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Biography

In his own words (more or less): A biographical sketch on Robert Kroetsch

 

To begin with, he wanted to write a manifesto

Robert (Paul) Kroetsch (June 26, 1927-June 21, 2011) chuckled each time he came across the line that he was born in his grandfather’s homestead shack, a recurring reference in bio notes about him. Vintage Kroetsch—a small tall tale for which he was partly responsible: “And so I came to be born in a homestead shack, my mother attended by a doctor who traveled thirteen miles by horse, and arrived at the same time as did I,” he wrote years after that image began circulating (OL 26). Playing fast and loose with paradigms, Robert repeatedly confirmed his interest “in the kind of narrative we call myth” (LTW 8). He located in his origins traces and absences that he turned into stories, stories about the Canadian prairie he found lacking in the histories and literature he read as a young man. “History as I knew it did not account for the world I lived in,” he wrote, a “lesson in the idea of absence” he learned early on (LTW 1-2) that was to become a major preoccupation in his writing.

It wasn’t a shack he was born in, not exactly, but a shack was a fitting image for a prairie writer’s origins whose imagination, so resolutely grounded in place—the Albertan parklands and prairie, the Battle River valley, Heisler—invariably turned invisibility to visibility. He imaged himself as a “juvenile Flaubert, staring out at a world” (LTW 4) that he would translate into words. He offered a clear view of what he saw that was, nevertheless, marked by ambivalence—his trademark. The archaeological model he adopted as his method of writing may have been inspired by Michel Foucault, but Robert practiced it in a decidedly Canadian fashion—“Canadian” as he understood the term: the name of “a new country” anxious about itself, “ill-defined and complex” that “compelled” its writers “to adjust and invent, to remember and forget” (LTW 5). Archaeology as the other of history; steeped in history, yet released from its claims on an authenticity “that lied to us, violated us, erased us even” (LTW 65). Robert’s writing was a response to this erasure. If he turned the stone hammer (unearthed in his family’s farm) into Stone Hammer Poem (1973), and the Kroetsch family’s flour-stained and hardbound brown ledger (passed on to him by one of his favourite aunts, Mary O’Connor) into The Ledger, poems that speak to beginnings that honour but also disrupt the notion of inheritance, then the homestead shack surely is an apt approximation of the story of his origins. It is a trope that speaks to his continuous re-invention of beginnings: “First things first. You must come from a distant place, a bookless world” (LTW 11). The homestead shack may stand for that bookless world, but it was a world rife with “story material” (LTW 4). “How do you write in a new country?” (LTW 6) You listen. And he surely knew how to listen. But he also “sent off for books that came in the mail like ticking bombs” (LTW 10). Two of the first books he read were Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus” and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. “To be a writer one must be, whatever else, a reader” (LS 69). The text he would return to, time and time again, was the prairie landscape .

After all, he did come from a family of German homesteaders who arrived in New York City aboard the Pauline in June 1841. A flourmill operator, Robert’s great-great grandfather, Martin, his wife, Kunigunda, and their nine children came from the village of Kotzendorf, east of Bamberg, in northern Bavaria. When Robert visited for the first time his ancestors’ home village in the summer of 1992, traces of the old family mill still stood on the property and a cursory search in the attic of the old house, still standing, revealed, among other things, a broken ceramic water jug. The house’s owner at the time, a bachelor, was certain it belonged to the Kroetsches. And so Robert was promptly photographed with it , a grin on his face.

Martin’s family settled near St. Clements, Ontario’s Waterloo County, where Martin built a watermill and founded a settlement called New Bamberg. “In the 1850s two of the younger sons moved on to establish water mills in the newly opened territory called Bruce County” (OL 24), settled primarily by Alsatian Germans. Theresia Tschirhart, his great grandmother, “spoke / German with a French accent” because she came from the Alsace area (CFN 22). Not a woman to mess up with. As The Ledger has it, she inspired men with “terror,” so “They proposed” (CFN 253). In Formosa, in the Carrick Township, they joined the town’s collective effort to build the church of The Immaculate Conception,  originally a log building that was to become a Formosa landmark . It is the same church featured in Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers, built with funds solicited, in part, from Ludwig II of Bavaria. Not surprisingly, Robert didn’t fail to take notice of the fact that the Formosa Kroetsches “were patrons of a local brewery that is famous to this day for the beer brewed using water from the artesian wells of Formosa” (OL 24). The summer he returned to Canada for good from upstate New York, August 1978, he stopped in Formosa en route to Winnipeg; he visited the site of the old family mill, looked up cousin Henry, and had a glass (perhaps two) of Formosa beer in the local pub.

A different kind of listening: “to hear a pub,” to “rejoice in the flow of sound, the building from quiet . . . to the closing crescendo” (LTW 17). Beer coasters often served him as improvised notepads  (as did napkins). He would often return from a trip overseas with beer coasters inside his pockets or notebook. König Pilsener. Jever. Spaten. Not a collector, no, but the impulse was there. Stamps when he was a kid. Ceramic tiles from Spain, Portugal, Greece, or Turkey; postcards from galleries and street kiosks; when it came to spas, he let his character Deemer play collector—“Find me a spa, Dorf” (Alibi). But beer coasters always traveled back with him. Holsten. Kelts. Wieze Pils Belgium.

It was from Bruce Country that his paternal grandfather and father moved to Alberta in 1905. They “simply traveled to the end of the rail—a branch of the CPR that was still under construction—and then rented a horse and a buggy and went scouting for unclaimed homestead land” (OL 26). They claimed a piece of land near the German-speaking community of Spring Lake, an area that would become in 1912 the village of Heisler. Spring Lake was where his mother’s family had settled four years earlier. Originally from Southern Germany, the Wellers had first made their home in Wisconsin in 1851 before some of them moved to Canada, via St. Cloud, Minnesota. His mother, who died when he was thirteen—“I have sought my mother / under the typewriter keys” (CFN 207)—was the first-Canadian born in the Weller family. He was the first child, and only son, of Paul and Hildegard (neé Weller) Kroetsch, followed by four sisters, Patricia, Sheila, Jane, and Kathleen.

He was a “dreamy” kid (LS 51). He collected stamps for a while. By the time he was twelve, he had been infatuated with language, his cousins accusing him of “having swallowed a dictionary” (LS 50). He had made love to a rock. Had discovered that there were no traces of the ineffable in the frozen holly water at Wanda church. He was already practicing archaeology.

His early schooling took place in Heisler (1933-44), four grades to a room. He “drove a horse and buggy to school, in the spring and fall, a horse and cutter in the winter. Four and a half miles, forty-five minutes, each way.” Miss Boyle, his elementary teacher, took “an immediate dislike” to him (LS 42), but she did jot encouraging comments in his drawing book: “Very good, Bobby” (RK archives).

He also rehearsed being a farmer. He would mend fences, look for stray cows. But it was gardening he loved. “The exact placing of the explosive seed” (LTW 8), an art form he learned from his mother. And so he began to ask the question, “How do you grow a poet?” (CFN 38). Encouraged by Mrs. Aylesworth, his teacher at the Red Deer High School (1944-45), he tried his hand at a few poems. Here are the last two lines of his first attempt: “He had taken the law of his Maker as vain, / And now he lay broken, inert, inane.” Already a critic in the making, he was “horrified” to realize that it was the war at the time and the literary conventions he had unwittingly absorbed that made him “write a poem that [he] did not want to write.” Hence his desire “to write a manifesto” against the “tyranny” of cultural narratives (LS 52, 53). Coming upon an old seed catalogue—“a shared book in our society” (LT 8)—at the Glenbow Museum led to his long poem, Seed Catalogue (1977). He remained an avid gardener whenever he had a garden. No fancy plants for him. He liked the hardiness of alpine flowers. The subtlety of succulents. The fragrance of herbs. In his Victoria home he planted five kinds of thyme as ground cover. He pruned  with a ferocity that would have raised Freud’s eyebrows.

After he finished high school in Red Deer, he attended the University of Alberta (1945-48). With the war just over, many of his fellow students were veterans. “Fresh out of high school,” having “just finished helping with harvest,” he listened to their stories on the first day of a creative writing class by Dr. F.M. Salter. They made him feel he “had been nowhere . . . had done nothing.” He “dropped the course and registered in a course called Victorian Poetry” (LS 144). He also realized at the same time that the “hastily written histories of World War II” that appeared overnight in the bookstores made him “feel invisible”; beyond “one paragraph on Canada”—“the Canadian raid on Dieppe”—“our efforts made no mark whatsoever” (LS 142, 143). One more reason for him to want to write novels, to practice a writing that would “locate our dislocation” (LTW 65). And if Canadians “began to travel during World War II,” and “haven’t stopped since” (LS 145), he, too, would travel.

Though he would never make Heisler his permanent home after he finished high school, he continued to be drawn there and the surrounding area his entire life. He never missed a family reunion —“Hello Heisler, we’re all here / it’s time to serve the sausage and beer” began the “Cowboy Poem” that he wrote for a family reunion (LS 120)—and he loved to show the place to friends and visitors from outside of Canada. Indeed, on the day of the car accident that took his life on Highway 21 near Leduc where he lived, he had just made a stop at Mrs Pott’s Emporium in Heisler, right across from the Heisler Hotel his father built in 1929 (derelict but still standing). He had stopped there before, signed the guest book. And he had his last ice cream cone there. (Though he avoided desserts because he claimed sweet things hurt his teeth, he ate ice cream  with a vengeance.) Before stopping in Heisler on June 21st, he had stopped by the old family house a few kilometers outside town. His knock on the door went unanswered. A rich life, almost full circle.

 

Getting experience ~ exercising his research imagination

“To write is, in some metaphoric sense, to go North. To go North is, in some metaphoric sense, to write” (LS 14), he wrote in 1989. But he seemed to already know this in his early twenties when, immediately after graduating from the University of Alberta with a degree in English and Philosophy, he went up in the Canadian North. It wasn’t the gold rush stories that drew him there, not yet. He would develop a writer’s obsession with that material later on, when he used Robert Service’s ballad “Shooting of Sam McGee” as a starting point for his re-telling of the feverish days of the Klondike gold rush; the result was The Man from the Creeks (1998), a novel that begins in 1897 with the stowaway Lou, an ex-pawnshop employee, and her 14-year-old son, Peek. (Lou “was no great speller”; she thought she was naming her son after Mount Baker’s peak.) Still, it was because he “wanted to write a novel” (LS 13) that he found his way up North where he spent six years: the first year as a laborer hired by the Yellowknife Transportation Company based on the Fort Smith Portage; the second as a purser on one of the riverboats that ran from Fort Smith to the Beaufort Sea ; the third as manager of a catering company warehouse in Churchill; and the remaining three as an information and education specialist for the United States Air Force Base in Goose Bay, Labrador.

A “migrant . . . moving with seasons, with the weather” (LL 28), “a sympathetic transgressor” (LL 30) when it came to the lessons he learned from his encounters with Métis, First Nations, and Inuit people, he began gathering knowledge and material for what would be his first published novel 12 years later, But We Are Exiles (1965). He also learned a lesson in waiting: “If there is a single act that characterizes life in the North, it is the act of waiting. One time in Inuvik I waited six days for a plane that would take me to the Yukon. One time at Axe Point I waited forty-five days to take a shower. . . . In the North, people wait through whole seasons for freight to arrive; they wait years for governments to make decisions; they wait decades, or possibly centuries, for treaties to be signed.” And so he intuited that “To wait is to alter violently the momentum and purpose of Western culture” (LS 19). If his years in the North served as an apprenticeship to becoming a writer, he had also been marked by them physically. In Fort Good Hope, he got himself “a lifelong back injury by tossing boxes of frozen boneless beef out of a walk-in refrigerator to a deckhand who claimed he couldn’t life the boxes by himself” (LS 23). He would sleep on the floors of hotel rooms. Take weeks to select the right mattress, in the process making friends with the salespeople, listening to their promises of painless sleep.

It was while he was up North that he began publishing short fiction, six short stories in total. He had the news of his first acceptance read to him by a co-worker at the army camp in Wainwright, Alberta. $25 for “The Stragglers.” An upstart writer’s promising start? “Maybe. Perhaps” (LTW 136). Twenty years later, on the day he got a call from the Canada Council about receiving the Governor General’s Award for The Studhorse Man (1969), he reminisced of that winter evening in Wainwright: he went out to “raise hell” (LTW 137), he said, and he did so in a fashion. Drinking alone—it sounds like—at a run-down beer parlor until he was waived over by a “ragged old man.” One of his father’s hired hands on the farm, that man—Ed Basil his name was—remembered Bobby Kroetsch as “‘the most spoiled brat I ever saw in my whole life’.” “Humbled,” he kept paying for Ed Basil’s beer (LS 56)—“it balances” (CFN 24).

 

A “familiar stranger” in America

When he came south from the North in 1954, it was to pursue further studies: at McGill (1954-55), he took two courses, one of them on history; at Middlebury College, Vermont, he studied toward his MA in American Literature (1955-56); and at the University of Iowa, he completed his doctoral studies (1956-61) with a creative dissertation, his first (unpublished) novel; originally titled Coulee Hill, When Sick for Home (now in his archives) includes a number of scenes that found their way in his fiction to come, e.g., The Words of My Roaring (1966) and Gone Indian (1973). It announces the anchoring of his imagination in the local, an unwavering stance throughout his writing life. Hence taking on the project of writing a travel book on his home province, Alberta (1968) while living in the United States. But if the local in this travel narrative, one from the perspective of someone who had gone away, is rooted in the real, it still conveys his interest in fragments, his writing out of the particular in ways that explode the presumed certainties of history.

While working as a waiter and attending the Bread Loaf Writers’ conferences in the summer, he met (Mary) Jane Lewis from Wilmington, North Carolina. Married in Mexico, they lived in Iowa City while he was a doctoral student, and then moved to Binghamton where he was hired as a professor at what was then called Harpur College, the State University of New York at Binghamton. They had two daughters born there, Laura (Caroline) and Margaret (Ann). While in Binghamton, with his friend and colleague William Spanos, he founded and edited (1972-1978) the influential critical journal boundary 2. It was in his introduction to this journal’s special issue on Canadian literature that Robert edited where he made one of his most frequently quoted and controversial statements, that “Canadian literature evolved directly from Victorian into Postmodern” (1). He had a penchant for such aphoristic statements. He delighted in the aberrant—and errant—nature of such pronouncements. They spoke to his sense of irony, tested the limits of the ineffable, straddled his compulsion to tell a story and his unremitting desire to yield to the attraction held by “guesswork, juxtaposition, flashes of insight” (LTW 119). As he had the poet Rita Kleinhart say, “Writing is not about delivering messages” (LS 189).

It was in his last year in Binghamton (1977) that he met Smaro Kamboureli who had just arrived as a graduate student from Greece; they married in her home city of Thessaloniki five years later, the same city where the law almost catches up with Billy Dorfen, Alibi’s narrator (1983). It was during the summer that he went to Greece to get married that he took his daughters to Delphi and began writing his poem “Delphi: Commentary” (1983). Traveling with Pausanias’ Description of Greece in tow, he braced himself to ask a question of the oracle. But he “didn’t have a chance”; his “father asked the question first” (194): “What are you doing here? / Did I teach you nothing?” (196). When Robert and Smaro moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the summer of 1978 he had already begun writing his long poem, The Sad Phoenician (1979). He taught at the University of Manitoba until his retirement in 1995.

His American years may have been “years without quite having a country” (CJ 20), but it was during that period that he came into his own as a writer. He wrote his first six novels while in Binghamton, the last of them What the Crow Said (1978); the “Xeroxed copy of [its] dust jacket” (CJ 84) arrived exactly a month before he would return to Canada for good. He had already begun research on Alibi, reading books on spas he borrowed from Cornell University’s library. The pleasure of coming back “home” in Canada was marred by his leaving his daughters behind. He had rehearsed this double trope of escape and return between 1974 and 1978 when he spent part of his summers at Fort San as an instructor at the Saskatchewan Summer School for the Arts, and then two consecutive years as writer in residence at the Universities of Calgary, Lethbridge, and Manitoba. “I couldn’t go on. And I couldn’t go back” (CJ 31). And/but, but/and: The Sad Phoenician at work.

 

At home, and further afield

Back in Canada, he was finally “wear[ing] geography next to his skin” (LTW ix). Interestingly, though, his writing began to look in some ways beyond Canada. While until this point most of his traveling traversed the Canadian / American border, and while he continued to crisscross Alberta—now researching rodeos, now just looking to “find Alberta” (A 2)—he began to travel more widely: from Finland to Italy, from Austria to Portugal, from Iraq to Singapore, from Australia to New Zealand, from China to Japan. On these travels he taught, gave readings, lectured, holidayed, did research for his novels. So, in The Puppeteer (1993) Maggie Wilder makes her way to the island of Sifnos and Papa B to Mount Athos, Greece, while De Medeiros makes an appearance in Villa d’Este, Italy; in The Hornbooks of Rita K (2001) Rita makes it as far as Kyoto, Japan. In the meantime, Robert himself kept a travel journal, “Postcards from China” (1982), while visiting China as part of an official Canadian writers’ delegation; not surprisingly, given his predilection for uncanny encounters, he came upon Joseph Conrad: “‘It’s part of my business, Mr. Conrad,’ I said, ‘but, frankly, a lot of people would be surprised to see you here in China.’ . . . ‘How so?’ he said. ‘Well,’ I said. I was being discreet. ‘You were born in 1857.’ ‘Quite so, quite so,’ he said, trying to sound British” (CFN 163). He was likewise puzzled to be saved from catching the wrong train at the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof by his doppelgänger: “How he knew where I had to get to I don’t know. Perhaps / the body speaks its own destination. But the stranger who / spoke to me, the bearded man in the green corduroy jacket, / . . . had a voice / that I recognized . . . [as] exactly my own” (CFN 198).

These last two poems are included in Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (1989, 2000), the most recent incarnation of his “completed” long poem that appeared earlier under the titles Field Notes (1981) and Advice to My Friends (1985). Beginning with “The Stone Hammer Poem,” which has served as the preamble to Completed Field Notes, he gathered together his earlier poetry publications like “Mile Zero” (1969) in an expanded version (1982), Letters to Salonika (1983), and Excerpts from the Real World (1986) into what he called his “continuing” poem. Though some of his poetry flirts with various lyric forms, it was the long poem that suited his writerly temperament. “The problem for the writer of the contemporary long poem,” he wrote, “is to honour our disbelief in belief—that is, to recognize and explore our distrust of system, of grid, of monisms, of cosmologies perhaps, certainly of inherited story—and at the same time write a long work that has some kind of (under erasure) unity” (FPE 118).

He used a trope of erotics—“For play and entrance”—to express his own writing method but also his understanding of other writers’ long poems: “In love-making, in writing the long poem—delay is both—delay is both technique and content” (FPE 117). Still, his fascination with the making and unmaking of stories that drove his fiction remains intact in his poetry as well. Hence his privileging of scrapbooks, annotations, sketches, the epistolary and journal forms, “lost” poems (“The Eggplant Poems”) that survive only as traces—“The question is always a question of trace. / What remains of what does not remain?” (HRK 8)—and, above all, field notes. “I think of the field notes kept by the archaeologist, by the finding man, the finding man who is essentially lost. I can only guess the other . . . Perhaps they are a counting of cattle, a measuring out of grain. Perhaps they are a praising of gods, a naming of the dead. We can’t know” (FPE 129).

His last poetry book was Not Bad: Sketches Toward a Self-Portrait (2010). It begins with “A disclaimer: This book is not an autobiography. It is a gesture toward a self-portrait, which I take to be quite a different kettle of fish” (n. pag.). Despite his ferocious (a word he was fond of) entanglement with storytelling, despite his relentless tumble into the autobiographical, his reader hardly ever gets the full shape of a story. “It is not possible to write / an autobiography. By the / time I learned that lesson / it was too late for me to / avoid the necessity” (LS 117).

All quotations are from Robert Kroetsch’s work. Details under Publications.

 

b2
“A Canadian Issue.” boundary 2, 3.1 (1974): 1-2.
CFN
Completed Field Notes: The Long Poems of Robert Kroetsch (2000)
LS
A Likely Story: The Writing Life
LTW
The Lovely Treachery of Words
OL
“Occupying Landscape We Occupy Story We Occupy Landscape.” Refractions of Germany in Canadian Literature and Culture. Eds. Heinz Antor, Sylvia Brown, John Considine, Klaus Stierstorfer. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co., 2003. 23-30.

 

Smaro Kamboureli