F. P. Grove's In Search of Myself
e-Edition ©2007

"It was a dismal November day..."(p.1)
"...the biography of a Frenchman, still living..." [Gide] (p.3)
"...translations ... had appeared in sixteen countries..." (p.4)
"On oaccasion I had...pruned his too flowery style..." (p.5)
"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.


      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 of a 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.


      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 other....
      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 do?
      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


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 the road.
      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


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


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 been....
      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 doing.
     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.

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