Biography


On the twelfth day of March 1912, Israel Pincu Lazarovitch, or Irving Layton, was born to Jewish parents in the Romanian town of Tirgul Neamt. There was an air of magic surrounding the birth of the youngest son of a quiet and deeply religious man and his dominant and practical wife. The child, who would one day grow up to be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, achieved early local fame due to his being born naturally circumcised, a sign which some in the community took to be the mark of the Messiah. After being told about the events surrounding his miraculous birth, Layton grew to believe in his own prophetic destiny.

His family immigrated to Montreal in 1913, and was forced to live in a cockroach-infested tenement in the St. Urbain Street ‘ghetto’. Layton and his older brothers and sisters faced daily struggles not only with poverty but also with the many French Canadians who were uncomfortable with the growing numbers of Jewish newcomers. “Issie” gained a reputation for fearlessness in the face of street-gang attacks, and soon came to be called “Nappy” (short for Napoleon) instead — a name which more properly reflected his scrappy nature. When Layton was a boy, his mother was the centre of his world and he, being her youngest and born circumcised and therefore possibly the Messiah, was her favourite. She had a strange way, however, of showing affection: Between being showered with Yiddish curses and being allowed to sleep in her bed, Layton was taught the duality of human nature, of life itself. In addition, Layton’s father Moishe (Moses), though less colourful than his wife Keine (Klara), had a strong effect on his young son. A shy and almost docile man who felt he existed to visit the synagogue and study the Talmud in his small dark bedroom, Moishe had little direct contact with his children. Yet it was his strong sense of the divine, of the holiness of words, which would leave its mark on the poet.

At thirteen years of age, after the death of his father in 1925 and after graduating from Alexandra Elementary School, Layton became a businessman — peddling household goods to Montrealers to the delight of his mother and sisters who considered this a worthwhile career. But despite their protests, Layton abandoned his short-lived and surprisingly successful stint as a door-to-door salesman and decided to enrol in Baron Byng High School where he would be changed forever. Layton recalls hearing Mr. Saunders, his tenth grade English teacher, read Tennyson’s ballad “The Revenge”: “I’d never heard the English language so beautifully read, so powerfully rendered, and I remember sitting quietly in my seat and listening enraptured as the sounds filled the room…”.

Layton’s early literary influences included the poets Tennyson, Walter Scott, Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelly; the novelists Austen and George Eliot; the essayists Bacon, Goldsmith, Johnson, Addison, and Swift; and, of course, Shakespeare and Darwin. His hunger for knowledge led Layton to explore political and philosophical thought. Among other writers, he began to read Marx and Nietzsche and, joining the Young People’s Socialist League for a short time, he had fierce debates with budding politicians such as David Lewis and poets such as A. M. Klein. In part because of the anti-Semitism of one of his teachers and in part because of his “radical” ideas, Layton was expelled from Baron Byng in his senior year. Nevertheless, tutored by A.M. Klein and financially supported by Bill Goodwin, Layton’s same-age nephew who would remain his life-long friend, he managed to graduate by passing the final exams. In those days, there were quotas on the number of Jewish students admitted to McGill University and this, together with the fact that Layton had little money, left him with few options for higher education. As a consequence, he enrolled in MacDonald College in 1934 and received a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture.

Layton was already writing poetry but it was not this which attracted attention; it was the column he wrote for the “Failte Ye Times”, the student newspaper at MacDonald College, which brought Layton’s left-wing politics and radical ideas into public view. In fact, some of the articles aroused so much suspicion by the students at “Mac” that, during the McCarthy era, Layton was blacklisted from entering the U.S.A. for almost fifteen years. In response to the articles he was writing, Layton founded the “Social Research Club” which served as a forum for opposing political views and featured speakers such as Dr. Norman Bethune. After years of participating in Montreal’s social and political debates on a regular basis at places like Horn’s Cafeteria, Layton’s debating skills were formidable, and it was in 1935 that Layton and a schoolmate took on the Oxford-Cambridge debating team and won. Layton’s speaking skills came to be his trademark, drawing large audiences at his peak.

In the mid 1930s, Layton met and befriended Louis Dudek, another young poet from Montreal. Their friendship was strong, but they often argued about their conflicting ideas about poetry, and their later feuds were much publicized. At this time, Layton continued to work odd jobs and still had no serious aspirations of becoming a writer, although one of Layton’s short stories won the McGill Daily's prize. On the advice of his brother who had been living in the U.S., Layton spent a year in New York before returning to MacDonald College to complete his undergraduate degree.

The year was 1936, and it was then that Layton met Faye Lynch, whom he would marry in 1938. Layton graduated from MacDonald College in 1939, and Faye and Irving moved to Halifax where Layton once again worked odd jobs, including a stint as a Fuller Brush Man. Realizing that he had married a woman he pitied but did not love and being disenchanted by his life in general, Layton decided, one evening, to return to Montreal. To make ends meet, he began teaching English to recent immigrants at the Montreal Jewish Public Library, a part time job which he continued for many years. Indecisive about his future and enraged by Hitler's bloodshed, Layton enlisted in the Canadian army in 1942.

While on leave from his military posting as a Brigade Commander in Petawawa, Layton met Betty Sutherland, an accomplished painter (and later poet). Layton would eventually divorce Faye and marry Betty and their union would produce Layton’s first two children: Max Reuben (1946) and Naomi Parker (1950). Betty’s brother was John Sutherland. Together, they had begun an artist’s co-operative which published an avant-garde literary magazine called First Statement.

In 1943, when Layton was given an honourable discharge from the army, he returned to Montreal, joined the co-operative and, along with Louis Dudek, became an editor of First Statement Press. The first book published by the press was Layton’s Here and Now in 1945. Later that year, First Statement and another magazine called Preview united as Northern Review. Among Preview’s editors were F. R. Scott, P. K. Page, A. M. Klein, and Patrick Anderson and now, with younger poets like Layton, Souster, Sutherland, and others, they were a formidable movement at odds with an aging group of poets and their supporters, such as Northrop Frye. Their disagreement concerned the nature and meaning of poetry itself. The younger group was adamant that poetry must express social realities in order to remain relevant, and that Canadian poets must forge their own identity rather than look to England to set the tone for the next century of writing.

Despite the disdain of all things British within their circle, it was John and Betty who introduced Layton to British poets like Auden, Yeats, Eliot, Spender, and to one of Layton's favourite writers, D. H. Lawrence, whose openness about sexuality intrigued him. In 1944, Layton wrote his first major poem, “The Swimmer” in Child’s restaurant near the Princess Theatre in Montreal. Running into Child’s and grabbing the waitress’s pen, Layton scribbled the poem on a napkin at a frenzied pace. For Layton, this proved to be a pivotal moment, for it was only then that he knew he was truly a poet and understood his destiny.

Yet, as Layton would often say, artists must align themselves with reality in order to survive. Having earned his M.A. in Political Science with a thesis on Harold Laski in 1946, Layton began teaching English, History, and Political Science at the Jewish parochial high school, Herzliah, in 1949. (Layton had begun his Ph.D. in 1948, under the auspices of Frank Scott, but abandoned it due to the demands of his married and professional life.) He was an energetic and influential teacher and was well liked and respected by his students, many of whom would later become writers themselves while others would go on to play important roles in Canadian cultural life. Layton would continue to teach for the greater part of his life: as a lecturer in modern English and American poetry at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, as a tenured professor at York University in the 1970s, and as poet-in-residence at the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. In addition, of course, he delivered countless lectures and readings throughout Canada.

Distancing himself from the increasingly religious Sutherland, Layton worked with Dudek and Souster to write Cerberus, a compilation of the three poets’ work, which was published by Contact Press. (Layton became one of Contact Press’s first editors, holding the position from the 50s until the early 60s.) Cerberus is an important book because it incorporated and was written partly in response to the energy that American poetry was expressing at this time. By the mid 50s, Layton was more prolific than at any other time in his career, sometimes publishing two books in the same year and winning a Canada Council grant in 1957 for The Improved Binoculars. That same year, he appeared on the nationally televised CBC debating program Fighting Words, where Layton, the fiercest debater, was crowned “Mr. Fighting Words”. Layton was finding his audience and becoming well known for his booming voice, charismatic personality, and controversial anti-bourgeois attitudes.

It was in 1959 that McClelland & Stewart published Layton’s A Red Carpet for the Sun, for which he became the first winner of the newly created Governor General’s Award. A Red Carpet marked the first time that Layton’s work had been brought out by a major Canadian publishing house and it was the beginning of a long-standing and mutually rewarding relationship between Layton and McClelland & Stewart, though Layton was later also published by smaller companies like Mosaic Press and foreign presses such as Spain’s Divers Press and Greece’s Hermia Publications. It was also in 1959 that Layton won the Canada Council’s prestigious Senior Arts Fellowship. The fellowship enabled him to travel abroad and write, which he would continue to do for years to come, visiting places such as Greece, Italy, Israel, and India.

Meanwhile, Layton had met Aviva Cantor, who had arrived in Montreal in 1955 from Australia. Although Betty and Layton were still married, Layton moved in with Aviva. Shortly afterwards, Betty moved to California with Naomi while Max elected to stay in Montreal with his father. (Changing her name to Boschka, Betty continued to correspond with Layton until her death in 1984). In 1964 Aviva gave birth to Layton’s second son, David. While their relationship was characterized by many stormy periods, it was always poetically productive and they lived together for almost 22 years, the longest relationship in Layton’s life. Even after Aviva left him, the pair remained in close and affectionate contact with each other.

After Aviva left, Layton finally divorced Betty and married Harriet Bernstein, a former student. In 1981, Layton’s second daughter, Samantha Clara, was born. The short-lived marriage to Harriet caused Layton much grief, the result of which was The Gucci Bag, one of Layton’s darkest and most bitter books. The 1980s, however, were not entirely devoid of joy. As Layton had hoped, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize by both Italy and South Korea (though the prize would go to Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and, a few years later, Layton would hire Anna Pottier as his housekeeper. Anna provided much needed female companionship to Layton in the years before Alzheimer’s began to take its toll on Layton’s prodigious memory and mind. The last woman in Layton’s life, Anna left him in 1995. No longer able to care for himself or live on his own, Layton spent his last years at Maimonides Geriatric Centre in Montreal until his death at the age of 93 in January, 2006.

In his running battle against Puritanism, Layton’s work provided the bolt of lightning that was needed to split open the carapace of conservatism and complacency once prevalent in Canadian literary circles. The 1940s through the 1960s were years of creative exploration and discovery and, in the years since, many writers have acknowledged Layton as both teacher and inspiration. Throughout his career, Layton tirelessly helped younger poets and writers in need. His love of words, his love of ideas, and indeed his love of life itself have influenced not only English-speaking readers but also untold thousands around the world who now read his work in Spanish, Italian, Greek and Korean — to name only a few of the many languages into which he has been translated.

Astonishingly, given his reputation for robust self-assertion, Layton’s last will and testament required that his ashes be scattered anonymously around a tree. He wanted neither burial site nor monument. It follows, therefore, that his monument is his books and his final resting place is in our hearts.