21 March 2017

An Award-Winning Novelist's Bowdlerized Debut

The Pillar of Fire
Gordon Green
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

The Praying Mantis
H. Gordon Green
Fredericton: Brunswick, 1953

H. Gordon Green received an Avery Hopwood Award for The Praying Mantis. I wasn't much impressed because I'd never heard of the Avery Hopwood Awards. Now that I'm familiar, I'm still not much impressed. Open only to University of Michigan students, dozens are handed out each year. In 1948, Green was awarded $600 for his unpublished manuscript. A year or so later, he received a further $400 by selling the condensation rights to Export Publications for use in their News Stand Library.

"I was horrified when the paperback came out to see how the original had been murdered," he later wrote. "Only about half of the original was used [and] I look back on my dealings with them with no pleasant memories."

What did he expect? News Stand Library never published a book longer than 160 pages. The Pillar of Fire, the title slapped on the condensation, comes within two of that number (and its pages are very dense). It wasn't until 1953, with Brunswick's The Praying Mantis, that Green's novel was published unabridged. While I can't say it was worth the wait, I will allow that many of the best bits were lost in the cutting.

Have you read Erskine Caldwell? I haven't, but I once collected Signet paperback editions of his books because I liked the cover art. Judging those books by their covers has me thinking they're mildly risqué tales set amongst poor, uneducated folks in the rural American South.

I could be wrong.

In any case, I thought about Caldwell when reading The Pillar of Fire and again when tackling The Praying Mantis. Both versions of the novel were published when Caldwell was at the height of popularity, a time in which his books were selling in the hundreds of thousands per annum. Green didn't share that good fortune.

His novel takes place in rural Ontario. His heroine, Myra Leduc, is a swell-looking girl of nineteen. She lives with her French Canadian father, her English Canadian mother, and far too many siblings. Because the Leduc family is impoverished – again, too many siblings – Myra travels to take a job with Uncle Jurd, her mother's brother. Judd Galloway is an interesting character, though we have seen him before. A successful farmer, he holds great sway over his dry country as the fiery pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Hall. Jurd's Lord isn't merciful, nor is he:
Judd came slowly down the walk. Myra saw the little woman timidly draw him aside, heard her speak. "... I was thinking about Pat," the woman faltered, begging the fevered eyes that looked down at her now. "Pat used to play the fiddle you know. But is was only for the old-time squares and the likes of that. He couldn't play jazz.... And he was a very good man really.... Well, you remember how it happened. That time his car hit the bridge he was... he was coming home from playing that French wedding party... but he was a good man, really.... Don't you think?...."
     The old woman dared say no more. She didn't have to.
     Judd said, "Playing the fiddle for the lust of the flesh, Sister? And for a pagan wedding?" He shook his head slowly, with a terrible finality. "The wrath of ou God is an awful thing, Sister. An awful thing!"
As I say, we've seen characters like Jurd before in American literature. His kind may feature in Caldwell, but I haven't read Caldwell. While I haven't encountered anyone like him in any other Canadian novel, I'm sure they're there somewhere.

Judd is very tightly wound, and things are only getting worse. Myra has come to his farm because her Aunt Belle, Jurd's wife, is dying of cancer. And then there's simple son Matt. "He wouldn't hurt a fly... really," Aunt Belle tells Myra, but Jurd feels otherwise:
"When a lad is mature in his body and not in his mind, he's likely to get a lot of urge that could be mighty dangerous to an attractive girl like you. especially when he's strong."
Judd's warning appears in The Praying Mantis, but not in The Pillar of Fire. It wasn't until I read it that I realized Matt was an adult; the shorter version somehow had me thinking he was an adolescent. News Stand Library was never known for its editing – authors were lucky if their names were right – but I can't really blame the nameless for the
misconception. I come to praise, not bury. In order to make Green's manuscript fit the 158-page format, over half the novel had to be excised. The skill demonstrated is worthy of the surgeons who once worked on Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Green's plot is left virtually intact, which isn't to say that I don't prefer The Praying Mantis. The widow's hesitant query about fiddler Pat doesn't feature in The Pillar of Fire, nor do Jurd's sermons about "writing and jiggling and jitter-bugging and bunny-hugging and flat-foot-floogying" with "niggers". Pastor Jurd of The Praying Mantis is even more reprehensible.

In both books, Aunt Belle dies, and young Myra becomes the object of Jurd's desire. Recognizing as much, the firm-breasted niece flirts, poses and rubs against her uncle to curry favour, all the while enjoying a clandestine romance with a young McGill science student named Napoleon Cadotte. Skinny dipping is a nightly occurrence.

Does that sort of thing feature in Caldwell? I haven't read the man.

Does it feature in Green's other novels. I'm not sure I care enough to find out.

The critics rave:
It's a common lament that Hopwood winners don't keep on writing. The idea is that the novel, or play, or series of poems with which they won their awards somehow ended rather than began something. Their art was an attempt to impose order on hitherto clashing elements in their own experiences. It was, in short, autobiographical, autocathardic, and, alas, artistically suicidal.
– A.M. Eastman,  Quarterly Review,  August 7, 1954
Objects: One of News Stand Library's more competent productions, The Pillar of Fire enjoyed just one printing. I bought my copy in 2012 from bookseller and poet Nelson Ball. Price: C$25.00.

The Praying Mantis passes itself off as a first edition; no mention is made of it's previous incarnation.  With 309 pages of text and a good number of blanks, it's a fairly bulky thing. It was issued simultaneously in cloth and paper. There was no second printing. My paper copy was purchased five years ago at Attic Books. Price: $3.75. It seems to have once belonged to a woman named Eleanor Coulter, who blessed it twice with her signature, and took the time to transcribe Annie Charlotte Dalton's "The Praying Mantis" on one of the book's many blank pages.

Access: Two Very Good copies of The Pillar of Fire are currently listed online by American booksellers. Prices: US$20 and US$25. A third Yankee offers an incomplete copy in very rough condition at US$12 The University of Calgary appears to be the only library in the country with a copy. The Praying Mantis is not as common as one might expect; only fifteen of our academic libraries and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec have it in their collections. Five copies are listed for sale online, in both cloth and paper editions, at prices ranging from US$3.14 to US$40.00.  I recommend the copy pictured below, offered at US$30.00 by Scene of the Crime in St Catharines, Ontario.

20 March 2017

'Spring Waking' by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

               A snowdrop lay in the sweet, dark ground.
                     "Come out," said the Sun, "come out!"
               But she lay quite still and she heard no sound;
                     "Asleep!" said the Sun, "no doubt!" 
               The Snowdrop heard, for she raised her head,
                     "Look spry," said the Sun, "look spry!"
               "It's warm," said the Snowdrop, "here in bed."
                    "O fie!" said the Sun, "O fie!" 
               "You call too soon, Mr. Sun, you do!"
                    "No, no," said the Sun, "Oh, no!"
               "There's something above and I can't see through."
                    "It's snow," said the Sun, "just snow." 
               "But I say, Mr. Sun, are the Robins here?"
                    "Maybe," said the Sun, "maybe";
               "There wasn't a bird when you called last year."
                    "Come out," said the Sun, "and see!" 
               The Snowdrop sighed, for she liked her nap,
                    And there wasn't a bird in sight,
               But she popped out of bed in her white night-cap;
                    "That's right," said the Sun, "that's right!" 
               And, soon as that small night-cap was seen,
                    A Robin began to sing,
               The air grew warm, and the grass turned green,
                    "'Tis Spring!" laughed the Sun, "'tis Spring!"

from The Shining Ship and Other Verse for Children
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918
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06 March 2017

An 'Other Novel' from Margaret Millar

Wives and Lovers
Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2016

The thirteenth of Margaret Millar's twenty-five novels, Wives and Lovers is often relegated to a spot near the end of the author's bibliographies. The one included in this third volume of the Collected Millar does just that, placing it after the "Paul Pyre Novels", the "Inspector Sands Novels", the "Tom Aragon Novels", and the "Novels of Suspense" as one of her "Other Novels". The category is a small one, shared with only Experiment in Springtime, which I've not read. Until last week, I hadn't read Wives and Lovers either, though I'd long been curious about it. Why the distinction? What makes it so different?

The novel is set in California's Channel City (read: Santa Barbara), fairly familiar territory for Millar. As with so many of her novels, focus shifts between characters, first landing here on Hazel Philip, assistant to dentist Gordon Foster. It is a brutally hot day, made somewhat bearable by the absence of patients. Only two people enter the practice, the first being Ruby MacCormick, "a friend of one of his nieces from up north." Just last week, Hazel had helped Ruby get a job at her ex-husband's restaurant out on the pier. Now, the girl needs help again.
Gordon dried his hands on a linen towel. "Who was at the door?"
"The girl, the one who was here last week."
"Ruby MacCormick."
"Well," he said carefully. "What did she want?"
"She's still here."
"She wants a room. She's moving. I was just trying to find a place for her to go."
Did you catch that... "he said carefully"?

Gordon's wife, Elaine, is the second person to walk through the door. She reminds him of her plans to take the children to the beach.
Elaine believed that Gordon could have been a real doctor if he had more initiative, or if he'd met her earlier in life, so that she could have supplied the initiative. As it was, when they met, Gordon was already a dentist, and even Elaine's considerable powers couldn't make him into anything else. Their marriage had been coloured by Elaine's bile-green feeling that she had been cheated, that Gordon should have been a real doctor because she herself had all the attributes of a perfect doctor's wife.
At the end of the day, Hazel returns the house she shares with her unemployed cousin, her simple-minded brother, and his petite pregnant wife. Ruth, the cousin, goes on about household finances and the suit she'll wear when presenting herself before the School Board. Ruth wants to teach again.

But why isn't Ruth teaching now? Santa Barbara has a shortage of teachers. And did you notice that Ruby showed up at Gordon's office with all her belongings? Why is she suddenly out on the street?

There are many little mysteries in Wives and Lovers; what sets it apart from nearly every other Millar novel is that the most serious crime is the stealing of a pair of hedge clippers. There are no bodies. I spoil nothing in writing this. Consider cover copy. Here is Syndicate's description of Vanish in an Instant, the novel that preceded Wives and Lovers:
In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder.
And here's the description of Beast in View, the novel that followed Wives and Lovers:
Hailed as one of the greatest psychological mysteries ever written, Beast in View remains as freshly sinister today as the day it was first published.
Now, compare with that for Wives and Lovers:
A sincere compassionate novel about the complications of married life, and the love, loathing, pain, loyalty, disappointments and friendship that grow out of marriage.
What makes Wives and Lovers like other Millar novels is that characters are key. What makes it so interesting is that criminal acts are always a possibility. Lives become unstable, desperation takes hold, jealousy and pettiness rear their ugly heads, and the reader braces for violence that never comes.

In other words, Wives and Lovers is a novel about the lives most of us live.

He said he'd like to take a little trip.
     "To San Francisco again?" Elaine said with sweet irony.
     "What do you mean, again?"
     "I only mean that you seem to have had such a gay time there a couple of months ago."
Object: A 553 page trade-size paperback, comprised of Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in ViewAn Air That Kills and The Listening Walls, along with a brief Introduction by Tom Nolan. The Master at Her Zenith is the first third volume – though first to be released – in Syndicate's Collected Millar. I purchased my copy last September. Price: C$19.99.

Access: Published just six months ago, The Master at Her Zenith is easily found in good bookstores. Wives and Lovers itself was first published in 1954 by Random House (above). It appears there was no second printing. Twenty years later, Avon published a mass-market paperback edition. There has been only one translation: Erwecket die Liebe nicht (Düsseldorf: Dörner, 1964).

Nearly all our libraries let us down. Whether separate or as part of the Master at Her Zenith, Wives and Lovers is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Kitchener Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities.

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27 February 2017

A Novel That Killed a Novelist?

In Quest of Splendour [Pierre le magnifique]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Harry Lorin Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

Roger Lemelin's first three novels were published within five years of each other. Au pied de la pente douce (The Town Below), his 1947 debut, was a bestseller. The following year, Les Plouffes (The Plouffe Family) achieved even greater sales, and then went on to became the country's first hit television series. Lemelin's third, Pierre le magnifique didn't fare so well.

The dust jacket of this lonely printing of the English translation depicts the author in repose. I expect Lemelin was deep in thought, though it is hard not to see him as defeated. Long dead critics thought little of Pierre le magnifique, and weren't all that excited by its translation. The Americans, who had published English-language editions of Lemelin's first two novels, took a pass. It would be three decades before he wrote another novel... and that work, Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe (The Crime of Ovide Plouffe), wasn't very good.

In Quest of Splendour is a very good novel. My greatest quibble has to do with its title, but this is the translator's fault; Pierre le magnifique is much better.

Pierre is Pierre Boisjoly, the nineteen-year-old son of a widowed charwoman. Highly gifted and somewhat handsome, he has benefitted from a good education thanks to the patronage of Father Loupret who sees the makings of a cardinal in Pierre. The young man is certainly on the right path, but on the very day of his graduation from Quebec's Petit Séminaire he's thrown off-course by a brief encounter with another young man.

It's not what you think.

Through that young man – name: Denis Boucher – Pierre meets Fernande, whose features are "exactly those of the girl who for years had slept in the depths of his senses." Such is her beauty that the student has no choice but to abandon all plans for the priesthood. That evening, having informed Father Loupret of his decision, he visits Denis and Fernande in their small bohemian flat. Pierre has his first sip of beer and, lips loosened, lets slip that his mother spotted an envelope stuffed with cash while cleaning the home of Yvon Letellier, his wealthy Petit Séminaire rival. Intent on stealing the money so as to pay for his new friend's education, Denis dashes off to the Letellier's. Pierre sets off to stop him. The pair meet up at the house, struggle, and accidentally knock over Yvon's grandmother. She dies on the spot.

The Globe & Mail, 19 November 1955
No one sees the death as at all suspicious – she was old and frail – but Pierre flees the city just the same. He isn't so much running away from the law, but his future past as a Catholic priest. The young man ends up in a lumber camp, where he is exposed to Marxism. Pierre sides with the camp's owner, only to find that he has cast his lot with a violent, unstable drunk who hires prostitutes for the pleasure of beating them. Upon his return to Quebec City, he finds that liberal Father Lippé, the teacher he held above all others, has been placed in a mental institution. The priest's mistake was to enrol in independent sociology classes taught by European schooled Father Martel (read: Georges-Henri Lévesque).

Forget the old lady's death, it's here in the second of the novel's three parts that things become really interesting. Lemelin's The Town Below surprised this reader, born in the early years of the Quiet Revolution, with its mockery of the Catholic Church. In Quest of Splendour goes much farther. Here the Church is depicted as corrupt, punitive and insincere, working with the provincial government to suppress dissent and education. Quebec's Attorney General, who happens to be Yvon's uncle, plays the Communists, enlisting them to smear while targeting moderate liberals for acts of violence. Of course, in real life – our world – the position of Attorney General was not held by Yvon's uncle but by Premier Maurice Duplessis.

Students of history will recognize the risk.

In Quest of Splendour
is as ambitious as it is bold; a brave work by a man who had everything to lose in its writing. Is it really so surprising that reviews in Duplessis' Quebec were lacklustre?

Lemelin's least known novel, it is his best.

About the author:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Object: Two hundred and eighty-eight dense pages bound in dull grey boards with burgundy print. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited. I purchased my copy twenty-eight years ago in Montreal. Price: two dollars.

Access: Pierre le magnifique is in print from Stanké. Price: $13.95. The scarcity of the original, published in 1952 by the Institut littéraire du Québec, is a reflection of its failure in the marketplace.

Harry Lorin Binsse's translation also fared poorly. The McClelland & Stewart was followed the next year by a British edition published by Arthur Baker. As far as I can determine, neither enjoyed more than one a single printing.

Very Good copies of the Canadian edition are being sold online for as little as US$6.50; the British, which shares the same jacket, will set you back just a touch more. At 875 rupees and change, India's Gyan Books offers a print on demand version. Pay no heed, I am certain they're breaking copyright.

An Ontario bookseller offers signed copies of both the Institut littéraire du Québec and McClelland & Stewart editions at US$35 each. Trust me, they're worth it.

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15 February 2017

A Small Town's Biggest Novelist

The newest issue of Canadian Notes & Queries arrived last week, containing all sorts of goodness wrapped in a cover by Seth. My contribution concerns Helen Duncan, the best selling novelist of St Marys, Ontario, our adopted hometown. I'm confident in claiming that Mrs Duncan enjoyed more sales than all others, if only because she also holds the distinction of being the only St Marys novelist to have landed a publishing contract. Her books were issued by Simon & Pierre, were reviewed in Books in Canada and, decades later, can be found in academic libraries as far from this town as Australia's Flinders University.

Mrs Duncan managed to get three novels into print, but the only one I discuss in any length is her 1982 debut, The Treehouse. It's a bildungsroman, a roman à clef, and heavily autobiographical. The family at the novel's centre is modelled on Duncan's family. The house in which they live – that of the title – is modelled on the second of her three childhood homes. It still stands today at the corner of Jones and Peel.

I spoil nothing in revealing that the fictional family later moves into this Queen Anne on Church Street South:

As the title suggests, houses play significant roles in this novel; one might argue that they are better drawn than the characters they shelter. The most interesting is that belonging to the needy widow down the street. The model for this house also stands, at the corner of Jones and King, and is for sale as I write.

A perfect gift for the obsessive Helen Duncan fan.

This issue's "What's Old" features two selections from Regina's Spafford Books, and three of my own: Three Novels of the Early 1960s by Ross Macdonald (New York: Library of America, 2016), Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith (New York: Syndicate, 2016) and The Complete Poems of George Whalley (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2016).

Also featured are contributions by:
Marianne Apostolides
Max Beerbohm
Leone Brander
Jim Christy
Jason Dickson
Deborah Dundas
Andre Forget
Stephen Fowler
Pascal Girard
Emily Keeler
Richard Kemick
David Mason
Dilia Narduzzi
Sarah Neville
Suzannah Showler
Bardia Sinaee
Bruce Whiteman
Did I mention that there's a new story by K.D. Miller? Well, there is!

Suscriptions to CNQ – always a bargain – can be purchased here through the magazine's website.

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13 February 2017

So... not a bodice ripper

Unlacing Lady Thea
Louise Allen
Toronto: Harlequin, 2014

10 February 2017

The Beautiful, Very Desirable Stephen Leacock (and the bloody severed head of Orpheus)

Behind the Beyond was dropped by New Canadian Library during the post-Ross purge. Anyone familiar with the series today knows better than to expect its return. Fortunately, used copies are both inexpensive and plentiful.

The ugliest NCL edition can be bought online for as little as two Yankee bucks, but at nine dollars and up what you really want is the 1913 Bell & Cockburn.

I won't pretend to have seen every edition of every Leacock, but feel confident in holding high this particular one as the most beautiful Leacock of all time. Credit goes to English illustrator A.H. Fish (1890-1964), whose century-old Vogue and Vanity Fair cover illustrations have become a bit of a cash cow for Condé Nast. Premium gilsee prints begin at US$125.

Miss Fish provided decorations, dust jacket and no less than seventeen plates for Behind the Beyond. Here are three favourites:

Those afflicted with an aversion to old books – I once knew such a person – will take heart that Behind the Beyond is available from a volt of print on demand vultures. The discriminating buyer might what to consider that "published" by Dodo Press, if only because it soars above the rest as the most competent. The cover of its "Illustrated Edition" – they have no other – features an illustration I've not been able to identify. It is not by Miss Fish, though her other illustrations feature.

Print on demand publisher PAP offers this strange looking thing...

... but I recommend the one offered by Library of Alexandria (of California).

Gustave Moreau's Orpheus seems a curious choice, does it not?

I'd like to say it's a nod to "Homer and Humbug", but that would be giving Library of Alexandria too much credit. Besides, Orpheus is never mentioned in Homer.

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