So reads the biographical blurb on the back of his second book, Stardust (New Star, 2007), a collection of literary and personal essays, winner of the 2008 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction.
Stardust was recommended to me by T.F. Rigelhof as part of the intereview I did with him, following the publication of Hooked on Canadian Books (Cormorant, 2010). I asked him about the paucity of general, non-academic responses to Canadian literature, and he pointed to Stardust as an exception worth seeking out.
So I did, and I agree.
Stardust includes 20 essays, many of which were previous published in Books in Canada, the Vancouver Review, the Tyee website and the Dooney's Cafe website.
Serafin spent most of his working life employed by Canada Post, but it is clear from the memoirish pieces here that he was engaged with books from his earliest days and long nursed an aspiration to write. It is also clear, however, that the post office did more than help pay the bills; with his colleagues, he found a community that fostered, shaped, and encouraged a critical response to the world. The post office kept life "real," and it is against this reality that many of Serafin's judgements are tested.
One curious essay about William Henry Drummond's "Habitant Poems," for example, begins: "One afternoon about ten years ago I was talking to the five-ton driver at Postal Station D in Vancouver. We started talking about writing."
From there, Serafin conducts an analysis of a now obscure 19th century Canadian poet. Obscure? Talking to colleagues around the postal depot, Serafin finds a half-dozen people who remembered the poet and in general his questions "received enthusiastic responses."
This is not how literary essays usually begin (grounded in working class labour), but Serafin uses his working life to enhance the credibility of his criticism -- and to contextualize his critical approach. Drummond wrote about working people, and Serafin engages this faded poetry with lively analysis. More lively than I think the poetry deserves, frankly. It was racist and wooden when it was written, and it remains so now.
Serafin argues, however:
A true national literature isn't just a sequence of masterpieces. It is a spectrum of things ... The truth of our past is the most exciting thing about it. And like other exciting things it will sometimes embarrass and even shame us. Drummond is part of that truth.
Other essays I'd recommend:
- "A Chest of Drawers." About Michel Tremblay.
- "Wearing a Mask." About Roland Barthes.
- "Stardust." About the Sixties and Marcel Proust.
- "Stan Persky's Enormous Reasonableness." About, well, Stan Persky's enormous reasonableness.
- "The Crosses." About West Coast Native masks.
- "Dead on the Shelf." About literary magazines.
- "Avant-Garde Mentalities." About Steve McCaffery.
- "Long Tall Sally." About Don DeLillo.
- "Vermeer's Patch." About Northrop Frye.
Serafin's thought is brightly unsystematic. He delights in Roland Barthes, defends Northrop Frye, explains how reflections on First Nations masks helped ground his throughts about the importance of the local, links Prousts memories about the girls during World War I to late-1960s fashion, outlines his awe of DeLillo's Underworld, engages Steve McCaffery in detailed analysis, revels in memories about the vulgar in Michel Tremblay's work, and provides a portrait of a man he clearly admired, Stan Persky.
Other essays in the book were autobiographical in nature and didn't interest me as much.
What did interest me were thoughts like the following:
- "Vulgar" comes from a Latin word meaning "of the people." But English Canadian writing is almost never "of the people," even linguistically. (Think of the difference between most Canadian novels and Trailer Park Boys.)
- And it was the same with Barthes. Because his "I," so completely turned outward, never marked the inner anxiety of an individual, it didn't awaken my own anxiety. Instead I turned to Barthes for the same reason I turned to Scientific American and The New Yorker ... for a powerful feeling of order, a domestication of the world.
- Vanity was Cohen's element, just as a black leather sportscoat was his favoured dress, and the consequent staging of this personality that I now sense everywhere in his work meant that an infatuated intelligence instead of an alert one was the order of the day so far as his readers were concerned.
- I know that the comforting presence at our sides isn't Marchand; it is Frye. He understands our need for wonder, for the excessive, unprecedented image in which the true surrealistic face of existence breaks through. He knows what literature is for.
The Marchand in that last quotation is, of course, Philip Marchand, whom Serafin calls a "disciple of John Metcalf." Yes, another reverberation of these battle lines.
Serafin's intelligence shines through in these essays. He is a presence too late encountered, though his influence remains pulsing, important, and keen.