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LEON SURETTE - A TESTIMONIAL 

ANDERSON ARAUJO
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U. of BRITISH COLUMBIA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Leon Surette has had a lengthy and influential career, now closing in on half a century with nary a pause. That much is widely known, especially among Poundians. What is less evident is the man behind the scholar. The following is but a personal snapshot, and a modest tribute.

I knew of Leon long before I met him. When Pound in Purgatory was published in 1999 I was in the final year of an Honors B.A. at the University of Toronto, the same institution where he had earned his Ph.D. under Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye decades earlier. A professor suggested the book after learning of my interest in all things Pound. To say that I read it would be an understatement—I devoured it, even if its gnomic subjects largely eluded me at the time (“A + B theorem?”). I never knew literary criticism could be so far-reaching, so hydra-headed and, above all, so entrancing. Leon’s prose is not for the faint of heart, to be sure. So I kept on probing deeper into his books. In reverse chronological order, no less. Perhaps not the best route. But the flame was lit. Two years later, I didn’t think twice about accepting an offer to pursue doctoral studies at the University of Western Ontario. I was going to study with the scholar who could parse out everything from economic theory and radical politics to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Albigensian Heresy with the same facility one might speak of the taking of a toast and tea. It was a slam dunk, or so I thought. After arriving in London, Ontario, to begin my studies it took me quite a while to meet Leon. Every time I mentioned his name in my department and my intention to work with him I heard the same refrain: “He doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” A slight sense of unease began to creep up on me. What if Leon had a change of heart about taking me on as a student? What if I couldn’t live up to his expectations? Our first meeting set, I walked into his office with faltering steps. Here was the formidable Poundian in the flesh. After a long chat, and with my anxiety slackened a little, I asked him point-blank whether he would accept to be my thesis supervisor. His reply was pithy and erudite, textbook Leon: “Yes, but not in loco parentis.” The Latin took me aback. But I got the gist of it. Leon would guide the way, but I would have to pull my own weight. In the years that followed, Leon proved to be much more than the aloof, remote supervisor I admittedly thought him to be at the end of our first meeting. No draft, however rudimentary, would wallow in his mailbox. No email went unanswered. No question was beyond his ken. Leon’s keen-eyed capacity to pick out in an instant where a paragraph might be enhanced, altered or outright shucked off is nothing short of mind-boggling, if at times intimidating. We met at least once a week, a schedule that, to my knowledge, no other supervisor kept up. Nor did Leon’s generosity end on campus. I was a frequent guest at his home, often leaving laden with vegetables from his garden and books on loan from his personal library. It was also during these visits that I discovered Leon to be even more of a polumetis than I had thought. The basement of the Surette household doubled as a makeshift winery, where he meticulously fermented and bottled his own brew. A vintner, gardener, and much more besides, Leon also maintained a woodworking shop, stocked to the hilt with tools. Our friendship grew, as did my admiration for his curiosity and intellect. In the final year of my doctorate, he and his wife Valerie invited me to housesit for a few months. I gladly took the offer to exchange my cramped apartment for their spacious home. When the end of my stay overlapped their arrival by a few weeks, I was able to chat daily with Leon. It was without a doubt the most stimulating period of my studies, at a critical point in my dissertation too. With unfettered access to Leon’s storehouse of knowledge, I submitted and defended my thesis before long. Following his retirement, he gave me his entire Paideuma collection, from the first issue of 1972 to the latest, a gift I will always treasure. Yet the most enduring gift is his ongoing legacy of omnivorous interests and untiring devotion to the craft of criticism.