Saturday, July 26, 2008

In Praise of Morley Callaghan

I first heard about Morley Callaghan while reading Carolyn Strange's mostly-dire "Toronto's Girl Problem." She presented Callaghan's book "Strange Fugitive" (about bootleggers and gangsters in Toronto during 1928) as a deliberate attempt to counter Toronto's self-proclaimed squeaky-clean image.

Before reading "Strange Fugitive," however, I ran across Callaghan's short story "Escapade" in The New Yorker. I fell in love, and found myself wondering how I'd missed reading his work for so many years.

Callaghan's fiction has been mostly overshadowed by his colourful life; his brief stay in Paris and his friendship with Ernest Hemmingway, who he famously K.O.'d in a boxing match. He has also been dismissed by some as a hack who hammered out short stories and novels which rarely deviated from his established style (or, as some have interpreted it, a complete LACK of style).

But his style is so GOOD. I have never read Hemmingway's work but Callaghan's straight-forward, undecorated prose is often compared to his. He uses no excess words, no colourful adjectives, no metaphor. His stores are written in an almost journalistic style along the lines of "These are the people and this is what happened to them."

I just finished the first volume of Callaghan's four-volume "Complete Stories" and I've noticed that his REAL genius was the limited nature of his omniscient narrator: he tells us what his characters are thinking but never delves into their motivations or tries to interpret their thoughts, let alone judge them. Since most of us -- like Callaghan's "everyday Joe" sort of characters -- fool ourselves constantly with rationalizations and repression, each story is a slow peeling-away of motivation, until you're left with the bare and unambiguous working of the protagonist's soul.

This is what makes Callaghan's fiction so spectacular. He captures what it really feels like to exist and to think in the limited way that us people do. Using the simplest language he conveys human complexity without every appearing DELIBERATE about it. As always, "These are the people and this is what happened."

He can get a bit tedious, I admit. By avoiding flowery language Callaghan tends to frequently use the same adjectives ("plump") and you get a BIT tired of every story opening the same way. But that's what he did, and it's what he did best. If you have never read a Morley Callaghan book then you really, really should.

2 comments:

jj said...

Never read Hemmingway? Jiz!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

S'truth!

He seemed like such a jerk.