Today, March 28th, marks the death of beloved Canadian author and critic, Fraser Sutherland, one year ago. We asked Russell Smith, our Acquisitions Editor, to speak more about his time acquiring Fraser's memoir, The Book of Malcolm, a reflection on the rich life of his son who died suddenly at twenty-six.
I met Fraser Sutherland at a weekly gathering that happened in a Toronto pub called the Idler in the early 1990s. This salon was made up of people who wrote for a general interest magazine called The Idler – a beautiful thing with 18th century fonts and hand-drawn illustrations. They were mostly men, the idlers, men who always had a Latin phrase to hand – Tacitus, usually, or Horace among the wits – and a tendency to remind listeners of amusing parallels with medieval church schisms. They could argue about performances of Telemann and Buxtehude, about constitutional reform and free jazz. A couple of them had escaped Soviet communism and had a resulting deep skepticism about utopian ideas of any kind.
Fraser, for a while the literary editor of that magazine, was one of the quieter ones: he listened, mostly. But when he wrote he was fearless with words. He once used the word floccinaucinihilipilification, correctly, in a book review in the Globe and Mail. (He did politely add the definition: “…which, as you know, is the practice or habit of estimating something as worthless.”)
The list of his published books, essays, poems and articles fills several densely-typed pages.
I wasn’t to get to know him as a person until years later when I was diagnosed with the same type of cancer he had had: he contacted me, a near stranger, to offer honest, intimate and reassuring advice.
When he let me read the manuscript of The Book of Malcolm, his dispassionate memoir about the years of daily care he had put into his late son’s troubled life, I knew right away we must publish it. But it was missing, I thought, a conclusion, some kind of summary of what he had learned from the experience. I called him to discuss this and he frankly said that he hadn’t learned anything much from it except that you “just had to keep going.”
Then he casually mentioned that his wife had committed suicide a few years after his son’s death. This detail was not in the book.
I was dumbfounded, as it seemed like a crucial event, perhaps even the coda, the upshot, the consequence that the book was looking for. I think he hadn’t put it in because he didn’t want to be seen to be looking for sympathy.
I convinced him to write a final chapter revealing this tragic sequel and ruminating a bit on the significance of his experience. We set about drawing up a contract.
When it was ready to sign I heard from Fraser’s old friend John Pepall: Fraser was in the hospital and in no condition to sign anything. A couple of weeks later he was dead. He never did sign the contract and he never wrote the last chapter and I was never able to speak to him again.
The response to Fraser’s death was widespread and emotional: he had reviewed every poet, contributed to every journal. Few people knew what incredible stress he had lived through during the worst of his son’s illness, and he had not been voluble about his grief when Malcolm died.
It has now been one year since his death and The Book of Malcolm has received enthralled reviews. We are preparing for a joint memorial service and book launch to take place in April. We wish he were here to see how his book has been loved.