George Jonas

It was typical of George to die on the same day as David Bowie. There was an inner modesty about him. And yet, he was capable of gentle admonition, as in this case. The world applauds Bowie, a.k.a. Ziggy Stardust, &c, pioneer of transgenderism in pop music, and a few other things. It was typical of Bowie to die on the same day as George Jonas. He never had any taste.

Today I am writing this for George. Excuse this, gentle reader: for the moment I don’t care much about you. I am writing as I might to George, if only to you. And you may read it, but you may be appalled. It may seem, even by my usual standard, somewhat disjointed. You see, a part of us dies with each close friend, and I suppose we write our own obituaries, from just that part of us which is now dead.

My last call on George, ended in a characteristic way. I shall remember his last words, to me, a couple of weeks ago. At the usual loss for what to say, in delicate circumstances; having held his hand for long minutes in a final handshake; I found nothing to add except, “I love you, George.” He forced me to move my head closer, to hear his reply. It was: “Sentimental fool!”

But I have lost one of my most loyal readers. And he has lost one of his.

Dear, dear, dear George. I have known he was dying for some time: just look at him. Parkinson’s and a few other diseases, like my mama; all fatal, like birth itself.  By the time one is in the hands of the palliative specialists — worse than the socialists in some ways — one has lost one’s freedom of movement entirely. People really must come to you. And the good-byes get longer and more awkward.

He had known he was dying, too, from about the age of three. Though not a religious person — no, not at all, by nature or from his nominally Jewish upbringing either — he was blest with what I would call “spiritual tact.” He had no difficulty understanding religious nutjobs, especially Catholic ones I think; he understood the role of faith in civilization. He, the late John Muggeridge, and I, made one natural conversational trio (or quartet, with Maya, George’s Korean Catholic wife, also among my heroes), in which he was badly outnumbered, but right at home.

He was the classic 1950s liberal, perhaps the last standing. By about a decade ago, the only ones left were all from the old Habsburg domains. Put it on the record that the last was from Budapest. He came to Canada not entirely by choice, after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, at a time when “classical liberals” were still acceptable; they could even get jobs at the CBC. From right here in Toronto, he watched Western Civ dying.

Suffice to say, a classical liberal is only one degree from a wild reactionary, by the notions of the present day. He believes, for instance, in right and wrong.

An incredible guy. Spoke perhaps three words of English when he landed in Canada. (“Though not fluently.”) Within a few years he was writing poems in our language: good ones. By the time he gave up writing last fall — once again, not entirely by choice — he was the best prose stylist left in what is left of our periodical press, with more than half a century behind him as one of the best writers in English (anywhere).

There is a fine obituary of him by Joseph Brean in the National Post (here), where his column last appeared. Gentle reader (if he hasn’t turned away) may find several amusing Jonas anecdotes over there. I should like to take issue with only one statement. Brean says Jonas was “at heart a newsman.” I don’t think that is true. He was at heart a poet and a thinker, who got involved with broadcasting and newspapers not entirely by choice.

But a brick; an infallibly reliable hack whenever called upon (as by my old Idler magazine, on topics from the opera to abortion). The only deadlines he ever missed were not entirely by choice, either.


It is nearly half a century, now, since I first met George Jonas (1935–2016). I had been dropped from the sky into a Canadian high school (not entirely by choice), and was a nerd who wore a corduroy jacket, and read a lot. (Age fifteen.) He was in the pages of The New Romans: Candid Canadian Opinions of the United States, an anthology of anti-American twaddle, now long forgotten, edited by the late beloved Al Purdy. The bias of the work wasn’t Purdy’s fault. Then, as now, Canadian “intellectuals,” including especially the nasty draft dodgers we took in from the USA, were shameless anti-American bigots. Except, in this book, there was one discordant page.

It was a poem by George Jonas. It was about crossing the border to visit an American woman, and was ribald. It touched on American Imperialism, e.g. “See not her battleships but hear her battlecries, / And melt (perhaps with a wistful smile) / Before the native napalm of her eyes.” … (The ribald bit turned on the phrase, “The world’s longest undefended border.”)

It was the perfect act of droll mockery, undermining all the other contributions. And it is the one piece in that yellowed paperback that still lives.

I wrote a fan-letter. He wrote a very kind reply. We were friends for life.


There are something like sixteen books in his bibliography, several of them investigative potboilers — factual crime thrillers — from which he made a lot of money. They’re good, too, especially as they show the fine working of his Sherlock Holmes mind. George may have been the only writer in Canada capable of formal logic. He applied it to questions of the day, and was therefore among the most effective analytic thinkers, though always with that veneer of self-deprecating charm. I think two of his latest books are for the ages.

One is, The Jonas Variations: A Literary Seance (2011). It is autobiography on the highest level. George pays homage not to the most “beautiful” or outwardly “meaningful” poems he has ever read — in quite a few languages — but to those which have mysteriously stuck with him. It is a collection of translations, playful imitations, variations and even refutations, woven together not only by the author’s unmistakable personality, but by a delightful running commentary of memoirs, vignettes, and useful thumbnail sketches.

So that, although it looks like an anthology, it should be read from front to back like a novel. The book not only presents a gallery of poems, but embodies an overall poetical structure; in the genre of Dante’s Vita Nuova, a pattern larger than its parts; a hidden integration. Yet it “wrote itself,” too, in the way Jonas introduces one of the items:

“Piloting a small plane on a hot summer day from Toronto to Windsor, the drone of the engine insisted on repeating the opening words of Herbsttag, one of Rilke’s frequently anthologized poems. Herr-es-ist-Zeit, Herr-es-ist-Zeit. …”

By the time he landed, the twelve German lines of Rilke’s “Autumn Day” had become English. Jonas entered them in his pilot’s log, crediting the translation to a four-cylinder Lycoming aero-engine.

Lord: It is time. The summer was fair.
Rest your shadow on the sundial’s face,
Release the autumn breezes in the air. …

The other book is his formal autobiography, Beethoven’s Mask: Notes on My Life and Times (2005). But that is really a biography of the twentieth century; and an extremely knowing one.

It wasn’t written for cash; it is too entertaining for that, and the chapter offering his father’s droll apophthegms on various subjects is (for example) hysterically funny. But I would recommend the book instead as a means to understand what happened at large, on the skin of our common planet. Passages of pure and very sober reflection are intermixed with lyrical and sometimes terrifying memoir. And all a kind of libretto for a music one may almost hear.

“My father’s generation tried to explore reality. Mine tried to exploit it. My son’s generation preferred to simulate it.” He finds no ambition in the risen generation: they take no risks, and therefore assume no serious responsibilities. They derive their excitement from video games, and fear the direct encounter. In the end, they have no regard for truth, no stake in it. Looking farther, over the generation of his grandchildren, George said, “I spawned a tribe of virtual people.” He is not speaking only for himself, but within a larger discussion of what history is, and how it will not go away.

I mention these, of course, in addition to his poems, to be bought and treasured wherever they turn up, in any form. His short-run early collections, which I faithfully collected, are almost unobtainable today. His Selected Poems 1967–2011 was very recently published by something called Cormorant Books; there was a little informal launching for it last month by his deathbed. (Buy it here.)


George had a heart attack nearly twenty years ago, in Arizona I think it was. He looked not too much worse for wear, when we next met at The Coffee Mill. But he had given up cigarettes, and was eating, for lunch, some special preparation that appeared to be toast, onions, spinach, and perhaps an anchovy. We called this stalwart, venerable Toronto institution “The Heart Attack Café” thereafter, in honour of that dish, which I also tried from sheer curiosity. Our conversation that day passed over many things, before we walked out onto Yorkville Avenue.

At the corner of Hazelton, where he turned north, we were chatting about the craft of obituary-writing. He complimented me on some obituary I had written on a common friend. Somehow the fact that he was also mortal came into it. I hoped that I would never have to write an obituary of him.

“But if you do,” George said, “make it a good one.”

Here I must break off. I am sorry, George, I just can’t do that today.