Long live ‘The Studhorse Man’

A naked man narrating a mad tale in a bathtub. A passing Indian on a bicycle. Bones for war.

A naked man narrating a mad tale in a bathtub. A passing Indian on a bicycle. Bones for war.

A studhorse man with a rare blue stallion in desperate need of a white mare to continue this unusual bloodline. But its wartime; bones for war get money. And who needs horses anymore now there are cars?

Per Asplund, my friend and fellow filmmaker at the time, gave me a copy of The Studhorse Man in the early 80’s. He loved this raucous book.

How odd — a Swede like Per loving Canadian literature — I thought as I began to read it. And I was swept away into the mad world of Hazard Lepage.

It was my world. It was so familiar. The author Robert Kroetsch had grown up in Heisler and of all things, he’d written a book about Alberta!

It was a fantasy and it was also a history book. It captured a time in this place when life was in transition. And it gripped the desperation of a madman . . . and the reader in its grasp.

Per wanted to make a movie of this book he so loved. Somehow, as I read it, I saw it. I wrote down the movie I saw — and then we made a pilgrimage to Winnipeg to meet with Bob.

Both Per and I had made dozens of productions by that time but we were relative novices when it came to feature films. But somehow the crazy insistence of Hazard Lepage — The Studhorse Man — on achieving his dream drove us on to try and achieve ours.

Robert Kroetsch — “Bob” — as he invited us to call him — was welcoming and modest. At that time his book had already won the Governor General’s award and was being taught at universities around the world as a fine example of unique Canadian literature. But he was no elitist. He met with us and seemed to like our approach. We told him we also wanted a great director to make his book into a movie. We had our sights set on Milos Forman.

For the next 10 years or so, Per and I lived and breathed The Studhorse Man. We became like Hazard — relentlessly determined. We gradually immersed ourselves in the madness of Demeter. We did all we could to try and make a great Canadian novel into a great Canadian film — and managed to meet with Milos in the process. He was busy doing Amadeus and directed us to his teacher Vojtech Jasny — another Czech with a raft of international film awards.

All along the way Bob seemed to enjoy vicariously living a different kind of novel of his novel through our adventures. Though we typically dealt with his lawyer on business issues, we kept him informed of our progress and setbacks.

And he was always so mellow, so amused, so supportive.

At some point our desperation became despair when the powers that be in filmmaking in Alberta and Canada determined that a Czech director with 44 international awards ‘did not qualify’ to make an Alberta story into an international quality film about Alberta. That would not be Canadian enough. We were, like Hazard, cornered and beat up by the very thing we loved.

Broke and broken-hearted we had to stop.

It was so disheartening and worse, we felt we let Bob down. But he didn’t seem to feel that way. For him it was all grist for the mill. For the character study of life.

Per and I met with Robert Kroetsch last spring at Huckleberry’s in Wetaskiwin. All of us had aged, but he was still the quiet, mellow observer with a ready wit, the kind of wit that farmers have because they take the time to look and see what’s going on around them.

“We’re crazy fools,” we said. “We’d like to try again.”

He understood. It’s a kind of sickness — obsessive love of a dream.

I saw him at his lodge in Leduc a couple of times since.

He gave me a copy of Too Bad his recent book of poems. It’s a stark, wry, amusing assessment of aging; a good wake-up call for youthful boomers like me.

Next time you complain about the pizza, enjoy it — for one day you’ll only dream of being able to chew it.

He told me at the time that ‘I’m not buying any green bananas these days’ and laughed — yet he was here and there zipping across the province more than a person half his age — at readings and such like.

We stopped by Sunday to say ‘hi’. He was out. And now he is gone. I hope before the fatal accident that he had taken a side-trip to see his home town of Heisler on his way home from Canmore’s artspeak.

Kroetsch wrote of the passion, obsession and fulfillment of trying to attain delirious impossible dreams. He knew it is the sickness and the medicine all in one, and sometimes you just can’t stop yourself.

Michelle Stirling Anosh is a Ponoka-based freelance writer.

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