Mark Abley reflects on his father, his music and fragile soul

Mark AbleyMark Abley

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind by Mark Abley, University of Regina Press, 297 pages

It takes inordinate courage for a writer to tackle issues and questions fundamental to his character: How have my parents and family shaped my identity? What is the true nature of my relationship with my father? Do I really know him? Am I the person I hoped to be? Do I fit the only-child paradigm? What have I inherited from my father?

Mark Abley has explored these questions in his latest work of non-fiction, and with more than his usual story-telling skill, has produced a searing, searching, and serious examination of his own life juxtaposed with the story of his father — church organist Harry Abley.

It is much more than a biography of his late father and his life as an organist. The book has several threads: Itis a memoir, a personal exploration of Abley’s own past and that of his family — with its gifts, joys, frustration and pain. It is laced with literary references and interspersed with Abley’s poetry.

Harry Abley’s early life was something of a mystery, and as in his work as an award-winning feature writer and editor at the Montreal Gazette, Mark Abley researched his father’s early days, venturing back to his hometown in a roots venture to conduct interviews and observe the sources that produced his dad.

As Mark notes early on, Harry Abley chose not to speak about his life – “a battlefield full of unexplained skirmishes…He had no desire to inform his son about the explosions that deformed the landscape. We remained silent and the silence corroded us both.”

The book is as much a story about life with a father who grappled with the ups and downs of clinical depression as it is the story of the son, Mark Abley, Prairie–raised Rhodes Scholar, Guggenheim Fellow, author of six books of non-fiction, four collections of poetry, and two children’s books, husband, and father of two.

Abley immediately lays out the path he has chosen for this look at his life – “an anxious boy who grew up to be an anxious man” — and parallels with his troubled father. Both had brilliant beginnings.

“Like my father, I showed great promise as a child,” he writes, noting that Harry Abley, shortly after his mother died, had clinched first prize as a teenager among his cohort in an organ competition for the entire UK, “an astonishing feat for a shy, grieving tongue-tied boy from an obscure little town on the Welsh-English border he would come to dismiss as ‘the last place on Earth’.”

The apple did not fall far from the tree when it came to young Mark’s prowess as a student. He was intellectually advanced for his age, was pushed ahead two grades, and won a slew of medals, prizes, and awards, and yet … “none of them began to show me what it might be like to feel whole.”

Bullied, as one of the smallest kids in his class and a new immigrant with a British accent who was far ahead of his peers academically, Mark harbored deep scars. The brilliance he shared with his father, he reflects, carried with it a sense of the void. Yes, Mark Abley has found joy as a husband and a father living in Pointe Claire, but on the confessional side of this remarkable exercise of introspection, he alludes to the mystery of understanding “what it means to be a man.”

“Even as I’m praised for my gentleness, I’m told there is some kind of absence about me. If so, the balance has much to do with my father.”

Both found it hard to adapt to life in Canada.

You will read how Mark showed devotion to his father, even as his father was consumed by depression. As he writes, in one memorable and
insightful passage: “Depression kept him company in his loneliness. No matter how well his life might seem to be going, depression could be aroused by the next conversation, the next newscast, the next memory. Depression was his silent confidant, his intimate enemy. Depression was patient and infinitely tolerant: it never turned him away.”

Anyone who has suffered from this condition will appreciate the insight of this observation.

Mark helped out in many ways, including subsidizing his parents’ living expenses in Saskatoon by mailing his friend, who was their landlord, a quarterly check to keep the rent affordable and low. This was done without their knowledge when he was trying to earn a decent living as a freelance writer. And he was there when his father was dying of cancer, among the most moving segments of the book, one that will hit home to many.

For all his difficulties in coping with a world where mastery of the church organ seemed more and more anachronistic, it was at the keyboard, leading, or teaching music where Harry Abley found refuge and felt justified, much as Mark Abley finds full voice in words and language.

“Music allowed him to feel useful in the world,” he writes. “Inaccessible and inviolable, it kept depression at bay.”

What a deeply moving and richly-composed testimonial!

Other stories featuring Mark Abley:
Poet Mark Abley faces down Pinocchio, other ghosts in new book
Mark Abley lends a voice to a Canadian black sheep
Mark Abley on co-operation among Canadian political parties

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