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Remembering George Jonas, 1935–2016

George Jonas

George Jonas

George Jonas was a 21-year-old journalist in 1956, when he left Budapest after the brutal Soviet suppression of the uprising in Hungary. He arrived in Toronto and worked at a number of short-term jobs, including driving a taxi, before resuming his career in 1962 at the CBC. A respected journalist, poet, memoirist, and writer of award-winning non-fiction and radio and television scripts, George died on Jan. 10 at the age of 80. He is survived by his son, Alex, his two grandsons, and his wife of 29 years, Maya Cho.

George’s publishing career began in 1967, when the newly formed House of Anansi Press published the poetry collection The Absolute Smile, edited by Dennis Lee, alongside a re-issue of Margaret Atwood’s Governor General’s Literary Award winner, The Circle Game. The Absolute Smile was endorsed by Al Purdy, who wrote: “Jonas is Jonas and he’s very good.” Three years later, Anansi published The Happy Hungry Man, and in 1973 it published Cities. George’s last two books – out of 18 – were The Jonas Variations: A Literary Séance and Selected Poems 1967–2011. Between these poetry bookends, his published work includes 20 years of opinion pieces for the Toronto Sun, 15 years of columns for the National Post, a novel, memoirs, the Edgar Award winner By Persons Unknown: The Strange Death of Christine Demeter (written with Barbara Amiel), and Vengeance: The True Story of an Israeli Counter-Terrorist Team, which was the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film, Munich. In addition to the Edgar, Jonas won the Periodical Distributors of Canada Author’s Award three times: twice for Best Paperback Book (By Persons Unknown, 1978, and Vengeance, 1985), and once for Personality Feature (“The Nice Man Cometh” in Toronto Life, 1987). For his journalism, he won the National Magazine Award three times: in 1991, 2006, and 2007.

He also won awards for his radio and television writing, including the Nelly Award (twice) for Best Canadian Radio Program; the Gabriel Award for Best Radio Entertainment Program in North America; the Gold Medal, New York International Radio Festival; and two Gemini Awards.

An avid motorcyclist and aviator, he won the International World of Motorcycling Max Award for motorsport journalism, and again for A Passion Observed, his 1989 motorcycle memoir.

These awards, together with the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012) and the Order of Canada (2013), do not begin to hint at the man George Jonas was. Yes, he was a very accomplished craftsperson, with publications, productions, and awards that would be the envy of any writer. Yet the essential George Jonas was someone very different from what these achievements describe.

Prior to publishing a column in August 2014, in which he acknowledges our friendship and relationship – I was then the publisher of one of his books, The Jonas Variations, and he was under contract to write another – he sent me an email that included the text of the entire column. The subject was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In it, he referred to me as suffering from “moral illiteracy,” then moderated this with, “At least the bien pensants of the chattering classes who display this particular error cannot be described as morally deficient in most other respects.” After I read the column, I spoke to George on the phone. He wanted me to email Jon Kay at the Post, asking for space to respond. If Jon did not grant me the space, George would turn his next column over to me. Jon Kay did give me the space, and my response was published. George wrote me in email about my riposte: “[V]ery shrewd in that it lets you win by taking the high road.” The point for George, however, wasn’t about winning; the point was about having an informed public discussion on a very complicated subject.

George’s belief, though he did not put it into these words for me, could be summed up as, “A good idea should be able to withstand vigorous debate, and a great one gets better.”

71nDuF7tdaLIn 2011, Robyn Sarah, the poetry editor at Cormorant, chose to publish George’s collection of homages, translations, and variations on the poets and poetry of what could be called the great European tradition. The three of us had to work closely, mostly by email, but on several occasions I met with George. He was by nature a very encouraging and generous teacher. As we went over his manuscript, I learned about his vast reading – he could read in Hungarian, English, French, German, Russian, and Latin sufficiently to translate Faludy, Rimbaud, Heine, and Pushkin – and about the poets he had translated. He wanted to share his reading, and the pleasure it brought him. All of this made its way into the final book.

Along this journey, we talked about a number of things, including his friends, one of whom was famously serving time in a U.S. prison. When George learned that I thought Conrad Black’s verdict had been in error, he gave me Conrad’s email address and asked me to write to him. “He needs to know that other people, too, see what happened as a miscarriage of justice.” It was clear that loyalty to his friends was a serious matter to him.

Many of his friendships were of long-standing, as evidenced by Margaret Atwood’s introduction to his Selected Poems 1967–2011, and evidenced by the people who came together to make the book possible – among them Barbara Amiel and Anna Porter – and the people who came together to be filmed reading from the book, including David Cronenberg, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Dennis Lee. We all dropped what was on our schedules to make two of George’s dying wishes a reality.

The project was begun on Nov. 9, 2015, when Anna Porter took me aside to ask how quickly Cormorant could bring out a selected poetry of George Jonas. Unaware that his health had begun to decline precipitously, I answered that we could schedule the book for 2017. “No, no, Marc,” Anna said. “I’m asking about days. Not even weeks.” In the following days, the poems were chosen, entered into computer files, typeset, proofread, corrected, a cover was designed, and the book went to press. On Dec. 18, a launch was held at George’s home. He saw the book, but by that time was unable to hold it. His home was filled with friends, and we were taken upstairs to visit him, one by one or two by two, as he was in a hospital bed, set up in his library, with pictures of his son and grandsons in easy reach.

It was difficult to see a man whose eyes used to twinkle with mischief and mirth when he talked; whose head tilted when awaiting an answer to a particularly difficult question. He would no longer be writing columns or poetry, there would be no new manuscripts, he would no longer fly a single-engine plane, ride a motorcycle, or take his wife to the Hotel de Crillon in Paris.

But the man in the hospital bed was not the man I knew, and is not the man whose memory I will treasure. I am left with the memory of a man whose poetry – and all of his writing – was a natural extension of the breadth and depth of his reading. In the Variations, it’s clear that George had carried on a lifelong conversation with the great poets – and in reading his books of poetry in preparation for the selected, I saw that in his early lyrics he was not only engaged with Babits, Rilke, and Heine, but also his contemporaries, most notably Dennis Lee. George’s was a richer world, a world of ideas and passion, a world into which the price of admission was friendship and a willingness to learn and read.

Marc Côté is the publisher of Cormorant Books.

Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the number of years Jonas and Maya Cho had been married. Q&Q regrets the error.