Irving Layton: Our Years Together


a memoir by Harriet Bernstein

262 Pages
May 15, 2019

Much has been written by others about the relationship Irving Layton and Harriet Bernstein shared, and most of it is inaccurate. This book tells the true story, and in so doing provides a look into the CanLit scene between 1974-1981. Students and admirers of Layton’s work will discover the genesis of many poems; other readers will find a unique and powerful love story, one that also probes issues of feminism, creativity, and self-creation.

“I couldn’t put down this vivid and sincerely rendered story of the tragic love between a beautiful, idealistic young woman and a brilliant aging poet. Relying on her old journals from the Seventies, and letters and poems by Irving Layton, Harriet Bernstein has broken her silence of thirty-seven years to tell us what it was like loving a creative maelstrom who once dominated our literature. Readers and scholars alike will relish Bernstein’s memoir.”

—Susan Swan

“Time does not heal all wounds. It can’t. It shouldn’t. Especially the wounds of true love. Time does, however, allow for reflection, for reckoning, for recounting and retelling. Harriet Bernstein’s memoir Irving Layton: Our Years Together  is a story about true love. It is unbelievable. It is maddening. It is passionate. It is sexual. It is sensual. It is torturous. It is extraordinary.

Vanessa Shields, author of I Am That Woman and Look at Her

“Harriet Bernstein’s memoir of her impetuous and tempestuous love affair with dynamic and deathless poet Irving Layton (1912-2006) is not only the record of a December-May romance (he was 62 and she only 26 when their amour commenced). It’s also mythic: Venus wooed by Vesuviusin-the-flesh; a madonna courted by Don Juan. After an ephemeral marriage to Stephen Shuster (son of the Frank Shuster), Bernstein became thel over of and inspiration to Spanish Flamenco master Antonio Vargas andto Italian screenwriting legend Luciano Vincenzoni. But when “destiny”denied these passions, Bernstein developed what turned out to be a seven-year-long yen for Layton, 1974-81, which saw her serve as erotic Muse, publicity impresario, homemaking helpmate, and then, lastly, mother to their daughter, Samantha, herself a writer and poet. Bernstein portrays Layton as a volcanic figure, spewing ink, spunk, and piss-and-vinegar, all to buttress vigorous affections and militant opinions. He appears in these vivid pages as an irascible, cantankerous, lusty, would-be Ubermensch, all Mediterranean chutzpah and cojones, a sun-besotted, Byron, Hebraic, and as shameless as light. For her part, Bernstein loved that Nietzsche-spouting Apollo too well, not wisely.… In their sojourns about the Mediterranean—Italy—and the Americas—St. Lucia and Mexico—Bernstein recalls, via colourful diary jottings, the births of Layton’s poems and books–usually on a balcony overlooking a beach, and records also his frenetic pursuit of Nobel Prize laurels. Bernstein writes compellingly this page-turner of a memoir, conjuring up her flower-power, ban-the-bomb, and “tune-in/turn-on/drop-out” free-spirit youth in Toronto and Boston, but also those idyllic Greek islands where Leonard Cohen would anchor, all wry and ironic and sipping retsina.

Not only is Bernstein a sprightly witness to that most vital poet, Layton, his gusto and genius,she is also the savvy insider of that era–the 1970s–when women were becoming feminists and English-Canadians were beginning to believe that they could truly be Nobel-global poets and filmmakers of Oscar- award consequence. For me, she herself becomes a kind of reverse-Elizabeth Smart, that Canuck woman writer who gave seemingly all of herself to the British poet George Barker. No, Harriet Bernstein always maintained a core independence from Layton, despite loving him indelibly, and this remains her own radiant, intellectual beauty, everywhere enlightening this sometimes tearful, and  always wistful saga.”

George Elliott Clarke, 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016 & 17)

“We are all destined to play a role in someone’s life, be it big or small.  But the role most likely to bring euphoric joy, ultimate glory, and incomparable pain is the role of lover and muse. Harriet Bernstein’s candid, blunt and most compelling memoir will take you for a roller coaster ride into the passions of her body and soul. Bernstein holds nothing back. A rare, intelligent, and creative free spirit who reveals the sensual and painful moments of her romantic affairs with some of the art world’s most creative and dynamic men. But it is her irrefutable love and complicated relationship with Canada’s most iconic bad boy of poetry, Irving Layton, that is a love story to sing to. If you thought you knew all there was to know about Irving Layton then you did not see him through Harriet’s eyes. As lover, muse, wife, and mother to their daughter Samantha, she offers a side of Layton rarely explored by academics. She exposes a man whose complicated, insatiable appetites and vulnerabilities were genius and whose generosity and yet volatile behaviour was giant. This is a love affair that refuses to end long after the flames are spent. A memoir to keep you turning pages long into the wee hours of the night.”

—Gianna Patriarca, author of Italian Women and Other Tragedies and All My Fallen Angelas


Harriet Bernstein is a romantic feminist who married Irving Layton for love and for art. A former film business executive (the first female General Manager of a major film distribution company), she was for many years a single, working parent whose most important job and joy was being a mother, and now, a Bubbie. She lives a full, powerful, and vibrant life in Toronto, despite having to manage many physical challenges. Her goals are to keep writing and to continue to make great soups.

1 review for Irving Layton: Our Years Together

  1. Renée Knapp

    Irving Layton: Our Years Together by Harriet Bernstein
    reviewed by The Minerva Reader – August 1, 2019

    Gianna Patriarca, author of Italian Women and Other Tragedies and All My Fallen Angelas, was right, “This is a love affair that refuses to end long after the flames are spent.” Even if Irving Layton were not the fascinating literary character that he is and, by virtue of that fact alone, intriguing, this book would hold you in its thrall. It’s a tour de force of passionate sensual love and a riveting read that demonstrates all the complexities of a perfectly imperfect, doomed love. A love affair so wonderful at times that as a reader you ask yourself how it could all have gone wrong. But not all great loves are intended to last forever, they burn so brightly that their light reflects long after they are gone, a spent star still sending shimmering and mesmerizing light.

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