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Authors: Austin Clarke

The Bigger Light

BOOK: The Bigger Light
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Acclaim for

“Clarke makes West Indian speech into an art form of music and poetry … tremendously versatile in what it expresses and exhilarating to read.”
The Globe and Mail

“Mr. Clarke is masterful.”
The New York Times

“Austin Clarke [is] one of the most talented novelists at work in the English language today.… His fiction is unique, surprising, comfortable until the moment when it becomes uncomfortable. Then you realize you have learned something new that you didn’t want to know — and it’s essential knowledge. And so on you go, alternately congratulating and cursing Austin Clarke.”
Norman Mailer

“Uncommonly talented, Clarke sees deeply, and transmits his visions and perceptions so skilfully that reading him is an adventure.”
Publishers Weekly

“Brilliant is the word for Austin Clarke’s depiction of his highly ebullient characters.”
Canadian Forum

“Clarke is magnificent in transferring to print the music, the poetry, the complete aptness of West Indian dialogue. It is comic, it is tragic, it is all shades in between. And as prose it is as near poetry as prose can become.”
Charlotte Observer

Books by

The Origin of Waves
There are No Elders
In This City
Proud Empires
Nine Men Who Laughed
When Women Rule
The Prime Minister
The Bigger Light
Storm of Fortune
When He Was Free and Young
and He Used to Wear Silks
The Meeting Point
Amongst Thistles and Thorns
The Survivors of the Crossing

Pigtails n’ Breadfruit
A Passage Back Home
Public Enemies
Growing Up Stupid Under the Union Jack

Selected Writings
The Austin Clarke Reader

Copyright © 1975 by Austin C. Clarke

All rights reserved under International and Pan American Copyright Conventions. Published in Canada by Vintage Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, in 1998. Originally published simultaneously in Canada and the US by Little Brown & Co. Ltd. in 1975. Distributed by Random House of Canada Limited.

The author is grateful to Segel, Rubenstein & Gordon for permission to reprint lyrics from “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell. © 1967 Siquomb Corp. All rights reserved.

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders; in the event of an inadvertent omission or error, please notify the publisher.

Canadian Cataloging in Publication Data
Clarke, Austin, 1934–
The bigger light.

Third book in the Toronto trilogy.
eISBN: 978-0-307-36426-5

I. Title   II. Title: Toronto trilogy
PS8505.L38B53   1998  C813’.54   C98-931268-2
PR9199.3.C52B53  1998


For Frank Collymore



Boysie began writing letters
to the newspapers to voice his opinion on matters such as pollution, urban development and high-rise apartments in the downtown area where he lived. He liked the downtown area, and had lived there all his life in this country. These were matters which affected him, he said, more than the problems of immigration which affected some other immigrants he knew. He chose not to waste his time writing letters to the editor about the racial problem in the city, or about police brutality. He was a successful immigrant. And he maintained that he had not experienced discrimination and prejudice, and that the police had never stopped his panel truck to harass him, when he came home late at night from his janitorial services in the business district of the city.

Dots, his wife, was very proud of his sudden expression of commitment. She clipped each letter that he had written from the Letters to the Editor page, and pasted them into the photograph album, at the front. When friends came to visit, they had to look at Boysie’s very wordy and very formal letters before they saw the photographs of other successful West Indian immigrants, relaxing in various poses of exuberance and fat, shining with contentment and accumulation.

There was one letter which Dots favoured above all the others. Boysie had written twenty-nine letters to the editor,
but only three had been published. This letter, which Dots would show last, was framed onto the page of the album by a border of black satin ribbon. Boysie had written it to the paper on the event of Henry’s death. It was a beautiful letter for the occasion that had so tragically struck him. Henry was his only friend. And it was a formal letter. In it Boysie had tried to compare Henry White, his best friend in this country, who had begun writing poetry just before his death, with another great poet who had died in the prime of his youth. He had recently heard about Keats and he knew that this new knowledge was significant. “I am going to compare Henry to Keats.”
Although this man was born in a small island Barbados, far and distant from this country of Canada, yet Mr. Henry White the late demised poet, is like that other poet borned on an island, Mr. Keats, who loved nature and flowers the same as Mr. White
. This was the simple reference to John Keats, although Boysie did not know his Christian name was John. Dots thought the letter was magnificent. “You write that just like poetry itself, Boysie,” she told him, when the letter was published. And Boysie had sat beside her, in a rare moment of such closeness, for her to read the letter; and especially he wanted her to see how his name looked in print. This was the first letter he had had published; and the pride of seeing his name printed in the largest newspaper in the country made him feel powerful, and made him think that for generations to come, anybody who wanted to could see his name “in the pages of annals,” as he boasted to Dots who didn’t see it this way; and that this was only the first of many letters he intended to write to the editor.

Henry’s death, and Boysie’s memory of it, and the meaning he attached to it, was nevertheless soon forgotten; and writing letters to the editor about other civic matters soon became the biggest interest in his life. He did, for the length of
sincere and proscribed mourning, think very much about Henry, and what his sudden death meant to him: that a man so young and not married a year yet to Agatha, the rich Jewish girl, should be dead without having left a scratch on the surface of life. And for the first few months, with Henry gone, it was like having been abandoned on an unknown lonely road, like having the pleasant, cheerful side of his nature ripped away from him. Boysie went into mourning in a way which found him depressed, and silent, and very difficult to live with. He began to hate Agatha, with the same force as his wife Dots had hated her, when she screamed and refused to believe, as the newspapers had reported, that Henry had committed suicide. “Suicide? Black people don’t commit suicide in this country! They mean Agatha murdered him! That is the suicide they mean!”

Boysie hated, as Dots hated. And when the energy of his body was spent through the hatred, and his depression was at its lowest, he forgot all about Agatha. She had tried to keep the relationship between them going, after her husband’s death; but neither Boysie nor Dots, Bernice, their friend, nor Estelle, Bernice’s sister, could, with Henry gone, any longer accept Agatha’s friendship or her presence in their company. And so, Agatha drifted out of their lives, in the same way as she had entered; and they did not even mention her name, not even to group her in a despising remark, amongst white people they had known. She was dead to them. In the same way that Henry was dead.

Dots adjusted to her life as a nurse’s aide at the Doctor’s Hospital on Brunswick Avenue; and it continued in a routine of long hours with overtime that was not paid for, and which was helped from its iron routine of eight in the morning until five in the afternoon, six days a week with one day off, only
through her fortnightly trips to the bank, where she deposited one hundred and sixty-five dollars out of her paycheque, and kept back exactly thirty dollars for pocket money and streetcar fare. Boysie was earning quite a lot from his office-cleaning contracts. And he was thinking of buying a house in the suburbs. “Perhaps, up in Willowdale, ’cause they have too much o’ we black people living in Scarborough and Don Mills already, man!”, Dots used as her motive for moving. The house was in her plans for the near future, as it had always been in her mind from the day she landed in Canada. And so, with Dots occupied with work, planning her material success, and conscious always that living on Ontario Street in the low-rental housing district was making it impossible for her to hold her head as high as she would have liked, Boysie was left to himself all day long in the apartment, until it was time for him to go to work, at four in the afternoon. Dots’s ambitiousness kept her busy all the time, and it was only on weekends, on Sundays usually, when she was off duty, that she got a chance to look Boysie in the eye. And every other weekend, they made love. It was the only time they each had, from their respective races after material success, to lie flat on their backs without having to watch the hour hand of the black-faced electric clock on the dresser beside the bed.

Boysie would spend the mornings reading the three Toronto newspapers, and thinking of which article he could reply to; and to which letter to the editor he should add his comments, or contradict outright. It gave him much pleasure to sit and sip his tea which he drank with lots of homogenized milk in it, and read his newspapers, and reflect on the state of the world. And what gave him the most pleasure was finding “a grammar mistake” in
The Globe and Mail
which was supposed to be the country’s leading newspaper.

He did not believe that he had such mental resources in himself, this fastidiousness with grammar and spelling. For he had come to this country as an ordinary man, an ordinary immigrant from Barbados, an ordinarily educated man, who was capable only of understanding the road signs and other printed instructions which he saw around him, and not much more. “Man, Henry,” he had said, long ago, “just to live in this blasted country, you don’t know that a man should have
at least
a grade eight version of reading and writing! I had only a grade three version. But I does listen and learn and think for myself.”

Boysie was now, therefore, very alone. And he would feel it most heavily in the mornings about ten o’clock, when everybody he knew would be at work. The only persons he would see from his picture window, high up in the apartment building, were old men, too feeble to work, and old women walking cautiously over the ice to go to the corner store, or to the Liquor Store to buy, perhaps, a half bottle of liquor to keep the cold from drying their bones, and, perhaps, to bring back memories to crowd their own loneliness.

BOOK: The Bigger Light
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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