KREISEL, HENRY (1922–1991)
Born in Vienna on June 5, 1922, Jewish novelist, literary critic, and academic Henry Kreisel escaped to England after the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Along with other German-speaking Jews and political refugees, he was apprehended as an "enemy alien" in May 1940 and sent to an internment camp in New Brunswick, Canada. He described his camp experience as fortunate in that it liberated him from his factory job and, in the debates among the many intellectuals interned with him, proved to be an excellent "university." While interned, he decided to become a writer in English, taking as his inspiration Joseph Conrad. Released in November 1941, he studied at Harbord Collegiate and the University of Toronto and went on to a career at the University of Alberta as professor of English and vice-president. He died on April 22, 1991.
Kreisel conceived of his fiction as seeing Europe (particularly, the Holocaust) through Canadian eyes and Canada (particularly, its political security and naïveté) through immigrant eyes. In his novels The Rich Man (1948) and The Betrayal (1964) and in the short stories collected in The Almost Meeting (1981), most of which are set during the months immediately preceding the Holocaust or the months and years immediately following it, he explores themes of emotional loss and survival, human dilemmas and weakness leading to moral paralysis and betrayal, and human forgiveness.
Kreisel became a strong and perceptive voice defining Prairie fiction in "The Broken Globe" (1965), his story of a Ukrainian immigrant farmer's passionate attachment to his land, and in the essay "The Prairie: A State of Mind" (1968). This essay surveys earlier fiction about the Canadian Prairies, beginning by noting its frequent analogies between the Prairie landscape and the sea in terms of the vacancy, stillness, and wind of both. Arguing that the physical fact of the Prairie landscape produces a state of mind in which men feel compelled to conquer the land while also feeling diminished and spiritually imprisoned in its vastness, he suggests that this landscape is productive of a puritanism subject to occasional eruptions of violence. This essay was one of the first to note that European settlers' writings about the Prairies suppressed the history and presence of Native peoples.
Henry Kreisel played an active role in the development of Canadian literature curricula in the university and was a founding member (1977) of NeWest Press, which defined its publishing mandate in terms of Prairie regionalism.
Shirley Neuman University of British Columbia
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay. "Henry Kreisel—European Experience of Canadian Reality: A State of Mind." World Literature Written in English 28 (1988): 269–87.
Henry Kreisel Papers, Mss., Collection of the Library of the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg.
Neuman, Shirley, ed. Another Country: Writings by and about Henry Kreisel. Edmonton: NeWest Press, 1985.