|"It was a dismal November day..."(p.1)
|"...the biography of a Frenchman, still
living..." [Gide] (p.3)
|"...translations ... had appeared in sixteen
|"On oaccasion I had...pruned his too flowery
|"My early friends were famous men..." 10
|"That night I ... [began] ... the story
of MY LIFE..." (p.11)
PROLOGUE -- Page 1
IT was a dismal November day, with a raw wind
blowing from the north-west and cold, iron-grey clouds flying low - one of
those Ontario days which, on the lake-shores or in a country of rock and swamp,
seem to bring visions of an ageless time after the emergence of the earth from
chaos, or a foreboding of the end of a world about to die from entropy.
It was into such a country of rock and swamp,
a few miles north of Lake Erie, that my business took me that day. I was
driving my old and battered car and, having come a not inconsiderable distance,
I felt chilled and cheerless. At last I entered upon a straight, rutted marl
road which led for miles over a clay-coloured dam thrown through a morass dotted
here and there with the dead stumps of huge trees of a departed generation:
swamp-oak, white ash, and pine, now blackened by carbonization.
At last there appeared, on the far side of the
marsh to my right, in the very border-seam of higher, wooded ground, a
farm with house, barn, and other buildings which, at this distance, seemed to
be sketchily washed into their background of leafless bush, for they were unpainted
and in a state of not merely incipient decay, resembling so many others in that
Ontario which had once been made prosperous by its timber. It was from this place
that I was to fetch a girl for the Sisyphus tasks of a household drudge.
IN SEARCH OF MYSELF -- Page 2
The closer I came the worse the road grew, for
it became more deeply rutted; and the ruts and their supporting sides were
so wet, so almost greasy, that every now and then the rear wheels of my car
skidded sideways, with a sickening effect at the pit of my stomach. The more
deeply I penetrated into the district which, a few days ago, had been visited
by a cloud-burst, the slower did my progress become till I could proceed
only with extreme caution. I was wondering what I should do if I found it
impossible to reach my destination. The dam had become narrow; and there
was no longer even the ghost of a possibility of turning. "Well," I said to myself, "I
suppose I must get through and turn in the yard of that homestead."
When I was within perhaps half a mile of the farm-gate,
I was crawling along at the rate of two or three miles an hour, in low gear;
and then what I had dreaded happened; across the dam, joining swamp to swamp,
extended a wash-out which put an imperative stop to my progress. I saw that
I could never pull through that watery mud-hole in which the bluish hardpan foundation
of the landscape lay exposed, churned up by cows and horses that had dashed
through in a panic, sinking in to their hocks.
As I sat there, looking the situation over and
canvassing, with a shiver running down my spine, the two or three possibilities
of action, a sudden vision of the evening before blotted out what lay in
front of me. My profound feeling of misery no longer seemed to proceed from my
momentary quandary, but from something I had lived through the previous night.
In my own ramshackle house, which was yet capable
of being made warm and comfortable, I had had a caller from afar; and we
had sat up late into the night, by lamp-
PROLOGUE -- Page 3
light, talking of books and of my early life in
Europe, especially in Paris.
This topic of my youth had been suggested by one
of the books which had been discussed. My caller was the librarian of a great
city; and for years he had dropped in on me once or twice a twelve-month,
bringing me some six or ten volumes of the best that had come to hand within
the time elapsed since his last visit, and taking away such as he had left behind
on the last occasion. Among those he had brought this time was the biography
Frenchman, still living, who in my early days had been one of my intimates.
At the time, this young Frenchman and myself had
been aflame with a great enthusiasm for life and art. For years we had been
inseparable; so much so that old-fashioned and benevolent people -- generals
of the French army, aristocrats of the old school, venerable professors of the
Sorbonne-had teasingly called us Castor and Pollux.
In the dim light of my study, where the librarian
and I had been sitting surrounded by the few books which I own, memories
of my European youth had crowded back upon me; and I had risen to pace the floor
of the room in a state of intense excitement. As they came back to me, I had
told anecdotes of our ardent association; and I had given expression to my unbounded
youthful admiration for the young Frenchman who, a year or two older than
myself, had been one of the determining influences in overcoming my own immaturities.
Stranger than anything else, there had come back to me the memory of the
attitude which this young Frenchman had observed towards myself: the attitude
of a mentor coaching one of whom great things were expected, things greater than
those within his own reach.
IN SEARCH OF MYSELF -- Page 4
Suddenly a silence had fallen
between the librarian and myself; for, with the effect of a sharp blow, it
had come home to me that more than four and a half decades separated me from
those days, four decades in which that Frenchman and I had drifted apart to
the point of complete alienation: each had gone his own way - he in the crowded
capitals of Europe, I on the lonely prairies of western Canada. Like a flash
of lightning it had struck me that, to earn the distinction of seeing his
biography published within his lifetime, he must have achieved things which
had focused on him the eyes of a world, a living world as full of fire and
enthusiasm as any world that had ever been-whereas I, only slightly his junior,
in spite of often titanic endeavour, had lived and worked in obscurity, giving
expression, at the best, to a few, a very few mirrorings of life in the raw
such as it had been my lot to witness.
In that dead silence which my friend, the librarian,
had had the charity to respect, I had turned dumbly back to my desk; and,
shaking with a new, still deeper excitement, I had let myself sink into the chair
by the shaded reading lamp. With trembling fingers I had reached for the book
and drawn it into the circle of light, opening it at the last pages where I expected
to find a bibliography. The bibliography was there; and it was put together
with obvious care and completeness, filling eighteen pages.
Translations of the
works of this Frenchman had appeared in no less than sixteen countries, Turkey
and Japan among them. If it is true, I said to myself, that all the stars are
moved when a child drops a ball from its cradle, what effect had the life of
this Frenchman had on the reeling universes of human thought and human sentiment?
Whereas I. . .
PROLOGUE -- Page 5
And another memory had arisen. On one of my
four or five trips back to Europe, undertaken during the years when, on this
continent of America, I had lived as a farm-hand, I had, on one single occasion,
once more met that young Frenchman, no longer quite so young, by previous appointment.
We had had dinner together in one of the great, famous restaurants of Paris;
and, tragically, we had found that we had nothing any longer to say to each
However, here it was my present task to bring
back with me that household drudge from the farm in the margin of the higher
land to my right, and ahead. Since I was mired on the road, what was I to
There were three possibilities. I might abandon
my task and try to retrace my way by backing out. I might alight and, leaving
the car where it was, leap the washout, to cover the remaining distance afoot.
I might try to attract the attention of the people on the farm or in the
house-they were expecting me-by blowing my horn.
In my present mood the last of these three possibilities
seemed the one to choose. As for backing out, with my errand undone, it was
not in my nature to do so; and yet I was reluctant to exert myself just then
and to proceed afoot, through mud ankle-deep, with a piercing November wind in
my face while a chronic cough racked my chest. Irrationally, the car seemed a
last link with the brighter world of my youth....
Half a century ago, that Frenchman had considered
me as the most lavishly endowed among the young men then living within his
orbit; he had often said so; on certain things he had, in spite of his seniority
in years, deferred to me; on occasion I had corrected his judgment
IN SEARCH OF MYSELF -- Page 6
and even pruned his too flowery style; he had
prophesied for me the most brilliant of futures.
For ten minutes or so, at intervals of perhaps
fifteen seconds, I made the horn of my machine ring dismally out over the
fens whose very existence seemed a calamity of defeat....
What, so I asked myself, had been the reason of
my thus grievously disappointing my friend, the Frenchman? There were several
superficial reasons, of course. But the chief reason no doubt was that I
had never had an audience; for no matter what one may say, he says it to somebody;
and if there is nobody to hear, it remains as though it had never been said;
the tree falling in a forest where there is none to hear, produces no sound.
A book arises as much in the mind of the reader as in that of the writer;
and the writer's art consists above all in creating response; the effect of a
book is the result of a cqllaboration between writer and audience. That collaboration
I had failed to enforce....
From behind my protecting wind-shield, I saw something
stirring in the yard of the farm on which my eyes were focused.
I had been heard. There was a brief coming and
going about the house; and at last a figure detached itself and made for
Yes, that figure was turning east, in my direction;
and gradually, in the course of another few minutes, it defined itself as
an old man carrying a suitcase. I was not expecting an old man; I was expecting
a girl; but there was nothing that I could do. I had to wait for developments.
My struggle had been such as to make defeat a
foregone conclusion. Did it matter? To whom should it matter?
PROLOGUE -- Page 7
To me? But who was I? And suddenly it seemed
to me that the only thing that really mattered was the explanation of that
defeat. To whom explain it ?
As the old man came nearer, I made out that he
was clad in mud-bespattered black overalls and a smock of the same colour
worn over a home-knitted, torn and frayed sweater. The legs of the overalls were
tightly rolled around his bony shanks and tucked into high rubber bootpacks,
smeared with mud to above his ankles. His face was grooved and weathered into
innumerable folds; his chin, hidden by a grey, almost white beard blowing in
the wind. His gait was uncertain; his progress, slow; for he staggered under
the load of the suitcase, which I yet divined weighed no more than ten or fifteen
pounds at the most.
At last he reached the gap in the road which had
forced me to halt; and he stopped at its far edge. Then, carefully picking a
point on the near side which was somewhat drier, he shied the suitcase across
with a lanky motion. I thought he would now turn back; and in spite of my reluctance
to move I made ready to alight and pick the girl's baggage up. But with an unexpected,
clownish nimbleness he cleared the gap by means of a staggering leap. I reached
across the vacant seat to my right and opened the door. He picked the suitcase
up and, lifting it into the car, said breathlessly, "The chit'll be down
in a minute."
I half expected him to climb into the vacant seat
in order to get out of the dismal wind. Instead, he slammed the door shut
with a wide, loose swing of his arm.
Since even yet he did not turn back to leave,
I presumed that he had something to say; and so I reached once more across
the seat to lower the window into which he promptly
IN SEARCH OF MYSELF -- Page 8
inserted his right elbow, so as to rest part of
his weight. Thus made comfortable, and quite unaffected by the rawness of the
air and the edge of the wind, he opened his toothless mouth and began one of
those incongruously cheerful and inconsequential conversations so typical of
the Ontario countryman, who-or so it has seemed to me-is always eager for news
of no possible relevance and for a confirmation of his congenital prejudices.
He stood for fifteen, twenty minutes, imbibing
my monosyllabic replies with a profoundly critical air, while he elicited
from me such information as he desired -- as to the exact location of my house,
the names and ages of my rural neighbours, and my antecedents in the far West
where, rumour had told him, I had lived for close to forty years.
He looked at me, probingly. "Forty years ?" he
said. "You must have been a baby when you went there."
"No," I replied, "I was a young man."
"Well," he went on, with a stir of surprise, "I'd
be curious to know y'r present age, lad."
"My age ?" I repeated. "I'm sixty-eight."
He laughed a cackling senile laugh, strangely
in accord with landscape and weather, worrying meanwhile, with his free hand,
his scanty, scraggy beard. "What do ye think about that ?" he exclaimed incredulously. "Ye
don't look it. Now I'm seventy-four, only six years older."
"A lot of water flows down the creek in six years," I
replied; and a dead silence fell.
Suddenly he emitted that laugh again. "Ye were
wise to stop here," he said. "There's no bottim to that hole." And once more
he laughed. "Y'know," he went on, "day before yistidday, may have been around
ten o'clock, a
PROLOGUE -- Page 9
smart-aleck salesman from Tilsonburg came through
here, from the west, stopping at the place." A jerky thumb pointed over his shoulder,
back to the farm. "Trying to collect a bit on that separator my son-in-law bought
of him three years ago come next month. Blasted fool to come driving that far
to collect after a drought like what we've had last summer. Got mad, too, and
used bad languige. But when he got it into his head at last that there was nothin'
doin', he went on, along this here road, goin' like hell, never askin' or anything;
or we'd have told him about this here wash-out. Wall-i-I, he struck it square,
I tell yer. Must have been goin' fifty. I saw him; I'd gone out on the road;
I expected something to happen. And as he struck it, his car turned a somersault
in the ditch and then shied off into the swamp, upside down, and sideways." The
old man paused as though focusing his mind's eye on the picture of the scene
in his memory. Then he turned. "There ye can still see the hole where they pulled
,him out, with two towing trucks. Him, I say; but I mean his car." And once more
he focused his mind's eye in that absent way of his; and then he burst out laughing
again in his senile, cackling hilarity. "Do ye know what he did ?" he asked at
last, as if choking with his mirth. He took his elbow out of the window of the
car and raised one foot to the running-board. Then, as if to smooth out a kink
in his spine, he pressed his left hand into his side, just below the ribs. And
once more, under that dismal sky, he surrendered himself body and soul to the
impulse of his overpowering merriment, slapping his raised knee with his right
hand between guffaws. It was an incomprehensible, obscene, drenching torrent
of mirth before which one could only stand gasping. "Yeah," he ejaculated
at last between
IN SEARCH OF MYSELF -- Page 10
his bursts of gaiety, "the blasted fool broke...
broke his... broke his neck!" And six, seven slaps of his open palm resounded
in succession on his knee while his head, swinging from side to side as if
severed on its pedicel, hinted at the entire inadequacy of mere laughter
and slaps to express to the full just how funny this trifling mishap had
As, ten or fifteen minutes later, I backed out,
the girl by my side, over the several miles of this swamp road, and, having
turned at last, within sight of the leaden lake, headed for the highway to go
home, I was in the very depths of involuntary musings.
France, Paris, Rome,
Egypt, the Sahara; my whole youth with its aims, high achievement, knowledge
most profound, aspirations infinite!
My early friends were
famous men, known throughout
the civilized world, having left, by this time, the impress of their minds
upon their age. For of that little group of which, fifty years ago, I had formed
part - a group gathered together from half a dozen nations - standing for something
very definite, for a new freedom of life, a new approach to art, a new European
outlook in international relations - of that group there was not one, except
myself, who, that day, was not known beyond the confines of his country.
Like a traitor to my youth, this cynical thought
tried to raise its head: What, in the light of later European developments,
had all their thought, all their driving power, all their earnest endeavour amounted
to? Like a defender of the faith, this other thought rose to combat it:
Nothing that has ever been is ever lost.
The lack of an audience? But even the lack of
an audience is not the important thing. The important
PROLOGUE -- Page 11
thing is that you have such an audience in mind
when you speak. Whether it is really there does not matter. In case of need
you can imagine it. But was there any need for me to imagine it? If I could
explain, to someone, why I had failed, the explanation might more than compensate
for the failure to have made myself heard so far. Could I explain it? I did
not know. I saw the reasons clearly enough. I must try. And "to someone"?
To whom? To whom but my friend the young Frenchman who was now a man of seventy
or more? Whether he ever read the explanation, what did it matter? There
would be others, if not today, then ten decades from now. And if there were
none, at no time, did it matter? The only thing that did matter, as far as
I was concerned, was the fact that the attempt had been made. The rest I
must leave to the gods....
At that moment, I was standing within six years
of such a decay of the mental and emotional qualities as I had witnessed just
now in the case of the old man, the grandfather of the "chit" by my side....
Was that what I was coming to? If so, then it was surely time to be up and
That night I sat down to begin, with an avowedly
autobiographic purpose, the story of
MY LIFE AS A WRITER IN CANADA.
*Reprinted from University of Toronto
Quarterly, Oct.. 1940.