Michael Turner reviews At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver, 1937-1998, by Claudia Cornwall.
Until recently, the history of Vancouver had less to do with the expired present than the future-passed, where what might happen, did (or did not), and market speculation (be that gold, furs, fish, timber or real estate) set the tone.
The Vancouver Art Gallery’s exhibition of Fred Herzog’s photographs in 2007 went a long way toward recovering the unremembered Vancouver, in images; now Claudia Cornwall has done something similar, mostly in words. At the World’s Edge: Curt Lang’s Vancouver, 1937–1998 (Mother Tongue Publishing) follows the remarkable life of an East Van kid who, at sixteen, sought out Malcolm Lowry, with whom he drank and debated; eulogized Dylan Thomas, in a more-than-competent poem published in Canadian Poetry Magazine; and caroused with a less-than-competent Al Purdy. He then hitchhiked east to Montreal, where he knocked on the door of Irving Layton and asked if he could crash there while waiting to sail for Europe. And sail Lang did, from town to town, from conversation to conversation, a well-read “talker” who did not so much abandon art, à la Rimbaud, as find its equivalent in everything from boat building to software patents. But he crashed too, leaving behind a knot of contradictory remembrances that Cornwall untangles using anecdotes, poems and photos from Lowry, Purdy, Fred Douglas, Jamie Reid and others, all of whom speak of Lang as if speaking of themselves.
To characterize At the World’s Edge as an oral history of Vancouver, supplemented by Lang’s own poems and photos, comes close to describing this book and its importance to those interested in what (also) happened in the city between 1950 and 1990. But given Cornwall’s note-perfect attention to detail and her seamless arrangement of the voices Lang sang with, a “choral history” might be more accurate.