CM April 12, 
1996. Vol. II, Number 26

image Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel.

Francis Mansbridge.
"Canadian Biography Series."
Toronto: ECW Press, 1995. 160pp, paper, $14.95.
ISBN: 1-55022-216-3.

Subject Headings:
Layton, Irving, 1912- -Biography.
Poets, Canadian (English)-20th century-Biography.

Grades 11 and up / Ages 16 and up.
Review by Ian Stewart.



Through the imaginative breadth of his poetry and the dynamism of his personality, Layton redefined the possibilities for the Canadian writer. His passionately vivid descriptions revealed new ways of experiencing the world and new aspects of the world to savour....
Layton vehemently castigated Canadian gentility, which meant, for him, a distrust of any art or other forms of expression or activity that threatened the restricted confines of the puritanical, middle-class mind. At best, gentility could be civilized and intelligent, but those in its grasp skimmed the surface of life rather than venturing into the psyche's dark depth...

Francis Mansbridge, Irving Layton's biographer, and the editor of his letters, does not attempt a complete literary analysis of Layton's poetry in Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel -- there are surprisingly few of his poems included in this book. She also does not deal extensively with the question of Layton's place in the Canadian literary hierarchy, or with whether he deserves a lasting place in Canadian literary history. She leaves those matters for posterity.


What Mansbridge has done is write a book that challenges the student reader to critically examine the artistic temperament and to consider an artist who has consistently "pushed the envelope" of conventional life for his creativity. The strength of this work lies in its clear, concise, and brisk exposition of Layton's background, turbulent personality, and conflicts with almost all other Canadian poets, academics, and critics over the function of poetry.

Al Purdy has said that Irving Layton's personality was a fusion of opposites. "Irving Layton," wrote Purdy:
was the Montreal magnet for me . . . . I felt about him as I had not about any other Canadian writer, a kind of awe and surprise that such magical things should pour from an egotistical clown, a charismatic poseur. And I forgive myself for saying these things, which are both true and untrue.

This is the problem with any study of Layton. He is an acclaimed poet in Canada and Europe, has been nominated for the Nobel prize, and is the recipient of many honourary degrees; his art can be both rich and subtle. But as Mansbridge shows, previous biographers have focussed their attention on the negative aspects of Layton's personality.


He can be a "shoddy" human being: an uncaring ass; an incompetent in family matters; a philanderer and a self-aggrandizing egotistical buffoon? Yes, and it all makes for interesting reading, but it does little to increase our understanding of the poet and his work.

Mansbridge writes that Layton has always seen himself as an outsider. The staid life and gentile poetry that WASP-ish Canada produced was not to Layton's temperament. Rather, Layton has always believed that his role was to play a modern-day Joshua trumpeting to bring down the walls of middle-class Philistines. He sees himself as the "hot-blooded Jew cavorting in the Canadian drawing room, kicking out the windows to allow fresh air to enter."

Layton's background and early life were the polar opposite of those of the conventional, middle-class, Christian, Canadian poets of the pre-World War II era. He was born Israel Lazorovitch in Rumania to Jewish parents. In 1913, when Layton was only one year old, his family emigrated to Canada. They settled into Montreal's Jewish ghetto and a life of grinding poverty. But it was also a life of great excitement and vitality. "I loved the noise and confusion," said Layton, "and that is what gave me my first idea of poetry. To be vital, poetry has to exhibit the same kind of chaos and the same wonderful colourful confusion." To this chaos, confusion, and emotion, add confrontation, sarcasm, and iconoclasm, and you have the elements which form Layton's poetry.

According to Mansbridge, that poetry has never received the critical analysis it is due because it does not fit the contemporary post-modern patterns and assumptions of Canadian literature. It is traditional poetry; it is meant to stir the emotions and raise our consciousness. And Layton's antagonism towards the "politically correct" positions of the academy have helped to create less than favourable interpretations of his character.

Francis Mansbridge has done admirable work in Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel. In a short biography, she has created a clear picture of Irving Layton the poet and the man. Her judgements and criticisms of Layton, and his critics, are sound.


Ian Stewart works at a Winnipeg elementary school and the University of Winnipeg library.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364