Page 129 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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BUTOVSKY / IRVING LAYTON: THE INVENTION OF THE SELF
121
What his vast num ber o f poems collectively signify is that
Layton is a m y thographer whose central myth is concerned with
the act o f self-creation. His lifelong act o f writing has produced
no single poem more impressive than his assertive, hectoring
self, a mock-heroic figure who invented ju s t the kind o f person
he had to become if he was to deliver himself from the obscurity
and ineffectuality that had engulfed others around him. Layton
b rough t to his chosen literary vocation much the same raw, dy­
namic energy that his peers from the first immigrant generation
were to demonstrate when they elbowed their way ou t o f urban
slums into the often inhospitable fields o f law, medicine, busi­
ness, and manufacturing.
Th e mythic outline that emerges from Layton’s account de­
scribes the crucial transformative acts that have resulted in his
own being. At an early age he rejected the identity which birth
and history had given him and for many years remained un ­
certain about his choice o f an app rop ria te identity that would
signify his fluid, evolving sense o f self. His birth name was
Yisroel Pinchas Lazarovitch, bu t this underwent considerable
change — Issie Lazarovitch, Isadore Lazarre, Irvine Lazarre,
Pete Lazarovitch, Irvine Layton, Irving Peter Layton — before
he was to arrive at the one most suited to his emerging character
and vocation. Whatever his motives, these changes indicate a
desire to efface the foreign-sounding Yiddish-Slavic original
and replace it with the more acceptable Anglicized version an ­
nounced in his final choice. Thus the numerous variations can
be read as the most immediate tokens o f ethnic discomfort;
countless others o f his generation similarly accepted name-
changes as the least painful way o f entering a society whose
social practices often penalized ethnic particularity. In Layton’s
case, the indeterminacy o f name also signals a restlessness with
the state o f ethnic fixity and a willingness to venture into new
experience as a radical innocent, unencumbered by the past.
HIS BACKGROUND
Layton was born in Roumania and b rough t to Canada on
his first birthday in 1913. The family lived in the crowded Jew ­
ish qua r te r south o f On tario Street which Layton described as
“a semi-slum area inhabited by French-Canadians, Jews, and
Italians who lived on de Montigny Street, a very rich and very