The Next Chapter·Proust Questionnaire

Barry Callaghan on fears, love and the merits of drinking a glass of wine every day

The author and publisher takes The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire.
Barry Callaghan is a Canadian author, poet and anthologist. (CBC)

This interview originally aired on Jan. 28, 2019.

Barry Callaghan is the son of late Canadian novelist and short story writer, Morley Callaghan. As a poet, publisher of literary mag Exile and author of work such as his memoir Barrelhouse Kingz, he is also a successful author in his own right.

Below, the Toronto-based Callaghan takes The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire.

If you could change something about yourself what would it be?

"Strangely enough, it would have to do with the sun. Which may seem a strange answer, but I lived with a woman for 47 years and she loved the sun. She would come home at lunch for two hours, get into her bathing suit, and lie down in the sun and get herself brown and think her thoughts. Probably great thoughts because she was a great artist. I hate lying in the sun. I like the shade. 

"My favourite day would be to sit in the shade beside the ocean and stare at the ocean and watch other people in the sun. It's a problem if the woman you love loves lying in the sun and you can't live with it. Equally, I regret the fact that when I sleep I kick my legs. It's very difficult to cuddle with a man who kicks you black-and-blue in the night. That I would love to change, even at my age of 82. I don't want to kick you in the bed."

What do you value most in your friends?

"That's easy: generosity of spirit. Generosity can take many forms. Irving Layton wrote a really evil book. It was full of rage; it's the only book I know that is just total rage. But it was generous in the sense that he'd laid all his pain and his rage out there in the open for everybody to see. The great Irish poet John Montague told me when I was young that the mark of a great poet was generosity of spirit. That's what I look for in people. Conversely, the thing I can't stand in people is meanness." 

On what occasions do you lie?

"I suppose as Catholics would describe it — and I was raised as a Catholic — I suffer many sins of omission. I refused to tell the truth to people. [Henrik] Ibsen wrote a great play on a subject called The Wild Duck. By the time the truth teller was over, a perfectly normal family had fallen to pieces, somebody had committed suicide, all gone to hell. All in the name of telling the truth. No, no. Bad thing." 

What is your principal defect?

"Believing that I have no defects, I suppose. Well I do, of course, have all kinds of defects."

Where would you like to live?

"Well, I'm very happy in my family home. Where, unfortunately, I now live alone. My beloved Claire died two years ago. But I don't mind it. I like living there. It's a strange place, in the sense that goes back into my family and my roots. I am haunted by many things in the house. For example, the bed that I sleep in is the bed that my mother's father handmade himself around 1895 as his marriage bed. I sleep in the bed that my mother was conceived in. How about that? Then, years and years and years later, my father, Morley, died. And that was his bedroom and his bed. And I now sleep there."

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

"When my Claire was 80 years old, she addressed 100 of her friends and said she had led a great life. There had been disappointments, betrayals, a couple of moments of evil, but it was a great, great, great life. If I could bring that life back and make her happier than she was, that would be as close to perfection than I've ever been." 

What is your greatest fear?

"It would be taking too long to die. I'm at a stage where I watched, starting 20 years ago, a number of people die. And I went through two years with Claire, who was dying from cancer. Those were extraordinary years. Tense intimacy and an extraordinary love, I guess. Except it's awful. Pain is awful."

What is your greatest achievement?

"In the minds of all the serious nutritionists and all those puritans out there who are jogging like mad in the Rosedale Valley, I'm an anathema to everything they stand for. And I'm still alive. Claire, the woman I lived with her 47 years, her idea of cooking was that everything was done with cream, butter and garlic and, also, healthy big bowls of salad, as a kind of counter, every day. But that's how I ate for 47 years. On top of that, I drank a lot of wine and a lot of whiskey. Too bad for you guys having your heart attacks while pum-pum-pum-pum down the road, I'm sitting down. I haven't run for a streetcar in 40 years and I'm still alive!"

Barry Callaghan's comments have been edited and condensed. 

 

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