Arts

A Catholic writer’s revolutionary realism

Morley Callaghan admired ‘The appleness of apples’ in Paul Cézanne’s The Basket of Apples (1926)

Morley Callaghan (1903-1990), a Catholic writer from Toronto, set out to be a chronicler of the urban scene of his native city. He sought to be a realist, “looking at the appearance of things, call it concrete reality, the stuff of experience, or simply ‘what is out there’ ”; and to do this he had to “strip the language and make the style, the method, all the psychological ramifications, the ambience of the relationships, all the one thing, so the reader couldn’t make separations,” as he explained in his autobiographical volume, That Summer in Paris (1963).

“Cézanne’s apples. The appleness of apples. Yet just apples,” he wrote. In his long career he published more than 100 stories, 14 novels and six novellas, and he inaugurated the practice at the New Yorker of publishing short stories.

In his first published story, “A Girl with Ambition”, which appeared in This Quarter (1926), Mary Ross, a lower-class 16-year-old “neat, clean girl with short, fair curls and blue eyes”‘ is working in the shoe department of Eaton’s, where she meets a middle-class high school student employed there for the summer holidays. He symbolises for Mary what is respectable in life: “Thinking of how he liked her made her feel a little better than the girls she knew.”

While intrigued by him, Mary goes to a party with a grocer’s son. In time she marries him, and then, in the story’s final scene, a pregnant Mary is sitting beside her husband delivering groceries, sighted by her one-time beau.

This story has many features of Callaghan’s fiction: the reporter’s stance as he observes his characters; focusing on a few key scenes, with the reader meant to fill in the rest; the use of irony as Callaghan weighs the drama of his story; and the stripped-down language with the words “as transparent as glass”. A girl with ambition becomes the pregnant wife of the grocer’s son, and the reader ponders the respectability of her new position.

“No one today – if one may venture to claim Toronto as part of the American scene – is more brilliantly finding the remarkable in the ordinary than Morley Callaghan,” remarked Sinclair Lewis in 1929. “His persons and places are of the most commonplace; his technique is so simple that it is apparently not a technique at all.”

From Russian writers, Callaghan took the strategy of carefully delineating the setting while never naming the exact locale. From the Irish and British, especially James Joyce and DH Lawrence, he continued their habit of dismantling the Victorian novel and substituting a heightened realism. From American writers, especially Sherwood Anderson, whom Callaghan acknowledged as his “father”, he assumed the technique of depicting realistically the dramas of the everyday world.

From the beginning of his career, when he was hailed as a master of the short story and often compared to Chekhov, Callaghan has occupied a major role in Canadian fiction. The first writer to set his short stories and novels in urban Canada, he moved fiction from its romantic underpinnings to a revolutionary confrontation with the people of contemporary Canada, rarely forsaking the present and its social problems. He maps out no particular outlook; he offers no simple answers; he is content to record the world as he sees it. And always at the centre of his fiction is the dignified stature of people trapped in situations which may question and ultimately deny their sense of self, but the dignified stature endures as society’s mechanisms would seek to uproot and destroy it.

On this side of eternity, as he notes in That Summer in Paris, people must “realise all our possibilities here on earth, and hope we would always be so interested, so willing to lose ourselves in the fullness of living, and so hopeful that we would never ask why we were on this earth”.

“An inspiration and a flag-bearer for all Canadian writers,” Robertson Davies wrote of Callaghan’s singular role in Canadian fiction. “You have fought strongly and bravely for the establishment of an indigenous literature and so long as it lasts your name will be held in honour.”

David Staines is Professor of English at the University of Ottawa and the author and/or editor of 20 books on medieval and Canadian culture and literature