16 August 2009

Gustafson's Good or Bad Novel

Ralph Barker Gustafson
16 August 1909 - 29 May 1995

It's only been in recent months that I've come to realize the importance of nineteen-aught-nine to the poetry of Anglo-Quebec. A.M. Klein was born that year, as were Ralph Gustafson and John Glassco. Three very different poets and, I dare say, three very different men.

Today belongs to Gustafson. I'm sometimes hesitant when acknowledging these anniversaries here – it may be argued that the poet didn't always receive the recognition he deserved, but his writing wasn't exactly suppressed or ignored. That said, there is one work, No Music in the Nightingale, that could be considered forgotten. Much of what I know of this unpublished novel comes from Jack, A Life in Letters, James King's 1999 biography of Jack McClelland. Its history is curious, one where publication, which at first seems certain, becomes less likely with each new draft. We're told that in 1953 the publisher approached Gustafson, then under contract with Viking in New York, hoping to win Canadian rights. Three years later, the manuscript arrived at McClelland and Stewart's offices, generating an 'enthusiastic letter' with detailed comments from fiction editor Conway Turton.

Then... silence.

Three more years passed, during which time M&S published Gustafson's well-received collection of verse, Rivers Among Rocks. The poet wrote McClelland asking him to reconsider the novel. This time, however, the reception was muted. 'We have read it here and are reserving judgement', he wrote. 'It's either very, very good or very, very bad. I'm damned if I know which.' These words, to Little, Brown editor Alan D. Williams, where part of an ill-fated effort to find an American co-publisher. What happened to the early contract with Viking, King doesn't say.

Gustafson tried again in 1965, sending a McClelland a revised version of the novel. This time, John Robert Colombo weighed in with a reader's report that featured a fatal line: 'As a poet he is a consummate craftsman – but as a novelist: ugh!' In response, Gustafson wrote McClelland: 'I was deflated by the readers' reports and haven't got up enough courage to read through the novel again – I know I should, in fairness to you, and I know it needs one revision. I suppose, on the whole, after the reader's "ugh," you better ship the thing home to me, alas.'

The unpublished novel is held at the Queen's University Archives.

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