Submitted by Ed Lemond and Elaine Amyot
I first met Michael Thorpe in April 2000 at the inaugural Frye Festival. I had taken on the job of inviting the English-language authors and I sought help in many corners to get the right authors and the right mix. I asked Thea Borlase to give me a list of writers from New Brunswick she would suggest. At the top of her list were David Adams Richards, Michael Thorpe, and Elin Elgaard. They all happily agreed to attend.
Michael read several times at the 2000 festival but the time I remember best was at a place called Au Deuxieme (no longer in existence). The production team had brought in a belly dancer for entertainment at intermission, and I wondered how the heck are the writers to come, including Michael, Marc Poirier, and Sue MacLeod from Halifax, going to follow such an act but they did, with aplomb. In Michael’s case he upstaged the belly dancer by reading a few of his well-crafted erotic poems.
I had heard about Michael, of course, and his long battles with Mount Allison University’s administration. Students reported on his witty and erudite lectures and his sometimes strict grading system. His reputation as one of the founders and driving forces behind the WFNB was well established. What was new, when I got to know him a little, was his long record of publication, as a critic and a poet, and his wide experience, as a world traveller and a teacher in several different countries, mostly third world. We kept in touch and when his book The Unpleasant Subject: Sketches around Hitler, was published in 2001, we arranged for a launch in Moncton, at my bookstore, the Attic Owl. This was the first of several appearances at the Attic Owl over the next ten or twelve years. In 2006 he took part in an event at the bookstore to celebrate Valentine’s Day. We called it “Erotica Night” and again Michael stole the show.
When he was in Moncton he would often come into the bookstore to ask for a book. Sometimes Elin would be with him, and I felt we were just getting to know her when suddenly we didn’t see or hear from either one of them for months. We learned that they had had a devastating fire at their house, which meant that they had to live somewhere else (in a hotel I believe) for much longer than they could bear. Not too long after this, Elin was diagnosed with lung cancer and she died December 11, 2008.
Michael was lonely and depressed those first few months after Elin’s death and might have faded into nothingness had it not been for his children and his cats which he had to look after.We (my wife Elaine and I) gradually became very close to him in the years after Elin’s death. We were often at his house for supper and frequently accompanied him to a play at Live Bait Theatre in Sackville or sometimes at the theater company in Parrsboro. (The best of these, at Live Bait, was “The Dresser” played brilliantly by Sandy Burnett.)
In December 2011, at the Attic Owl, he read from his recently published book, Losing Elin, a very touching moment never to be forgotten by those in attendance. Michael published more than twenty books during his lifetime, including more than ten books of poetry and full-length critical studies of Siegfried Sassoon (1966) and Edmund Blunden, which are still benchmark studies. He published Doris Lessing’s Africa (in the early 1970s, as I remember), and once, much to our delight, loaned us the tapes of the lengthy interview he did with Lessing for the BBC.
Eventually, Michael reconnected with an amazing woman (Jill Bentley), a painter, whom he had known long ago in England, before he left to see the world in the late 50s. Much as we were glad to see Michael happy again, we were sad when he and Jill decided that England was the best place for them to have a life together. We kept in touch by letter and postcard. I regret that we didn’t keep in touch these last few months, leading up to his death. We made the wrong assumption, that a man so alive, so interested in everything, so brilliant, would live another five years, easily. In a letter dated July 29, Jill had made it clear that his health was failing, the main or most worrisome manifestation being shortness of breath. But we chose not to see how dire was her warning.
In his own letter to us, dated that same July 29, in his beautiful, tiny, sometimes illegible script (a scrawl he called it), the last full-length letter we received from him, Michael (who was almost completely deaf at this time) wrote “I read a lot – we both do, though Jill is the one who belongs to a reading group.” He mentions several books he’s been reading, including Ann Tyler’s Breathing Lessons (“with great pleasure as always”) and the novel The Fishermen by a young Nigerian whose name he can’t quite remember, which “brought back many memories from my years there in the early 60s.”
I’ll go now, Michael, and try to find one or both of these books and search for what you saw in them that was so special.