On Tuesday of last week Robert Kroetsch, the presiding spirit of Alberta letters, died of injuries received in a car accident. He was 83. (See The Edmonton Journal)
The obituaries sang his praises as novelist and poet but also as teacher, mentor, friend. Colleagues and fellow writers described him as a generous and loving man, a great spirit. This was my own experience of him on our two encounters, the first when, as a young and uncertain editor, I approached him at a conference in Michigan where I’d gone with our then Managing Editor, Linda Kenyon. Linda was herself experimenting with magic realism as a way to tell a story and hoped to interview him about his own attraction to, and understanding of, the genre. He couldn’t have been more generous with his time, more gracious in his attention to two novices, or more reflective in response to Linda’s questions.
That was in 1985. Flash forward a dozen years to 1997, the year Kroetsch turned 70, and a symposium at St. Jerome’s University in celebration of his work, organized by then poetry editors Charlene Diehl and Gary Draper. Charlene had been a student of Kroetsch’s and wanted to honour him in some way. I volunteered the pages of The New Quarterly as a venue for the conference proceedings and, because it was my suggestion, got roped into hosting a panel on Kroetsch as a teacher.
What I remember from that second encounter was a tall, brooding, modest man and attentive listener whose melancholy aspect belied a sense of humour and a love of play. He agreed to be part of my panel on the proviso that his own classroom practice not be the centre of attention. Consequently, I drafted two generations of his students (Charlene and Stan Dragland, both also products of the landscape that figures so prominently in Kroetsch’s work) and tried to steer the conversation towards larger pedagogical issues (I believe I began with the question, “What do we talk about when we talk about literature?”). Inevitably, however, people fell into telling stories about Kroetsch the man, my favorite of which (perhaps from Dennis Cooley?) went something like this: “Kroetsch was always a terror in a PhD defense. When his turn came round, he would pose to the candidate whatever question had been occupying his own mind of late, usually some large and impossibly intricate (read unanswerable) philosophical puzzle. The unfortunate student would sweat over the question at length before winding down into incoherence, then slink from the room, persuaded his or her academic career had just been dealt a fatal blow. But as soon as the door closed behind the student, Kroetsch would rub his hands together delightedly and say, ‘That was splendid. Where do I sign?’”
As I was thinking about how to memorialize him on this blog, I turned instinctively back to that issue, “A Likely Story” (Vol. XVIII, No. 1, spring 1998), thinking that Charlene’s introduction or afterword might provide some suitable words. But the first ends by quoting William Spanos’s injunction “to refuse the impulse to memorialize, since that shuts down the engagement with the present that Kroetsch stands for so adamantly.” (Indeed, Kroetsch continued to write and publish right up to his death.) The latter, “I Wanted to Write a Manifesto Too,” is a long and brilliant meditation on word and world, language and life, inspired by a manifesto of Kroetsch’s own, both worthy of republishing, I think, in our series “On Criticism” but too long for the shorter attention span blogs train us to. It ends, however, with a reversion to the personal, the story of the story, so to speak, an account of the evening on which Charlene first heard Kroetsch read his essay, “I Want to Write a Manifesto.” Here it is:
I heard Kroetsch deliver “I Wanted to Write a Manifesto” to a crowded hall at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba. It was several years ago, the night before I was to write a grueling seven-hour candidacy exam, a manifesto of my own; I remember I wore a vivid green dress. When I reread his essay, I heard so many layers: I cannot shake the sound of his voice as he delivered this newly-made thing, the decisively oral rhythms, the playful undercurrent of wit, the pull of nerves at this public exposure. I hear also the filter of my own anxiety at an imminent exam, the electrical buzz of excitement in the crowd, my anticipation of the challenge and peculiar gifts that always accompany Kroetsch’s critical maneuvering. I also hear my great fondness for his complicated self: the wildly boisterous public man, the gentle, baffled and often painfully silent private man, the man who can’t resist language (even in the car, reading, reading: billboards, streets signs, the backs of buses), the man who loves flat land, ice cream and the freefall blur of thinking as it spins itself into conversation.
When the text was released into the air that first time, I was present, I received it in my ear. And even now, as I tease my way through it in its printed incarnation, the piece is stubbornly oral for me, inflected, particular. What appears on paper feels like a transcription, a translation of sorts, the collapse of an oral impulse into spatial expression, a literate shorthand. How appropriate, when you think of it, that this resolute story-teller would back away from the readerly, through the writerly, and veer as close as he could, in a written medium, to the oral voices that so compel him. The voice of his own voice.
It’s a poorer place without that voice resounding.