Page 128 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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MERVIN BUTOVSKY
Irving Layton:
The Invention of the Self
f o r
n e a r l y
h a l f
a century, Irving Layton (b. 1912) has been
a commanding presence on the Canadian literary scene. In a
writing life tha t has seen the publication o f over forty-five vol­
umes — nearly a volume a year since his first offering in 1945
— he has achieved celebrity status within Canada’s cultural com­
munity as well as national recognition in the form o f the coun ­
try’s prem ier literary prize, the Governor-General’s Award, in
1959. He was named a Companion o f the O rd e r o f Canada
in 1976, a civic hono r attesting to his position as a major con­
tribu to r to his nation’s literature.
While this repu ta tion is based solidly on his poetry, Layton’s
voluminous ou tpu t also comprises short fiction, essays, memoirs,
reviews, correspondence, prefaces, and introductions, which,
like his poems, all bear his unmistakable signature. From his
earliest poems, which appeared in small literary periodicals
where Layton and his contemporaries sought to red irect Can­
ada ’s staid, provincial culture in terms o f the modernist temper,
Layton’s work has always depended on a forceful, combative,
represen ta tion o f the self. Fo regrounded in all his work is the
perceiving mind — self-absorbed and self-observed — inviting
the reade r to share its perceptions only if accompanied by the
often ja r r in g presence o f a seemingly undisguised narra to r: the
maker o f the poem himself. The poem ’s reality is made available
only on the condition that the reade r accept the n a r ra to r’s ver­
sion o f things. This pervasive egotism with its self-centered ges­
tures has o ffended some; what they fail to recognize is that
an aesthetic as well as temperamental urgency underlies its lit­
erary deployment. Layton confesses to his self-conscious p e r­
formance when he describes the polarities o f identity revealed
in the poems: “I became by tu rns p rophe t and clown.”
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