20 March 2023

By Any Other Name: Onoto Watanna's Hyacinth

The Heart of Hyacinth
Onoto Watanna [Winnifred Eaton]
New York: Harper, 1903
251 pages

Read last month, I've put off writing about The Heart of Hyacinth because I still don't know what to think. 

To begin with, this is a novel written by a Canadian of Chinese and Scots heritage, born and raised in Montreal, who passed herself off as Japanese. The story takes place in Japan, which the author had not visited.

It's a beautifully written work. The opening pages seduce with descriptions of Sendai and the surrounding countryside. Minute, seemingly insignificant elements are added. All is dreamlike and idyllic. At some point a kindly Presbyterian missionary couple land. A modest church is built and there are some converts to the faith. Years pass, the minister's hair grows white, and his beloved wife dies. Then comes an English vessel carrying ill-behaved sailors and officers. They woo the daughters of Sendai, only to leave them; but one Englishman stays behind. He brings a young woman, Aoi, to the elderly missionary, and they marry. There the Englishman stays, loving his newfound land, loving his wife even more, and fathering a son. All of a sudden, the Old World – his old world – descends into conflict, and he is called to join the battle.

Aoi awaits a promised return that is not to be. After a lengthy silence, letters arrive in a foreign script and language. She takes them to the missionary who informs that her husband is dead.

Komazawa, the fatherless son, is a carefree child, unaffected by all that has passed. His life changes with the arrival of a dying "white" woman in the family home. She has brought with her a baby girl. The local doctor recommends that an English counsel be informed, but the boy balks; the white woman has entrusted the infant, Hyacinth, to his mother, and in her arms she will stay. If anything,
the son is the greater protector and teacher of the girl. 

The Heart of Hyacinth is a stone skipping across a lake. It touches fleetingly on scenes and events, leaving the reader to imagine what has happened in between. The ageing missionary reaches the point at which he must hand the mission to another. His replacement, Mr Blount, has the strength that comes with youth, but is in every other way a lesser man. He lacks his predecessor's appreciation of the local people and their culture; love is absent.

At Blount's insistence, the adolescent Komazawa is sent off to study in England:
"He is, in fact, one of us. He has the physical appearance, somewhat of the training, and, let us hope, the natural instincts of the Caucasian. It would be not only ludicrous but wicked him to continue here in this isolated spot, where he is, may we say, an alien."
Komazawa does not return until four years later. In his absence, Hyacinth attends school in Sendai. Classmates laugh, pointing at her brown hair, and the sensei views the girl as a curiosity. She is taught that people from the West are barbarians and savages. When Komazawa reappears in English clothing, Hyacinth shuns him. When he changes into Japanese dress they embrace.

Hyacinth knows she is the adopted daughter of Aoi, whom she considers her mother. Born and raised in Japan, the girl thinks of herself as Japanese. Crisis comes with her betrothal to Yamashiro Yashida, son of the wealthiest family in Sendai. In opposing the union, Blount discovers that Aoi is not Hyacinth's natural mother – like the Yamashiro family, he had assumed that she and Komazawa shared the same parents. Then comes the discovery that both of the girl's parents were "Caucasian." The revelation comes as no surprise to the reader, who will remember her mother's dying hours, but to Hyacinth it is shocking and devastating. 

The Heart of Hyacinth is a novel about identity and self-identity. At its heart – there is no better word – it confronts issues of race and nationality, questioning how we perceive ourselves and others. The beauty of its prose contains an ugly reality that sadly remains twelve decades later. 

Object: The Heart of Hyacinth is one of the most beautiful books in my collection. The "decorations," which appear on every page, are credited to Kiyokichi Sano, about whom I can find next to no information.

I'm not so sure whether his hand also produced the four full-colour book plates. I suspect not.

My copy was purchased four years ago in Toronto.

Access: In 2000, after languishing out-of-print for nearly a century, The Heart of Hyacinth was revived by the University of Washington Press. Its edition includes an introduction by Samina Najmi.

Remarkably – astonishingly – copies of the 120-year-old first edition can be purchased online for as little as US$3.25. An Ontario bookseller hopes to sell his for US$105.00, but the one to buy is offered by a bookshop in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia. Wrapped in wax paper in original presentation box, it can be purchased for US$71.65.

I expect it to be gone within minutes of this post.

No one who buys this novel will be disappointed.

The Heart of Hyacinth can be read online through this link to the Internet Archive.

14 March 2023

James Moffatt Wins the Race

The Marathon Murder
James Moffatt
London: New English Library, 1972
124 pages

On January 12, 1972, Canadian writer James Moffatt appeared on BBC 2's Late Night Line-Up.  The public broadcaster had a habit of wiping tape back then – most famously David Bowie's January 3, 1973 Top of the Pops performance of 'The Jean Genie' – but footage survives. At the time, Moffatt was the biggest paperback writer living in Britain. Skinhead was his greatest success.

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Fiction Writers describes Skinhead as a "million-copy seller." I don't doubt it. Every Brit I know around my age has read Skinhead.

Skinhead was published in 1970. By the time of his Late Night Line-Up appearance, Moffatt had followed it with Suedehead (1971) and Boot Boys (1972); Skinhead Escapades (1972), Skinhead Girls (1972), Top Gear Skin (1973), Trouble for Skinhead (1973), and many more followed, all published under "Richard Allen."

Moffatt once claimed that as a child he'd earned third prize in a Toronto Star short story competition. In one interview he spoke of studying law at Queen's, but in another he said it was chemistry. Moffatt talked about writing for pulps in New York, living in Hollywood, and being the publisher and editor of a bowling magazine.

Was any of this repeated on Late Night Line-Up? Segments of the 12 January1972 broadcast were used in the 1996 BBC2 documentary 'Skinhead Farewell,' but not enough to get a real handle on all that went down that night.

Because the episode itself hasn't been posted online, I rely on the publisher's note:

Added to this is Moffat's four-page author's note, in which he claims that The Marathon Murder began as a sort of spur of the moment thing with host Will Wyatt throwing out an an idea. "I had precisely five seconds in which to think of a title and write the first few sentences ON CAMERA!" writes Moffatt. 

Here are those first few sentences:
Munich was but two weeks away. This left Harry Nolan with two weeks solid training to get himself in shape. He had not been too keen of late to keep himself in shape because he had problems.
It's not much of a start. This gruff Canadian, a self-described veteran of hard-boiled American pulps, writes: "Munich was but two weeks away" and "He had not been too keen of late to keep himself in shape." Reading these words, I'm almost surprised that Moffatt used "two weeks" and not "a fortnight."

Anyway, here's my fix:
Munich was two weeks away. This left Harry Nolan fourteen days to get in shape, but he had problems.
It may be that Moffatt was going after word count; his thirty-seven to my nineteen. New English Library describes The Marathon Murder as a novel, but at 38,000 words it is more accurately a novella. The low number surprises in that, when divided by seven, it amounts to fewer than 5400 words per day. Two months earlier, in a Daily Telegraph Magazine profile, Moffatt claimed ten thousand words as his daily output. He repeated that very same figure on the Late Night Line-Up appearance.

The writer at his desk.
Late Night Line-Up, 12 January 1972
The Marathon Murder was written when the Olympic ideal of amateurism still held. Hero Harry Nolan, who ranks amongst the very best long distance runners on the planet, is an English office worker. His wife, Emily, has left him for another man. He worries that this will... um, affect his performance. 

Terry Grayson is the other hero. A BBC journalist with no background in sport, for whatever reason he's been assigned to cover the marathon. Where Harry pines for Emily, Terry is stuck on some bird named Gloria. He just can't get over her, yet happily accepts leggy Sandra into his bed: "He had no illusions regarding their relationship. It was fleeting like fame. A fast, furious, fornicating union that had no basis in fact." Terry is surprised when Sandra follows him to Munich.

The Marathon Murder was written seven months before the start of the 1972 Olympic Games. It imagines violence, but in no way anticipates the actual horrors. At time of publication, Moffatt's likening the Olympic Village to a hastily constructed kibbutz would not have been chilling.

At some point in his Late Night Round-Up appearance Moffatt stands next to a New English Library spinner-rack."These are some of the 250 books I've written these past twenty years," he says. "During the last year I've written eight, nine books, due to the fact I haven't been too well." The words hint at his future. A drinker, Moffatt's addiction got the better of him. His final book, Mod Rule, appeared in 1980, after which he went silent. He died thirteen years later at the age of seventy-one.

James Moffatt (right) in the Daily Telegraph Magazine, 19 November 197
The Marathon Murder is no speedy read. A tough slog, it took me two weeks to reach the end.

I was outpaced by the author.

Trivia: Harry Nolan is a fan of James Bond and Silas Manners, the latter being a British spy who features in Moffatt's The Sleeping Bomb (1970) and Justice for a Dead Spy (1971).

Object and Access: A cheap mass market paperback, typical of its time, the last four pages are given over to other New English Library titles, including Skinhead, Suedehead, and Boot Boys

I purchased my copy last October for £5.00 from a Lincolnshire bookseller. As of this writing, all of two copies are listed for sale online. 

WorldCat suggests that no library, Canadian or otherwise, holds a copy.

Related posts:

06 March 2023

The Great Canadian Author Photo and Bio?

Purchased last week to treat myself. Lord knows I deserve it. Above is the cover of the first and only British edition of Hot Freeze by Martin Brett. Published in 1954 by Max Reinhardt, it follows Dodd, Mead's first American edition by a matter of weeks. I prefer the latter, but only for the dame.

I first read Hot Freeze in 2011, roughly nine years after the author died. It's the very best work of post-war Canadian noir, those by Brian Moore and David Montrose included. Four years later, I helped return it to print as part of the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series. It is the only edition to be published under Douglas Sanderson, the author's true name. 

A few months later, Ricochet brought back Blondes Are My Trouble (original title: The Darker Traffic), the sequel to Hot Freeze.

Blondes Are My Trouble is the second-best work of post-war Canadian noir.

Sanderson is an unlikely top dog. A transplanted Brit, he began writing thrillers after the commercial failure of his literary debut, Dark Passions Subdue (1952). He claimed the turn toward genre was done on a dare. If true, it sure paid off; throughout the decades, he produced nearly two dozen, most of which enjoyed French translation.

Mon cadavre au Canada [Hot Freeze]
Martin Brett [Douglas Sanderson; trans Bruno Martin]
Paris: Gallimard, 1955
I wrote the intro to the Ricochet Hot Freeze and invited John Norris to contribute another for Blondes Are My Trouble. Greg Shepard of Stark House Press has done more than anyone in reviving interest in Sanderson, republishing nine Sanderson novels, featuring additional material by himself, Kevin Burton Smith, Paul Charoff, Jonas Westover, and the author's son John D. Sanderson. This, I believe, forms the bulk of Sanderson scholarship. What else have we got? Never mind The Canadian EncyclopediaThe Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, and W.H. New's Companion to Canadian Literature, not even Wikipedia recognizes Sanderson.

No, I'm wrong. The French Wikipedia has a Martin Brett entry – very informative it is, too.

I reference all this because after all my years researching Sanderson, the brief Max Reinhardt author bio brought some revelations.

That is one great author photo.

27 February 2023

Go West, Young Woman

The Prairie Wife
Arthur Stringer
London: Hodder & Stoughton, [n.d]
251 pages

In the summer of 1985, I bought a copy of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and read it from cover to cover. This is nowhere near as impressive as it might seem; what I read was the original two-column 843-page edition (1983), not the two-column 1099-page second edition (2001). Nevertheless, it was through the Companion that I first learned of Arthur Stringer. The author's entry, penned by Dick Harrison, amounts to little more than a half-page. Here are some of the things I learned:
  • born 1874 in Chatham, Ontario;
  • studied at the University of Toronto and Oxford;
  • wrote for the Montreal Herald;
  • established his literary career in New York;
  • "made an enduring contribution to Canadian literature with his prairie trilogy: Prairie Wife (1915), Prairie Mother (1920), and Prairie Child (1921)."
Harrison gets the titles of the trilogy wrong – The Prairie Wife, The Prairie Mother, and The Prairie Child are correct – but never mind, what stuck with me was Prairie. As decades passed, I forgot all about Chatham, Toronto, Oxford, Montreal, and New York, and came to think of Stringer as a Western Canadian. It wasn't until 2009, when I read The Woman Who Could Not Die (1929), my first Stringer, that I was reminded he was an Ontario boy. A Lost World novel set in the Canadian Arctic, I liked it well enough to keep reading and begin collecting his work.

My Arthur Stringer collection (most of it, anyway).
Cliquez pour agrandir.
Admittedly, much of my interest has to do with his enviable popularity, the deals he cut with Hollywood, and his marriage to Jobyna Howland. This is not to suggest that I didn't like the books themselves. My favourite Canadian novel of the early twentieth-century is Stringer's The Wine of Life (1921), which... um, was inspired by his marriage to Jobyna Howland.

A second admission: I put off reading The Prairie Wife, the first volume in Stringer's "enduring contribution to Canadian literature," for no other reason that it is set in rural Canada. Before you judge, I rush to add that this Montrealer has lived in rural Canada these past two decades. Country living attracts, but not novels set in the country. This may explain how it is that I was swept up by its early pages.

The Prairie Wife takes the form of a series of entries, written over the course of more than a year to someone named Matilda Anne. Its writer, Chaddie, begins by describing a voyage from Corfu to Palermo and then on to the Riviera. She is of the moneyed class – that is until Monte Carlo, where Chaddie receives a cable informing that the "Chilean revolution" has wiped out her nitrate mine concessions. Made a pauper, Chaddie's first action is to dismiss her maid; the second is to send word to her German aristocrat fiancé:
I sent a cable to Theobald Gustav (so condensed that he thought it was code) and later on found that he'd been sending flowers and chocolates all the while to the Hotel de L'Athenee, the long boxes duly piled up in tiers, like coffins at the morgue. Then Theobald's aunt, the baroness, called on me, in state. She came in that funny, old-fashioned, shallow landau of hers, where she looked for all the world like an oyster-on-the-half-shell, and spoke so pointedly of the danger of international marriages that I felt sure she was trying to shoo me away from my handsome and kingly Theobald Gustav — which made me quite calmly and solemnly tell her that I intended to take Theobald out of under-secretaryships, which really belonged to Oppenheim romances, and put him in the shoe business in some nice New England town!
After a respectable period of mourning lost wealth, Theobald Gustav throws her over. Just as well, really, because the Paris Herald had reported on of a traffic accident that had occurred when he'd been in the company of a "spidery Russian stage-dancer." On the rebound, Chaddie proposes to Scots-Canadian Duncan Argyll McKail, whom she'd met in Banff the previous October. He is too much in love and far too practical to turn her down.

And so, this is how Chaddie, an American socialite who'd shared the company of Meredith and Stevenson, and had sat through many an opera at La Scala, ends up in a one-room shack with flattened tin can siding on the remote Canadian prairie.

Duncan – annoyingly, his bride refers to him as "Dinky-Dunk" – is a civil engineer from the east. He's got it in his mind to make a fortune through farming, and has purchased a 1700-acre parcel of land one hundred or so kilometres northwest of, I'm guessing, Swift Current.

"He kept saying it would be hard, for the first year or two, and there would be a terrible number of things I'd be sure to miss," Chaddie writes Matilda Anne. 

No doubt!

Harrison doesn't use the term "Prairie Realism" in his Stringer entry, but I will; The Prairie Wife is a good fit with later novels by Frederick Philip Grove, Martha Ostenso, and Robert Stead. Can we agree that Prairie Realism was never terribly realistic? Though pre-Jazz Age, Stringer's story begins as a crazy Jazz Age adventure in which a carefree debutante marries a man she may or may not love. In her earliest pages to Matilda Anne, she writes:
O God, O God, if it should turn out that I don't, that I can't? But I'm going to!  I know I'm going to! And there's one other thing that I know, and when I remember it, It sends a comfy warm wave through all my body: Dinky-Dunk loves me. He's as mad as a hatter about me. He deserves to be loved back. And I'm going to love him back. That is a vow I herewith duly register. I'm going to love my Dinky-Dunk.
Chaddie continues:
But, oh, isn't it wonderful to wake love in a man, in a strong man? To be able to sweep him off, that way, on a tidal wave that leaves him rather white and shaky in the voice and trembly in the fingers, and seems to light a little luminous fire at the back of his eyeballs so that you can see the pupils glow, the same as an animal's when your motor head-lights hit them!
There's a clear separation between the opening pages and the rest of the novel. Whimsy gives way to practicality, as Duncan chases his fortune. Remarkably, Chaddie settles on the prairie, and into matrimony, rather nicely. Harrison writes of "disillusionment as the marriage deteriorates," but this reader saw nothing of the kind. True, there are moments of discord, as in the strongest of marriages, but Dinky-Dunk and Chaddie – he calls her "Gee-Gee" – are soon in one another's arms. She does come to love her Dinky-Dunk.

The frontispiece of the A.L. Burt photoplay edition, c.1925.
I don't know what Harrison means when he writes of Chaddie's "mature resolve as she begins an independent life on the Prairies." The married couple only become closer as the novel progresses, and the two are increasingly reliant on a slowly growing cast of characters. The earliest, hired man Olie, is a silent Swede who at first can't keep his eyes off Chaddie. This male gaze has nothing to do with objectification, rather her ridiculously impractical city dress. Pale Percival Benson Wodehouse, whom this reader suspects to be a remittance man, is next to appear. He was sold the neighbouring ranch from "land chaps" in London. Nineteen-year-old Finnish Canadian Olga Sarristo enters driving a yoke of oxen. Two weeks earlier, what remained of her family had burned to death in their own shack one hundred or so miles to the north. To Chaddie, stoic and stunning Olga is like something out of Norse mythology, "a big blonde Valkyr suddenly introducing herself into your little earthly affairs." Olga is a welcome addition to the farm; every bit as capable physically as Olie and Duncan. Last to arrive is Terry Dillion, a fastidious young Irishman who had once served in far off lands with the British Army.

Together they support Duncan's big gamble, which involves putting all he has on a sea of wheat covering his 1700 acres. Threatened by draught, fire, and hail, the crop survives, making him a wealthy man. His riches are further increased by a new rail line to be built across his land. The final pages have Duncan and Chaddie poring over house-plans mailed from Philadelphia. "We're to have a telephone, as soon as the railway gets through," she writes Matilda Anne. 

The Prairie Wife is the first Stringer novel I've read with a woman narrator. Early pages aside, I found Chaddie's voice oddly convincing. This audio recording by Jennifer Perree, stumbled upon in researching this novel, reinforced my conviction. An enjoyable story, an entertainment, it left me wanting to hear more from Chaddie.

And there is more!

Stringer wrote more than forty novels, but The Prairie Mother is the only one to spawn a sequel, The Prairie Mother (1920)  – and then another in The Prairie Child (1922).

Like Dinky-Dunk, Stringer really knew how to make a buck.  

Favourite sentence:
The trouble with Platonic love is that it's always turning out too nice to be Platonic, or too Platonic to be nice.
I can't help thinking of Terry's attitude toward Olga. He doesn't actively dislike her, but he quietly ignores her, even more so than Olie does. I've been wondering why neither of them has succumbed to such physical grandeur. Perhaps it's because they're physical themselves.
Trivia: In 1925, The Prairie Mother was adapted to the silver screen. A lost film, the trade reviews I've read are lukewarm, mainly because there is no gunplay. Chaddie is played by comedic actress Dorothy Devore, one of many who fell in making the transition to talkies. New to me is Herbert Rawlinson, who played Duncan. Olga is played by Canadian Frances Primm, about whom little is known, A pre-Frankenstein Boris Karloff plays Diego, a character that does not feature in the novel. Most interetsing to the silent film buff is Gibson Gowland (Olie), the man who played McTeague in Erich von Stroheim's Greed.

Motion Picture Magazine, December 1924 
Object: My copy was purchased last year from a bookseller located in Winterton, Lincolnshire. Price: £9.00. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited.

The rear pushes all three books in Stringer's trilogy, The Prairie Child not yet available in a bargain edition. The flaps feature a list of other Hodder & Stoughton titles, including works by Canadians Ralph Connor (The Sky Pilot of No Man's Land [sic]), Hulbert Footner (The Fugitive Sleuth, Two on the Trail), Frank L. Packard (The Night Operator, The Wire Devils, Pawned), Robert J.C. Stead (The Homesteaders), and Bertrand W. Sinclair (Poor Man's Rock).

Access: The Prairie Wife first appeared in 1915, published serially over four issues of the Saturday Evening Post (16 January - 6 February). That same year, it appeared in book form in Canada (McLeod & Allen) and the United States (Bobbs-Merril). Both publishers used the same jacket design:

Evidence suggests that The Prairie Wife is Stringer's biggest seller. A.L. Burt published at photoplay edition tied into the 1925 Metro-Goldwyn Mayer adaptation. Is that Boris Karloff as Diego on the right?

At some point, Burt went back to the well to draw Prairie Stories, which included all three novels in Stringer's prairie trilogy. As far as I've been able to determine, The Prairie Wife last saw print in The Prairie Omnibus (Grosset & Dunlap, 1950), in which it is paired with The Prairie Mother

Used copies of The Prairie Wife can be purchased online for as little as US$8.95.