Robert Kroetsch Essay - Kroetsch, Robert (Vol. 5)

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.