Quill and Quire

David Layton

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What the boy remembers

David Layton recalls his formative years as an unwilling jet-setter in Motion Sickness

There’s a curious thing about motion sickness, notes David Layton, who has careened around the globe in virtually every conceivable mode of transport, from jumbo jets and ferries to VW vans and jitneys. The affliction rarely, if ever, strikes the driver. Instead, the sickening waves of nausea, the crushing headaches, and the queasy sense of disorientation are reserved for the passenger. The motion of the vehicle contributes to the condition, but it’s the passenger’s lack of control that produces the gut-churning physical symptoms.

David LaytonFor Layton, the ailment is an apt analogy for childhood. To be a child, says the Toronto author, is to be a passenger in a hurtling vehicle. “You can be told where you’re going, and maybe you can get some sort of explanation as to why you’re going – but that’s the best you can be given. As for whether you’re going … you don’t really have a say in it.”

Layton draws on the image for the title of his recently released memoir, Motion Sickness, an account of his spectacularly unpredictable ride through pre-adolescence. Continents converged, the structure of school life crumbled, and home became a series of stopovers en route to somewhere else as Layton was hauled from Toronto to London to Marrakesh to the Greek Islands by various configurations of his blissfully boho family, which included his father, the celebrated poet Irving Layton, his mother, author Aviva Layton, and his stepfather, author and journalist Leon Whiteson.

Now 35, Layton discusses the tumultuousness of his childhood with equanimity and sincere affection for a set of parents who’ve been described in terms ranging from unconventional to breathtakingly negligent. He remembers, for instance, being pulled out of school in Sydney, Australia, by his mother, who announced they were suddenly leaving for Greece. “I was thrilled,” he says, recalling his eagerness to return to the place where he and his parents had spent numerous happy summers. But later, sitting in the window seat of the plane and observing the slow descent, he realized something was wrong. “I knew it wasn’t possible that we could be in Athens yet – and there was something about the way everything looked, the weight of the clouds, the density of them, that didn’t seem right. I knew right then and there that we were descending into India, or Karachi, or God knows where. And there was nothing I could do.”

As a personal memoir, Layton’s story boasts some unusually compelling elements – his parents’ celebrity, the potent, larger-than-life personalities of their literati friends, who included CanLit legends Leonard Cohen and Scott Symons, and the exotic mystique of 1970s hippie hotspots. But scale down some of the oversized characters and outlandish settings, and in the end, Layton says, this could be the story of growing up in any family. “By and large, there’s a lot of commonality of experience. Not being able to stop your parents going to Karachi, or deciding which school you go to around the corner. It’s in some way equal. It doesn’t matter if you’re tall enough, like I was at 13, to look out the window and understand the scenery, or know the highway. You still have no control over it.”

From the outset, Motion Sickness was conceived as a book about being David Layton, not about being Irving Layton’s son; writing a tell-all account of life with one of Canada’s most flamboyant and controversial artists didn’t interest Layton. Nor, in fact, did the idea of writing a book at all. It was author Alberto Manguel who first proposed the idea to his own publisher, Macfarlane Walter & Ross, following a conversation he had with Layton at the Banff Centre for the Arts. Layton was attending a workshop on arts journalism there in 1995, working on a magazine piece about his father’s friendship with Leonard Cohen and focusing on issues of fame, celebrity, and the effects of growing up under their influence. The two began talking, says Layton, and Manguel asked if he’d ever considered writing a book. “I said, ‘no, I haven’t’ – it was just not something I was thinking about at that point – and I got up and left.

“About a week later, he came up to me and said, ‘David, I have some very good news: I’ve called Macfarlane Walter & Ross and told them all about your book idea, and they’re very excited about it.’”

So the magazine article – published in Saturday Night in 1996 – metamorphosed into a book, with a decidedly different focus. This project would be a highly personal, intimate work, and it would zero in on a specific and significant period in Layton’s life: the childhood years of 10 through 14; 10 because it roughly marks the onset of the emerging adult consciousness that separates children from their parents, and 14 because that was Layton’s age when Irving and Aviva divorced.

Layton’s father and his literary compatriots make infrequent – and brief – appearances in the book, and passages that do feature Layton Sr., Cohen, Symons, and others reveal few details that haven’t appeared elsewhere. “If I was to attempt to write a book that told you things you didn’t already know about Irving Layton,” he says, “and more importantly, told you things you still wanted to know about Irving Layton, there would be 50 people lining up to buy that book. And I wouldn’t be among them, and you wouldn’t be among them.”

As a guiding principle for choosing material, Layton opted to include only events that shaped his life. “There might’ve been some really juicy bit of gossip that I could’ve put in, but had no relevance to what happened later on in my life – it just happened to be juicy gossip. That I kept out. But if there was juicy gossip, if there was something that was very private and intimate and I knew it would have some interest to the reader, but also had an interest to me, then it was in.”

His mother, with whom Layton has a very close relationship, read the book in manuscript form and “loved it.” His father, who’s now in his late-80s and living in Montreal, will see a finished copy when Layton visits the city as part of a national media tour. His relationship with his father – who he often refers to in conversation as “Irving” – is more complicated, and Layton expects his reaction to Motion Sickness will be similar to his response to the Saturday Night article: “Parts of him felt a bit violated, parts of him felt very proud,” he says, his voice hesitating for a moment that’s noteworthy only because the rest of his conversation is so engagingly fluid. “My father gave me perhaps the best compliment – he thought the writing was … was fine. Personally he might’ve felt very uncomfortable with some of it – I suspect he did – but he also enjoyed the writing. And that forgives all.”

In the end, Motion Sickness is about Layton stepping into the literary tradition he has inherited, and the father’s acknowledgment of the son’s place within it clearly matters. But now that David Layton has laid claim to the tradition, will he be able to make it his own? Does Irving Layton’s son have more than the story of his own life to tell?

The answer appears to be yes. Layton’s current work-in-progress is a novel, which Macfarlane Walter & Ross plans to publish. The story he has in mind was inspired by an art installation he saw in London years ago that featured a 60-foot-high fetus. The image stayed with him, and he returned to visit the show as often as he could, indulging at the time in some heavy symbolism – the work appeared to suggest the birth of his own slowly emerging identity. Now, however, he’s moved beyond his own crisis and thinks of the work differently: as a creative springboard for a purely fictional story about a couple trying, unsuccessfully, to have children. The root of their problem is a condition the man has called lazy sperm.

The story will be told from the man’s perspective, Layton says, professing a fascination with male behaviour that offers a glimpse of the single thread that may connect Fertility Rites, the novel, with Motion Sickness, the memoir. “A lot of men are fucked up,” he says. “Especially intelligent men. They end up doing weird things.”