29 August 2009

Dedicated to the One I Love

Fetish Girl
Sylvia Bayer [pseud. John Glassco]
New York: Venus Library, 1972

I usually don't pay much attention to dedications, but the one in Up the Hill and Over has got me thinking. Isabel Ecclestone Mackay dedicated the novel to her mother Priscilla, adding, 'who might have liked the book had she lived to read it'. A bit odd, it becomes stranger still when one reads the novel and discovers that a mother and a step-mother serve as the two villains. I'm probably making too much of this, but in my defence, I point out that dedications are usually such bland things – any small display of eccentricity or emotion stays in the mind. Here, for example, is the dedication in The Woman Who Did (1895) by our forgotten countryman Grant Allen:

Allen's once controversial 'New Woman' novel seems fairly tame today; not so John 'Buffy' Glassco's pseudonymous Fetish Girl, the story of Ursula, a 'pretty long-legged bitch of wide and varied experience'. A sympathetic figure, the poor girl lives in frustration, due entirely to her inability to find a man who shares her fixation on things rubber. This, the reader is reminded, is in the days before the World Wide Web. Fortune changes, as it often does, when on vacation. Lounging beside a motel swimming pool, Ursula spots Adrian, an effeminate man sporting black latex trunks. The die is cast when he dons a tight fitting rubber bathing cap. Let the fun begin!

Glassco placed Fetish Girl with Harriet Marwood, Governess as his favourite piece of writing, in part, due to ease of composition. However, as publication approached, he struggled with the dedication. Glassco's desire was to pay tribute to Marion McCormick, who would become his second wife, but he knew that she would not appreciate having her name associated with a work of pornography. He ended up dedicating the book to himself, because, as he wrote friend Leon Edel, 'I am getting on in years and no one ever dedicated a book to me.'

Object: Paper and binding are typical of 'seventies mass market paperbacks; were it not for the contents and cover image it might well have been published by Bantam. And about that cover, Glassco hated the thing before he ever set eyes on it, complaining to a confidant: 'A friend in New York tells me it has a rather stupid illustrated cover of a girl in wet clothes coming out of the ocean – which is not what the book is about at all!'

Access: The novel was reissued – sadly, sans dedication – by Blue Moon in 2001, but is again out of print. That said, it can be bought 'as new' for under US$3. Queen's University holds Glassco's personal copies, one of which is inscribed in his hand: 'And once again to Buffy from Sylvia'. Really, libraries aren't much help – just two others, Library and Archives Canada and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have copies of the first edition, while the reissue is held only by the Library of Congress. My hunt for the first edition lasted several years, reaching a successful conclusion last December. The bookseller, who asked US$25, appeared to have no idea as to the true identity of the author.

Further Fetish Girl: Fraser Sutherland's highly entertaining and informative 'Sylvia Bayer and the Search for Rubber' looks not only at the novel, but the debt owed by Margaret Laurence, Marion Engel and, above all, Margaret Atwood. Also recommended is Stephen J. Gertz's history of the Venus Library imprint.

26 August 2009

Ontario, Opium and Cocaine

Up the Hill and Over
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917
363 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

24 August 2009

Going to Bat for Lady Chatte

Six months ago, I criticized the Book and Periodical Council's Freedom of Expression Committee for, amongst other things, its failure to recognize F.R. Scott's defence of Lady Chatterley's Lover. Today, a friend forwards an email, issued on behalf of the Committee last Friday. "Fifty years ago," it begins, "the distinguished lawyer F.R. Scott successfully defended Lady Chatterley's Lover (a novel by D.H. Lawrence) in a Canadian court against a charge of sexual obscenity. Thanks to Scott, Canadians may read this classic of modern literature without suffering any interference from the Canadian state."

Very good.

If only it were true.

Fifty years ago, the event that sparked the court case – the 5 November 1959 police seizure of the novel from Montreal newsstands – had not yet taken place. What's more, the resulting trial, held at the Quebec Superior Court on 12 April 1960, resulted in defeat. Scott's successful appeal "in a Canadian court" – known as the Supreme Court of Canada – took place two years later.

The email's author, a researcher for the Freedom of Expression Committee, ends with these words: "this important legal victory is poorly documented by the historians of literary freedom in Canada. I can't find a decent book about it anywhere. And, to the best of my knowledge, no one has noticed the fiftieth anniversary either."

I share in the frustration. The case demands a good book, perhaps something along the lines of C.H. Rolph's The Trial of Lady Chatterley, which documented Britain's battle over the novel. As for recognizing the fiftieth, I'll open a bottle and toast Scott and his good work on 15 March 2012.

The Committee's email is obviously the result of a botched job, and would hardly be worth mention were it not typical of the inaccurate and incomplete information the body distributes each year in its "Challenged Books and Magazines List". Here's hoping it does further research into Scott and Lady Chatte before next Freedom to Read Week.

19 August 2009

McClelland's Experiment, Newfeld's Art

Mad Shadows [La Belle Bête]
Marie-Claire Blais [Merloyd Lawrence, trans.]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1960

An antidote to Friday's post.

Isabelle Hughes' review of The Double Hook has had me revisiting McClelland & Stewart's 'unusual experiment' of the late 'fifties and early 'sixties. Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature (note: not The Encyclopedia...) devotes a surprising amount of space to the venture in its entry on Sheila Watson:
In 1959 and 1960 the Canadian publisher McClelland and Stewart published its first two paperback originals, choosing two newcomers to advance the guard: the second book was Mad Shadows, the translation of Marie-Claire Blais's first novel, published a year earlier when she was 20 years old. The first, by a few months, was The Double Hook. Both books were designed by Frank Newfeld, who would become the first notable postwar book designer in Toronto, and they would openly declare the primacy of innovative book design.
These words, penned by George Bowering, aren't quite right. For one, they fail to mention that these titles appeared in simultaneous cloth and paper editions. I might also point out that Irving Layton's M&S debut, Red Carpet for the Sun (1959), hit the stores in both cloth and paper during the nine or so months that separated The Double Hook and Blais' Mad Shadows. Still, Bowering does recognize an important element ignored by Hughes – that being the creative contributions by Newfeld. The entry continues: 'Adepts might have thought about Wyndham Lewis and Marshall McLuhan. The proper text of The Double Hook begins after 12 pages of highly noticeable front matter.'

While there was nothing at all standard in Newfeld's designs – Red Carpet for the Sun began with six pages of colour illustrations – I find his approach unwaveringly reminiscent of being eased into a movie through the opening credits. Here, for example, are the first thirteen pages of Mad Shadows. It isn't until part way down the fifteenth page that the novel's first sentence – 'The train was leaving town.' – appears.

(My copy was signed by the gracious Ms Blais one fine chilly Vancouver evening in the autumn of 2001.)

16 August 2009

Gustafson's Good or Bad Novel

Ralph Barker Gustafson
16 August 1909 - 29 May 1995

In recent months, I've come to realize the importance of nineteen-aught-nine to the poetry of Anglo-Quebec. A.M. Klein was born that year, as were Ralph Gustafson and John Glassco. Three very different poets and, I dare say, three very different men.

Today belongs to Gustafson. I'm sometimes hesitant when acknowledging anniversaries here – it may be argued that the poet didn't always receive the recognition he deserved, but his writing wasn't exactly suppressed or ignored. That said, there is one work, No Music in the Nightingale, that could be considered forgotten. Much of what I know of this unpublished novel comes from Jack, A Life in Letters, James King's 1999 biography of Jack McClelland. Its history is curious, one where publication, which at first seems certain, becomes less likely with each new draft. We're told that in 1953 the publisher approached Gustafson, then under contract with Viking in New York, hoping to win Canadian rights. Three years later, the manuscript arrived at McClelland and Stewart's offices, generating an 'enthusiastic letter' with detailed comments from fiction editor Conway Turton.

Then... silence.

Three more years passed, during which M&S published Gustafson's well-received collection of verse, Rivers Among Rocks. The poet wrote McClelland asking him to reconsider the novel. This time, however, the reception was muted. 'We have read it here and are reserving judgement', he wrote. 'It's either very, very good or very, very bad. I'm damned if I know which.' These words, to Little, Brown editor Alan D. Williams, were part of an ill-fated effort to find an American co-publisher. What happened to the early contract with Viking, King doesn't say.

Gustafson tried again in 1965, sending a McClelland a revised version of the novel. This time, John Robert Colombo weighed in with a reader's report that featured a fatal line: 'As a poet he is a consummate craftsman – but as a novelist: ugh!' In response, Gustafson wrote McClelland: 'I was deflated by the readers' reports and haven't got up enough courage to read through the novel again – I know I should, in fairness to you, and I know it needs one revision. I suppose, on the whole, after the reader's "ugh," you better ship the thing home to me, alas.'

The unpublished novel is held at the Queen's University Archives.

14 August 2009

A POD Publisher's Alternate Universe

I've taken more than a few swipes at print on demand publishers. And why not? The industry has yet to complete its second decade and already these firms are responsible for a great percentage of the ugliest books in existence. Blurred scans, scored texts and missing pages only add to the unpleasantness. However, much was forgiven today – if only temporarily – after I happened on the latest post by J.R.S. Morrison at his always interesting Caustic Cover Critic blog. Mr Morrison brings to our attention English POD publisher Tutis Digital, whose covers feature the most bizarre pairings of title and image I have ever seen.

A quick visit to the company's website brings photographs of Jacques Cartier's nuclear submarine, the Samurai War between Canada and the United States and the tropical paradise that is Quebec. I present the following without further comment, adding only that Tutis offers an alternate edition of The Backwoods of Canada, one that features a handsome cover image of the majestic mountains of Peterborough, Ontario.

12 August 2009

The Modern Canadian Novel at Fifty

A bit late, but it was only yesterday that I happened upon the above, placed in the 16 May 1959 edition of the Globe and Mail. Can't imagine Jack McClelland was too happy with the investment – the very same page features a review titled 'Left Hook, Right Hook, KO!'

While critic Isabelle Hughes begins by praising the experimental nature of the book, her compliments are directed at the publisher, not the author:
By far the most interesting thing about The Double Hook which is a first novel by Canadian writer, Sheila Watson is that it represents an unusual experiment in Canadian publishing. The book is available in two covers, one paper and one cloth. This arrangement, which seems eminently sensible, gives the reader a choice between buying a new book at a reasonable price if he does not wish to add it to his permanent library, or investing a larger sum in it if he does.
It is extremely doubtful, however, whether The Double Hook was a happy selection with which to introduce this experiment. Obscure in style, eccentric in punctuation, and with a plot that is difficult to follow, it is permeated by an odd atmosphere of unreality; it has the quality of a distorted, not especially vivid dream.


The Double Hook is by no means an easy book to read. Certainly, it cannot be described as entertainment in any sense of the word. And surely a novel, of all forms of literature, ought primarily to entertain the reader, or at least to draw him into a world which for the time seems real to him. However profound and thought-provoking a novel's thesis may be, if it is not intelligible to the average discerning person who likes an absorbing story, then that book fails as a novel.

The reviewer's words remind me of Earle Birney, who had two years earlier written McClelland to say that he'd found the novel 'monotonous, self-conscious, artificial and lacking in real fictional interest'. He advised McClelland not to publish, complaining, 'I just don't know what the damn novel is about, or I didn't until it was almost ended.'

A year after publication, McClelland told the Montrealer that he hadn't expected to break even on the novel. In fact, it had already turned a profit. Good man, that Jack McClelland.

09 August 2009

Beauty Neglected

From time to time, by which I mean every other day, I receive emails from various online book marketplaces pushing titles that they somehow think I'll be wanting to buy. Most are ignored, but I usually have time for the folks at AbeBooks, who seem alone in recognizing my interests. Their latest – subject line: '30 Beautiful Old Books We'd Buy For the Cover Alone' – points to a visual feast comprised of titles published from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th. Who would've thought that a volume titled The Book of Bugs could look so attractive?

Among the other beauties is A Japanese Blossom, the 1906 novel by Winnifred Eaton, published under her nom de plume Onoto Watanna. I've written a good deal on Eaton in print, and don't really want to repeat myself here, but I continue to be mystified by the lack of recognition she's received in this fair Dominion. Eaton's story is remarkable on so very many levels, beginning with her birth in 1875 Montreal to an English silk merchant turned landscape painter and his Chinese wife, herself the orphaned child of circus performers. One of fourteen children, Winnifred grew up near poverty, yet managed to become one of the wealthiest Canadian writers of her day. No doubt some inspiration was derived from her older sister Edith, who in recent years has been described repeatedly as the 'mother of Asian American literature'. Winnifred's own literary career began at the age of fourteen with the sale of a short story to Montreal's Metropolitan Magazine. By the fin de siècle she'd embraced Japonisme and, as Onoto Watanna, arrived in New York, where she presented herself as the daughter of an Englishman and a Nagasaki noblewoman. Her second novel, A Japanese Nightingale (1901), sold over 200,000 copies, was adapted to the Broadway stage and inspired a silent picture.

There is a great deal more to Eaton's story, including a career in Hollywood and her return to Canada as the wife of a wealthy Alberta rancher, but it's unlikely that you'll find any trace at your local public library. The Canadian Encyclopedia has no entry on Eaton, nor does she figure in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. However, she is the subject of a very fine biography, Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton (2001), written by her granddaughter. There's also a biography of her sister, Sui Sin Far / Edith Maude Eaton (1995). Both published by the University of Illinois Press, they're part of an a revival that has seen number of Watanna books reprinted in the United States. To these I recommend the University of Virginia Library's Winnifred Eaton Digital Archive, which features a growing number of her fiction and non-fiction writings. The biographical sketch provided by the site makes no mention of Canada. Perhaps we deserve nothing more.

A good many ugly-looking books have been featured in this blog; consider this small sampling of Watanna titles an attempt at redressing the balance.

A Japanese Nightingale
New York: Harper & Bros., 1901.

The Heart of the Hyacinth
New York: Harper & Bros., 1903.

Daughters of Nijo
New York: Macmillan, 1904.

New York: Harper & Bros., 1910.