Metcalf is back

John Metcalf, age 2, with older brother Michael.


John Metcalf, as I’ve said more than once, is both a great writer and a great editor. On my bookshelves I have scores of novels and short story collections edited by Metcalf, by writers such as Russell Smith, K.D. Miller and Annabel Lyon. These books maintain a level of quality unmatched in modern publishing: the least of them is worth reading and the best are the equal of any fiction currently being written.


Metcalf is such a good talent scout in part because he himself is a splendid writer: his prose has a sprightly elegance, classical without being stodgy. He can be as giddily funny as Wodehouse yet his stories can plumb into emotional depths that few comic writers are willing to risk. Underlying his antic comedy is a strong sense of all the ways life can go awry, the diminishments and disappointments that accompany the simple act of being alive. Alice Munro nicely captured the paradox of Metcalf when she wrote: “John Metcalf often comes as close to the baffling, painful comedy of human experience as a writer can get.”  The humour that hurts (“painful comedy”) is the essence of his fiction


John Metcalf, age 70, photographed by David O'Rourke


Metcalf the editor and Metcalf the writer are part of the same package deal: the writer alive to language has gathered together a tribe equal devoted to words. Yet there is a certain tension between the two roles as well: all the time Metcalf puts into editing keep him from being as prolific as he could be. During the 1970s, he published a novel or story collection every two years. Since then, the pace has slowed: Metcalf-devotees have to be content with a story or novella every decade: Travelling Northward (1985), Forde Abroad (1996),  Ceazer Salad (2008).


The good news is that the world’s supply of Metcalf has unexpectedly increased: the latest issue of The New Quarterly (#112, available here) features a new Metcalf novella, The Museum at the End of the World, along with a long interview with the writer/editor. As with Metcalf’s other recent fiction, the novella deals with the writer Robert Forde, a sensitive and easily exasperated soul whose travels and travails are an opportunity to record the indignities experienced by an aesthete constantly confronting the ugliness of the modern world.


In his latest adventure, Ford goes on a cruse with his wife Sheila which takes them to Turkey and the former Soviet Union. Among the eccentrics they meet is a Father Keogh, a reprobate Irish priest who is looked after by a mysterious minder. Early on, the following exchange occurs:


   Father Keogh was wearing a flat plebeian tweed cap and sat staring straight ahead.


   “The monastery didn’t attract you?” said Sheila


   He considered her.


   “And why,” he said, “would I be wishing to visit a nest of schismatics?”


   “Hmmm,” said Sheila.


   The minder started his soothing babble of sound, weaving repeated words and phrases, encompassing the rain, the gloomy foliage, the steepness of the path, the grandeur of that morning’s breakfast, his mother and something and soda bread. It was a song, almost, an Irish crooning which made little sense. The flow of words did not seem to be directed at the priest personally but seemed rather like oil on generally troubled waters, placatory, a hush-now, hush-now.  


As a bonus, the Metcalf interview has some interesting photos. It’s amusing to see that Metcalf at age two had the same sly half-smile, with his right cheek protruding out, that he still has today. As with the infant Hercules, the child was a forerunner to the man.

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