Interview with Marta Dvorak
In your book you call Ernest Buckler Canada’s “least-known best writer.” That’s quite a contradiction, isn’t it?”
It is a paradox, and it really sums up the man and his work, as well as the way his books have been received. Margaret Atwood called Buckler “one of the pathbreakers for the modern Canadian novel,” and Margaret Laurence dubbed him “a genuine pioneer in Canadian writing.” Yet this writer, who was one of the first to move away from British and American models and write out of his own perception, is known mainly for his first novelThe Mountain and the Valley published in 1952. The novel has become a classic, but Buckler’s other works of fiction—a second novel, a fictional memoir, prose poems, radio and television plays, as well as dozens of short stories—all of which I look at—have been forgotten and allowed to go out of print.
That accounts for the contradiction in the public’s reception, but what about the writer himself?
Buckler was a writer-farmer from a low-income rural area in Nova Scotia that, during the first decades of the twentieth century, was still without plumbing, electricity, or central heating, and, later, often without the car, the radio, or the telephone. Growing up in a bookless society, he was such a brilliant student that he qualified for university when he was only twelve! After working for a few years to earn his tuition, he went on to acquire an M.A. in philosophy at the University of Toronto, at a time when such degrees were rare. Yet he chose to return to his own region to farm, and his work reflects a deep love of the land. You could say that paradox was his middle name. He loved playing with words, creating daring, outrageous combinations, yet he distrusted language and was scornful of ‘book learning.’ There’s a good example of this tension in his fictional memoir—he mischievously equates oral virtuosity with anal virtuosity, claiming that being articulate ranks educated people with those who “can fart at will.”
That certainly gets across his denigration of language and culture! So how is it that you link Buckler with philosophers like Emerson and Schopenhauer?
This tension between the word and the world is actually a heritage left behind by Emerson, and I demonstrate that the America transcendental movement in turn is rooted in European Romantic and idealist movements. The dichotomy that suffuses Buckler’s texts results from the confrontation of materialist and neo-platonic currents, and a strong interest in thinkers from Aristotle to Aquinas greatly influenced his philosophical vision and metaphysical speculation.
In your book the reader also comes across the Group of Seven, Henry James, W.O. Mitchell, Katherine Mansfield, Umberto Eco, James Joyce, Shelly, and Foucault, to name but a few. That’s quite a mixed bag, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. The book confronts extracts from Buckler’s published and unpublished texts with a wide range of other texts and other writers. These texts are not necessarily direct influences, but offer a new perspective that can be illuminating. They disclose universal concerns and striking particularities, demonstrate the permeability of the different art forms, the flow and overlapping of ideas across time and space. They give access to Buckler’s elaboration of an ethical and esthetic philosophy grounded in the interconnectedness of the beautiful, the good, and the useful, a question greatly debated with the modern resurgence of interest in Renaissance studies.
Isn’t Buckler’s preoccupation with ethics and morality rather old-fashioned?
It’s probably true that Buckler was a victim of changing sensibilities and esthetic trends. His focus on the domestic, on family ties, on the community, came to be seen as too sentimental and morally earnest by a society in which sentiment was no longer valued, and a moral outlook suspect. But readers today share many of his concerns: the nostalgia for a vanished past, the relationship between family and community, the questioning of, and coming to terms with, ethics and the social fabric in today’s rapidly changing technological horizon in which traditional values are eroding. Buckler’s belief that art finds its meaning within a social framework, his explorations of memory, truth, and perception, are all central preoccupations of today’s postmodern writing. Ultimately, he strikes a chord in contemporary sensibilities in that he, like the postmodern texts he anticipates, celebrates diversity, seeks and discloses hidden analogies, rooted in the perception of the similar in the Other.