Morley Callaghan (February 22, 1903 – August 25, 1990)
It’s a mystery why some authors survive in print and others fall away. I would like to report that it has to do entirely with the quality of their writing and that the literary cream always rises to the top as the decades go by. I would like to report that, but it isn’t true.
With the exception of those few dozen writers (Hemingway and Fitzgerald are two American examples) who take up permanent residency in The Canon, staying in print would seem to have more to do with what house published you, whether that house still exists, and whether someone at the house that owns your back list thinks money can be made by keeping it current. Movie adaptations used to rescue the occasional forgotten author from obscurity, but comic books are just about the only kind of “books” made into films these days … American films, anyway … so that lifeline has been cut.
I was both pleased – and very surprised – to discover that nearly all of Morley Callaghan’s novels and his collected short stories remain in print; and that his famous memoir of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and other expatriate American writers (entitled That Summer in Paris) is available in a new, expanded edition. Callaghan was one of Canada’s most popular and critically acclaimed writers from the 1930s until his declining years – his slightly pugnacious Irish face once adorned a Canadian postage stamp – and, during his lifetime, he attracted a solid readership in the United States for his novels and especially his stories, many of which appeared in The New Yorker during the heyest of its hey days. But I have not met a single non-Canadian under about the age of 50 who has even heard of Morley Callaghan, let alone read his books.
Callaghan was of Irish ancestry – his parents immigrated to Toronto – and a devout Catholic. His novels often have vaguely Biblical titles and (if you look closely enough) semi-religious themes, usually involving sin and the possibilities of redemption. His characters divide up about equally between criminal types and priestly ones. I suspect the Catholic flavorings may have something to do with Callaghan’s loss of readers below the border in recent years. He was most popular during the period when movie actors such as Bing Crosby were playing priests and Ingrid Bergman was playing nuns. Nice priests and nuns, too!
My favorite of the Callaghan novels that I’ve read are More Joy in Heaven (1937) about an ex-con who becomes a reluctant society’s darling; and Such Is My Beloved (1934) about two prostitutes and the young naive priest who tries to help them. The latter is considered Callaghan’s finest book. I highly recommend both novels and any collection of Callaghan’s superb short stories. His fellow reporter at the Toronto Daily Star, Ernest Hemingway, compared Callaghan’s short stories to James Joyce’s. I would compare them to Ernest Hemingway’s … and compare them favorably. Which brings us to that famous (or infamous) summer in Paris. A late 1920s summer that Callaghan spent with his friends (Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and during which he met just about every other prominent exiled writer of the time who put in time near the Eiffel Tower … from Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound to the aforementioned Joyce.
I’m going to take a wild guess that Callaghan wrote That Summer in Paris (1967), which appeared three years after Hemingway’s own bestselling memoir of expatriate Paris (A Moveable Feast), to cash in on the earlier book’s success. Callaghan achieved his presumptive goal – his own book sold well and still does, particularly when interest in Hemingway is high – but the book stands on its own. And his good but not great memoir has something that Hemingway’s lacks: veracity. Callaghan’s book gets some of the minor details wrong (e.g., where exactly the boxing match between him and Hemingway took place) but it is true about the events and the people it describes. A Moveable Feast gets most of the minor details right and that’s about it, although it is Hemingway (in a sort of late return to stylistic form) so a lot of the lies are beautifully written.
This disparity between the two men’s writing had a parallel in their athletic prowess. Callaghan was a trained and experienced amateur boxer. Hemingway just pretended to be, especially when he was drunk and bragging to other delusional drunks. Papa badgered the younger and lighter Callaghan into a boxing match that was to be officiated by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott was also to keep time: three minute rounds with one minute of rest in between. I’ll let Callaghan tell you what happened next.
“Our first round was like most of the rounds we had fought that summer, with me shuffling around, and Ernest, familiar with my style, leading and chasing after me. No longer did he rush in with his old brisk confidence. Now he kept an eye on my left hand and he was harder to hit. As I shuffled around I could hear the sound of clicking billiard balls in the adjoining room.”
(Fitzgerald called time and the three men joked around until it was time to fight again.)
“Right at the beginning of that round Ernest got careless; he came in too fast, his left down, and he got smacked on the mouth. His lip began to bleed. It had often happened. It should have meant nothing to him. Hadn’t he joked with Jimmy, the bartender, about always having me for a friend while I could make his lip bleed? Out of the corner of his eye he may have seen the shocked expression on Scott’s face. Or the taste of blood in his mouth may have made him want to fight more savagely. He came lunging in, swinging more recklessly. As I circled him, I kept jabbing at his bleeding mouth. I had to forget all about Scott, for Ernest had become rougher, his punching a little wilder than usual. His heavy punches, if they had landed, would have stunned me. I had to punch faster and harder myself to keep away from him. It bothered me that he was taking the punches on the face like a man telling himself he only needed to land one punch himself.”
(Callaghan noticed that other people at the club were starting to watch, and noticed that Fitzgerald seemed to be in awe.)
“I was wondering why I was tiring, for I hadn’t been hit solidly. Then Ernest, wiping the blood from his mouth with his gloves, and probably made careless with exasperation and embarrassment from having Scott there, came leaping in at me. Stepping in, I beat him to the punch. The timing must have been just right. I caught him on the jaw; spinning he went down, sprawled out on his back.
“If Ernest and I had been there alone I would have laughed. I was sure of my boxing friendship with him; in a sense I was sure of him, too. Ridiculous things had happened in that room. Hadn’t he spat in my face? And I felt no surprise in seeing him flat on his back. Shaking his head a little to clear it, he rested a moment on his back. As he rose slowly, I expected him to curse, then laugh.”
(It was then that Fitzgerald realized that he’d let the round go an extra minute.)
“‘Christ!’ Ernest yelled. He got up. He was silent for a few seconds, Scott, staring at his watch, was mute and wondering. I wished I were miles away. ‘All right, Scott,’ Ernest said savagely, ‘If you want to see me getting the shit knocked out of me, just say so. Only don’t say you made a mistake,’ and he stomped off to the shower room to wipe the blood from his mouth.’”
The friendship between Hemingway and Fitzgerald ended that very day – in that moment – and Hemingway attempted to exact a measure of revenge with a stupid, childish, reportedly false anecdote (in A Moveable Feast, of course) about the relative size of their penises. The friendship between Hemingway and Callaghan ended a short time later, when word of the boxing match’s result reached American shores. Callaghan was judged the liar at the time. History has reversed that decision. And Hemingway is most likely still petitioning the Afterlife for a rematch. A contest that everyone – except possibly the equally delusional ghost of Hemingway’s great admirer, Norman “Can’t Box Worth a Shit Either” Mailer – knows that Papa would lose.
Writers should stick to writing.