Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton

Good as Gone: My Life with Irving Layton, Anna Pottier, Dundurn Press, 2015, 336 pages

In her recently published memoir Good as Gone, about her marriage with internationally renowned Canadian poet, the late Irving Layton, Anna Pottier boldly asserts that “modern Canadian poetry was born in Irving’s living-room” in his “tiny house” on Kildare Road in Montreal where he lived with his third wife, Aviva Layton, in the mid-1950s. This informal gathering of local poets took place every Friday night and Leonard Cohen, then in his early twenties, dropped by. He immediately impressed the well-known Layton with his early poems.

Pottier, in a chapter entitled “The Golden Boy,” describes her meeting with Cohen, a close friend of Layton, on June 7, 1984. She wants to set the record straight on literary myths such as Layton having been Cohen’s mentor. This irritated Layton, she writes, because it was not the truth. And this is what Pottier wants to reveal in her passionate account of the twelve years she shared with Layton, years that she admits have marked her deeply, irrevocably.

Pottier, born in the Acadian village of Belleville, Nova Scotia, dreamed of becoming a writer, not a doctor, as her parents wanted her to be. In 1981, as a twenty one year old student at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, she attended a poetry reading and met Irving Layton who was famous, married, and forty-eight years her senior. They began a correspondence, and when Layton separated from his fourth wife, Harriet Bernstein, two years later, he invited Pottier to move into his Niagara-on-the-Lake home as his housekeeper. She agreed, thrilled that he took an interest in her poems and encouraged her to write.

Pottier began this memoir soon after the death of Irving Layton in January 2006. She defines it as “my homage to and thanks for all that he lavished on me: his absolute trust, an Ivy League education taught at the table, during long walks, and in the pre-dawn light as he challenged me like the extraordinary teacher that he was, all imbued with unconditional love.”

In Good as Gone, Pottier, who now lives in Utah, is remarried, and is a painter in demand in art exhibitions, writes with candour about her relationship with Irving Layton. Since the beginning, she kept personal journals that were very detailed, included verbatim conversations, and notes about Layton’s views on life, death, and the poetic process.

Pottier (her birth name was Annette but Layton preferred to call her Anna, which she agreed to) was as meticulous in her journal keeping as in her work as assistant in preparing the poet’s later books for publication such as his childhood memoir Waiting for the Messiah. Pottier remembers laboriously typing draft after draft on a typewriter, PCs not yet widely in use. Among the interesting selection of rarely seen black and white photos, is one taken by Pottier in May 1985 at their house on Monkland Avenue in the NDG area of Montreal. It is of Layton sitting on the sofa, gazing into the camera, his look bemused and exhausted, the final manuscript pages spread around him on the cushions and coffee table. As she notes in the caption, they had little time to relax as they were bound for Athens.

Some of the best chapters are those that describe the couple’s trips to Italy, a country where Layton’s poetry won deep respect in large part due to the brilliant scholar and translator Alfredo Rizzardi, who promoted Canadian Studies at the University of Bologna. In fact, Italy would nominate Layton’s work twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In an uninhibited voice, Pottier recalls how she accompanied her husband-to-be to the International Festival of Poets, where he had been invited to give readings:

“Landing at Fiumicino, I had to pinch myself. Barely one year earlier, I had come through Rome as a nearly penniless hitchhiker, solitary, hungry, and barely distinguishable from millions of other backpackers. How very, very different for me now, stepping out into the Roman air, warm with oleander, refined perfumes, Marlboro cigarette smoke, and testosterone, on the arm of a poet who was soon to be received like a rock star.”

Pottier also found that Italians accepted their age difference, and this freed her of self-consciousness, being looked upon as the youthful muse of a famous aging poet. One of the happiest of the anecdotes from Italy is in “Lunch with Ettore and Fellini,” when Layton meets and entertains the great filmmaker of 8 1/2, Amarcord, La Dolce Vita, and she finds herself in Fellini’s Mercedes.

Not her family’s rejection, or the complications with Layton’s ex-wives and adult children, could undermine their solid marriage, but their age difference eventually did.

Accompanying Layton on worldwide cultural trips as he aged became traumatic. In 1992, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and the beginning of Alzheimer’s, confirmed Pottier’s unspoken fear that she might be incapable to assist her beloved husband as he lost control of body and mind.

With harrowing honesty, Pottier relates how being the caregiver eventually led to burnout. Tears became frequent between the couple rather than the laughter that had bound them. Pottier began an affair with a younger man than herself, and sought the counsel of one of Layton’s lifelong friends, also her friend at the time, Musia Schwartz, who agreed that she should separate and offered to care for Layton.

In Good as Gone, Pottier vividly captures the impersonal cruelty of aging and conveys the love and creativity of their marriage. She writes how she still misses the man and poet who had made so many of her days extraordinary, the memoir a heartfelt testimony to this truth.

 

 

  • yVONNE TRAINE, PHD

    This afternoon, I repeated what I have always done, since I first read one of Anne Cimon’s articles in the Serai; that is, I immediately looked for work by her when the new issue of the magazine appeared. As usual, this review by Ms. Cimon is excellent. I have certainly read poems by Irving Layton in the past, and once gave a Canada Council reading in Northern, Alberta, on the same night that he was presenting a poetry reading in another small town down the road. (Everyone rushed me through my reading, so they could go to his). However, I knew nothing about Layton’s early background or life. Anne Cimon’s review makes me want to purchase this work soon! –Yvonne Trainer, PhD, Alberta, Canada.

  • Is it wrong to say how much I appreciate Anne Cimon’s thoughtful, honest review? It is the first such review garnered. Irving would be as pleased for me as I am for my self.

    Merci Anne & Montréal Serai, j’apprécie ceci énormément!

  • PS: By a slip of the pen presumably, the mate who shared Irving’s Kildare Ave. home was Betty Sutherland (aka Boshka), not Aviva.

  • Good review – makes me want to read the book.

  • This is a kindly and insightful review of a memoire filled with amazing personal candour and shedding a bright light on the thinking of one of Canada’s great poets.

  • I hardly knew anything about the last wife of Irving Layton, nor understand their relationship, until I read this sensitive and compassionate description by Anne Cimon, and it really makes the readers want to look at this book.
    It seems very intriguing to have such a personal story of a famous Canadian. I too wrote to Irving Layton and he was most encouraging, when I was a struggling artist in Montreal.

  • Yvonne Trainor – I do believe it was the reading in Cold Lake, AB you may be referring to. On the drive up from Edmonton, someone contacted us from Vermillion and asked if Irving could give a reading at a school there. He did, with pleasure. There is one photo of the two of us standing in in front of the lake, and yes, it was cold. We didn’t make it to Grande Prairie, but he did give a very well-attended reading in Edmonton. Those were the days!

  • *Traine*. My apologies.

  • YVONNE TRAINER, PHD

    Anne Portier, yes, that was the reading. The Young Alberta Book Festival and Can Council used to send poets to many places in Northern Alberta. That year I gave over 120 readings in Canada. I was reading in Iron River and Cold Lake that week. I was bookended between Irving Layton and Rudy Wiebe. Rudy Wiebe wasn’t able to attend, so I was granted his reading spaces plus my own. It was very cold that year, over minus 50 if memory serves correctly. Those were good years for poets, and I didn’t mind being overshadowed by Irving Layton at all. Some of my best memories are of poetry readings. I am so glad Anne Cimon reviewed My Life with Irving Layton, or I may not have discovered this biography. I look forward to reading it soon!

  • Excellent review by Anne Cimon, many thanks! I’ve just read Anna Pottier’s excellent biography of Layton and their lives together. This book is well written and full of information on Layton that you won’t find anywhere else. Highly recommended to anyone interested in CanLit or biographies of poets.