#566 George Payerle (1945-2019)
George Thomas Payerle (1945-2019)
An obituary by Alan Twigg
George Thomas Payerle was a founding member of the Writers Union of Canada. His major novel Unknown Soldier was reviewed in the inaugural issue of B.C. BookWorld in 1987. For decades within the Writers Union he was known as an always bearded, outspoken, garrulous and generous presence who talked loudly and drank heavily. A sentimentalist would be tempted to describe him an an unknown soldier of Canlit.
Born of Hungarian parents on August 21, 1945 in Vancouver, George Payerle attended UBC for seven years and co-edited Student Protest (Methuen, 1968) with two others. In the year he received his M.A. in Creative Writing, Payerle published a short experimental novel, The Afterpeople (Anansi, 1970), subtitled, “a patheticon.” This montage of events arising from a bank robbery at the Granville and Pender branch of the Bank of Montreal had limited readership but it enabled him to become a noteworthy presence with the fledgling Writers Union of Canada where he became with acquainted with many of the heavy hitters in Ontario who were at the forefront of emerging Canadian literature.
“As an MFA student,” his wife Phyllis recalls, “George had hoped to become the next James Joyce. I feel that his abilities as an editor were his paramount gift. He edited [Robert] Bringhurst, Ian Thom’s catalogue for the David Milne VAG exhibition, Dennis Lee in the earlier days, David Waltner Toews, a masters thesis for a geology grad student killed before he could submit and defend… and an extremely wide variety of work by writers for whom English was not their mother tongue.”
Always a West Coaster, Payerle worked for Urban Reader (1973-1974) and translated some Hungarian writers. He published a chapbook called Wolfbane Fane in 1977. “If I can be said to write “about’ anything,” Payerle wrote at the time, “I write about perception; or, I write perception. Good writing is like wine or blood, depending on the mood you’re in.”
His daughter Bronwen was born in Vancouver in 1979.
Payerle’s long-in-gestation novel Unknown Soldier (Macmillan, 1987) about a Canadian war veteran, unfortunately had minimal traction. His first book of poetry, The Last Trip to Oregon: Poems in Wake of Red’s Death (Ronsdale, 2002), is arguably a more significant achievement in that it described his closest friend, Charles “Red” Lillard, who travelled with Payerle to central Oregon and Alberta not long before Lillard’s death.
Having moved with his wife Phyllis to Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast in 2001, Payerle gathered a new collection of ruminations and appreciations for Alterations (Signature Editions, 2004), launched in 2005. In it, Payerle, a sentimentalist who greatly valued friendship, ponders the passing of spirits such as the poet John Furberg. He also considers the smallness of his place in the universe as an ‘urban refugee.’
He died on June 5, 2019.
“He was loud, rowdy, hugely challenging, drank me under the table more than a few times, and had a powerful love of life and loyalty to his friends that is rarely matched. Another friend and writer gone…” — Bill Deverell
After several years of diminishing health and mobility, George Payerle passed away at Sechelt Hospital in June of 2019 while undergoing a CT scan. An ascending aortic aneurysm ruptured. He had called himself an ambulance when upper back pain registered as unbearable.
George was born in Vancouver to Hungarian immigrant parents Akos and Maria Payerle, younger brother by 12 yrs. to Cornell. He spoke only Hungarian until entering school, and his early life centred around the Catholic Hungarian community. The Hungarian Boy Scouts (which included girls), the old men carving peppers with increasing amounts of hot veining to test one’s mettle, and his parents’ role in refugee settlement following the 1956 revolution were powerful influences. George was proud to proclaim himself (somewhat incorrectly, given his education) a “Hungarian peasant.” Adolescence found him at Vancouver College where he shocked the brothers by growing a full beard one summer and returning to grade 12 in September “a man”. He was never clean-shaven in the 47 years he and Phyllis were together.
Although not religious, he had formative relationships with priests both as a boy and a young man; he never went to mass as an adult, but felt it necessary to baptize daughter Bronwen himself with tap water. At UBC he lived in residence at St. Mark’s College for the first years of study before embarking on an MFA in Creative Writing. Among peers he assumed a priestly role in that he would focus on and listen to them, characteristics that made him a superb editor. Michael Yates, George Amabile and Robert Harlow helped develop the writer George would come to be. At 23 he co-wrote and edited “Student Protest” (Methuen 1968). His graduating project was a novella “The Afterpeople” (House of Anansi 1970), followed over a decade later by “Unknown Soldier” (Macmillan 1987). Poetry collections “The Last Trip to Oregon” and “Alterations” were late-in-life reckonings that asserted his strength as a poet.
Payerle worked for Vancouver’s The Urban Reader and owned a typesetting company in the 1970s. He set up a computer system for Gregson Graham Ltd. in Victoria in 1980 as well as editing and writing the government manuals they produced. Being hired as a sessional instructor at UBC gave George the opportunity to work with young writers and to re-enter the world of editing that became his main direction. A founding member of The Writers’ Union of Canada, George became estranged from many important friends and colleagues because of his violently expressed opinions and fiery temper. However, his commitment to the craft of writing and ability to hear individual writer’s voices enabled him to be an exceptional editor who would lovingly and laboriously work through a piece word by word. He could see the story, understand the idea and convey the thought whether it was scientific geography, arcane art history, personal memoir or contemporary fiction or poetry. His last formal position was poetry editor for Signature Editions.
Obsessive, George lived life to extremes. Like his mother he battled depression, his “Black Dog”. Adoration, sadness, anger, caring. As Bronwen’s dad he was entirely invested. He walked her to school and lauded a beginner cellist, cooked, showed up for horse care, commiserated and cheered. Later he contemplated film essays and contemporary art papers with laser focus. He would lay a bag of bagels on the table like a prize fish, choose a lapis lazuli brooch for Phyllis or earrings for Bronwen, bring home French tablecloths and local pottery because the artisan or the shopkeeper delighted him, order particular recordings of Beethoven or Bach to blast out of his big blue speakers.
Out in the world, George walked, talked and drank. He sought those who needed his intensity; people whose difficult stories he could validate. He gave away money he didn’t have and brought home bar acquaintances who needed a bed. He also alienated many people by being self-centred and uncompromising. Moving to Roberts Creek in 2001 brought him the peace of his separate backyard study with cedar-studded sky. He was befriended in the “little legion”, dove in to the rituals of Coast life. Words & language remained his currency.
Exclamatory noises and persistent nicknaming of the rest of us – the “ahs! mmmns, Boat, Clint et al – were part of the Payerle identity. Giving a reading or telling a story, his voice boomed. We are left a notable silence.
Alterations (Winnipeg: Signature Editions, 2004).
The Last Trip to Oregon: Poems in Wake of Red’s Death (Ronsdale, 2002).
The Weather and That (Victoria: Reference West, 1993).
Two from Babylon (Reference West, 1990).
Unknown Soldier (Macmillan Canada, 1987).
Wolfbane Fane (Vancouver: Kanchenjunga, 1977).
The Afterpeople (Concord, Ontario: House of Anansi Press, 1970).
REVIEW: BEHIND THE BLACK WALL
“At the age of 35,” says George Payerle, “I became an old soldier. I stayed that way for seven years.”
That’s how Vancouver-born Payerle describes the writing of his new novel, Unknown Soldier (Macmillan $19.95). In this ‘torch-passing book’ Payerle hopes to pass along an uncompromisingly frank look at soldiering -and its psychological after-effects through the eyes of a 59 year old ex-Canadian rifle sergeant named Sam Collister.
Completed long before the appearance of films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, Unknown Soldier now appears to be part of a mainstream trend to present war realistically. But the peculiar genesis of Unknown Soldier has been ongoing since Payerle’s birth. “I was born 12 days after Nagasaki,” he says, “One of my earliest memories is a dream of a big black wall that was going to fall on me. I couldn’t turn around and look. My sense of it, very specifically, is that the wall was World War Two.”
His newly emigrated Hungarian parents were, in his words, DPs. He remembers his father being deeply concerned that some new Canadian neighbours might wrongly suspect the Payerles had not been supportive of the Allies. Payerle didn’t learn English until he started school. He began reading personal accounts of World War Two at age ten. By the eighth grade he had begun a World War Two novel. At age 15 he completed a novel about the Battle of Britain.
“An ex-hurricane pilot read it and said he couldn’t understand how a 15 year old kid could understand what it was like to be a fighter pilot,” says PayerIe, “World War Two was becoming something like a hobby. Then at age 18 I started going into bars and running into war veterans.”
For the next fifteen years Payerle talked to over 100 war vets in Vancouver watering holes, unconsciously gathering the information and momentum for Unknown Soldier. Payerle credits two men in particular, the late Gordie White and the late Ted Hoskinson, for guidance. Both vets read his manuscript before they died. Both said what the ex-hurricane pilot had said when Payerle was 15.
“Many old soldiers don’t want to talk about the black wall,” says PayerIe, “They prefer to talk about battles or whether or not Montgomery was a great general. But Gordie White was the guy who talked to me about what my generation of peaceniks meant to him and his complex feelings about all that. And Ted Hoskinson gave me accounts of absolute horror, quite literally the unforgettable stench of warfare.”
Although Payerle’s dedication in the book concludes with ‘and to all those who served,’ he realizes that not all his old acquaintances down at the Billy Bishop Legion (Payerle is a member) will appreciate Unknown Soldier‘s gritty content. Payerle contends that coping with ‘the black wall’ becomes more difficult as an ex-soldier ages, as a man is forced to wonder what his life has added up to.
[BCBW / A.T. 1987]