Written in haste, edited in panic
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 November 2004)

As Peter C. Newman will tell you till you make him stop, he's fought hard for Canadian autonomy. Having arrived as a child refugee in the 1940s, he's never lost the fervent Canadian patriotism that came naturally to immigrants of his era. In his columns, his books and Maclean's magazine (which he edited from 1971 to 1982), he's made the case for economic and cultural sovereignty. Inevitably, that lifelong campaign emerges as a major theme of his 733-page, just-published autobiography, Here Be Dragons: Telling Tales of People, Passion and Power (McClelland and Stewart).

But he fails to resolve the puzzling contradictions that arise from his kind of nationalism. On the one hand, he struggles to preserve our independence; on the other, he says it was lost long ago. He defines Canada's status with a formulation borrowed from despairing left-wing historians: In the 1940s and 1950s, under misguided leaders, "Canadians moved directly from being bastard Englishmen to becoming bastardized Americans." After that, we never had a chance.

But then he praises Pierre Trudeau's stylish performance in international affairs ("he put us on the world's map ... we were the envy of the world") and later boasts that his 1995 book, The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance is a "brave rant" about newly self-confident and self-assertive Canadians discovering that being Canadian was "not some kind of malady." Without knowing it, Newman seems to carry in his mind at least two Canadas -- one of them conquered long ago, the other vibrant and confident, always ready for a fresh hymn of praise from Newman.

His writing contains another contradiction. While reflexively anti-American (he compares George Bush to mental patients imagining they are Napoleon or Jesus), he looks almost exclusively to literary models from the United States. He rattles on happily about American creative non-fiction, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, the New Journalism, etc. Shouldn't Newman the nationalist condemn his intoxication with these writers as colonialist -- in fact, bastardized American? And what of Newman the amateur drummer, who loves American jazz and considers the late Stan Kenton one of his greatest heroes?

He borrows the phrase "here be dragons" from a medieval cartographer who drew a map of the world, so far as he knew it, and declared that the unknown territory beyond was populated by terrifying beasts; Newman is at least the seventh author to use that title. He refers to dragons within him, the ego and ambition that helped shatter three marriages. Today, at 75, married to No. 4, the person he calls "the love of my life" and "my last damn wife," he considers the dragons either killed or tamed.

Newman looks back on his life in a mood of excruciating self-consciousness. He seems principally concerned not with what he did but with what people thought about what he did. Sometimes this leads to moments of striking frankness, as when he recalls the end of his editorship at Maclean's: "I was glad that I was leaving -- as were most of the staff."

Here Be Dragons contains remarkable surprises, such as a detailed list of his between-marriages lovers, but it runs at least 300 pages too long and often feels padded. It seems to have been written in haste and edited in panic. The prologue reminds us that Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living but Newman and his publishers obviously think an unexamined book is worth publishing, even at $42.99. They let obvious keyboarding errors slip in, including one that reduces the last sentence in the epilogue to gibberish. They manage to misspell both the first name of Hannah Arendt and the last name of Harold Innis. They sometimes forget the meaning of words, mentioning for instance that the mayor of Montreal won an election "by a margin of 92%."

There are many unintentional repetitions, one of them spectacular.

Discussing the failure of his second marriage (to the author Christina McCall), Newman writes on page 210: "The dynamic between us shifted, gradually at first.... That process took a full decade to marinate."

Incredibly, he then writes on page 384 almost exactly the same words about the same marriage: "The dynamic between us changed gradually, almost imperceptibly ... That deterioration in our relationship took a full decade to marinate." That's the worst error of its kind I've ever encountered in a book; it's certain to become a legend among copy editors. Issued by our most famous publisher, Here Be Dragons amounts to a poor advertisement for the Canadian culture that Newman has tried so hard to save.

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