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Of the three Canadian authors and cultural provocateurs depicted in the new book Encounters with Authors, Norman Elder said it best: “There is no place in urban officialdom for the nonconformist.” While Elder was referring to his ownership of a pet sow that caused the authorities in Toronto much consternation, this statement goes a long way toward identifying the significance of three authors who are little known outside of Canada. If there is one thread connecting the lives of Elder, Scott Symons, and Robin Hardy, it is a go-their-own-way streak that is more often associated with the American mythos. This streak served them well in living the outsized lives that Ian Young captures in these essays, even if their nonconformity caused them grief.
Young, a longtime editor, writer, and poet based in Toronto, was friends at various points and to varying degrees with all three men. As such, the essays are informal, long on the kind of chatty storytelling that makes for compelling reading. When read one after the other, they provide a mini-biography of Young himself, along with a short, selective history of gay liberation in Canada.
Best known is Scott Symons, who Young portrays in all his aggressive, demanding glory. Scion of a wealthy family in Toronto’s Rosedale neighborhood, Symons did not let an early marriage dissuade him from pursuing his growing attractions to men. His first novel, Combat Journal for Place d’Armes (1967), “rages against a Canadian culture he sees as denying both its British roots and its capacity for sensuous, and sensual, self-expression.” Symons’ narrator, a stand-in for the author, runs from Toronto and his marriage to Montréal, where he immerses himself in sex with hustlers who frequent the Place d’Armes. The novel drew attention for its sexual episodes, Symons’ wild, racing, explosive language, and his harsh attacks on Canadian society. It established Symons as what one reviewer called “a monster from Toronto.”
Young claims Symons as an example of the French les monstres sacrés: “compulsively, often prolifically creative creatures, utterly self-absorbed, confident of their own charismatic genius, oblivious to the feelings of others, uncaring or unaware about the effects of their own words or actions.” Readers, however, will probably find Symons more monster than sacred. Place d’Armes was only the first of Symons’ literary attacks, to be followed by Civic Square (1969; original proposed title: The Smugly Fucklings) and Helmet of Flesh (1986). His personal life was even more abusive than his writing: physically attacking a lover who tried to leave him, abandoning a longtime boyfriend in Morocco sans a way home, feuding with friends, and launching ad hominem attacks on other authors. Young shows that he mellowed, mildly, in old age, and locates his writings’ importance as a precursor to the “combative sexual outlaws” found in the work of gay writers of the 1970s. It seems easier, though, to appreciate Symons in retrospect, from a distance, than during his outrageous, violent life.
The essay about Robin Hardy is significantly shorter than the others, there’s less discussion of his writing, and he comes across less distinctly in Encounters than Symons and Elder. A fellow writer with Young for gay liberation newspaper The Body Politic, Hardy “became the Canadian movement’s first full-time, paid political operative, a roving organizer for the Coalition for Gay Rights in Ontario.” Diagnosed HIV-positive in the late 1980s, he retreated to the American Southwest, where he would die in 1995 from the effects of a fall into a ravine. This prevented him from finishing his last book, a series of discussions and meditations about the various ways gay men relate to each other during “the age of AIDS.” This was completed by Hardy’s friend David Groff and published posthumously as The Crisis of Desire. The essay is essentially a reverie—a haze of recollections paying tribute to a young writer and activist lost well before his work was complete.
Young’s most fascinating foray into the wilds of individualist gay Canadian authors involves Norman Elder. Calling Elder a travel writer and amateur anthropologist doesn’t reveal that much—the improbability of his life defies simple categories. He specialized in what might now be called “adventure tourism,” which he pursued with aplomb: thrusting himself into the depths of the Amazon to live among the Machiguengas; driving through the Sahara in a Jeep to describe local sex customs; embedding himself in Inuit communities; tattooing tribesmen in Papua New Guinea. While at home, he wrote impressionistic, hallucinatory books detailing his adventures and presided over the Norman Elder Museum and Gallery, located in his house and featuring numerous items from his travels. In the days before such importing was legally outlawed, these included exotic animals ranging from a massive Galapagos tortoise to lemurs, a tapir, and pythons kept in a downstairs herpetarium. Elder earned a reputation among public schoolchildren for his frequent show-and-tell appearances.
Exotic animals and Amazonian mementos were not all that Elder collected in his home. He made space for a variety of lodgers, from visiting artists to troubled teenagers, some of whose lives were greatly improved from knowing the eccentric Elder. This practice contributed to his downfall, however, as he became tangentially caught up in the Maple Leaf Gardens scandal, an over-hyped “pedophile sex-ring” reminiscent of those addressed by John Gerassi in The Boys of Boise (1966) and by John Mitzel in The Boston Sex Scandal (1980). Accused by ten men of making sexual advances when they were in their late teens, Elder was sentenced to jail for two years. After his release, paranoid, insomniac, and in debt, his reputation destroyed, Elder hanged himself; his collections were dispersed or thrown away, his Toronto house abandoned.
As may be clear, Encounters with Authors is often elegiac in tone, tinged with the melancholy of lives well-lived but cut off, whether by disease, the distaste of “urban officialdom,” or sheer orneriness. For their storytelling and as contemplative capsule biographies, they work very well. The Norman Elder essay, for one, indicates that a longer biography would be fascinating and welcome.
Encounters with Authors: Essays on Scott Symons, Robin Hardy, Norman Elder
by Ian Young
Sykes Press/Sibling Rivalry Press
Paperback, 9780969528623, 80 pp.