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Temerity and Gall by John Metcalf

Reviewed by Timothy Niedermann

The cover to Temerity and Gall displays a pen-and-ink drawing of a knight, lance in hand, riding boldly forward. Surely this is meant to reflect author John Metcalf’s opinion of himself—that he is engaged in a valiant effort to confront daunting challenges, in his case the ingrained backwardness of the Canadian literary world.

But the figure on the cover is evocative of another pen-and-ink drawing—one by Pablo Picasso—of Don Quixote, the iconic tilter at windmills, and his minder, Sancho Panza. And, sure enough, if you flip Metcalf’s book to its back cover, there he is: Sancho Panza on his burro.

So, are we meant to think Metcalf views himself, as a courageous knight or one engaged in a fruitless pursuit?

The answer, of course, is that Metcalf sees himself as both, and the cover is a testament to both his humour and his self-awareness about his life’s work.

Temerity and Gall is structured around a series of readings Metcalf did with Ray Smith and Clark Blaise in 2015. These were the last of the Montreal Story Tellers, a group of five writers who, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, tried to shake up Canada’s literary establishment by, as Metcalf puts it, “proselytizing for prose.” The other two, Hugh Hood and Raymond Fraser, sadly had already died.

The stops on the tour were Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa, and the narrative is divided into three sections labelled accordingly. But this book is no travelogue. Instead, it is an attack on the Canadian publishing industry, the Canadian government’s so-called support of Canadian writing, and the Canadian literary establishment itself. He lambasts all for the twin offences of promoting inferior writers while failing to nurture real talent and bemoans the industry’s focus on bestsellers at the expense of bringing to light writers who are breaking boundaries in literature.

Metcalf goes on to chastise governmental organizations such as the Canada Council for the Arts for striving for “representation” instead of excellence, thus failing to make CanLit more than what one critic has called “angst on farms.” He is particularly hard on Simon Brault, its Director and CEO. Metcalf feels Canadian cultural institutions have not done enough to encourage good writing but have fallen back on bureaucratic standards that lend themselves best to assigning grants and subsidies. To make matters worse, Canada has not done enough to create an audience for good writing, without which, of course, good writers will be condemned to scratching away in anonymity.

And to top it off, Metcalf goes after the now hallowed Margaret Atwood for her 1972 work Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which ensconced into the literary establishment what to Metcalf is an exceedingly narrow approach to defining what is “Canadian” about Canadian literature.

To his credit, however, Metcalf includes commentary by his editor, Daniel Wells, to temper his claims and give perspective—and in places some correction—to his narrative. This is quite useful.

Were Metcalf to have stuck to lamenting the state of Canadian literature, he would still have delivered a useful book, but he has already written much on the subject, so in this one he goes farther, much farther. In order to prove his points about quality, he proceeds to show what excellence in writing is. And this is the great value of this book.

He quotes critic André Forget’s insistence (in Forget’s 2019 review of Metcalf’s The Canadian Short Story in TheWalrus) on the need for “a clear set of criteria” to assess the value of written work and then contrasts it with the attitude of famous literary critic Cyril Connelly (one shared by Metcalf), who eschewed such rigidity. Connelly felt that “each new piece of writing is offering its own aesthetic and asks of the critic a new openness each time out; each new manuscript dictates the nature of the response. . .” For Metcalf, the task is to try to determine if a work contains what English painter Ben Nicholson called, upon viewing an abstract work by Picasso, the “miraculous green”—the indefinable and unpredictable element that makes something a true work of art.

To validate this approach, Metcalf then presents what he calls “typescripts,” eight short selections from as many very different writers: George V. Higgins, Jane Gardam, Kingsley Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Ronald Firbank, James Salter, Russell Hoban, and Keith Waterhouse. No one set of criteria could ever assess these writers adequately. Elsewhere Metcalf extols the writing of Ernest Hemingway, Elmore Leonard, P.G. Wodehouse, Barbara Pym, and—finally, a Canadian!—Alice Munro.

Metcalf goes on to talk about his book collecting, with revealing diversions to talk about writers and their approach to their art. He discusses in detail three writers he calls “the three brightest stars of the Brideshead Generation”: Henry Green, Cyril Connelly, and Evelyn Waugh. These writers, each his different way, shattered the mold of Victorian prose and broke new ground in twentieth-century literature.

Suffice it to say that Metcalf covers a lot of ground. And it adds up: his narrative is 441 pages long!

Temerity and Gall could have been shorter by, say 150 pages or so. This would have tightened his argument up and made it more accessible to the general reader. And that should be the goal if you want, as he repeatedly says he does, to educate and enlarge the audience for Canadian literature.

But perhaps, given the scope of what he has published before, this was not his aim this time. Perhaps he wanted to avoid modelling the tightly defined, rigid, and largely overconfident dictates of those he criticizes and instead deliver a layered and textured narrative highlighting a wide range of writing and writers, one that immerses the reader into the soul of what writing, and thus literature, is supposed to be. And in this, he has succeeded.

Temerity and Gall is published by Biblioaisis.


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