11 August 2022

Mavis Gallant: 100 Years

Mavis Leslie de Trafford Gallant (née Young) was born one hundred years ago today. Her image doesn't feature on the cover of Montreal Stories (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2004), but it's easy to imagine that it's her standing before the mirror. Mavis Gallant was extremely photogenic. In later life, her image graced many covers, my favourite being Los cuentos (Barcelona: Lumen, 2009), Sergio Lledó's Spanish translation of The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant.

The artist as a young woman.

Mavis Gallant is the greatest writer to emerge from Anglo-Montreal. She is our greatest short story writer.

In recognition of this day:

The Pegnitz Junction
Minneapolis: Graywolf, 1984

Home Truths
Toronto: Macmillan, 1985

In Transit
Toronto: Penguin Canada, 1989

Rencontres fortuites [A Fairly Good Time]
Montreal: Les Allusifs, 2009

Going Ashore
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2009

The Collected Stories
New York: Everyman's Library, 2016

08 August 2022

An Egotist of Yesterday

A Daughter of To-day
Mrs Everard Cotes (Sara Jeannette Duncan)
New York: Appleton, 1894
392 pages

Of all the novels I've read this year, A Daughter of To-Day has the very best opening scene. Miss Kimpsey, a spinster teacher in small town Sparta, Illinois, calls on local society matron Mrs Leslie Bell. Because her visit is unexpected, Miss Kimpsey must wait in the drawing room. The educator casts an eye about noting volumes on loan from the circulating library, the Revue des Deux Mondes, the Doré print, the arrangement of Japanese dolls, and the absence of bows and draperies:
Miss Kimpsey's own parlour was excrescent with bows and draperies. "She is above them," thought Miss Kimpsey, with a little pang.
Miss Kimpsey is concerned for Elfrida, Mrs Bell's fifteen-year-old daughter. In a recent essay, the girl quoted Rousseau, whom Miss Kimpsey believes "atheistical" and "improper in every way."

When told of this, Mrs Bell hides disappointment in learning that the Rousseau quotation wasn't in the original French.

Elfrida Bell, daughter of to-day, doesn't feature in the first chapter; she is only as others see her... No, that's not right. During their meeting, Mrs Bell presents Miss Kimpsey with a cabinet photograph for which Elfrida "posed herself." The girl is seen as she wants to be seen.

Fairly beautiful and somewhat talented, Elfrida is easily the most graceful and artistic fish in Sparta's small pond. An aspiring painter, she's enrolled in a Philadelphia art school. When results don't meet Mr and Mrs Bell's expectations, Elfrida is sent to study under Monsieur Lucien in Paris. Sadly, her Hungarian cloak draws more notice than her work.

Elfrida desires to be seen by others "as an artist and a Bohemian." That she achieves the latter with no effort – it is in her nature – makes it all the more difficult to acknowledge her limitations in the visual arts:
Elfrida was certain that if she might only talk to Lucien she could persuade him of a great deal about her talent that escaped him – she was sure it escaped him – in the mere examination of her work. It chafed her always that her personality could not touch the master; that she must day-after day be only the dumb, submissive pupil. She felt sometimes that there were things she might say to Lucien which would be interesting and valuable for him to hear. 
Misfortune strikes when Mr Bell's midwestern investments go south. Slim funds are sent overseas so as to enable their daughter's return to Illinois. Elfrida instead makes for London, where she looks to reinvent herself as a writer.

It is both trite and apt to describe Elfrida as complex. A young woman who lives for art and the life of an artiste, her behaviour can be infuriating. "'I know I must be difficult,'" she says when sitting for English portraitist John Kendal:
"Phases of character have an attraction for me – I wear one to-day and another to-morrow. It is very flippant, but you see I am honest about it. And it must make me difficult to paint, for it can be only by accident that I am the same person twice."
Nothing comes quite as one might expect. The author takes a great risk in centring the climax on our heroine's reaction to Kendal's portrait.  

A Daughter of To-Day was read in one go on July 22nd, the hundredth anniversary of Sara Jeannette Duncan's death. It was hard to put down. Writing to-day, I realize it was read too quickly. The more I consider, the more I see – much like Elfrida as she casts a critical eye on her portrait.

Trivia (or not): Sara Jeannette Duncan's mother was born Jane Bell. Elfrida's closest friend is named Janet.

Object: My copy, the first American edition, was purchased earlier this year from a Kentucky bookseller. Price: US$24.95. A thing of beauty, the image above doesn't come close to doing it justice. The novel proper is followed by four pages of adverts for Appleton editions of Rudyard Kipling, Wolcott Balestier, Beatrice Whitby, Egerton Castle, Edward Eggleston, and Maarten Maartens.

Access: First published in 1894 by the Toronto News Company (Canada), Appleton (United States). and in two volumes by Chatto & Windus (Great Britain).

Both the Toronto News Company, and Appleton editions can be read online through the Internet Archive.  

The novel was reissued in 1988 by Tecumseh. Print on demand vultures offer this edition.

That ain't Elfrida Bell.

04 August 2022

Remembering Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the first writer I got to know and love. Together we witnessed Alexis Nihon's burning ashes, survived Hurricane Bob, questioned Martin Luther and Brian Mulroney, and wondered over Henry Kissinger's soul. I mention none of this in today's Globe & Mail.

Sean died last month.

The greatest Canadian humorist of his generation, he would've enjoyed the typo.

01 August 2022

Agnes Maule Machar's Perfect August Day

Ah, August, month of my birth. I've always found it too hot and too humid – rarely more so than this year. In "The Passing of Père La Brosse," Agnes Maule Machar notes: 
...August nights are cool
In these north regions. Summer goes so soon!
I shouldn't complain.

"The Passing of Père La Brosse" is one of the longer poems in Miss Machar's Lays of the 'True North' and Other Canadian Poems (Toronto: Copp, Clark, 1899). "An August Morning," more typical in length, was read Saturday morning during a visit to Agnes Maule Machar Park in Gananoque, Ontario.

      In gleam of pale translucent amber woke
          The perfect August day;
      Through rose-flushed bars of pearl and amber broke
          The sunset's golden way. 
      The river seemed transfigured in its flow
          To tide of amethyst,
      Save where it rippled o'er the sands below,
          And granite boulders kissed. 
      The clouds of billowy woodland hung unstirred
          In languorous slumber deep,
      While, from its green recesses, one small bird
          Piped to its brood asleep. 
      The clustering lichens wore a tenderer tint,
          The rocks a warmer glow;
      The emerald dewdrops, in the sunbeam's glint,
          Gemmed the rich moss below. 
      Our birchen shallop idly stranded lay
          Half mirrored in the stream,
      Wild roses drooped, glassed in the tiny bay,
          Ethereal as a dream! 
      You sat upon your rock, enthroned a queen,
          As on a granite throne,
      And all that world of loveliness serene
         Held but us twain alone. 
      Nay! but we felt another presence there,
          Around, below, above;
      It breathed a poem through the fragrant air
          Its name was LOVE!

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18 July 2022

What Is a Canadian Fiction?

Several months ago, The Dorchester Review asked me to review David Staines' A History of Canadian Fiction.

Who am I to turn down an invitation.

Professor Staines' book was read at great sacrifice. Going through its 304 pages I ignored Stephen Henighan, a favourite critic, who shared his opinion of A History of Canadian Fiction in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement. A blind eye was turned to Stephen W. Beattie, another favourite, who reviewed the book for the Quill & Quire.

After submitting my review I read the two Stephens, sat back, and watched for more. I was more than rewarded with John Metcalf's newly published The Worst Truth: Regarding A History of Canadian Fiction by David Staines (Windsor: Biblioasis, 2022).

The Worst Truth quotes Henighan's TLS review, in which he makes this criticism of Staines:
He provides a useful introduction to Inuit literary culture, paying the 39,000 native speakers of Inuktituk an attention he denies to Canada's 7.3 million native speakers of French.
Well, the Spring/Summer Dorchester Review has now landed, bringing with it my review of Professor Staines' history, some of which adds to Henighan's observation:

How is it that a book titled A History of Canadian Fiction would exclude work written in French? Remarkably, Staines does not address this issue. In fact, he doesn’t so much as recognize the existence of Canadian fiction written in French. Of the hundreds of writers of fiction named in this book, we find two French names: Roger Lemelin and Gabrielle Roy. They first feature in a short list of “important people” who were once interviewed by Mavis Gallant and reappear as in another list of writers whose fiction Mordecai Richler had read. Roy’s name is in a third list, this of writers with whom Sandra Birdsell corresponded. 
     And that’s it. 
     The only mention of a work written in French appears in a nine-page "Chronology of historical, cultural, and literary events" that precedes the text itself. Next to the year 1632, we find: “Jesuit Relations, an annual, begins and continues until 1673.” But of course, they weren’t the “Jesuit Relations,” they were the Relations des jésuites.

More in The Dorchester Review.

And I have even more to say.

Invitations accepted.

16 July 2022

Charles Sangster's Birthday Poem

Son of Kingston, Charles Sangster was born two hundred years ago today. I can't claim to remember much of his verse, the following from The Saint Lawrence and the Saguenay, and Other Poems (Kingston: Creighton & Duff, 1856) excepted. It's thought to have been written in 1855 for Mary Kilborn, whom the poet married in 1856... and who died in 1858. 

                         One of the Fourscore years, Mary,
                            Has passed like a dream away,
                         A dream of laughter and tears, Mary,
                            Like a showery summer's day,
                                 With its rainbow bright,
                                 In the warm twilight,
                            Fair pledge of a happier day, Mary,
                            God's pledge of a happier day.

                        Swiftly the seasons roll, Mary,
                           Like the waves o'er a mighty sea,
                        Searching the depths of the soul, Mary,
                           With their power and mystery.
                                Every hour that flies,
                                Tells in distant skies
                           The words that it heard from thee, Mary,
                           The deeds that are done by thee.

                       See that the tale be pure, Mary,
                          That the Hours may have to tell;
                       Goodness and Truth, we are sure, Mary,
                          Heav'n loveth exceeding well;
                               And the beauteous mind
                               Where Truth is shrined,
                          Glows bright as a sunny dell, Mary,
                          Glows bright as a sunny dell.

                       More of the Fourscore years, Mary,
                          Must pass like the first away,
                       Each, as its turn appears, Mary,
                          May not be a summer's day;
                               But Hope's rainbow bright,
                               With its smile, will light
                          The close of a happier day, Mary,
                          The dawn of Eternal Day.

11 July 2022

Gothique Canadien

Cameron of Lochiel [Les Anciens Canadiens]
Phillipe[-Joseph] Aubert de Gaspé [trans Charles G.D.
Boston: L.C.Page, 1905
287 pages

Pulled from the bookcase on la Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste, returned on Canada Day, I first read this translation of Les Anciens Canadiens in my teens. It served as my introduction to this country's French-language literature. Revisiting the novel four decades later, I was surprised at how much I remembered.

Les Anciens Canadiens centres on Archibald Cameron and friend Jules d'Haberville. The two meet as students at Quebec City's Collège des Jésuites. Cameron, "commonly known as Archie of Lochiel," is the orphaned son of a father who made the mistake of throwing his lot behind Bonnie Prince Charlie. Jules is the son of the seigneur d'Haberville, whose lands lie at Saint-Jean-Port-Joli, on the south shore of the Saint Lawrence, some eighty kilometres north-east of Quebec City.

Montreal's Lakeshore School Board – now the Lester B. Pearson School Board – was very keen that we study the seigneurial system.

And we did!

We coloured maps using Laurentian pencils; popsicle sticks and papier-mâché landscapes were also involved. There was much focus on architecture and geography, but not so much on tradition and culture.

We were not assigned Les Anciens Canadiens – not even in translation – which is a pity because I find it the most engaging historical novel in Canadian literature. 

It was through Les Anciens Canadiens that I first learned of Marie-Josephte Corriveau – la  Corriveau – who was executed in April 1763 for the bloody murder of her second husband, Louis Étienne Dodier. Her corpse was subsequently suspended roadside in a gibbet (left). Just the sort of thing that would've caught the attention of this high school Hammer Horror fan.

La Corriveau owes her presence in the novel to José Dubé, the d'Haberville's talkative trusted servant. Tasked with transporting Jules and his "brother de Lochiel" Archie from the Collège to the seigneury, he entertains with legends, folk stories, folk songs, and tall tales. José's story about la Corriveau has nothing to do with the murderess's crime, rather a dark night when "in her cage, the wicked creature, with her eyeless skull" attacked his father. This occurred on on the very same evening in which his dear père claims to have encountered all the damned souls of Canada gathered for a witches' sabbath on the Île d'Orléans (also known as the Île des Sorciers). Says José: "Like an honest man, he loved his drop; and on his journeys he always carried a flask of brandy in his dogfish-skin satchel. They say the liquor is the milk for old men."

Seigneur d'Haberville [Les Anciens Canadiens]
Phillipe Aubert de Gaspé [trans Georgians M. Pennée]
Toronto: Musson, 1929
Les Anciens Canadiens is unusual in that José and other secondary characters are by far the most memorable. We have, for example, M d'Egmont, "the old gentleman," who was all but ruined through his generosity to others. The account of his decent, culminating in confinement in debtors' prison, is most certainly drawn from the author's own experience. And then there's wealthy widow Marie, "witch of the manor," who foretells a future in which Archie carries "the bleeding body of him you call your brother."

The dullest of we high school students would've recognized early on that Archie and Jules' friendship is formed in the decade preceding the Seven Years' War. The brightest would've had some idea as to where things will lead. The climax, if there can be said to be one, has nothing to do with the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, rather the bloodier Battle of Sainte-Foy.

Not all is so dark. Aubert de Gaspé, born twenty-six years after the fall of New France, makes use of the novel to record the world of his parents and grandparents: their celebrations, their food, and their games ("'does the company please you,' or 'hide the ring,' ''shepherdess,' or 'hide and seek,' or 'hot cockles'"), while lamenting all that is slipping away:
In The Vicar of Wakefield Goldsmith makes the good pastor say:
     "I can't say whether we had more wit among us than usual, but I'm certain we had more laughing, which answered the end as well."
     The same might be said of the present gathering, over which there reigned that French light-heartedness which seems, alas, to be disappearing in what Homer would call these degenerate days.
Les Anciens Canadiens is so very rich in detail and story. Were this another country, it would have been adapted to radio, film, and television. It should be assigned reading in our schools – both English and French. My daughter should know it. In our own degenerate days, she should know how to make a seigneurial manor house out of popsicle sticks. 

Object: Typical of its time. As far as this Canadian can tell, what's depicted on the cover is the Cameron tartan. The frontispiece (above) is by American illustrator H.C. Edwards. 

The novel proper is preceded by the translator's original preface and a preface written for the new edition.

Twelve pages of adverts for other L.C. Page titles follow, including Roberts' The Story of Red FoxBarbara Ladd, The Kindred of the Wild, The Forge in the Forest, The Heart of the Ancient Wood, A Sister to Evangeline, By the Marshes of Minas, Earth's Enigmas, and his translation of Les Anciens Canadiens.

Access: Les Anciens Canadiens remains in print. The first edition, published in 1863 by Desbarats et Derbyshire, can be purchased can be found online for no more than US$150.

First editions of the Roberts translation, published as The Canadians of Old (New York: Appleton, 1890), go for as little as US$28.50.

In 1974, as Canadians of Old, it was introduced as title #106 in the New Canadian Library. This was the edition I read as teenager... and the edition I criticized in middle-age. Note that the cover credits the translator, and not the author:


That said, the NCL edition is superior to Page's 1905 Cameron of Lochiel – available online here thanks to the Internet Archive – only in that it features Aubert de Gaspé's endnotes (untranslated).

Les Anciens Canadiens has enjoyed three and a half translations. The first, by Georgians M. Pennée, was published ion 1864 under the title The Canadians of Old. It was republished in 1929 as Seigneur d'Haberville, correcting "printer's errors" and "too literal translation." Roberts' translation was the the second. The most recent, by Jane Brierley, published in 1996 by Véhicule Press. is the only translation in print. It is also the only edition to feature a translation of the endnotes.

Jane Brierley's translation, Canadians of Old, can be purchased here through the Véhicule Press website. Ms Brierley also translated Aubert de Gaspé's Mémoires (1866; A Man of SentimentVéhicule, 1987) and Divers (1893, Yellow-Wolf and Other Tales of the Saint Lawrence, Véhicule, 1990).

Lester B. Pearson School Board take note.

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