I first met Hugh Hood when he bounced into the English Department offices at the University of Montreal in 1961. With his tattered sweater, page-boy haircut, running shoes, and baggy jeans, he looked as if he had just come from a touch football game (which probably was the case) and appeared distinctly unprofessorial. Until then, the department, with its formal Old Europe atmosphere, had been headed by the legendary, and soon to retire, Thomas Greenwood. Hugh, fresh from Connecticut and thought to be an American, was obviously a strange fish carried in by the new wave from the South. As a result, I was somewhat apprehensive when I later learned that Dr. Hood would be an adjudicator at the oral defense of the MA thesis. Hugh’s questions turned out to be thoughtful and fair and he seemed to be genuinely interested in my topic. Most surprising to me were his substantial references to my thesis without the aid of notes. Not only did he know my text better than I did, he knew verbatim passages which I only vaguely remembered writing. This was my first exposure to his prodigious – some said photographic – memory.
I soon got to know Hugh better through mutual friends John Metcalf, Ray Smith, and Clarke Blaise, who comprised four-fifths of the soon-to-be-formed “Montreal Story Tellers Fiction Performance Group.” Not averse to a bit of nepotism in the cause of art, I booked the Story Tellers for their maiden performance at Rosemere High School, where I was English head. It was a smashing success and has been written about by the writers and others elsewhere. (See The Montreal Story Tellers, Véhicule Press.) I later helped arrange a “performance” at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where I was pleased to have Hugh as my house guest. One of my fondest memories is of Hugh, with his omnipresent bag of candies, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV singing cartoon themes with my ten-year-old son. How did he know the words? When did he find the time to watch The Roadrunner? One of Hugh’s unrealized ambitions was to have been a big band singer, and, typically, he knew a great deal about even the most obscure crooners of the Swing Era. Despite his love of music, Hugh’s vocal talents were, ah, limited. As one of his fictional characters said, “im not musical if you hit me i don’t ring i just go bonk.”
It was during this visit in 1972 that Hugh told me of his plan to write a 12-novel cycle which would be finished on New Year’s Eve 1999. The organization of the project was to adhere to some numerological principles which escaped me. In view of the enormity of the project and the fact that not a word had yet been written, I accepted Hugh’s intentions as another expression of his endearing eccentricity. He added an uncharacteristic darker note when, with the same confidence and jut as matter-of-factly, he stated that he expected to die shortly after finishing the twelfth volume of The New Age/Le nouveau siècle. When The Swing in the Garden was published a few years later, I recognized that Hugh was indeed launched on a monumental 25-year odyssey and his appointment with destiny.
Several years after the Story Tellers stopped reading as a group, I would invite the former members individually to read their works and discuss them with students in my Canadian Lit classes at Dawson College. Despite his growing aversion to public readings, Hugh was always gracious and enthusiastic, often answering questions as if all the students were thoroughly familiar with Proust and Turgenev.
Hugh’s renowned organization and discipline sometimes made arranging for his appearance something of a problem.
“Hugh, can you come on the second Tuesday in November at 11:30?” “Hm, let me see. Three weeks from this Tuesday I’ll be working on a honey of a story between 10:30 and noon, right after my hockey game.”
Casual acquaintances might have seen as self-flattering bravado Hugh’s habit of speaking of his own work in the same breath as the works of Joyce, Proust, Anthony Powell, and even Dante. But Hugh knew what he was about and had the optimism, confidence, and sheer guts to invite comparisons and play on the same field as the big boys. Academic attempts to pigeonhole Hood’s body of work fail. His artistry is so various and multifaceted that it is beyond category.
Hood’s novels, especially those of The New Age cycle, often contain virtuoso demonstrations of Hood’s encylopedic knowledge and profound understanding of his country. They are also heroic attempts to record and synthesize the voluminous and often minute details of the Canadian past and present into an artistic, coherent, and meaningful construct. However, despite the undoubted accomplishments of the longer works (in his novel Hugh was what F. Scott Fitzgerald would have called a “putter inncer”), it is still the poetry of his (sometimes wildly eccentric) stories which most attracts me. The sequence in Around the Mountain, “Flying a Red Kite,” “Ghosts at Jarry,” “Who’s Paying for this Call?”, “God Has Manifested Himself unto Us as Canadian Tire,” “The Small Birds,” and “Getting to Williamstown,” are among my favourites. Much has been written about the sources and expression of Hood’s religous conviction, an overt and deeply Christian vision which suffuses his work. However, in his demeanour and everyday interactions with friends he was never pious in the perjorative sense. I never observed any off-putting religiosity: Hugh’s religion was too profound and sincere for that. Nor should his abiding religiou concern disturb readers or inhibit an appreciation of his great gifts. It is usually possible for skeptics and those who do not share Hood’s preoccupation to suspend their disbelief in belief and revel in the spectacle of a powerful intellect at work and play. Hood was often very funny as well as witty and clever at a number of levels.
I was away when Hugh died and could not attend his funeral. I want to believe that, whatever the actual details of the ritual were, his departure from this life was like that of another generous and good man he imagined in “Williamstown”:
What is this heavenly feeling of being carried, this lightness never felt before? Being carried (…)I see the white building gleaming in the sun under the soft sheen of the tower (…). Being carried gently in by men in white to the porch of the white building in the bright sun. Blaze of glory on leaves moving in the windows as these six bear me kindly up the aisle.