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2006 03 14
Uncivil Elegies: The Mystery of Civic Square

One of the better known but least often seen Toronto novels is Scott Symons' Civic Square, published as a limited facsimile edition by McClelland & Stewart in 1969. An online description of the book describes Civic Square as follows:
Written in the form of letters addressed to "Dear Reader," Civic Square is symphonic in its range of tone and style. Largely satiric, it is the story of a man who finds himself in a cultural upheaval as the stifling society of Toronto in 1966 begins to crumble around him - begins to crumble, in part, because he himself is kicking against the walls that constrain. Caught between a huge admiration for the older values of Rosedale and the dynamic new energy of Yorkville, with its musicians, poets and writers of the counter-culture movement, the narrator finds himself trying to reconstruct his world in every aspect. First published as a limited edition in 1969, Civic Square is a lost Canadian classic that has never before been widely available.

According to a 1997 Eye Weekly article, the original title for Civic Square was "The Smugly F*cklings", until Jack McClelland's intervention prior to publication. At the time, Symons himself was a controversial figure in Toronto and Montreal, coming out of the closet before doing so was de rigeur, holding forth dangerously on politics, and reportedly taking flight with a variety of lovers. Symons himself describes Civic Square as "obscene, pornographic, scandalous, irreverent, malicious, malignant and magnificent" (frontispiece pages). A documentary about Symons, called God's Fool was produced in 1997 or 1998. A 2001 reprint of Civic Square was planned (the cover image shown above) but does not appear ever to have become available.

The novel is mentioned occasionally in reviews and articles, usually in passing, and while many people seem to have heard of it, few appear to have read it. Perhaps this is understandable: the book, known as "the book in the box", was published as a facsimile edition of the original manuscript, and, at well over 800 typewritten pages, is nearly four inches thick. Symons himself -- an artist and curator as well as a writer (more widely known for his 1971 book Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture) -- is described as "one of Toronto's more notorious novelists" in Greg Gatenby's Toronto: A Literary Guide (1999: 47) and as an "alleged talent-free genius" in the above-mentioned Eye Weekly article.

It is undoubtedly true that thirty-five year old literary scandals lose some of their intensity in light of the many ways Toronto has loosened up in the meantime, but it seems surprising that Civic Square should have faded to a literary footnote.

Through some lucky sleuthing, I was able to locate a copy of Civic Square for the Imagining Toronto Library. The book arrived nearly as it must have when first published, girded in a blue presentation box, wrapped in white ribbon and emblazoned with a wax seal, with the title stamped in silver ink on the cover. My copy is signed by the author in red pen and is identified as "number 206 of a signed limited facsimile edition of the original manuscript."

Despite numerous differences in style and approach, Civic Square is strongly reminiscent of Dennis Lee's Governor General's Award-winning Civil Elegies and Other Poems as well as some of bpNichol's Toronto poetry. This is hardly surprising: in the years after Toronto's new City Hall was dedicated, an unquiet dissent flowed through Toronto's literary community as it did elsewhere, amid the displacement of old values and the uncertain projection of new ones. Toronto's new City Hall became a bellwether for doubts and desires about the ways the culture was changing. As Lee writes,
But it held, when the monumental space of the square
went slack, it moved in sterner space.
Was shaped by earlier space and it ripples with
wrenched stress, the bronze is flexed by
blind aeonic throes
that bred and met in slow enormous impact,
and they are still at large for the force in the bronze churns
through it, and lunges beyond and also the Archer declares
that space is primal, raw, beyond control and drives toward a
living stillness, its own.
(from "Civil Elegies: 3")

[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 03/14 at 06:15 PM

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