I Die Slowly [The Dark Tunnel]
New York: Lion, 1955
"You look like an American and you act like one."
"How does an American look and act?" I said, for the sake of continuing the conversation.
"Well, tall and healthy and quite – neither beautiful nor ugly."
— Kenneth Millar's I Die Slowly
I have never before read a story which so piercingly and succinctly examined the terrors and hopes through which the intellectual and emotional life of Canada apparently must still, forty years after my graduation from UWO, find its way.Alice Munro's Nobel win last month forced our media to recognize 1976 recipient Saul Bellow. Qualifiers came quickly: Munro was the first Canadian woman; Munro was he first Canadian-born writer to set her work in Canada; Munro was the first Canadian who'd lived her life in Canada.
— Kenneth Millar on Alice Munro's "The Beggar Maid"
Jared Bland and Sandra Martin did not vacillate, beginning their Globe & Mail story by declaring Munro the first Canadian to be accorded the honour. Bellow's name didn't appear until the third to last sentence (and even then only in parentheses):
(Saul Bellow, a previous Nobel laureate, was born in Quebec, but moved to the United States while young and self-identified as an American; so entrenched was he in American letters that he lends his name to the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.)And Lord Stanley of Preston was a great Canadian.
More nonsense was provided by Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star:
The fault, of course, lies with the keepers of the canon – yes, a second swipe in six days – who embrace Louis Hémon (twenty months in Canada) and West Coast squatter Malcolm Lowry, while dismissing Bellow entirely. Understand, I'm not trying to argue that the author of Mr. Sammler's Planet wasn't a lion in American letters, but that the child is father to the man. Let's at least acknowledge that the nine years Bellow lived in Canada – his first nine – were formative. Dr Spock tells us so.
"We had a very Canadian eagerness to make something of ourselves," he wrote of those years.
The question of identity is key in I Die Slowly, and draws much from the author's life. Millar's first novel, it was written while studying at the University of Michigan. The setting is Arbana, a stand-in for Ann Arbor. Millar's narrator is Robert Branch, an associate professor at Midwestern University. Like the author, Branch visited 1937 Nazi Germany; unlike the author, he met and fell in love with a beautiful crimson-haired actress named Ruth Esch. This is all back story. The novel opens in the autumn of 1943 (the very time of composition) and a glorious Detroit day spoiled when Branch is rejected by the United States Navy (as had happened to Millar). Much worse is yet to come, but the associate professor's spirits are lifted heavenward – fleetingly – by the news that Ruth, with whom he had lost all contact, has somehow managed to make her way to Canada and will be arriving by train within hours to teach at Midwestern U.
What are the chances!
It seems that Dr Herman Schneider, head of the Department of German, had had Miss Esch as a pupil at the University of Munich. Good on him for helping her out. Herr Doktor Schneider invites Branch over to his house for dinner, after which they're to make their way to the station to meet Ruth.
The real nightmare begins when Ruth finally appears, seemingly sucking face with Schneider's son. Allowing for six years spent in a Nazi prison, the actress looks much the same, but has hardened. In short, she is a character acting out of character. Not at all the girl Branch once knew, she joins the hunt to kill him.
The pace of that chase is fast and there is strength in the details. Branch's visit to a bootlegger's shack-cum-brothel, at which he takes refuge, endures. One often makes allowances in reading first novels, but this isn't really necessary here. Yes, the coincidence in Ruth taking a job at Midwestern University is great, but we've all encountered something similar. Sadly, the cover illustration spoiled things a bit for this reader.
Perhaps I've said too much.
Trivia: The first thirteen of the novel's 14 chapters are set in and around Arbana, after which the action moves to Toronto and the mining town of Kirkand Lake, Ontario. The climactic and final scene takes place in the Kirkland Lake General Hospital.
More trivia: Margaret Millar borrows Arbana as a setting for her 1952 mystery Vanish in an Instant.
Dedication: To the memory of Millar's University of Western Ontario buddy John Gosnell Lee. A Pilot Officer in the RCAF, Lee was killed in a training accident on 29 November 1939. It was so early in the war that his name appears on page 8 of the Second World War Book of Remembrance.
Object: A well-constructed mass market, my copy is the second paperback edition. The first, published by Lion in 1950, has a more garish but equally appealing cover. While the scene depicted does not feature in the novel, the hair colour is correct.
The rear really gives the game away. Click to enlarge for the spoiler.
Access: A rare thing in our libraries, though common south of the border.
Must admit that I find the French title – A la déloyale! – a real head-scratcher.
Today is Ross Macdonald Day on Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books. Head over to her site for more Millar and Macdonald.