Living in the shadow of a genius can destroy your life, but there’s much to recommend a slightly more distant proximity to incandescent talent. In his recent essay collection A Life in Paragraphs, Robert Fulford, widely regarded in Canada as the nation’s finest cultural critic (although enjoying less repute in the wider world), reflects on all the dismaying biographies that detail the miserable frailties of towering talents. He notes that the authorized life of V.S. Naipaul shows the novelist to have “monstrously mistreated both his first wife and his long-time mistress, out of a bottomless narcissism that allowed no room for the feelings of anyone but himself.” And that a spate of biographies document that Robert Frost, far from his fabricated image as a “a lovable curmudgeon” and “a national grandpa,” was “a wretched husband and father, a tyrant in personal and professional relations, jealous and vindictive.”
With characteristic erudition, Fulford runs through the lives of troubled giants ranging from Charles Dickens to Miles Davis, from John Cheever to Stan Getz, all figures who brought grief to those around them, leading to reflections on the dark side of creativity.
Yet Fulford’s own life offers at least one compelling counterexample. In 1941, when he was 9 years old and living in a remote corner of Toronto, Fulford befriended a new schoolmate, a boy named Glenn Gould. Fulford soon learned that Gould was his next-door neighbor. The two boys became fast friends, although even then they were unevenly matched.
Gould’s conventional parents were fearful of using the word “prodigy,” since they didn’t want their only child to be seen as strange, but they also knew they had a world-class talent on their hands. In his memoir Best Seat in the House (1988), Fulford recalls that in high school Gould “was clearly an oddity, but he was not despised for it. His prodigious and mysterious talent made him immune (or so I recall) to the cruelty that adolescents routinely visit on the exceptional among them. When he walked home from school, waving his arms as he conducted an invisible symphony orchestra and humming the parts (‘pa-puh, duh-pa’), the other students just assumed he was acting the way geniuses were supposed to act.”
If the young Gould was rightly assumed to be on his path to greatness, Fulford himself showed little promise. A lackadaisical student, Fulford dropped out of high school to become a newspaper copy boy, following in the footsteps of his father, another dropout turned ink-stained hack. Spending his early days covering high school hockey games, Fulford displayed a lightning typing speed—the only hint of a successful reporting and editing career. But there was no reason to expect, based on his early work, that he would become, as he has, an admired cultural critic.
It was the friendship with Gould that made all the difference. “Music, Glenn’s music in particular, was the real beginning of my life as a thinking adult,” Fulford recalls. “Listening to him play, and listening to him talk passionately about music, rearranged my perceptions and informed me of a larger world than [high school] knew.”
As students, Fulford and Gould would argue about music. Fulford was acquiring a taste for jazz and other forms of popular music, which Gould dismissed. Having to argue with someone as informed and quirkily opinionated as Gould forced Fulford into becoming an ad hoc critic, thus beginning a second career on top of journalism.
In 1952, while still covering high school sports, Fulford teamed up with Gould to create New Music Associates, a quixotic effort to promote Arnold Schoenberg and other experimental musicians to provincial Torontonian ears. The venture wasn’t a success, with one ill-fated concert overshadowed by a rare Toronto hurricane. Gould, in any case, was already on the cusp of the international fame that would rob him of the time needed to be a concert promoter.
Fulford, having acquired a taste for the arts, was set on a path of fusing journalism with cultural criticism. A true autodidact, he has found that happy middle ground between academia and the daily press, avoiding the abstruseness of scholarly writing and the glibness of deadline-driven punditry. Although a longtime columnist for the National Post, he’s also found a particularly nurturing home in Queen’s Quarterly, a literary journal that has allowed him to stretch his legs as a long-form essayist.
A Life in Paragraphs is a rich harvest of Fulford’s Queen’s Quarterly essays and testament to the range of his intellectual curiosity. The essays cover topics from the Talmud to the tango, from the Roman Emperor Julian to Alice Munro. What holds the book together is not a set of ideas but rather a temperament: a wry, associative mind eager to apply itself to understanding human creativity. For many years, Fulford has been my model for what a good cultural critic should be: someone who thinks aloud in crisp, flexible prose aimed at a broad audience.
Surveying the work of Walter Benjamin leads Fulford to reflect on his own failure to become a flâneur, a dandy voyeur excited by the spectacle of big-city life. “For years I have aspired to the status of at least a part-time flâneur, but something has always kept it beyond my reach,” he reflects.
I blame the presence within me of the pale vestiges of Protestantism, a gentle but oppressively persistent fog which clouded the world around me during my Toronto childhood. We learn most when we least know we are learning; I believe I learned, without knowing it, that there was no place in our world for someone whose main joy was observation and whose main interest was noting, often with a certain disdain, the varieties of humans in his path. I walk, but usually with a purpose. I wander, but not for long; soon I look for a bench where I can read.
Yet it’s not quite true to say that Fulford is a failed flâneur. If he’s not a flâneur of city life, A Life in Paragraphs shows him to be a flâneur of books, of museums, and of concerts. Never dogmatic, Fulford uses each cultural encounter to think through his experiences. What began decades ago as arguments with a high school friend who happened to be a genius now flourishes in essays where Fulford argues with himself.