Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel


160 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 1-55022-216-3
DDC C811'.54





Reviewed by W.J. Keith

W.J. Keith is a retired professor of English at the University of Toronto and author A Sense of Style: Studies in the Art of Fiction in English-Speaking Canada.


While discussing Layton’s violent reaction to Elspeth Cameron’s
biography of 1985, Mansbridge suggests that Layton would have preferred
less emphasis on his personal life and been “more comfortable with a
book focusing on his poetry and intellectual development.”
Unfortunately, however, biographies—even literary biographies—are
inevitably about events rather than writings, and, when a personality
like Layton is concerned, there will always be a readership on the
lookout for juicy bits of literary gossip. Mansbridge’s own book,
while a little more critically perceptive than Cameron’s, is
nonetheless forced to spend a good deal of time on the tiresome
peccadilloes of the man, who is obviously a lesser person than the poet.

Balance is almost impossible to obtain. Like Layton, I would have
preferred more probing analysis of Layton’s poetry (without which,
after all, no one would be writing—or reading—Layton’s biography).
Still, a succinct version of Layton’s varied, vigorous, and—let’s
face it—often rather pathetic life is recounted, though the ordering
of information is not as smooth as it might be (on at least two
occasions, Layton’s children suddenly appear in the text without any
clear indication of when they were born).

It is probably asking too much to expect any commentator on Layton to
explain his extraordinary contradictions: the Liberal-voting Marxist;
the self-styled crusader against British gentility who was inspired to
be a poet by Tennyson and whose early literary loves were, in
Mansbridge’s words, “Shelley, Keats, Blake, Wordsworth, Shakespeare,
and other poets of the English tradition”; the formidable enemy of
anti-Semitism who can so readily descend to “anti-WASPism.” I wish
Mansbridge had not, on numerous occasions, been content with paradoxical
juxtapositions when some sort of explanation ought to have been
attempted. Nevertheless, what is probably a reasonably authentic
portrait of a prickly individual emerges. One hopes, however, that
readers will be encouraged to move on to the best of the poems, which
will eventually reveal themselves as the essential (auto)biography.


Mansbridge, Francis., “Irving Layton: God's Recording Angel,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed April 16, 2024,