
Nor could we quite believe this was really Kroetsch’s homeplace. Bert Congdon was the farmer’s name. The Kroetsch family hadn’t lived here for many long years, but Bert turned out to have something of a Kroetschian wit. He mentioned that once he’d built a birdcage then went looking for a bird to put in it. When we asked which room had likely been Robert’s as a boy, Bert said, “take your pick.”
Maybe there’s something in the water at that farm.
We chose one of the silent, unslept-in upstairs bedrooms and decided it was Kroetsch’s because he wasn’t there. We didn’t find him in the kitchen garden out front either, planting seeds. It was the absence of the author that finally convinced us we were in the right place. Like Aunt Rose’s mouth, Kroetsch’s absence from his homeplace was a silence into which we might offer our own questions.
After the visit with Aunt Rose, Kroetsch returns to the subject of the frozen holy water. And in his oblique, suggestive way, leaving plenty of room for silence and the reader’s answering, he weaves together some of the strands of his thoughts and memories:
“When I set out to write a story or a poem, or a love letter-or, for that matter-a postcard-I approach again the door and exit, there in the biting cold of a prairie winter morning, in the Wanda church…. I reach one hand over my head, beyond my line of vision, toward the water in the font, toward that open mouth of water…. Blindly, I trust. I reach. And again I am surprised by the tips of my fingers. Again I am surprised-into the impossibility of words-by the perfect and beautiful ordinariness of water. And I have written my manifesto after all.”
And I hope I have expressed my appreciation.
- An appreciation of Kroetsch presented in the Department of English & Film Studies at the University of Alberta, March 10, 2011.
- Bly, Robert. The Winged Energy of Delight. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Print.
- Kroetsch, Robert. “I Wanted to Write a Manifesto.” A Likely Story: The Writing Life. Red Deer: Red Deer College Press, 1995. Print.
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