Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Bertram Brooker -- Avant-Garde Writer

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And finally, as a last instalment on the Bertram Brooker posts, we look at Brooker's writing. He won the country's first Governor-General's Award in 1937 for his ground-breaking novel Think of the Earth. In that same year, he published a mystery/psychi-detective novel under a pseudonym. A few years later, Brooker would write a Nietzschean biblical saga about Barabbas, the man freed in Christ's stead. When you add up his contributions across the arts, it is easy to get the impression that Brooker could do anything as an artist.

But it is also true that he did not publish a great deal of his writing in his lifetime. In one of the epigraph's to The Wrong World, Brooker says:

"I have not sought to chart the boundless. I have been seeking the secret of the bound.... I have failed. The closest I have come to Nature is to approximate to her fecundity. I have spawned millions of words—yes, millions. Few writers, I imagine, have left behind such piles of unpublished manuscript." from “The World and I: A Voyage of Self-Exploration”

I have been through the archives at the University of Manitoba, and can confirm that there are millions of unpublished words piled in manuscripts. These unpublished manuscripts include two full philosophical tracts, novels that range from complete to initial notes, dozens of essays, and nearly 77 short stories from which the selections in The Wrong World were made. When you set this work beside the 400 canvases, the newspaper articles, the published books (3 novels, 2 arts reviews, 3 advertising textbooks), the plays (he brought well over a dozen plays to stage -- all eagerly awaiting an edition), and recognize that he published nearly 300 articles on advertising, all while raising a family and working as an executive in a major advertising firm in Toronto, his productivity becomes a staggering feat. It is true that the unpublished material ranges in quality, but for the most part, Brooker's art amounts to a series of landmarks in the ongoing history of Canadian culture.

Think of the Earth: reissued in 2000, edited by Glenn Willmott: this book is increasingly appearing on CanLit syllabi. It's a strange tale about a delusional maniac (think Crime and Punishment) contemplating murder. His delusion is entirely the result of his paranoiac reading of Keats and Shakespeare. The title, which comes from Keats' poem Hyperion, provides a crucial map of the protagonist's misreading: for his relationship to the world hinges on his ability to interpret text. The book is thus built out of a finely hewn web of allusions, references, and source material. Truly a brilliant accomplishment.

The Tangled Miracle: if you can find a copy of this elusive book for under $2000, buy it! It's a zippy yarn about a private investigator in the States who works exclusively on cases involving the occult. This particular case involves a Connecticut cult with a strange, and dubious, take on the afterlife. It becomes particularly fascinating to read this book with the knowledge that occultism was huge in Toronto in the 1930s (remember Mackenzie King? He was not alone!). A few libraries in Canada have copies of this book in their archives, and it is well worth an afternoon to peruse. (a small sample of this book is excerpted in The Wrong World).

The Robber: Brooker creates a Nietzchean superhero out of Barabbas as a poignant juxtaposition to Jesus Christ. Like many Toronto mystics at the time, Brooker did not believe in Christ's exclusivity, but recognized him as divinely inspired and full of mystical learning. The popular term in Toronto was "cosmic consciousness" to refer to those people throughout history who have reached enlightenment and in whose work one bears witness to their spiritual insight. Brooker, as did Lawren Harris, believed himself to have cosmic consciousness. In this story, the meek Christ outpowers the brutally strong Barabbas.

The stories in The Wrong World explore similar themes to his novels, but tend to focus on quieter characters who bear witness to Canada's transformation from agrarian to modern life. The Wrong World itself is a novella that was actually Brooker's first attempt at writing Think of the Earth. Instead of murder, however, Brooker's protagonist becomes fixated on ecstasy. He goes searching for ecstasy in the avant-garde art of London's bohemian community. There are more differences than similarities with Think of the Earth, but both work through larger themes of spirituality in the contemporary, materialist world.

I never mentioned Brooker's poetry nor said anything about his plays. These are both, however, well worth exploring on your own. Selections of Brooker's poetry were collected by Birk Sproxton and published under the title Sounds Assembling (after his painting). Here is an example from that book. It too has a Nietzschean theme. Notice how enlightenment is staged as a part from which one returns. It is through the poem's commitment to that place, and his militant rejection of the mundane world, that makes it avant-garde:

The Destroyer

I have been

where there are no selves

and I have come back

and have entered into my self again

and it encloses me


but what have I to do with comfort

I have been

where there is no evil

and I have come back

and they who are around me look dark

they move around me like sleep walkers

and they sin against their own little laws

for there are no other laws

where I have been there are no laws

and where there is no law

there is no sin

their sins

the sins of those around me

are the oblique angles of their lives

retreating from the sharp edges of their laws

I have been

where there is no good

and I have come back

and around me are millions

restraining and repressing themselves

and sacrificing themselves


for the little glow it gives them

and sanctity envelopes me

with its white hush

but what have I to do with sanctity

I have been

where there is no god

and I have come back

and all about me are believers

believers in this and that

propping themselves up with fancies

they cannot face existence alone

they cannot bear the responsibility

of being the cause of all they see

but we

the selves

are the only causes there are

we are the only creators there are

there is no creator

there is no creation

except our own creation

where I have been was not created

it is


what have I to do with creating

I am come back only to destroy


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Gregory Betts

Gregory Betts is an experimental poet, editor, essayist and teacher. He is the author of If Language (BookThug, 2005), Haikube (BookThug, 2006) and The Others Raisd in Me (Pedlar Press, 2009). He has edited editions of poetry by W.W. E. Ross, Raymond Knister and Lawren Harris. His latest book is The Wrong World: Selected Stories and Essays of Bertram Brooker (University of Ottawa Press 2009).

Go to Gregory Betts’s Author Page