Friday, February 24, 2006

Uncivil Elegies: The Mystery of Civic Square

I am wondering if anyone can tell me more about Scott Symons' Toronto novel, Civic Square (published as a limited facsimile edition by McClelland & Stewart in 1969).

The novel is mentioned occasionally, usually in passing, and while many people seem to have heard of it, few appear to have read it. Perhaps this is understandable: the book, known as "the book in the box", was published as a facsimile (i.e., photocopied) edition of the original manuscript, and is nearly four inches thick. Symons himself -- an artist and curator as well as a writer -- is described as "one of Toronto's more notorious novelists" (Gatenby, 1999: 47) and as an "alleged talent-free genius" in a 1997 Eye Weekly article.

Through some lucky sleuthing, I was able to locate a copy of Civic Square, which arrived today by parcel post. My copy came in a blue presentation box, wrapped in white ribbon and emblazoned with a wax seal, with the title stamped in silver ink on the cover. My copy is signed by the author in red pen and is identified as "number 206 of a signed limited facsimile edition of the original manuscript." I have begun reading this afternoon, but the manuscript format means it will be some time before I finish.

A summary of the book (at describes Civic Square as follows:
Written as letters addressed to "Dear Reader," Civic Square is symphonic in its range of tone and style. Largely satiric, it is the story of a man who finds himself in a cultural upheaval as the stifling society of Toronto in 1966 begins to crumble around him - begins to crumble, in part, because he himself is kicking against the walls that constrain. Caught between a huge admiration for the older values of Rosedale and the dynamic new energy of Yorkville, with its musicians, poets and writers of the counter-culture movement, the narrator finds himself trying to reconstruct his world in every aspect. First published as a limited edition in 1969, Civic Square is a lost Canadian classic that has never before been widely available.
I have read (in the aforementioned Eye article) that the original title for Civic Square was "The Smugly Fucklings", until Jack McClelland's intervention prior to publication. Civic Square is apparently one of five books Symons has published. Also from what I read, Symons himself (born in 1933) was a controversial figure in Toronto and Montreal, coming out of the closet before doing so was de rigeur, holding forth dangerously on politics, and taking flight with a variety of lovers. Symons himself describes Civic Square as "obscene, pornographic, scandalous, irreverent, malicious, malignant and magnificent" (frontispiece pages). A documentary about Symons, called God's Fool was produced in 1997 or 1998. I have seen reference to a 2001 reprint of Civic Square (purportedly put out by Simon & Pierre; ISBN no. 0889242984; cover image shown above), but have not found evidence it was ever made available.

At this point I'm curious. I realize that thirty-five year old literary scandals lose some of their intensity in light of the many ways Toronto has loosened up in the meantime, but it seems surprising that Civic Square should have faded to a literary footnote.

If you know more about Civc Square, please write me at or comment here.


Gatenby, Greg, 1999. Toronto: A Literary Guide. Toronto: MacArthur & Company.

Lypchuk, Donna, 1997. "Symons Says: How to be a Smugly" Eye Weekly, December 11, 1997.

Symons, Scott, 1969. Civic Square. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Symons, Scott, 1998. Dear Reader: Selected Scott Symons. Toronto: Gutter Press. (I haven't seen this but include it for reference)

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