“Humanity on its Last Legs”: Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (Guest post: Nathaniel Leach)

Pleased to have another post from now-somewhat-regular contributor Nathaniel Leach. Here he is on a classic yet underappreciated Canadian novel. Its interest in race, sexuality, oppression, and what we might today call intersectionality are as relevant now as they were nearly 70 years ago.

I first started reading Morley Callaghan’s The Loved and the Lost (1951) twenty years ago on a trip from Toronto to Englehart, Ontario. It was a long trip (check the map if you don’t believe me), but I only got through about a third of the book. It was enjoyable enough, but it seemed fairly conventional and didn’t really stand out as something special. I picked it up again this year as I attempt to clear my shelves of the many such books that I have left in states of semi-completion, and this time, when I did finish it, it really surprised me. It struck me as a tragically beautiful, well written book that powerfully challenges the prejudices of its time. This left me with a number of questions. Had my perspective changed, or did the book just start slow and pick up speed? Had I missed something when I first started reading it, or had I built it up in my mind because it wasn’t quite what I expected? I suspect that each of these possibilities is a little bit true.

Indeed, there is much that seems very conventional about the book, as it combines familiar narrative elements in its story of an ambitious social climber caught in a love triangle dividing him between high and low society. Jim McAlpine, an erstwhile History professor at the University of Toronto is invited to Montreal by Joseph Carver, owner of The Sun newspaper, who, having seen an article of McAlpine’s, offers him a regular column (oh, for the days when academics were seen as so widely employable!). McAlpine welcomes this opportunity, and begins spending time with Carver’s divorced daughter, Catherine, who likes him, and promises to be a match well-suited to advance McAlpine’s social and professional aspirations. He, however, becomes more intrigued by Peggy Sanderson, an independent working woman who rejects social convention, frequenting jazz clubs and befriending many of the black musicians who play there.

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The book’s focus on race makes it impossible to ignore how much of its time and place it is: the time is 1950 (contemporary with Callaghan’s writing of it) and the place is Montreal, the city where, just a few years before, Jackie Robinson had played before breaking the colour barrier in the major leagues. One character points out that the Brooklyn Dodgers chose Montreal because of its reputation as a tolerant city, but the book clearly documents the limits of this tolerance; Peggy’s black friends are accepted within their home district of St. Antoine, but trouble arises when she treats them as equals in other parts of the city. While it is heartening to read a book from 1950 that challenges racism as strongly as this one does, it also shows its age in many ways; for example, Peggy is impressed when Jim talks about “Negro writers” instead of using a different word that starts with “N” (which is, indeed, preferred by many of the other characters in the book).

This strong sense of time and place left me feeling that I would appreciate the book more if I knew Montreal better; it’s a city I’ve visited a few times, but have spent the last few years avoiding (as anyone who drives regularly from the Maritimes to Ontario will understand). This is unequivocally a Montreal book (somewhat ironically, since Callaghan is unequivocally a Toronto author). The geography of the city informs everything. On the first page, we are told: “Those who wanted things to remain as they were liked the mountain. Those who wanted a change preferred the broad flowing river. But no one could forget either of them.” The geography of the city becomes a blunt metaphor for class divisions, although throughout the book, many characters sing the praises of Montreal’s inclusivity and the opportunities it offers. The importance of place is developed through to the very last page where Montreal’s mystifying topography becomes a heartbreakingly perfect metaphor for the tragically divided worlds of the characters.

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What interested me most, though, were the places where Callaghan defies not just social convention but also literary convention. The love triangle actually peters out fairly quickly and is replaced by a more nuanced exploration of race, sexuality and the limits of humanity. Moreover, we sympathize less and less with Jim as he attempts to change Peggy, while still cultivating Catherine’s friendship. Jim becomes obsessed with Peggy and determined to rescue her, while she welcomes his friendship but resists his attempts to encroach on her independence. Peggy rejects Jim’s sexual advances, but her sexual relations are speculated about extensively, although not conclusively. She is rumoured to have slept with many of her musician friends, although it is significant that she never confirms or denies such rumours, always dismissing them as irrelevant. By refusing Jim’s attempts to sexualize her, Peggy resists the conventional role of the heroine by refusing to play a part in the stories that men, and especially Jim, project onto her.

What is particularly remarkable about the book, then, is its refusal of simplistic narratives about race and sex, and its exploration of the psychological nuances of prejudice and desire. This is illustrated through two intriguing episodes from the latter half of the book, which both mark Jim’s progress towards the realization that his desire for Peggy and his desire for social acceptance can never be reconciled. The first of these is an encounter that Jim has with a Polish Jew named Wolgast who is the co-owner of a bar that Jim and his friends frequent. After Peggy brings a black man to his bar, Wolgast searches for her with seemingly violent intent, but when he runs into Jim instead, he is mollified and explains his anger over coffee. He tells Jim about his father, a serf in Poland who, on market days, would take him to town on a white horse, instilling both father and son with a sense of pride. When the landowner forces Wolgast’s father to sell the horse, he becomes despondent and dies shortly afterwards, exhorting his son with his dying words: “try and own a white horse of your own someday, son.” The white horse thus becomes a fairly obvious symbol for social acceptance that Callaghan uses throughout the final chapters of the book.

More complex are Wolgast’s motivations for his anger with Peggy; on the one hand, Callaghan makes a point of emphasizing that Wolgast is not troubled by the anti-Semitism that surrounds him: “Nor had French Canadian hostility to the Jews disturbed him. It only made him smile complacently… everybody knew the French Canadians were hostile out of envy; it was a mark of respect.” On the other hand, Peggy’s actions trigger a defensive reaction in Wolgast: “no one who couldn’t go anywhere else had felt free to come into his bar just because he was a Jew. No one had ever shown that much contempt for him, he told himself—until today.” He believes Peggy has brought a black man into his bar because she assumes that, since he is Jewish, he would tolerate her wish, and it is this assumption that outrages him, as if it degraded him back to the outsider status he has fought so hard to escape. He justifies this attitude further by his love of Montreal; having worked numerous dodgy jobs from Brooklyn to Buffalo, Wolgast credits Montreal with giving him the chance to own something legitimate (his “white horse”), and therefore wants “everything to stay the way it is,” and worries that his bar will lose its reputation. Callaghan thus suggests how victims of prejudice can be induced to transmit this prejudice to others so as to preserve their own precarious place within the social order. While Jim tries to show Wolgast that Peggy did not mean to insult him and instead was paying tribute to his lack of prejudice, even he criticizes Peggy’s “lack of prudence” which “always brings out the worst instincts in us, the stuff we try and hide, the stuff that’s inhuman.” Like Wolgast, Jim blames Peggy for bringing inhumanity to light rather than criticizing and confronting the inhuman behaviour itself.

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Jim is finally forced to face this inhumanity when he takes Catherine to a hockey game between the New York Rangers and the Montreal Canadians [sic- one of the few things that drove me nuts about this book]. The scene is particularly brilliant in the way that Jim’s reflections on society’s treatment of Peggy are interwoven with what is going on both on the ice and in the crowd. The situation reaches its climax when a Ranger viciously slashes a Montreal player, leading to a brawl on the ice, and, when the instigator escapes receiving a penalty, causing the crowd to erupt in rage at the referee. Jim, coming to the realization that most of the crowd would react the same way to him and Peggy if they knew about her views, is shocked by the violence of the “crazy, howling mob.” Despite the friendly conversations he has with members of the home crowd, he reflects increasingly on their unspoken attitudes and begins to feel like an outsider. This scene leads Jim to imagine himself as the potential victim of violence, and prefigures a scene of actual violence, a fight in a nightclub, in which Jim finds himself powerless to help Peggy. Jim’s trajectory from prospective social insider to powerless outsider is almost complete as he becomes increasingly confronted with the “worst instincts” and “inhumanity” of those around him, a trajectory that is completed with an even more extreme act of violence at the book’s end.

Again, this may not be an incredibly original narrative, but for me, what makes this book more than what I first thought it was is the way it communicates a human perspective without falling back on an over-simplified humanism. Even if there is a human essence that transcends skin colour, Callaghan suggests, there is a great deal of ugliness within this shared nature, as members of various races, classes, and genders contribute to the victimization of Peggy in order, like Wolgast, to advance their own interests. Even Jim, the figure we most identify with, proves to be morally weak and physically powerless to intervene in the cruelty she suffers. In the end, Callaghan shows us a world inhabited, like Wolgast’s bar, by “humanity on its last legs” and in need of a redemption that is always out of reach.

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“All that is Seen, Understood”: Jessie Greengrass’s Sight

There is nothing more horrible than this: a world elucidated and all that is seen, understood.

So concludes the narrator of Jessie Greengrass’s marvelous novel Sight (2018). Although I’m reluctant to think of novels as having keys—it suggests they’re problems to be solved, secrets to be transgressed—this sentence gets to the heart of the book. I almost wrote, “to the heart of Greengrass’s argument.” For Sight at times masquerades as an essay. At others it’s a compelling example of what people are calling autofiction (at least, I think so: I’m not actually sure what that means). Whatever it is, it’s wonderful. Maybe not to everyone’s taste. (If you want a lot of plot you will not love this book.) But definitely to mine. Reading it, in fact, I often had the rare, even uncanny feeling that the book was written just for me, which made me both eager to plough through it and reluctant to finish. Greengrass’s sentences are often long and always, as the example above suggests, complex. I don’t think it was just because I was squeezing the book into the ends of my mid-semester days that I often found myself going back and re-reading.

X-Ray HandSometimes when reading something I sense I’m the target audience for I get restive and grumpy, frustrated at having been pigeonholed, no matter how accurately. But with Sight I felt the difference between a book written for someone like me and a book actually written for me. Which of course is crazy. But I’m totally taken with the book’s central question: can there be seeing without knowing? The way I usually phrase it is: can there be experience without interpretation? Like Greengrass and the narrator with whom she seems to share so much, I always answer no. But I’m obsessed with what it might mean to answer yes. What is the cost of interpretation, of knowing? We can see what we gain when seeing turns into understanding. (Our very language, which offers seeing as a synonym for understanding, underlies this connection.) But can we see what we lose in that process?

Here I think of the paradox central to the Freudian enterprise. If the unconscious can be made conscious, much of its damaging power might be undone. But when the unconscious becomes conscious it dissipates, and even Freud was clear that we lose something—some energy, some power, some part of us that is larger than us but deeply part of us—in that evanescence. The goal of analysis, for Freud at least, was never just normativity. After all, symptoms aren’t just problems. (Symptom, for Freud, are compromise expressions: versions of unconscious desires that have been distorted enough to be acceptable to the censor of conscience and thus see the light of day: symptoms are things like dreams or slips of the tongue or obsessive behavior or bodily symptoms that have no physiological origin.) Symptoms are also who we are. We need to recognize them as valuable parts of ourselves, even as we work to mitigate their most harmful qualities.Freud_hansAll this talk of Freud is relevant to Sight. The narrator, who spends many of her days idly paging through books in the library at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine in London, weaves scenes from her own life (the death of her mother, childhood vacations with her psychoanalyst grandmother, vacillations over whether to have a child) with scenes from medical history: Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery of x-rays; Freud’s analysis of the child of an associate, a four-year-old patient he named Little Hans; and the eighteenth century surgeon John Hunter and his sometime colleague the medical illustrator Jan van Rymsdyk’s fascination with the anatomy of pregnant bodies.

When I compare Greengrass’s use of historical material to that of, say, Pat Barker or Giles Foden (I’m thinking of Toby’s Room and Turbulence), I can’t help but think that there is no point to the latter novels, despite their charms. These historical fictions are ruled by the principle of the info dump, no matter how skillfully applied. Why not, Greengrass’s novel made me wonder, be more honest and use that material the way a good essay might? Why not use the strategies of juxtaposition and reflection to come to a new way of seeing? Greengrass doesn’t try to naturalize her use of the medical material—despite her narrator’s days in the library she’s not trying to write a book about Röntgen, Freud, or Hunter. Instead, she asks us to think about the (oblique) connections between this material and the narrator’s life. For me, these connections center on the role of the unseen and the unspoken in the narrator’s life, her sense of living precariously amidst an incompletely understood past and an unknowable future.II-B-1Let me close with a couple of examples of the book’s prose. They’re concerned with time as the medium of experience, time as a way to see what—like the bones in the hand made evident by the x-ray, the phobia exposed by the analyst’s question, or the fetus revealed by the scalpel—would otherwise be hidden. A loss of mystery accompanies that endeavor: the hidden alters itself in some fundamental way the very moment it becomes the known. The consolation for that loss, like the song of Orpheus meant to compensate for the loss of Eurydice in the original instance of the treachery of sight, might be Greengrass’s beautiful sentences.

Here’s the narrator remembering the room she would stay in when she visited her grandmother in Hampstead every summer:

Before I was born [the room] had been my mother’s, and the white-painted bookshelf which leaned fifteen degrees west of true was still filled with books which had once been hers. Sometimes, opening them, I would disturb loose sheets of paper that fluttered downwards, drifting to the floor to settle gently amongst the swirling patterns of the rugs, disjointed lists of words, phone numbers or addresses or single pages cut from longer letters, descriptions of nameless places, congratulations on achievements since forgotten. I would pick them up and hold them and, trying to connect their recipient with my mother, so uncompromisingly grown up, so firm and sure, I would catch from the corner of my eye the outline of my own inescapable adulthood flicker against the yellowed walls, a long shadow cast by a low sun.

And here she is, reflecting on Röntgen and his rivals, men who discovered the same phenomenon yet who for reasons of chance have not gone down in history, and resisting the lure of the counter-factual:

To say that something other might have been is not to diminish the value of what was, the marvel of it or its solidity, besides which it is not the fact of Wilhelm Röntgen’s discovery which fascinates but rather it is those days and nights through which he worked alone, bringing to this mystery’s unravelling all of his slow, systematic persistence until he possessed not just the sight of something but that extra thing that knowledge, understanding is—not the mere serendipity of discovery but the moment of its tipping into insight which draws our lonely curiosity. We are unsatisfied. Revelation is by definition isolate., it can neither be communicated nor transferred, and trying to comprehend it we feel only the chill of our exclusion.

What a ride that passage takes us on! A brilliant description of creating and discovering, which matters, it seems, only when it becomes something more than itself, something called knowing, is followed by a reversal, in which the narrator, even as she argues for the need to turn seeing into understanding, intimates (in part via that “chill”) how difficult, even unlikely that process is—and, moreover, that it might entail loss as much as gain.

 If these passages excite you as much as they do me, you need to read this book. They’re examples of the things I love about Sight: its intelligence, its beautiful language, its seamless blend of essayistic and novelistic. (This might have been the kind of thing Barthes had in mind when he imagined “the novelistic without the novel.”) And, truth be told, the fact that no one seems to know about this book. And yet here I am, giving up another secret. But in this case, the cost of making the unseen seen feels unequivocally worth it.