A man of letters

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McGill Reporter
May 9, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 16
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A man of letters

Nothing like an urge for spring housecleaning to benefit libraries.

Photo Montreal filmmaker, novelist and historian William Weintraub
PHOTO: Owen Egan

Montreal filmmaker, novelist and historian William Weintraub will be giving piles of old letters, photos and first-edition books to McGill. Besides his own socially significant body of work (scripts, research notes, etc.), there's his early correspondence with Montreal literary luminaries Brian Moore, Mavis Gallant and Mordecai Richler.

Weintraub was a Gazette journalist with Moore and Gallant (who later introduced him to Richler in Paris). Their respective travels led to a robust round of letters, which Weintraub drew on for his recent book, Getting Started. These excerpts, says Irena Murray, chief curator of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division, made his book come alive.

"When you see the raw material," Murray says, "you see the difference between seeing the retelling of the original, and the original." Murray feels a "frisson" upon reading the letter from Richler in London sending the manuscript of Duddy Kravitz to Weintraub in Montreal. "You get a feeling you caught the moment when it was happening."

We may imagine these writers as well established and middle-aged, Murray says, but in the letters "they're young writers, their fame is in no way guaranteed.

"What I find the most exciting is that they're letters of youth." The writers show a "spontaneity of delivery -- they said what they meant and meant what they said -- with a great deal of energy."

They wrote about the process of writing and wondered if they could make a living from it. You hear the transition in the early letters, when they decide to make a go of it, Murray says. "Now you look back, and see it connected to their work -- when it goes well, when not. It's a historiography of the work."

Although Weintraub's a McGill graduate, his collection could easily have gone to the University of Calgary, which bought Richler's manuscripts and Moore's papers. Related work is often kept together to ease accessibility to scholars.

But Murray says, "A divided archive is now less relevant than before with the advent of digital."

Another mark in their favour is that both McGill and Weintraub "are quintessential Montreal institutions in the same way." She says, "William Weintraub is Montreal through and through. This is the right place for that reason."

Photo Mavis Gallant and William Weintraub
PHOTO: Owen Egan

With Moore and Richler gone, Gallant is the only one left Weintraub corresponds with. Five volumes worth of Gallant's diaries will soon be published. "All these things can feed off each other. They will be from the same year, the same people, different perspective," Murray says. "It's like an archeological dig -- different layers of interest to different people -- of a social era.

"These four people were so feisty -- they were convinced they were going to make it and they made it!"

In fact, they went on to become some of Canada's leading lights in literature -- Richler, Moore and Gallant all went on to win the country's top literary prize, the Governor General's Award.

Some of the collection is on display in the Rare Books and Special Collections Division on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library Building.

One of Murray's favourite letters is from Richler in London. "He was the most appalling typist." Nonetheless, his irrepressible character shows through.

[On the back of a London theatre program for "Nudes in the Night"]: "Bill, my old: Never mind the 86 bob you owe me. Forget about it. Pay no mind. It's okay. But I have to type this note on a playbill because I can't afford typing paper -- I'm using my [manuscripts] to build fires because you can't buy coal in quantities less than one lb, and I think that's too much of an investment. Oh well, tomorrow is EATING DAY (we eat on alternate days now) but never mind, it's okay about the money, always glad to do a favour for a friend."

Richler also wrote of lunching with the quirky and by then elderly E.M. Forster.

Mavis Gallant writes of a chilly Paris and the natives' way of dealing with it.

"I can understand why the French never sleep alone. They aren't any sexier than any other race, but it's the only way of keeping warm. Two of the three people I know have gas heaters in their rooms and they're the most popular guys on the block." She also writes of rejections from the New Yorker and the sustaining properties of "choucroute."

Moore writes plainly about a number of things -- including his misadventures one New Year's Eve in '57.

"Horrible tendencies develop in me this time of year. I fondle bottoms, kiss girls, and am regarded as obscene. Was in sofa clutch with Frank's wife when jealous husband showed. But enough -- shudders! My wife stayed sober so that she would be able to tell me in detail how disgusting I was the next day."

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