Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 132)
Robert Kroetsch 1927-
Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Kroetsch's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 23, and 57.
Kroetsch is considered one of Canada's foremost practitioners and theoreticians of postmodern literature. Like many experimental writers, Kroetsch subverts such literary conventions as plot and character development and writes in a playful, ironic, and self-reflexive style. Central to Kroetsch's fiction is the importance of place and its impact on the psyche. He is particularly admired for his depictions of the Canadian prairie landscape.
Kroetsch was born in Heisler, Alberta, Canada, and raised on his family's farm. His childhood in rural Alberta, where most of his fiction is set, informs both his fiction and his poetry. His family's penchant for storytelling imbued Kroetsch with a deep appreciation for oral narrative, which often emerges in his writing in the form of tall tales and ribald humor. After graduating from the University of Alberta in 1948, Kroetsch worked for six years in the Canadian North. His initial jobs on riverboats on the Mackenzie River led to the conception of his first and most conventional novel, But We Are Exiles (1966). In 1961 Kroetsch received his Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and he worked as a professor at the State University of New York at Binghamton from 1961 to 1978. In 1978 Kroetsch accepted a professorship at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg. He has won several awards for his fiction and was co-founder and editor of the postmodern literary journal Boundary 2.
Kroetsch's novels The Words of My Roaring (1966), The Studhorse Man (1970), and Gone Indian (1973) comprise what he calls the “Out West” triptych. In these works, Kroetsch explores the myths surrounding the Canadian prairie while also incorporating Greek and Roman mythic structures and recording momentous social changes from the 1930s to the 1970s. The Words of My Roaring also chronicles political upheavals in Depression-era Alberta. Kroetsch's next novel, Badlands (1975), revolves around a 1916 paleontological expedition in Alberta led by William Dawes, who is obsessed with finding large dinosaur fossils in hopes of achieving renown in the science world. In What the Crow Said (1978) Kroetsch uses magical realism to explore gender differences in Big Indian, Alberta. Alibi (1983) reiterates his interest in the quest myth and the rejuvenating power of water. William Dorfendorf, who procures objects for a mysterious oilman and collector, is sent on a worldwide search for the “perfect spa.” Through his quest, Dorfendorf comes to understand the fundamental dichotomies of body and soul, sex and death, and art and life. The Puppeteer (1995) is a postmodern detective story in which Kroetsch almost entirely abandons conventional storytelling techniques, settling instead on an experimental form in which he lifts and rearranges scenes and characters from previous works. In 1998 Kroetsch published The Man from the Creeks, a novel about the gold rush in the American and Canadian West in the 1890s. Several themes in Kroetsch's fiction recur throughout his poetry. In his early verse, collected in The Stone Hammer Poems (1975), Kroetsch depicts prairie life in an imagistic, unaffected manner. Much of his subsequent poetry displays an irreverence toward language in order to expand its limits. Since 1975, Kroetsch has been composing an extended long poem-in-progress entitled “Field Notes.” A collage of memories, anecdotes, documents, and tall tales reflecting his preoccupation with the difficulties of literary expression, persona, and the burden of traditional poetic forms, “Field Notes” has been published in partial form in the volumes Seed Catalogue: Poems (1978), The Ledger (1979), The Sad Phoenician (1979), and Advice to My Friends (1985). In 1989 the volume was published as The Complete Field Notes. Kroetsch is also highly regarded as a literary theorist, and his criticism is considered a major informative factor in all of his writings. The Lovely Treachery of Words (1989) exemplifies his thoughts on literature, writing, and language. In 1995 Kroetsch added to his writings about language by publishing A Likely Story, a memoir and explanation of his life as a writer.
Kroetsch is considered one of the most imaginative and important writers of the postmodern movement. Highly influenced by theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Derrida, his fiction and poetry as well as his criticism are deeply entrenched in deconstructionism's focus on relativity and absence of definite meaning. While this quality has drawn much praise from some commentators, others have found his works oblique and at times overbearing with literary jargon and trends. Nonetheless, Kroetsch is admired for experimenting with literary forms and for his role in bringing contemporary Canadian writing to the forefront of the world literary scene.
But We Are Exiles (novel) 1966
The Words of My Roaring (novel) 1966
The Studhorse Man (novel) 1970
Gone Indian (novel) 1973
Badlands (novel) 1975
The Stone Hammer Poems: 1960-1975 (poetry) 1975
Seed Catalogue: Poems (poetry) 1978
What the Crow Said (novel) 1978
The Ledger (poetry) 1979
The Sad Phoenician (poetry) 1979
The Crow Journals (nonfiction) 1980
Field Notes (poetry) 1981
Alibi (novel) 1983
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SOURCE: A review of Gaining Ground: European Critics on Canadian Literature, in Canadian Forum, Vol. LXV, No. 755, March, 1986, p. 38.
[In the following review, Lernout praises the essays in Gaining Ground.]
As the title of this book indicates, Canadian literature is slowly becoming recognized in Europe. But one of the editors, Reingard Nischik, warns against a too facile optimism. In her article on the history of European interest in CanLit, Nischik quite rightly points out that Canadians seem to lack a clear picture of what is really going on in Europe. In less than 30 pages she gives an account of the CanLit scene in 18 European countries and adds an...
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SOURCE: “Views from Afar,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 35, Winter, 1987, pp. 111-16.
[In the following review, Söderlind praises Gaining Ground for its successful attempt to begin a dialogue between the literatures of Canada and Europe.]
In case anyone still doubted it, this collection confirms what has been rumoured for some time: Canadian literature is gaining ground in the universities of Europe. With few exceptions the seventeen essays included in the volume indicate that a good number of critics have spent considerable time and effort in getting to know our literature and our history. The authors represent a wide geographical, as well as...
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SOURCE: A review of The Lovely Treachery of Words, in Books in Canada, Vol. 18, No. 3, April, 1989, p. 22.
[In the following review, Bowery praises Kroetsch's literary criticism in The Lovely Treachery of Words.]
In Canada we often write “poet-novelist” before a writer’s name. We have to do this more than most countries do. Of course most of these poet-novelists toss off an essay from time to time. But we seldom feel that it would be sensible to write “poet-novelist-critic.”
Margaret Atwood writes reviews and makes the odd address to a group of elected representatives. A long time ago Michael Ondaatje wrote a little chapbook on...
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SOURCE: “The Carnival of Babel: The Construction of Voice in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ Triptych,” in Essays on Canadian Writing, No. 39, Fall, 1989, pp. 1-22.
[In the following essay, Ball examines the place and meaning of silence and voice in Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ series of novels.]
From one so concerned with the multiplicitous nature of voice and the elusiveness of meaning, Robert Kroetsch’s work has displayed a remarkable cohesiveness. As a writer whose many voices include those of poet, novelist, postmodern theorist, and intensely nationalistic critic of Canadian literature, he is also his own best explicator. A Kroetsch essay about an Atwood...
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SOURCE: “There's No Business Like Snow Business: Narrative Voice in Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian,” in Multiple Voices: Recent Canadian Fiction, edited by Jeanne Delbaere, November 29-December 1, 1989, pp. 202-16.
[In the following essay, Thieme discusses Gone Indian as a post-modernist retelling of the frontier story.]
In Gone Indian (1973), the second novel in Robert Kroetsch’s ‘Out West’ triptych, an American graduate student, Jeremy Sadness, journeys to Edmonton for an interview for an academic post, which he never attends. On arrival at Edmonton Airport he is immediately confronted by a notion of alternative identity and what is...
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SOURCE: “Robert Kroetsch: Criticism in the Middle Ground,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 16, No. 1, 1991, pp. 63-81.
[In the following essay, Creelman examines Kroetsch's “critical plurality.”]
One of the things we seek, I think, is freedom from definition, because definition is as restrictive as cosmology.
(Labyrinths of Voice 7)
Robert Kroetsch’s career as a writer has been marked throughout by his attempts to “kick free” from the many literary traditions and models that threaten to confine his texts. In his novels, Kroetsch has disrupted...
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SOURCE: “The Post-Colonial as Deconstruction: Land and Language in Kroetsch”s Badlands,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 77-89.
[In the following essay, Seaton argues that Kroetsch deconstructs the myths of land and language in Badlands.]
It is commonly argued that early imperial discourses of the New World inscribe an effort to make strange new lands familiar to Eurocentric systems of meaning and understanding.1 However, conceptualised from the start as the site of the strange, the new lands continued to resist European epistemological appropriation and whatever the imperial’s claims to control and knowledge, the...
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SOURCE: “What Kroetsch Said: The Problem of Meaning and Language in What the Crow Said,” in Canadian Literature, No. 128, Spring, 1991, pp. 90-105.
[In the following essay, Wall examines the meaning of Kroetsch's apparently chaotic approach to criticism in What the Crow Said.]
I think criticism is really a version of story, you see; I think we are telling the story to each other of how we get at story. It is the story of our search for story. That’s why criticism is so exciting. Not because it provides answers, but because it is a version of story.
(LV 30) 1
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SOURCE: “Rooting the Borrowed Word: Appropriation and Voice in Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Inside the Poem: Essays and Poems in Honour of Donald Stephens, 1992, pp. 113-22.
[In the following essay, Jones discusses the problem of finding an authentic Canadian voice in “Seed Catalogue.”]
“Once upon a time he was a gardener of the possible fruition.”
(Kroetsch, Completed Field Notes, 255)
LYRE, LYRE, PANTS ON FIRE
Robert Kroetsch’s essay “Unhiding the Hidden” begins with an expression of the desire for—and the impossibility of...
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SOURCE: “Kroetsch’s Fragments: Approaching the Narrative Structure of His Novels,” in Postmodern Fiction in Canada, 1992, pp. 137-60.
[In the following essay, Kuester presents an overview of the narrative techniques used in Kroetsch's novels.]
In this age of postmodernism, the belief in a coherent world governed by logically derived laws of causality has given way to a cosmology seeing man in a shattered world of fragments. In the late 1960s and 1970s, the concept of postmodernism stressing the disorientation of the individual (and the artist) in such a fragmented world, was applied to literature by American critics such as Leslie Fiedler and Richard Wasson. For...
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SOURCE: “The Double Guide: Through the Labyrinth with Robert Kroetsch,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, 1993, pp. 19-27.
[In the following essay, Lane examines Kroetsch's novels and poetry in order to understand his literary theory, particularly in Labyrinths of Voice.]
How do we find our way through a textual labyrinth? Already, in the etymology of its name, the notion of doubling forms part of a trace that leads us to the Minotaur and the Classical world. But readers of literary criticism know that the concept of a labyrinth can also lead into the contemporary postmodern world of uncertainty. Just over ten years ago, Robert...
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SOURCE: “A Map of Misreading: Gender, Identity, and Freedom in Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 18, No. 1, 1993, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Snyder examines the ways in which Gone Indian has been misunderstood and suggests ways to correct the misreadings.]
M. E. Turner, among several others, has contended that the discussion of Robert Kroetsch’s work is too often based upon the critical positions set out in Kroetsch’s own theoretical work; Kroetsch’s literary output has enjoyed a high level of acceptance because Kroetsch’s criticism implicitly posits his own works as models for postmodern fiction...
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SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 1, February, 1993, pp. 40-41.
[In the following review, Glover calls The Puppeteer “a literary confection of the first order,” but concedes that it may not be for everyone.]
I once knew a man in New York who worked as a buyer of rare works of art, which he collected worldwide, mostly as a tax dodge for wealthy clients who paid low prices and then donated the works to institutions at inflated paper values. One of his clients happened to be a Calgary oil baron who might have been a model for the mythically rich, half-blind transvestite millionaire named Jack Deemer who narrates Robert...
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SOURCE: “Heideggarian Elements in Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Canadian Literature, No. 136, Spring, 1993, pp. 115-28.
[In the following essay, Reimer locates Heidegger's notions about authentic truth and being in Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue.]
Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue is neither phenomenological nor structuralist, to borrow a distinction made by David Carroll in The Subject in Question (15). That is, it is neither subject-centered nor language-centered, but belongs, instead, to a third, rare, more sylleptic mode of writing aware of and making use of the conventions of the other two. As David Arnason has shown in “Robert...
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SOURCE: “Pulling Strings,” in The Canadian Forum, Vol. LXXII, No. 821, July-August, 1993, pp. 43-44.
[In the following review, Wylynko praises The Puppeteer for Kroetsch's examination of the ephemeral and the permanent.]
Like a pulp fiction murder mystery, Robert Kroetsch’s The Puppeteer leads a host of bizarre characters through a fast-paced chase for icons, money and one another. But the plot line is merely a disguise for Kroetsch’s mockery of this popular form, and a mockery of the human need for permanence that motivates these pursuits. As in all of Kroetsch’s fiction, the novel’s central task is to illustrate how sharply humanity’s...
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SOURCE: A review of Alberta, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 5, September-October, 1993, p. 15.
[In the following review, Caile praises the second edition of Alberta.]
The Canadian province of Alberta corresponds to states to the south wherein plains and mountains meet. In Alberta, Robert Kroetsch describes the contrasting elements of splendid peaks and vast rolling plains, of wide rivers and parched homesteads, of coal mines, wheat and oil fields, of an Indian past and robust upstart cities.
Alberta’s settlers have maintained their distinctive cultural groupings to a greater extent than in the United States, however. Its northern...
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SOURCE: “Puppets and Puppeteers: Robert Kroetsch Interviewed by Lee Spinks,” in Journal of Commonwealth Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1994, pp. 13-22.
[In the following interview, Kroetsch discusses his fiction and poetry.]
The following conversation took place in Hull on 24 October 1993 over a period of two hours. Robert Kroetsch speaks slowly and deliberately, often pausing to revise a word or qualify a phrase or statement. His sentences are frequently punctuated by a staccato burst of laughter.
[Lee Spinks]: Perhaps we might begin, Bob, with your most recent novel. Why did you return in The Puppeteer to the landscape and...
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SOURCE: “Framing the American Abroad: A Comparative Study of Robert Kroetsch’s Gone Indian and Janet Frame’s The Carpathians,” in Canadian Literature, No. 141, Summer 1994, pp. 38-49.
[In the following essay, Ball discusses similarities in the treatment of colonialism in Gone Indian and Frame's The Carpathians.]
It is the paradox of Columbus’ perceptual moment that it cannot end. The moment of the discovery of America continues. Its reenactment becomes our terrifying test of greatness; we demand to hear again and always the cry into mystery, into an opening. We demand, of the risking eye, new geographies. And the search...
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SOURCE: A review of The Puppeteer, in Canadian Literature, No. 146, Autumn, 1995, pp. 140-41.
[In the following review, Ricou praises Kroetsch's deft use of language in The Puppeteer.]
Robert Kroetsch’s novels always pause to make you think. They make you think about truth and desire, about who tells story and what language is worth. They often make you stop to marvel at how things happen or why some machine works the way it does. I especially like the way they often force you to re-think everyday things you had never thought deserved thinking about.
The Puppeteer made me pause to ponder pizza. Pizza, I thought, is closer to a...
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SOURCE: “A Somewhat Schizophrenic Package: Robert Kroetsch’s Anti-Memoirs,” in Books in Canada, Vol. 24, No. 8, November, 1995, p. 15.
[In the following review, Bowling finds A Likely Story compelling but ultimately uneven because of Kroetsch's overbearing use of theory.]
The most important point to make about A Likely Story is that it’s not an autobiography, at least not in any conventional sense. In fact, the author himself claims that such a genre is impossible. As a result, the book is entirely free of literary gossip, contains only a minimal amount of personal information, and avoids the axe-grinding that often accompanies writers’...
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SOURCE: “Strange Plantings: Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue,” in Studies in Canadian Literature, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1996, pp. 17-36.
[In the following essay, Campbell argues that Seed Catalogue depends on an organic structure that evokes meaning from its content.]
My poem Seed Catalogue is about a prairie garden. I actually used the McKenzie Seed Catalogue from McKenzie Seeds in Brandon. This was part of my effort to locate the poem in a particular place and then I expanded the poem outward to whatever other models I wanted—the garden of Eden or whatever—so that I could get all those garden echoes working together. We...
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SOURCE: “Cyberwriting and the Borders of Identity: ‘What's in a Name’ in Kroetsch's The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey?,” in Canadian Literature, No. 149, Summer, 1996, pp. 55-71.
[In the following essay, Williams discusses the notion of self in the post-modern world as it appears in The Puppeteer and Mistry's Such a Long Journey.]
Borders are fast disappearing in the new Europe, along the information highway, and in the mega-channel universe. Hong Kong’s Star Satellite, carrying five television channels to fifty-three countries, has already changed the face of Asia. In India, a new generation openly celebrates the...
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SOURCE: A review of A Likely Story: The Writing Life, in Canadian Literature, No. 156, Spring, 1998, pp. 145-46.
[In the following review, Creelman praises A Likely Story, although he admits the book contains little new material.]
For decades post-structuralists and cultural historians have been reminding us that the subject/self is an unstable construct of an unstable language, and that the author—if alive at all—is a function of the culture and not an independent creative identity. Yet despite these admonitions, we are still tempted to explore the inner-workings and reflections of the besieged writer. A collection of essays by Robert Kroetsch and...
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Garrett-Petts, W. F. and Lawrence, Donald. “Thawing the Frozen Image/Word: Vernacular Postmodern Aesthetics.” Mosaic 31, No. 1 (March 1998): 143–78.
Discusses Kroetsch's contribution to a postmodern aesthetic, one which consists of language's material presence, the frozen words trope, and how Kroetsch—as contrasted with Canadian pictorial art—engages in a vernacular exploration of visual/verbal limitations.
Additional coverage of Kroetsch's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 8, 38;...
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Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 23)
Robert Kroetsch 1927–
Canadian novelist, poet, critic, editor, and travel writer.
In his fiction, his poetry, and his travel literature, Kroetsch exhibits an appreciation of the Canadian landscape. Concentrating on the significance of his nation's myths, legends, and artifacts, Kroetsch creates distinctively Canadian works.
Kroetsch has been recognized as one of Canada's outstanding writers. His novel, The Studhorse Man, received the Governor General's Award in 1970. Critics consider the various sequences of Kroetsch's long poem, Field Notes, one of his finest achievements for it establishes him as one of the few contemporary masters of long verse.
(See also CLC, Vol. 5 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
["But We Are Exiles"] is about a young man's flight from the entanglements, pressures, personal relationships and unplanned happening inherent in living. (p. 11)
Deftly with subtle power, author Kroetsch communicates the sorry existence of characters adrift, lacking a purpose for living, assaulted from within and without. Especially well done are many descriptive passages and economical development of numerous minor characters. (pp. 11-12)
Paul R. Clarkson, "'But We Are Exiles'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 26, No. 1, April 1, 1966, pp. 11-12.
Robert Kroetsch's But We Are The Exiles [shows no absence of emotional or imaginative structure]. Kroetsch has thought deeply about his characters and his theme, trying to merge them symbolically in a sort of Virginia Woolf way. Peter Guy is running away from a soured love affair, and chooses to run by sailing up and down the Mackenzie River as a pilot. Hornyak, the man who stole his woman, has now bought the boat on which he serves and, in a vengeful moment, Peter consciously arranges for Hornyak's accidental death…. (p. 47)
[An] amazing amount of corroborative detail gives verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative. For though Kroetsch knows his Arctic, the river, the boats and the men, and has lived a long time in the setting he so vividly describes, he is also an academic…. So he imposes layer after layer of symbolism on his basic story. The aimlessness of Guy's life is contrasted with his pilot's skill on the river. The river is life, but it causes death—spiritual and physical death. After Hornyak's body is found, it becomes like an albatross round the necks of the crew of the Nahanni Jane. Closely paralleling some of the details of The Ancient Mariner, the story, like the barge, sinks under the weight of its triple symbolism. The style also gets more and more involved until the final expiation is a sentence some fifty lines long—almost a whole dense, unintelligible page.
Though there are great moments in But We Are The Exiles, it is too contrived, too rigidly controlled in its form to get to us…. In fact, one wonders, with all that symbolism, what the fuss is really about. (pp. 47, 49)
Arnold Edinborough, "New Canadian Fiction: 'But We Are The Exiles'" (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 80, No. 5, May, 1966, pp. 47, 49.
["The Words of My Roaring"] really operates on two levels. On one level, it is an attempt to show a man who comes to at least a partial understanding of himself. On another level, it is supposed to be funny. I think it was Steve Allen who wrote that the first requisite of a successful comedian was that the audience like him. The best wit will fail when the audience has an antagonism toward the performer. This is the problem with "The Words of My Roaring." Johnnie [the protagonist] isn't very likeable. There are a number of counts one might bring against him. He is an alcoholic of sorts. But this is certainly forgiveable. He commits adultery. Well, even this. He is a rotten provider for his family. But perhaps more importantly, he is just plain stupid. He has virtually no sense of laughter himself; no ability, or wish, to understand other people. The humor of the book fails because of his excessive stupidity. The attempted psychological penetration also fails for this reason. For the story is told completely through the eyes of Johnnie. And he is just not sensitive enough to understand what is going on. His sudden moments of truth fall flat. He seems much more believable when he tells the reader, as he does constantly, that he is six-foot-four and very powerful. Much more believable but not very interesting.
Fred Rotondaro, "'The Words of My Roaring'," in Best Sellers (copyright 1966, by the University of Scranton), Vol. 26, No. 7, July 1, 1966, p. 171.
The Words of My Roaring is weird but energetic and readable. A roughneck Alberta undertaker stands in the provincial elections against the long established Member, a doctor who is his father figure. Although there is a good deal of repetitive emphasis on the undertaker's size, strength and preoccupation with death, which is compared with the doctor's orientation towards life, and scenes of rustic festivity, like enforced farm sales, it goes with a swing. The author says, "the Messianic nature of prairie politics made an impression on me—the peculiar combination of fundamental religion and radical political theory." The fascination with the material comes through and hefts the tale over the sticky bits.
R.G.G. Price, "New Novels: 'The Words of My Roaring'," in Punch (© 1966 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 251, No. 6588, December 14, 1966, p. 902.
[The pattern of "The Studhorse Man"] is circular, as is Hazard's journey, and the point—made in a manner that fuses prairie tall-tale with Odyssean myth—is that perfectionists procrastinate and thus waste their lives while life in general goes muddling on around them. In the long run, Poseidon tramples Hazard to death … and the narrator goes off his head, the strain of "knowing" Hazard and of trying to tell the truth about him having proved too great.
There's a certain amount of strain for the reader too, especially if he always wants to know exactly what's going on; but if he can resist, at least as often as the narrator does, what the narrator calls "the necessity of interpretation," he will have a ball as Mr. Kroetsch's gross hero stalks with his prize beast through a landscape as abstract as it is lovingly delineated, as crammed with garrulous eccentrics as it is also demoralizingly empty….
In other words "The Studhorse Man," like all good books, stretches the mind, and does so with a gross yet realistic central notion flanked by bouts of farce….
An Englishman grandly withdraws from history; a horse ignominiously swyves his way into it; and, in between, Mr. Kroetsch stages a raunchy pantomime in which pigstickers and penis-measurers, bone-buyers and hockey-stars, an ancient nun and an almost blind ranch-mistress, reel toward and past one another, hunching away from history and the world...
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[Robert Kroetsch's] novels seem to defy the existential despair characteristic of contemporary prairie fiction both rural and urban. Kroetsch's anti-heroes are painfully aware of their isolation in a meaningless world running to waste; but they escape their anguish … through sheer gusto. Kroetsch's prairie men are the inheritors of the stonepicker's simple determination to endure and of … unregenerate, saucy humour, but they have an unquenchable exuberance which transcends both.
Johnnie Backstrom, the narrator and protagonist of The Words of My Roaring (1966), is, at thirty-three and six foot four, the giant of a man so typical of the prairie novel. Johnnie, the local undertaker, is...
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A good novel should have, so the dictum goes, depths, and Kroetsch's Badlands is suitably multidimensional. The bulk of the action tells the story of William Dawe, a domineering, hunchbacked man who abandons his family in Ontario and sets out on an ambitious journey on a flatboat down the Red Deer River into the Badlands of Alberta. In search of dinosaur bones, Dawe dreams of scientific fame, hopes to take up where his predecessors, eminent paleontologists, left off, hopes in fact to surpass their efforts by uncovering a perfect and unique specimen….
There are at least three overt levels of meaning in the book, all of which work at once and reinforce each other: the main action as it...
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"The novel of exhaustion," a contemporary literary term with several synonyms, describes fiction whose subject is fiction in the making, the creative process in action. It is often manifested in parodic forms and an indulgence in private fantasy which threaten to become precious. But in its sophisticated examples this species of reflexive writing sports with and flaunts the mechanics of the imagination and the devices of expression. "Novel" becomes a descriptive adjective rather than remaining an unquestioned noun; the form becomes a quality, justifying its claim to novelty. Its motives still reverence the light-bearers, Apollo and Prometheus, but its patron is the self-regarding, echo-haunted Narcissus. Robert...
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Kroetsch's Seed Catalogue carries with it something of the aura of Tobe's Catalogue and perhaps for this reason it is a difficult work to review. This elusiveness seems to be a quality intrinsic to the genre to which Seed Catalogue belongs, the long auto-biographical poem.
In one sense the long autobiographical poem is of no interest whatsoever to the reader. What a man or a woman eats for breakfast, when he or she first copulates, falls in love, leaves home, can be, for strangers, matters of some indifference….
What can save the long autobiographical poem seems to me to be a voice which engages the reader in a dialogue which transcends the poet's life, and a...
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[The Sad Phoenician] is the latest sequence in a long poem by Robert Kroetsch, tentatively entitled "Field Notes." Earlier segments include "The Ledger" (1975), "Seed Catalogue" (1977), and "How I Joined the Seal Herd" (published in the Seed Catalogue volume). The present volume contains two poems: "The Sad Phoenician" and "The Silent Poet Sequence."
Unlike many contemporary long or serial poems—which seem to be bound together by no more coherent an organizing principle than the fact that they are the product of a single consciousness—"The Sad Phoenician" is identifiably part of a poetic sequence and takes on its fullest meaning when read as the fourth movement in a longer poem....
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Over the past decade Kroetsch has rather quickly established himself as a novelist of significance, but it is as a poet that he has chosen to explore the ancestry of his own imagination.
In such novels as Badlands, Gone Indian, and The Studhorse Man Kroetsch has rummaged in the boneyards of western history and culture in search of the myths that make us real. In The Ledger the quest is more personal…. But the poem is not a simple record of search. What we get here is the poet watching himself search, watching himself write, and finding some pleasure in the irony of his self-regarding posture….
Like all good seekers the poet collects the artifacts and...
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A poem should be economic and precise. It should be free of too strong an authorial presence. Objectivity is a virtue that lends shapeliness and focus to the finished product. But [in The Sad Phoenician] Kroetsch is writing about writing, and that changes the rules. There is always, here, a sense of the author lurking behind the language, manipulating, contriving, and interjecting at will….
In a book concerned with basic communication, these characteristics illustrate the struggle of the individual to express publicly his emotions and responses to the external world. The inner and outer world meet on the plain of language, where poetry is the struggle to share experience and perception. And...
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With Field Notes, Robert Kroetsch brings together nine parts of the long and continuing poem of that name. "Stone Hammer Poem," the introductory section, appeared as the title-piece of a collection in 1975 (Kroetsch's first book of poetry)…. Field Notes is also described on the title-page as "The Collected Poetry of Robert Kroetsch"—though it contains none of the short poems he has published during the same six years.
A preface by Eli Mandel offers a sprightly and acute introduction to the poet Kroetsch or Poet/kroetsch, disclosing this figure with gleeful flourish. It is, as a piece of critical writing, like the Prologue to Pagliacci, part of the act. (p. 36)...
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Field Notes is Kroetsch's "collected poems." It contains nine long poems, arranged as "field notes 1-8" and a prologue, "Stone Hammer Poem," from Kroetsch's first book…. The selection engagingly displays Kroetsch's wide range as a poet, his supplely shifting tones, his seriousness, humour, and irony, his talent for epigram, lyricism, description, and narrative, his formal inventiveness, his learning, and his deft, unassuming way with an allusion. His decision to present his poetry as an accumulating single work is justified, as was Yeats's, by the continuity of its themes, and by the gathering, self-reflexive awareness that intensifies these themes in and through all variations of style and form....
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Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 5)
Kroetsch, Robert 1927–
Kroetsch is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, and poet. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
Robert Kroetsch's three novels, But We Are Exiles (1965), The Words of My Roaring (1966), and The Studhorse Man (1970) reveal an increasingly confident literary personality…. [His] assertive view shows itself in the novels as a species of vitalism: Kroetsch's heroes are compulsive actors, doers, drawn into the paradoxes of apocalyptical romanticism, especially in sexual terms…. Kroetsch has been aware from his first novel of the duality in his romance of the extreme situation. The drive to freedom is also a quest for death. Whatever the egotistical assertion achieves, it is an ambiguous triumph. This is extended, furthermore, into the artist's relations with his created world. In his Introduction to Creation [an anthology he edited] Kroetsch quotes Heinrich Zimmer in The King and the Corpse:
The involvement of the gods in the web of their own creation, so that they become … the harried victims of their creatures, entangled in nets of not quite voluntary self-manifestation, and then mocked by the knowing laughter of their own externally reflected inner judge: this is the miracle of the universe. This is the tragicomic romance of the world.
The "harried victim" of his own "creatures", the artist is mocked by what he makes. The act of creation is a tragicomic revelation. The "externally reflected inner judge" refers directly to what Kroetsch [has called] … "this doppelgänger thing"; the romance of assertion, and the grandeur of defiance, are always mocked by the "inner judge". What is surprising … is that Kroetsch has evolved so rapidly from the manner of But We Are Exiles, where "this doppelgänger thing" was a grim wrestling match indeed. Kroetsch's priapic hero has been transformed from the principal in a claustrophobic, inward-turning personal catastrophe, to the fool in a cosmic comedy.
The theme of But We Are Exiles is drawn, as the epigraph suggests, from the myth of Narcissus…. Even in outline, Conradian analogues suggest themselves, particularly The Secret Sharer. The quest for the Other, the river journey motif, and, in the pilot role, the typical Conradian theme of freedom-through-mastery may be noted. (pp. 54-6)
It is not Kroetsch's indebtedness here which concerns me. It is possible that But We Are Exiles was his personal Battle of the Books, but, more generally speaking, it is the moral opposition the analogues suggest which throws most light on his development to The Studhorse Man. For [another] analogue is with Kerouac's On The Road or even, perhaps, the frenzied car-drives of [Robert Penn Warren's] All The King's Men. The Conrad/Kerouac opposition is between disciplined self-mastery and the ultra-romantic dream of total Experience—that other myth of "freedom" which consists of the repudiation of all law save the egotistical assertion. (p. 56)
The Words of My Roaring offers few easy literary analogues. The questing hero undergoes a significant revision, however, as the scene is shifted from the Mackenzie to rural Alberta. While the mythic structure of But We Are Exiles and the large natural symbols of river, sea, and annihilating snow can hardly be ignored, the texture of the prose, even the frequent thought-stream passages, is essentially realistic. But the prose is itself a product of Guy's consciousness: being repressed, cryptic, and unable to respond adequately to the power of the Mackenzie setting. Almost as if he sensed the lost opportunity of his first novel, Kroetsch expressed the expansive, potentially poetic Hornyak-consciousness in The Words of My Roaring, abandoning Guy's taut limitations. [Guy is the pilot of the Mackenzie River working boat whose mission in But We Are Exiles is the search for the drowned body of Hornyak.] In Johnnie Backstrom, undertaker of Coulee Hill, the priapic hero is now comic. (pp. 57-8)
Self-conscious use of myth is one thing; self-conscious self-parody in the use of myth is another. In [The Studhorse Man] Kroetsch has moved from the dramatic fable to the complex and essentially comic "fabulation".
The Studhorse Man is narrated by Demeter Proudfoot, a madman who chooses to spend his time in the asylum seated in his bath-tub. His name, and the device of the "tale told by an idiot", proclaim the assault on realism which persists throughout…. While the Narcissus myth provides the central thematic thread of But We Are Exiles, the myths of Demeter and Poseidon … are fragmented and distorted schemes of reference in The Studhorse Man. Their order is mocked as it is utilized. What is consistent is a wholesale pattern of recurrence, an unabashed use of coincidence and analogy so that a sense of order is implied despite the lack of a binding metaphor. The texture of The Studhorse Man is rich and various; what may be suggested here … is the manner in which Kroetsch gathers up the threads of his past fiction in this … work. (p. 61)
In tracing Kroetsch's progress from fable to fabulation certain conflicts appear. They are embodied—and there is some self-mockery here—in the person of Demeter Proudfoot. The observer sitting in his bath is surely derived from the famous example of Diogenes the Cynic, who took up residence in a Tub best to display his contempt for luxury and the sensual world. For Kroetsch's priapic heroes are seen … as essentially absurd questers compelled by the sensual itch yet denied the consummation they so passionately wish. For all the energy and joy of Kroetsch's fictional world, it is realized by a mind which distrusts its own compulsions. As the name Demeter suggests, furthermore, the goddess of fertility and growth becomes, in The Studhorse Man, the cause of … death and, by extension, the reducer of Poseidon's myth to prophylactic technology. It is a "cynical" conclusion. (p. 64)
Peter Thomas, "Priapus in the Danse Macabre," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974, pp. 54-64.
Although Robert Kroetsch is primarily a western writer, he is intrigued by the North. It was the setting for his first novel, But We Are Exiles, and … in his fourth book [Gone Indian], he attempts to encounter fully the significance of this half-real, half-hallucinated northern landscape, this unknowable region where the world is reduced to its basic elements and beyond that to a final void. (p. 103)
Gone Indian is the concluding work in Kroetsch's Out West trilogy, which has now moved from the depression thirties (The Words of My Roaring) through the forties (The Studhorse Man) into the seventies. Each of the novels in the trilogy deals with the passing of an era, a moment of crisis which forms one more chapter in the history of the Apocalypse: each examines the particular myths by which its society defines itself, wittily interweaving other mythic structures drawn from the larger western tradition, and—in Gone Indian—blending in Indian myth as well to form a complexly layered whole beneath a deceptively simple surface.
The title changes that this final book of the trilogy went through suggests the several ways the novel works. The original title, Funeral Games (Kroetsch says he abandoned it as "too Graeco-Roman"), invokes Book V of the Aeneid, where the funeral games for Anchises celebrated by Aeneas and his men serve as a kind of societal passage rite marking the death of the old Trojan order and the turning toward the yet to be created Roman world. Within the novel the Notikeewin winter games serve a similar function…. Kroetsch's second working title, Falling, emphasizes the personal aspect of the novel: Jeremy's perception of his life as perpetual falling/failing, and his final realization that falling toward death is an inevitable part of life and that falling is the payment for flying. Finally the title Gone Indian (with the intentional ambiguity of "Gone") catches a number of the dominant themes in the book: the North American fascination with and search for the Edenic, pastoral world; the novel's ironic play with urban man's romanticization of the Indian and the lost culture he represents; and finally its very serious play with the Indian trickster myth. (pp. 103-04)
These various levels of the novel work together to say something about the society that Kroetsch visualizes as coming to an end in the seventies: the competitive, technological, highly rationalistic order….
Gone Indian is a fine book, providing a fascinating conclusion to Kroetsch's vision of the development of the Canadian West as emblematic of twentieth century social change. It is a book which should be read at least twice to penetrate beneath its surface, but that is a compliment to Kroetsch as story teller. (p. 104)
Russell M. Brown, "Freedom to Depart," in Canadian Literature, Summer, 1974, pp. 103-04.