28 July 2009

Late of the Bowery

Much ado in our national press leading to today, the hundredth anniversary of Malcolm Lowry's birth. All this attention by the very same papers that allowed the recent Gabrielle Roy centenary to pass unnoticed. I've never counted myself amongst those who've taken Lowry to their bosom as a countryman. True, roughly a third of his 47 years, certainly his most productive, were spent squatting on our West Coast, but he never did become a citizen. The Globe and Mail reports, 'Mr. Lowry considered himself to be a Canadian and, especially, a British Columbian' – this according to Sherill Grace, editor of his letters. I've not been able to find these declarations in Lowry's own writing.

Two years after Under the Volcano was published, the author complained that Canadian sales had amounted to nothing more than a couple of copies. Doubt it was that small – it needs be said he was quoting a royalty statement – though we were slow to recognize Lowry's genius. When Hear Us O Lord from Heaven Thy Dwelling Place won a Governor General's Award, he was five years dead.

The author is the subject of one of Donald Brittain's finest films, Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry. Someone calling himself WelshDragonJason has uploaded the entire thing to YouTube. It'll be interesting to see how long it stays. This segment covers the writer's arrival in Canada and includes some very amusing observations on a Vancouver that is long gone.

26 July 2009

Ignoble Pornographie - Translated!

Bitter Bread [La Scouine]

Albert Laberge [Conrad Dion, trans.]
[Montreal]: Harvest House, 1977

A portrait of the artist as a glum man. And why not? Here we have one of the country's first Naturalist writers, a member of the École littéraire de Montréal, yet during his lifetime Albert Laberge's sales were measured not in thousands or hundreds, but in dozens.

La Scouine was nearly two decades in the making. Its title, which has 'no particular meaning, except that it was a vague phrase dating back to the first origins of the language itself', is the nickname of smelly Paulima Deschamps, the youngest member of a farming family. She's a dislikable character, but then so are her siblings... and their parents... and their neighbours... and the local clergy. All live in a rural landscape entirely at odds with the idealized roman de la terre that had for so long dominated French Canadian literature:
The harvest had been underway for a month, but hardly any work had been accomplished due to the continuous rain. The storms recurred every few hours, after brief appearances of a ghostly sun. The sky would suddenly become dark and threatening, and huge, hearse-like clouds would pursue one another on the horizon, explode over the flat, green country, to spill a flood of water that drowned the land.
These words – translated here by Conrad Dion – form the beginning of the novel's twentieth chapter. First published in the 24 July 1909 issue of la Semaine, it attracted the attention of Mgr Paul Bruchési, Archbishop of Montreal, who condemned the excerpt as 'ignoble pornographie'. This wasn't the first time Laberge had displeased the Church. As a student he'd been expelled from Montreal's Collège Sainte-Marie after confessing that he'd been reading the works of Zola, Balzac and de Maupassant.

The offending excerpt relates an episode in which Charlot, la Scouine's crippled brother, is seduced by a gin-loving, Irish farmworker:
His thirty-five years of chaste life, his solitary nights on the yellow sofa, lit up his insides at this moment with lustful, urgent desire. This man who had never known a woman felt an imperative, crying hunger that had to be appeased. The whole concantenation of bad dreams, of libidinous visions besieged him, invaded him.


Charlot then threw himself on her.
And they made love.
This was his only love experience.
'Il faut couper le mal dans sa racine', wrote the archbishop.

Seven years passed before the reading public was again treated to excerpts. Not until 1918 did La Scouine appear in its entirety – and then only in an edition numbering sixty copies.

Laberge published all fourteen of his books himself: collections of short stories, essays, literary criticism and this, his only novel. Signed editions, not one had a print-run of more than 140 copies. They sell today in the US$200 range, though patient purchasers should be able to grab the less desirable titles for under US$100. Sadly, nearly half a century after his death, most of those currently on offer are uncut, unread.

Object (and a mystery): Issued in both cloth and paper as part of the Harvest House French Writers of Canada series, Bitter Bread is cursed with a horrible cover illustration (first used on the 1972 L'actuelle edition of La Scouine). Dated, yes, and like the 1970 Feast Of Stephen and the 1974 Four Jameses it references the wrong decade. The inside back cover lists as forthcoming Growing Up Barefoot, 'a novel by Félix LecLerc'. To date, no such title has materialized. I'm guessing that the 'novel' was a planned translation of Pieds nus dans l'aube (1946), the chansonnier's memoir of his La Tuque childhood.

Access: Typical. Bitter Bread can be found in academic universities across the country, but public library users are limited to Toronto and Vancouver. Library and Archives Canada holds no copy, nor do the public libraries of Montreal, the city in which it was published. The paper edition shouldn't cost more than C$10 – double that for the cloth. Those interested in the original French are advised to cast aside all dreams of purchasing the sixty copy first edition. Collectors may be drawn to the 1968 facsimile or the 1970 pirated edition; at US$40, I prefer the 1986 critical edition published by the Université de Montréal.

20 July 2009

Pauline Johnson's Forgotten Heir

Canadian Poets, edited by John W. Garvin (McClelland & Stewart, 1926)

Since my piece on The Chivalry of Keith Leicester, I've had to endure some gentle ribbing from a couple of B.C. readers. Yes, I have two. Both (Did I mention I have two? At least!) appear to take issue with my insinuation that Isabel Ecclestone Mackay is something less than well-known. Eleven days later, I'm prepared to state boldly that hers is not a household name. As evidence, I cite the sad fact that Mackay's books have been out of print for well over seven decades. I add that The Canadian Encyclopedia and The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature fail to mention the author though I do recognize that both the very fine Encyclopedia of British Columbia and Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature (edited by Vancouverite W.H. New) feature brief entries.

Mackay wasn't born a British Columbian. A native of Woodstock, her 33rd birthday passed before she first visited – and settled – in the province with husband Peter, a court stenographer. There can be no argument that Isabel Ecclestone Mackay was once well-known. She featured regularly in Harper's, Scribners', Smart Set and other great magazines of the day. Her first book, a collection of verse titled Between the Lights, appeared in 1904. Ten more volumes followed: poetry, novels and a light comedy that placed third in a 1929 American play-writing competition. All are pretty much forgotten. Mackay's lasting legacy lies as the force behind Pauline Johnson's The Legends of Vancouver (1911), published as a means of raising funds for the dying author. After Johnson's death, Mackay not only became executrix, but assumed her role as the leading lady of letters in British Columbia. Her books were published by McClelland & Stewart, William Briggs, Thomas Allen, George H. Doran, Samuel French, Houghton Mifflin and Cassell & Company. The Group of Seven's J.E.H. MacDonald provided 'decorations' for her 1922 collection of verse, Fires of Driftwood.

Mackay was known primarily as a poet, but I find her prose more interesting and inventive. Her first novel, The House of Windows (1912), begins with an abandoned baby in a department store and moves on to create a tale involving kidnapping, white slavery, secret identities and suffragettes. Sex, it seems, is at the centre of The Window-Gazer (1921).

The time has come, I suppose, to add Isabel Ecclestone Mackay to my dusty bookcase. I've ordered an old copy of Up the Hill and Over (1917), which New describes as a novel about drug addiction. What fun! Until it arrives, I'll be dipping into her 1918 The Singing Ship and Other Verse for Children (online here), which includes this mildly disturbing poem.

14 July 2009

Come, Come, Come - Nuclear Bomb

Arming for Armageddon
John Wesley White
Milford, MI: Mott Media, 1983
218 pages

This review now appears, revised and rewritten, in my new book:
The Dusty Bookcase:
A Journey Through Canada's
Forgotten, Neglected, and Suppressed Writing
Available at the very best bookstores and through

12 July 2009

MacLennan Rising

Belated recognition of the new McGill-Queen's University Press edition of Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night, the first in its reissue of novels by the 'seminal Canadian writer'. A couple of decades ago it would've been inconceivable that a MacLennan novel could go out of print. Not so in today's unhealthy environment – even this, the author's finest work of fiction, had been unavailable for several years.

I know of seven other cover treatments of the novel, but this new one by David Drummond's has become my favourite. The designer discusses the series in his blog.

Two other favourites follow.

Macmillan of Canada first edition, 1959

Signet mass market paperback, 1960

09 July 2009

Chivalry Pays (Eventually)

The Chivalry of Keith Leicester:
A Romance of British Columbia
Robert Allison Hood
Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1918

Born in Scotland, raised in England, a son of privilege, Keith Leicester lives on a ranch near the banks of the Fraser River. He is not to be confused with a remittance man; Keith's troubled past is entirely the fault of former fiancée, femme fatale Patricia Devereux, who threw him over a few years earlier. Now a solitary figure, he's taken refuge in our westernmost province, where he spends his leisure hours with his pipe, paper and dog. This quiet routine is disrupted by the unheralded arrival of the beautiful, mysterious Miss Coon – in actuality, an English heiress named Marjorie Colquhoun. Having run off on a forced engagement, she takes refuge at the homestead of her old nurse.

To misquote Elvis Costello: Chapter One, they didn't really get along. But then they don't get along in chapters two through twenty either. This despite the transplanted Scot's many chivalrous acts. Keith, who considers himself a misogynist, has 'no desire to play squire to distressed damsels', yet finds himself coming to Marjorie's aid time and time again. True to the genre, each good deed is negated by a silly misunderstanding, leaving the long-suffering reader to wonder which act of kindness will stick.

The novel takes its most dramatic turn after Hood moves the action to Vancouver, where Marjorie looks to sell her jewellery in an effort to save her former nurse's farm. She walks through a city that is entirely unrecognizable to today's reader:
Down Granville Street she went to the Post Office and then east along Hastings Street as far as the B.C. Electric Station, but although she saw all kinds of stores and many attractive windows, there was no sign of what she was in search of. There were barbers' poles and electric signs of every description, but the three golden balls were nowhere to be seen. at last she decided that she must ask some one, and she picked out for the purpose a benevolent looking old gentleman with a white beard. For anything else she would have asked a policeman, but she felt instinctively that for this it was best not to consult one of the Force.
'Why bless my soul, what did you say - a pawnbroker?' he sputtered in astonishment, evidently distrusting his ears.
Marjorie repeated her query to reassure him. He looked at her amazed.
'A pawnbroker, miss!' he repeated after her. 'No, I'm afraid not; I never heard of one here...'
Marjorie is eventually successful in her quest, only to be fingered as Slippery Sal, a 'female diamond thief that has been operating in the Eastern cities'. Once again, Keith comes to the rescue. The next chapter finds the heiress dining in 'a gown of pink' as our hero goes on and on about his adopted home.
'You've never known the charms of English Bay at sundown,' he said, waxing eloquent, 'the shimmering tints of crimson and violet and yellow and gold; the opalescent splendours as the radiance gradually dies away; the dark blues and purples of the hills outlined against the sky; the flickering lights of the fishing boats sway out near the horizon; and then, landward, the beach full of people and behind, the town all cheery with its street lamps and its countless gleaming windows.'
'It is everything you said for it and a hundred times more,' Marjorie later tells him.

Vancouver's English Bay, c. 1920.

I've spoiled very little here. Harlequin readers know that matters of the heart are never so simple. Before long several members of the English aristocracy descend on Vancouver, bringing with them a whole new set of complications.

Object: A hardcover, fairly bland for the time, it was published just before Frederick Goodchild left John McClelland and George Stewart to set up his own house. The MG&S edition uses the plates of the American published by fellow Torontonian George H. Doran.

Access: Only one copy of this 'Romance of British Columbia' is found in the province's public libraries. Non-circulating, it rests on a metal shelf at the Central Library in Vancouver. Fifteen more library copies are scattered about the country's universities and in the Toronto Public Library. One of the earliest novels set in British Columbia, it isn't to be found at Library and Archives Canada – a ludicrous situation that, given the shameful moratorium on new purchases, won't be rectified anytime soon. The good news is that used copies sans dust jacket are very cheap. I bought mine three years ago in Vancouver, certainly the centre of interest in things Hoodian, for a buck. Good copies in their 91-year-old dust jackets are often listed in the US$30 range. For about the same price, print on demand publisher Waddell Press offers an ugly 'new' edition with with a cover designed by an illiterate. One Vermont bookseller is offering a copy inscribed by Hood to Isabel Ecclestone Mackay, who is described in their sales pitch as 'another well-known author'. As well-known as Hood, I suppose. The US$298 price tag adds insult.

07 July 2009

Chibougamau Calling

Just returned from a week-long trip to the mining town of Chibougamau. With a population of just over 7,000, it's considered the largest community in the vast Nord-du-Québec (839,000 square kilometres), yet barely registers in our literature. As far as I know, it has spawned no writers of note. I've yet to come across a work of fiction that is set in the town. That said, Chibougamou sometimes receives fleeting mention: in Yves Beauchemin's Le matou, Lise Tremblay's La danse juive and 'Maîtresse des hautes œuvres' by Anne Dandurand. This passage, from The Calling by that 'well-known and well-regarded' novelist Inger Ash Wolfe, is typical:
It had taken him a day and a half to drive through Quebec, keeping to the 117 and the 113 through Chibougamau until the highway brought him back down toward the St. Lawrence.
I suppose the biggest connection the town has with the world of books is as birthplace of former Chapters president and CEO Larry Stevenson. Sadly, there are no bookstores in Chibougamau. The shortest route from the town to the nearest Chapters store – a nine hour journey of 692 kilometres – is below.

03 July 2009

Joseph Quesnel and Gold Pan City

Joseph Quesnel died 200 years ago today. I expect the anniversary will pass unnoticed by the remnants of our daily newspapers. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Quesnel was the most accomplished dramatist and poet living and working in the Canadas. A businessman and militia officer, his life in the arts has been traced back to 1780, when he performed with several amateur theatrical companies. Nine years later Quesnel formed the Théâtre de Société, a venture he was forced to defend against attacks from the Church and the Gazette. His Colas et Collinette; ou le Bailli dupé debuted in 1790 as the first operetta written in North America. Other theatrical works followed, but it is his poetry that most deserves notice.

Little attention is paid to Quesnel these days, yet his name lives on, spread throughout British Columbia's Caribou District. The Quesnel Highland, the Quesnel River, Quesnel Lake, Quesnel Indian Reserve and, of course, the City of Quesnel, owe their names to son Jules-Maurice, who in 1808 explored the area with Simon Fraser.

01 July 2009

Charles G.D. Roberts' Dominion Day Collect

Admirable sentiments from Confederation Poet Charles G.D. Roberts. Written in the early months of 1885, it was first published in the July 1886 issue of New York's The Century magazine. The above was drawn from Roberts' collection In Divers Tones (Boston: Lothrop, 1886).