30 May 2009

Harlequin's Romantic View of the Past

Harlequin's sixtieth anniversary celebrations continue this weekend with the opening of an exhibit devoted to its cover illustrations. Look not in Winnipeg, the city of its birth, or Toronto, home of parent corporation Torstar, the showing is being held at SoHo's Openhouse Gallery.

Since it was announced a few months back, I've been wondering how the publisher would handle its first twelve or so years. As noted previously, Harlequin hasn't been much interested in having attention drawn to its early history. What to do? The answer is found in the exhibition's title: The Heart of a Woman: Harlequin Cover Art 1949-2009. Little place here for Joe Barry's Fall Guy, never mind the vast majority of books from the publisher's first decade. I expect James Hadley Chase's Twelve Chinks and a Woman was particularly unwelcome.

I don't deny that there's interest to be had in viewing sixty years of romance novel cover art; witnessing the rise and fall of the nurse, the rise and fall of the mini-skirt, and the rise and shine of 'inspirational' romances targeted toward born-again Christians. That said, aside from Doctor in Bondage, I find each individual title so very lackluster. True, the artists are technically competent, but like Harlequin's writers they follow formulae. The same notes are struck repeatedly, the same themes are followed, evolution is slow, change is subtle and at times microscopic. The parade of covers is the visual equivalent of Kraftwerk's 'Trans-Europe Express' – except that the latter doesn't go on for six decades. And it's beautiful.

So, I join the publisher's sixtieth anniversary celebrations by presenting, in order, my three all-time favourite Harlequin covers.

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27 May 2009

Not Only Chic, but Well-read

A photograph of Yves Thériault, André Langevin and Jean-Charles Harvey, stumbled upon early this week in the 28 November 1954 edition of Chic, Montreal's 'Journal de la Femme'. The weekly devoted a two-page spread, 'LES ECRIVANS CANADIENS FONT FACE LEUR CHER PUBLIC', to a 14 November gathering of 'romanciers et quelques romancières du Canada français' at the Windsor Hotel's Rose Room. Judging by the photographs, our romancières were severely outnumbered; not one features a female novelist. Here's Thériault again, looking a touch less shifty, standing between Robert Élie and Roger Viau:

Other photos capture Eugène Cloutier, Bertrand Vac, Guy Boulizon and Jean Bruchési. In short, a lot of men who appear happy to be surrounded by the stylish women of the Société d'étude et de conférences, including vice-president Miss Louise McNichols and president Mrs Redmond Roche, shown here with the dowdy Father Marie-Ceslas Forest.

Father Forest served as professor at the Dominican College of Ottawa and the Université de Montréal, was an early supporter of women's suffrage and wrote Le divorce (1920). His papers are held at the Université of Montréal. Much less can be said about Chic. Quebec's Bibliotèque et Archives nationales holds only eleven issues, the final being the edition in which these photographs appeared. Though the newspaper states otherwise, the BAN claims that it was published by Merlin, the company best known for Allô police.

24 May 2009

Another Handful of Dust

Dust Over the City [Poussière sur la ville]
André Langevin
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

Since the death of André Langevin in February, I've been reading so slowly, so very slowly, this translation of his second novel. I discovered Dust Over the City by chance when a student – and as with everything from those heady days, it was revisited with trepidation. I needn't have worried.

The opening image continues to haunt: a lone man stands motionless, bareheaded, coatless, late at night in the swirling snow, eyes fixed on the darkened house in which his adulterous wife of three months sleeps. Alain Dubois is a talented young doctor who attends to the pale, sickly, suffering citizens of Macklin (really Thetford Mines – those swirling flakes of snow mix with asbestos dust). Confident and efficacious in his professional life, he is staggered and debilitated by his wife's infidelity.

There's little story here; these are the thoughts of a tortured soul who struggles to comprehend. It's not the sort of novel suited for the screen, yet in 1968 Langevin adapted the work for director by Arthur Lamothe. The resulting film has disappeared from view. The only glimpse I've had comes from this brief clip that appeared mysteriously last year on YouTube.

The translation, credited to John Latrobe and Robert Gottlieb (Robert Gottlieb? The editor?), is a haphazard piece of work. I suspect it was tackled tag-team. Sure, as a whole it's more than competent, but it often becomes awkward and clumsy. An example: recklessness nearly leads to violent death – the couple's car is nearly hit by a train. The young wife's passion inflamed, she kisses Dubois savagely. Latrobe and Gottlieb have our hero confess:
Her ardor bowled me over. Gently I repulsed her. We drove on...

Though Dust Over the City was published in the United States by Putnam, English-language editions of Langevin's work never achieved much in the way of sales. He wrote four other novels – all acclaimed – but only one, Une Chain dans la park (1974), the first Canadian book to be nominated for the Prix Goncourt, appeared in English. In 1976, when Jack McClelland published the translation, Orphan Street, he wrote Hugh MacLennan, 'I am tempted to get really carried away on this one and really try to force-feed the market. We don't do that very often, but there is some justification for it because, as I am sure know, French-Canadian novels in translation almost invariably bomb in English.'

Sadly, Orphan Street was no exception.

Object and Access: Readily available in our larger public libraries. More good news: as number 113 in the old New Canadian Library, there are plenty of copies out there at under C$10. The first edition, a handsome hardcover with dust jacket by Rus Anderson, is usually found at C$20 or less. Copies of Poussière sur la ville are cheaper still – and, as might be expected, more common.

21 May 2009

Hey Kids! Comix!

I imagine that there is no more cautionary a tale in comicdom than that of Toronto-born Joe Shuster. Things seemed to have got off to such a good start (though perhaps not quite as swell as is portrayed in the Historica Minute): kid cartoonist Joe and his writer friend Jerry Siegel create Superman and spend several years flogging the character before finding a home with Detective Comics Inc. Then they make the mistake of selling their creation for US$130. Never mind, for the next ten years the pair rake in big bucks working for DC, until they take their employer to court in an ill-fated effort to win back the rights.

Shuster's entry in The Canadian Encyclopedia tells us that he was fired and 'stopped drawing completely.' It's a sloppy error. Shuster and Siegel went on to create Funnyman, a 'two-fisted howlarious scrapper' that soon appeared in dustbins everywhere. A few years later, having finally parted ways with Siegel, Shuster was reduced to providing fetish art for cheap publications like Hollywood Detective, Rod Rule and, above all, Nights of Horror.

Last month, the multi-talented Craig Yoe published Secret Identity, an entertaining and informative look at Shuster's later artistic endeavours. The most interesting aspect of our countryman's work is the inclusion of characters that resemble members of what DC calls 'the Superman family'. Yoe's cover image features a scantily-clad Lois Lane look-alike whipping a man who resembles Superman. And is this cub reporter Jimmy Olsen putting his hand up Lois Lane's skirt? In a library? For shame.

Nights of Horror was eventually banned, its destruction called for by no less a body than the Supreme Court of the United States. Blame for this censorship rests squarely on the shoulders of the Thrill Killers, a Brooklyn-based group of Jewish neo-Nazis. I kid you not, and direct those interested to Yoe's 23 April interview on NPR's Fresh Air.

18 May 2009

Queen Victoria and He

A song for Victoria Day.

Leonard Cohen's words to our celebrated monarch, "mean governess of the huge pink maps", first surfaced as "Queen Victoria and Me" in Flowers for Hitler, his 1964 collection of poems. The song differs only sightly; title aside, the most noticeable change occurs a few lines in.
I love you too in all your forms
the slim unlovely virgin anyone would lay
the white figure floating among German beards 

I love you too in all your forms
the slim unlovely virgin floating among German beards
I've twice seen 'German beards' misquoted as 'German beers'. Make mine a Beck's.

No 'Hallelujah' this, 'Queen Victoria' certainly ranks amongst Cohen's least noticed songs. It has never featured in his public performances, yet is tacked on the end of 1973's Live Songs.

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17 May 2009

Elizabeth Smart Burned and Banned?

Reading The Dead Seagull last week, I turned repeatedly to By Heart, Rosemary Sullivan's very fine life of Elizabeth Smart. The biographer devotes seven pages to George Barker's book, a work she describes, quite rightly, as having a 'profound and complex misogyny' lying beneath its surface.

By Heart is recommended, not only the story of Smart's extraordinary, but for the glimpse it provides of an Ottawa that is no more. In this city the Smart family enjoyed a position of influence and privilege due to father Russel, a lawyer. Elizabeth Smart's mother, a society hostess known as Louie, considered By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept a work of 'erotomania', and famously set her copy aflame. But, as Sullivan tells us, she didn't stop there: 'Louie had learned that six copies of the book had been seen at Murphy-Gamble's, a local dry-goods store in Ottawa; she immediately rushed down, bought, and burnt those books also. Louie was always thorough. She then approached her friends in External Affairs and requested them to ensure that the book would not be imported into Canada.'

Sullivan suggests that By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept may indeed have been banned in Canada. We'll probably never know; records of publications banned during wartime were frequently destroyed.

Conspiracy theorists, take note: It wasn't until 1981, thirty-six years later, that Deneau published the first and only Canadian edition.

One wonders what Louie Smart would have thought of Library and Archives Canada and their 'Canadian Writers' display, located a mere two kilometres from the former Smart family home. Here we find not only images of the book she so hated, but also pages from the manuscript.

14 May 2009

Barker's Bird

The Dead Seagull
George Barker
New York: Farrar, Straus & Young, [1950]

Not a Canadian novel, but worthy of mention in this narrowly focused blog as a sort of companion to By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart's account of her tortuous relationship with English poet Barker.

Consider this his side of the story.

The nameless narrator, a poet protagonist, looks back on his brief marriage to Theresa. Theirs was a steady, staid, serene relationship, one rocked by 'the other woman'. 'Marsden Forsden stepped out of a Venetian ceiling and into our hospitality', the narrator tells us. The entrance is no accident. Like Smart, her model, Marsden has fallen in love with a poet through his verse, and has attended dozens parties in hopes of meeting him. Eventually, Marsden contacts Theresa, conveniently an old school friend. Barker's hero is easily seduced. Moments before their first kiss, she tells the man who is to become her lover, 'It was your book. When I read it I sat down and wrote one exactly like it.'

Catch that?

'...I sat down and wrote...'

Not wept.

Barker's second and last novel, its plot may be trite, but the use of language and arrant displays of obsession, loathing and vainglory make for a rewarding, if disturbing, read.

Cassandra Pybus wrote about The Dead Seagull as her contribution to Lost Classics (a personal fave). She recalls coming upon the novel in a pile of bargain books and being 'astounded to read that Barker was describing the exact same passionate travail as Smart.' She adds: 'I have never heard another [sic] thing about this book.' No doubt. By Grand Central Station has acquired iconic status – and has been drawn upon repeatedly by Steven Patrick Morrissey* – while Barker's book is more than forty years out of print.

Trivia: Barker and Smart shared the stage reading from The Dead Seagull and By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept at a 1980 Glasgow writers' conference. Imagine the discomfort.

A Bonus: The working title was Of Love.

Object: A handsome hardcover with dustjacket designed by Humphrey Spender. The religious tone set by the allusion to St Sebastian continues on the flap copy: 'It is a tragedy, told more as it might be poured out in the confessional of the Roman Catholic Church than in the more traditional modes of the English novel. Its subject is love; but it is also original sin, in the sense that Cardinal Newman wrote "We are all implicated in some dreadful aboriginal calamity". The theme of The Dead Seagull is that this calamity is love itself.' Note that Spender's arrow touches the right pectoralis major (opposite the heart), but does not pierce the skin.

Access: Universities and the ever reliable Toronto Public Library. I've spotted a paperback edition once or twice in our used bookstores, though no online Canadian bookseller offers the book. Very good copies of the true first, published by John Lehmann, can be had for as little as US$25. While the American first is currently listed online at US$20 to US$75, I bought my copy a couple of weeks ago at a Manhattan bookstore for US$15.

* See 'Reel Around the Fountain', 'Shakespeare's Sister', 'The Headmaster Ritual', 'Well I Wonder', 'What She Said', 'London', 'Late Night, Maudlin Street', 'Billy Budd, 'Do Your Best and Don't Worry', et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

08 May 2009

Richardson's End

So big, so close, so powerful, and yet New York doesn't really feature much in Canadian literature. The city rarely serves as a setting, and not all that many of our notable writers have called it home – Arthur Stringer and Thomas B. Costain just aren't names we pay much attention to these days. Still, Ralph Gustafson spent much of the Second World War in Manhattan working for British Information Services. Brian Moore lived in the city for a few years – two of his finest novels, An Answer from Limbo and I Am Mary Dunne, feature New York as a setting. In Travels by Night, George Fetherling writes that the city served as something of a way-station between West Virginia and Ontario.

I'd argue that our greatest canonical connection properly belongs to Major John Richardson, he of Wacousta fame, who took up residence in New York in the autumn of 1849. On the surface it seems such a smart move; he produced several bestsellers. However, this did not translate into coin. After two years in the city, on 12 May 1852, Richardson died in his lodgings at 113 West 29th Street. Cause of death: erysipelas. John Dryden died of the disease, as did John Stuart Mill. Charles Lamb fell, cut on his face and succumbed to the malady. Richardson's erysipelas was brought on by malnutrition – in short, 'the first Canadian novelist' wasn't earning enough to feed himself. Richardson's funeral took place two days later at the Church of the Holy Communion, corner of 6th Avenue and West 20th Street. His body was then transported outside the city, presumably to be buried.

Richardson's lodgings are long gone, but the Church of the Holy Communion still stands. A beautiful Gothic Revival building, the vision of Anglo-American architect Richard Upjohn, it once counted John Jacob Astor and Cornelius Vanderbilt amongst its parishioners. Richardson was a steadfast follower of its rector, evangelical Episcopalian Reverend William Augustus Muhlenberg.

As a young man, I knew the Church of the Holy Communion as the Limelight, a dance club I would pass on what were then frequent visits to New York. The hedonistic playground of Michael Alig's coked-out Club Kids, a building Reverend Muhlenberg intended as 'an oasis of Christian activity in the city', it ended up at the centre of the Angel Melendez murder.*

The structure once known as the Church of the Holy Communion now serves as a clearing house for clothing samples. The days of debauchery and indulgence are past, but the sacrilege continues.

* Those possessing a morbid curiosity and strong stomach may have an appetite for James St James' Disco Bloodbath (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), an account of his time in the Limelight, and the Melendez murder and dismemberment. St James, a transplanted Indianan and former Club Kid writes, 'if its superficial that my response to murder is to stop wearing false eyelashes – then goddamnit – SO BE IT.' Goddamnit, indeed.

02 May 2009

The American Version: The N Word

I arrive today in New York, my first foray into post-Bush America (until Jeb, that is). It's been several years since I last visited the city and, as expected, much has changed. Friends have left, taverns have closed (coincidence?) and Times Square is more offensive than ever. Many of the used bookstores I once frequented are gone – killed, I suppose, by the internet. And yet, the Strand has expanded. Go figure.

Always interesting to look for Canadian literature in the United States. There's something fairly Dickian in coming across a title one knows so well wrapped in a dustjacket that is utterly foreign. And then there are those works that have been given a different title for the American market; Richler's The Incomparable Atuk, known to Americans as Stick Your Neck Out, comes to mind. In the United States, Nino Ricci's Lives of the Saints is The Book of Saints, and The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant is sold, misleadingly, as The Collected Stories of Mavis Gallant. A more recent title change involves Lawrence Hill's acclaimed The Book of Negroes, published as Someone Knows My Name south of the border. The author wrote about the rechristening, prompted by a nervous New York editor, in 'Why I'm not allowed my book title'. I spoil nothing by revealing that he concludes with a question: '...if it finds a British publisher, what will the title be in the UK?' The answer: The Book of Negroes, published earlier this year by Doubleday UK.

While the Brits kept the title, they adopted the oh-so-gentle image used by the Americans, which I find reminiscent of McClelland & Stewart's dull and dusky fin de millénium dustjackets (see No Great Mischief). I much prefer the frank Canadian cover. This is, after all, a story of slavery, struggle, savagery, revolution and war.

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