Scott Symons, a Canadian literary star of the late 1960s, died early this moring in a Toronto nursing home, says his lawyer, Marian Hebb. He was 75.
Symons, openly gay at a time when coming out was still so fraught it could be the death knell for a career, wrote two controversial novels that established him as a potent and scathing presence in the then burgeoning CanLit scene. Place d'Armes (1967), featuring two Symonesque narrators and five typefaces, is about both the emergence of a true self through sexual encounter with another man (Symons, from a distinguished Rosedale family, had been married) and the decay of Canadian, and especially French-Canadian, traditions. Despite nasty reviews, it later won the Beta Sigma Phi First Canadian Novel Award.
Civic Square (1969) was a huge book, which, at Symons's insistence was unwieldily boxed rather than bound. Though the book was a savage attack against the "Blandmen" of the Toronto establishment in which Symons grew up, the former curator of the Canadiana collection at the Royal Ontario Museum personally, and possibly light-heartedly, decorated each box -- sometimes a bird, sometimes a phallus -- with a red felt pen.
Symons's peripatetic life, and lifestyle, took him and various companions to Mexico, Europe and finally to Morocco, before he returned to Canada. He wrote one more novel, Helmet of Flesh (1986), the first of a projected trilogy and, by all accounts, typically lyrical, passionate and hyperbolic.
He also wrote a unique book about Canadian furniture called Heritage: A Romantic Look at Early Canadian Furniture.
I never met Symons. And somewhat regret it (I think). His life and work were colourful and suggestive enough to have occasioned both a biographical essay by Charles Taylor (that Charles Taylor, of The Globe and Mail and the Taylor Prize) in Six Journeys and a documentary film by Nick Sheehan, God's Fool.
A full obituary is forthcoming later this week.
UPDATE: Anna Porter sent me this reminiscence of working with Scott:
"I was the person who ran the gestettner (sp?) machine for Civic Square and stacked and put the damned thing into those blue boxes. Scott did his curly phalluses and sometimes a personal dedication on each 'title page,' before I closed the boxes. That was how we met. I also worked with him on the Canadian furniture book. He dictated almost all of it and I typed it. Saw a lot of him for many years, but not for the last couple. I did, however, read a partial manuscript he was working on about what happened to him and his lover in Morocco -- where they had a beautiful home. I wonder whether he submitted it somewhere."