In the republic of letters, there's no one else like John Robert Colombo, or even slightly like him. A renowned editor, publisher and one-man word factory, he brings out the ambivalence in everyone. It's impossible to praise his huge virtues without noting his remarkable faults. His enormous body of work oddly combines the exceptionally creative with the largely pointless.
On the one hand, he's helped teach Canada about itself by assembling in his books many otherwise obscure pieces of the Canadian scene, and he's spent his energy generously in translating or editing foreign-language poets. George Faludy and the late Robert Zend, two remarkable Hungarians, are among many he helped escort into English. On the other hand, he can't stop himself, and doesn't want to stop himself, from producing books that are not quite significant enough to be called trivial. Colombo's Last Words: The Dying Words of Eminent Canadians and Ghosts Galore! Personal Accounts of Hauntings in Canada are two among far too many.
And then there is the curious matter of his towering self-regard. I first spotted evidence of it in print 23 years ago. When Vanguard magazine of Vancouver asked several authors to write essays on subjects of their own choice, Colombo contributed a long article about his own books. At that stage, he had produced only a few dozen volumes, but they made an impressive list as he lovingly recounted how they were conceived and written. In 1994, he put together Omnium Gatherum: John Robert Colombo's Bibliography, in 51 pages, and published it through his firm, Colombo & Company. That monument to himself has now proved insufficient; this spring, Colombo has turned to what we might call auto-hagiography. He has issued a detailed account of his career in print, Self-Schrift (Colombo & Company, 230 pages ).
"This may well be a self-indulgent work," he says. I don't think that assertion requires lengthy debate. The title is Colombo's adaptation of the German word Festschrift, meaning a book written in honour of a scholar by colleagues and students. So far as I know, Self-Schrift is the first book of its kind in the history of literature. It's possible that many writers would love to write a book about their books; if they do, they refrain, perhaps out of well-grounded fear of being called egomaniacs. "I am a modest man," Colombo writes. His little joke.
Of course, few writers have enough titles to make such an enormous self-survey possible. There are now 136 Colombo books, counting all five of his quotation books (beginning with Colombo's Canadian Quotations, the most famous, in 1974), his translations, the books he's edited, his collections of ghost stories, UFO sightings, poltergeists, apparitions and premonitions and similar phenomena; and his own original poetry and the "found poetry," often brilliant, that he developed in the 1960s. For sheer output, he makes both the late George Woodcock and Woodcock's prolific biographer, Douglas Fetherling, look like slackers. In 82 years, Woodcock wrote or edited only 150 books, a per-year rate well below Colombo's. Fetherling, often envied for his ability to keep a steady stream of volumes heading toward the presses, has written only 50, just one for each of his years on earth. Colombo, who turned 63 last month, is well past the two-per-year standard already, and brings out about four new titles a year. If he lives as long as Woodcock, and doesn't slow down, he could pass 200 titles by close of play.
Colombo is to Canadian writing what Aleksey Grigorevich Stakhanov was to Soviet industry in the good old days; by great efficiency, Stakhanov increased his coal-mining team's output sevenfold and, for decades, "Stakhanovite" meant a heroically productive worker. (The Columbia Encyclopedia reminds us, however, that "in many cases the emphasis on speed resulted in poor quality.")
Unfortunately, Colombo presents no threat to the Canadian record-holder, W. E. Dan Ross (1912-1995), the Saint John writer of romance novels. The Ross collection at Boston University contains 314 Ross titles, a figure that Colombo cites with a certain rueful melancholy.
Computer typesetting has helped make Colombo a publisher. Colombo & Company has now brought out some 50 books, in a cheap format he named QuasiBook, with black plastic ring binding. He has more or less given up on conventional publishers, apparently because he can't stand slowpokes. One company has been considering a manuscript of his for four months. That's routine in publishing companies, but, in Colombo time, it's an eternity. To give you an idea: He conceived of Self-Schrift last Nov. 15 and had a 56,000-word manuscript by Dec. 6. In March, the finished book went out in the mail.
His career path has been as unusual as everything else about him. Colombo began near the centre of Canadian literature and, over the years, has moved toward the margins, the reverse of most successful careers. In 1959, while still a University of Toronto student, he organized literary evenings at the Bohemian Embassy coffee house, where the late Gwendolyn MacEwen was one of his stars. In 1961, he printed and issued through his Hawkshead Press a slim volume of poems, Double Persephone, the first book by the poet who then called herself M. E. Atwood. He worked as an editor for several publishing houses and, in 1965, freelancing for McClelland & Stewart, edited George Grant's Lament for a Nation, which soon became the bible of Canadian cultural nationalism. When he was managing editor of The Tamarack Review, the influential quarterly, a professor sneeringly called him "the lieutenant of the Canadian literary establishment."
With Colombo's Canadian Quotations, he put thousands of researchers in his debt, present company included, and became overnight the best friend a Canadian speechwriter ever had. He helped ghostwriters salt the public addresses of business and political leaders with quotes from Wilfrid Laurier, Stephen Leacock, Robertson Davies and many another Canadian eminences.
Self-Schrift makes it clear that, if Colombo had his way, there would be even more Colombo books than there are now. At the end, he describes 19 titles whose writing and publication have somehow been thwarted, often by obtuse publishers. One of the books concerns Pontius Pilate. Another is about snow. A third is Colombo's Canadian Collection on CD-ROM. John Robert Colombo may well be the last reader in Canada to suspect that we already have enough publications with the word Colombo in the title.