29 September 2009

That's Entertainment, Part II

The Woman Who Couldn't Die was the nineteenth of Arthur Stringer's forty novels. He wrote mysteries, wilderness adventures and, it may be argued, was one of the earliest purveyors of prairie realism. Add to these two hundred or so short stories, fifteen collections of poetry and a few non-fiction works like A Study of King Lear (1897) and you have the most prolific and versatile Canadian writer of his generation. A good amount of Stringer's work found its way to the screen. Not only was Stringer the man behind The Perils of Pauline, his stories and novels served as the basis of roughly two dozen movies and serials. The most enduring, The Purchase Price, is based his 1932 novel The Mud Lark. It stars Barbara Stanwyck as Joan Gordon, 'a little gal who sings torch songs in a naughty nightclub', who flees Manhattan and her bootlegger boyfriend for Montreal. There, as Francine La Rue, she performs at the Maple Leaf Club until discovered by her boyfriend's cronies. In order to escape, Joan adopts the identity of her chambermaid, and leaves town as the mail-order bride to a struggling farmer. The rest of the film takes place in North Dakota, a change from the Canadian prairie setting of the novel.

A pre-Code Hollywood film, The Purchase Price isn't nearly as spicy as the title or movie poster suggest; though it does have a few examples of ribald dialogue:
Mail-order Bride #1: You know what they say about men with bushy eyebrows and a long nose?
Mail-order Bride #2: Oh, Queenie, I can tell you've been married before!
I'm quick to point out that this exchange does not feature in the novel.

Not a bad film, it's available in its entirety on YouTube.

Stringer had another connection to Hollywood in his first wife, actress Jobyna Howland. A woman of Amazonian proportions, standing over six-feet tall, she's generally recognized as the original Gibson Girl.

Here she is in later life as Fannie Furst – not Fannie Hurst – with Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey in The Cuckoos. A musical comedy featuring three sequences in early Technicolor, it was shot six years before her death from a heart attack at age fifty-six.

Related posts:

27 September 2009

That's Entertainment!

The Woman Who Couldn't Die
Arthur Stringer
Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929

That's her standing near the bow of the longboat. She is Thera, the daughter of the Jarl of Hordoland, a woman of beauty amongst 'herring-slitted wenches with little more charm than a she-cod on a smoking rack.' Not that you can tell from the cover; she's barely perceptible, despite her great height. No, the dust jacket does not do Thera justice, though it does credit her creator, Arthur Stringer, with the most remarkable ability:
A modern Scheherazade could insure the safety of her life by reading to her cruel spouse this amazing story of the Farther North. It would not only hold him spellbound by its bold and unparalleled adventures but also make him cherish forever the woman who had the wisdom to select such excellent entertainment.
Bold-faced silliness befitting a book that is nothing but an entertainment. We begin with twenty pages of italics relating the story of this Viking princess, how she crossed the Atlantic, became lost in the Canadian Arctic and ended up entombed in a giant block of ice. Regular type signals a shift from omniscient narrator to David Law, a jaded journalist on the hunt for stories in late 19th-century Montreal. Mysterious documents are uncovered, a parchment map is produced and the novel shifts once again. Together with a mad scientist and a dimwitted muscleman, Law sets out for the Arctic to find a hidden land of riches and thaw out the lovely Thera, known in 'Eskimo mythology' as 'the Eternal Maiden of Gold' and 'the Golden Woman who Never Died'.

As a young pup, I once counted the number of times Richard Butler spits out the word 'stupid' on the first Psychedelic Furs album. I was tempted to do the same with Stringer's use of 'gold', but growing awareness of mortality prevents further examination. Let's just say it's a lot. Thera's hair, for example, is 'living and liquid gold, gold luminous as a cat's eye by night, gold indiscernibly vivid yet soft, with radiance all its own, like that of a rose-leaf behind which a candle burns.'

This is fiction crafted for readers of Edgar Rice Burroughs, a writer I left behind long ago with other elementary school interests. I will say, however, that The Woman Who Couldn't Die is just as good as the Burroughs I remember. And while my eyes began to glaze over with all this talk of lost worlds, hidden peoples, strange religions and gold, gold, gold, I found the forty or so pages that take place in fin de siècle Montreal to be fascinating. Here Stringer draws upon his past as a journalist for the Herald, not only criticizing the paper, but taking swipes at the Royal Victoria Hospital and the city's establishment.

Write what you know.

Access: Library and Archives Canada doesn't have a copy, but the Toronto Public Library does. It can also be found in a dozen of our university libraries. Those wishing to purchase will find that The Woman Who Couldn't Die isn't terribly scarce, but difficult to find in anything approaching a Good dust jacket. Expect to pay a little over two grams in gold.

Though the book received only one printing, The Woman Who Couldn't Die was reprinted in Famous Fantastic Mysteries. The issue appeared on newsstands in October 1950, the month following Stringer's death.

For your entertainment:

Oh, my misspent youth.

Related posts:

24 September 2009

Old Folks

Jean-Louis Lessard has just completed a very fine series on early Canadian writer Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé, the seigneur best-known for Les Anciens Canadiens (1863). I first encountered this historical romance as part of a CEGEP course on the literature of Quebec (if memory serves, Hubert Aquin's Prochain épisode and David Fennario's Without a Parachute were also on the reading list), but the words I read belonged to translator Sir Charles G.D. Roberts.

I've always viewed Roberts and his translation, The Canadians of Old, with a dab of derision, an irrational discourtesy that originates with the cover of the New Canadian Library edition used in the course. Those familiar with the NCL's second series design will be grateful that the only image I could find is so small. It was such an ugly book, made all the worse by the inexplicable presence of Roberts' name in place of the author's. Even the title is wrong: Canadians of Old, when it should be The Canadians of Old. Of course, none of this had anything to do with Roberts, who was three decades dead when this particular edition appeared. Like I say: irrational.

To be fair to Sir Charles, his name doesn't even appear on the cover of the handsome 1890 first edition, despite the fact that he was at the time a poet of some acclaim. I don't believe Roberts ever really considered himself a translator. The idea for the book came from New York publisher Appleton, and was accepted at a time when he was in dire need of cash. That said, it wasn't a bad match. Roberts may not have shared Aubert de Gaspé's interest in Boileau and Racine, but both he and the seigneur were readers of Sir Walter Scott. The name of the novel's protagonist, Archibald Cameron of Locheill, provides a good indication of the depth of the baronet's influence. This was raised to the surface in 1905, when publisher L.C. Page reissued the book as Cameron of Lochiel - dropping the double 'l', thus bringing the character's name into line with Cameron of Locheil in Waverley, Scott's hugely successful first novel.

This second title has received a good amount of criticism these past ten decades, but let's again be fair; though adopted in Canada by Copp Clark, it was first imposed on the book by a Boston publisher with an eye on the American market. I'll add that the 1865 theatrical adaptation was titled Archibald Cameron of Locheill ou un épisode de la guerre de Sept Ans au Canada, and that the plot has more to do with Archie than pal and fellow protagonist Jules d'Haberville.

Les Anciens Canadiens holds a unique position in this country as a novel translated by four different hands. The first, by Georgina M. Pennée (The Canadians of Old, 1864), was later revised by Thomas Guthrie Marquis and published in 1929 as Seigneur d'Haberville: A Romance of the Fall of New France. I imagine that Roberts' translation is the most read (the NCL edition sold nearly 1800 copies in the first six months alone); a great shame since it has been surpassed by Jane Brierley's 1996 translation. The only one currently in print, it is highly recommended, as are her translations of Aubert de Gaspé's moires (A Man of Sentiment, 1988) and his posthumous Divers (Yellow-Wolf and Other Tales of the Saint Lawrence, 1990), which received a Governor General's Award.

Oh, and Prochain épisode and Without a Parachute? Also recommended.

20 September 2009

Frank Newfeld's Masterpiece (and Leonard Cohen's Unseen Face for Tits)

The Spice-Box of Earth
Leonard Cohen
Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1961
Let's get this out of the way. Leonard Cohen doesn't really have much of a place in a blog devoted to the suppressed, ignored and forgotten in our literature. Anyone doubting his stature in this country need only look at the media's treatment of this weekend's news out of Valencia. Not to say that there aren't Cohen works that are forgotten and ignored – the short story 'Lovers and Barbers' comes to mind – but this isn't one of them. Most of the poems in The Spice-Box of Earth have reappeared at some point or other – twenty-eight are currently in print as part of Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs – and yet, Frank Newfeld's accomplished, award-winning design has never been reprinted.
Of the many books the designer created for McClelland and Stewart, The Spice-Box of Earth ranks as is one of the more elaborate. Issued in simultaneous cloth and paper editions, the book has a cut-out jacket through which the poet's portrait is displayed, while nearly every page features pen and ink illustrations and other design elements printed in red, black and gold.
This was not at all what Cohen had first envisioned. Two years before publication, he'd rejected editor Claire Pratt's proposal that the collection be included as part of M&S's hardcover Indian File poetry series (where it would have followed John Glassco's The Deficit Made Flesh), arguing for a cheaper paperback edition. However, biographer Ira Nadel tells us that the poet underwent a change of heart; when asked to choose between a basic edition and one with a Newfeld design, Cohen opted for the latter. The result is, I think, the designer's finest work.

Access: Canadians, look to your university libraries. There are copies out there for sale, the cheapest being the 1968 Bantam mass market edition (expect to pay at least C$20), but only the 3000 copy first edition features the Newfeld design in its full glory. Cohen being Cohen, Near Fine copies in cloth fetch a very high price – usually somewhere in the area of C$750. One problem is that cut-out jacket, which is easily damaged and, it seems, all too readily discarded. I bought my paperbound copy – signed – as a university student for all of four dollars. The vendor, a long-gone used bookshop on Montreal's Monkland Avenue, was just around the corner from Irving Layton's house. Coincidence? I have my doubts. During that same visit I noticed new copies of Layton's For My Neighbours in Hell (1980) and The Gucci Bag (1983) piled a dozen deep. All were signed.

Beware: the first American edition, published by Viking that same year, incorporates select elements of Newfeld's work, but is considerably less ambitious. It's also not nearly as beautiful or desirable. Lacking the cut-out jacket, it replaces Newfeld's elegant black and gold design with brown and butter.
Let us compare covers: In retrospect, The Spice-Box of Earth seems to have enjoyed a fairly easy birth. Not so, Flowers for Hitler, Cohen's next book of verse. Jack McClelland thought the quality of the poems uneven, while Cohen considered the collection 'a masterpiece'. Then, there was the matter of the proposed title, Opium and Hitler, on which publisher and poet could not agree. The two were still arguing in September 1964, mere months before the pub date, when a new battle flared up. At issue was Newfeld's cover image. I've not seen the design, so rely on imagination coupled with Cohen's own description in a letter to McClelland:

Nobody is going to buy a book the cover of which is a female body with my face for tits. You couldn't give that picture away. It doesn't matter what the title is now because the picture is simply offensive. It is dirty in the worst sense. It hasn't the sincerity of a stag movie or the imagination of a filthy postcard or the energy of real surrealist humour. It is dirty to the brain.
Adding that he refused to 'preside over the distribution of a crude hermaphrodotic distortion of the image of my person', Cohen suggested canceling the book altogether. With the book in production, McClelland could only back down.
What became the cover is, according to Nadel, an amalgamation of six designs Cohen himself provided.

As the biographer suggests, the result appears as 'a Valentine's Day card of sorts.' After The Spice-Box of Earth, it's difficult to see the design as anything but a disappointment. (And it is hard to get past the boyish Hitler in the bottom right... George Gobel's square.) Understandable, then, that it wasn't used when Jonathan Cape issued the first foreign edition in 1973.

But is this really any better?

17 September 2009

Hugh Hood and Le Gros Bill

Strength Down Centre: The Jean Béliveau Story
Hugh Hood
Scarborough: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1970

The Montreal Canadiens begin their 101st year tonight. For at least a dozen reasons too obvious to mention, it's hard to raise much enthusiasm.

(Okay, okay, just one. How about the fact that they'll be hosting a team from some place called Sunrise, Florida.)

Strength Down Centre is an artifact of a time when hockey was healthy, the NHL was exciting and les Glorieux were indeed glorious. It seems an unlikely project for Hood. The author of seventeen novels and ten short story collections, Strength Down Centre, comprising roughly 120 pages of text, is his longest work of non-fiction and only biography. In his 1973 collection of essays, The Governor's Bridge is Closed, Hood reveals that the project originated with Prentice-Hall – and that, as a 'serious artist', his first reaction was to turn it down. (A decision he later described as 'stupid', based on 'simple snobbery'.)

Hood's own strength lay in fiction. Even 'The Pleasures of Hockey', the 'essay' that attracted the publisher's attention, was, by his own admission, a blending of fiction and fact. Hood could write well about sport – see: 'The Sportive Center of Saint Vincent de Paul' – but he was not a sportswriter. This is most evident in the first chapter of Strength Down Centre, covering the Canadiens successful, yet anti-climactic 1969 playoff run.
Saturday night. Big game, big BIG game!
Punchy non-sentences. Liberal use of the upper case. Exclamation marks. Repetition. Repetition and italics. Hood uses them all in an attempt to capture something of Béliveau and his Canadiens on ice. It's only when he turns away from the game, and toward the man, that the book achieves its value. The portrait presented is familiar: a generous, genteel and articulate man. Clearly, Hood recognizes this last quality, allowing Béliveau to tell much of his own story. Several quotes cover six pages or more.

Strength Down Centre received a second printing, but never appeared in paperback. As Puissance au centre: Jean Béliveau (Prentice-Hall, 1970), it is Hood's only translated title. Both editions feature dozens of really great photos, including this one of the subject in conversation with the author.

One not found in the book is this photo of le Gros Bill, smoking and reading in bed. I recommend the latter, but advise against the former.

Object and Access: Montrealers will not be surprised to learn that their own public library system doesn't have a copy, but Puissance au centre is available at the Pierrefonds branch. While the Toronto Public Library and several of our academic libraries hold the book, it is more easily found in the republic to the south. This odd situation due, perhaps, to the crummy binding, which seems designed to come apart with use. Very Good copies of the first edition will set you back US$10. One Montreal bookseller lists a Near Fine copy in Very Good dust jacket signed by Béliveau and the late author. A bargain at US$30.

13 September 2009

A Matter of Some Debate

The Greatest Event in Canadian History: The Battle of the Plains
J.M. Harper
Toronto: Musson, 1909

11 September 2009

Pornography of the Puritan

Much of these past two months has been consumed by research into Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, its supposed author and the clergymen who perpetrated the hoax. Words are nearly always accompanied by images that are disturbing and, in some cases, unintentionally comical. The Disneyesque depiction of Maria above, taken from the cover of an undated 20th century English edition, ranks with the most tame. Time and again, I'm reminded of Richard Hofstadter's observation that 'anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan'.

Most 19th century editions feature the same 38 engravings, all depicting characters and scenes in the book. There is, for example, the 'inhuman priest' Bonin in action pose. According to the book, it is he who, with an undisclosed number of nuns, trampled Sister St. Frances to death. Many of the images feature tormented nuns, women who have endured rape and torture, such as the 'melancholy' Sister St. Martin and 'Mad Jane Ray'. In the illustration below we see Maria herself, recovering from 'the cap', an instrument of punishment described as 'small, made of a reddish looking leather, fitted closely to the head, and fastened under the chin with a kind of buckle.' The reader is told that it was 'common practice to tie the nun's hands behind, and gag her before the cap was put on, to prevent noise and resistance.'

While the reader is shown the convent's tools of torture, the closest we get to an actual depiction accompanies a detailed description of the punishment inflicted upon poor Jane Ray. Remarks our heroine, 'I could not help noticing how very similar this punishment was to that of the Inquisition.' And so, we're provided with an engraving.

Bondage, flogging, branding... it's no wonder that the 'awful disclosures' found readers amongst those attracted to the works of Sacher-Masoch, Sade and Mirbeau. Indeed, the book has at times been packaged to attract just such an audience. Here, for example, is a 1971 edition from London's Canova Press (publishers of The Order of the Rod and Harriet Marwood, Governess).

The most egregious illustration I've yet come across comes not from a copy of Awful Disclosures, but a tract promoting the book's claim that the Hôtel-Dieu convent contains a lime pit into which the infants of nuns and priests are thrown.

Perhaps a bit of comic relief is in order. I recognize and appreciate that there will be some who will not recognize this last example as such, but like the ranting of conspiracy theorist and crazy man Glenn Beck, I find it pretty amusing. In 1854, an earlier loon named H.M. Hatch self-published Popery Unmasked, a 76-page booklet intended to expose the 'debasing tendency of Roman Catholicism'... and, it seems, Pius IX as Satan. The author references Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk as one of five works that 'stand as high as any historical works now in use'. Not that the authority conferred by Hatch in any way prevents him from tampering with the text – he abridges here and adds a phrase or two there, pretty much making a mess of things. For Hatch, like Beck, there isn't a lie that can't be improved upon.

08 September 2009

Men Without Anglosaxony

The most recent post at the unfailingly informative and entertaining Bookride concerns Anglosaxony: A League that Works by Wyndham Lewis. Whether or not one considers Lewis Canadian – he certainly did – the pamphlet holds a place in our literary history as the most valuable published by the still-mourned Ryerson Press. What cost 75¢ in 1941 is today estimated at between US$1200 and US$1500. Copies are, it appears, rare as hen's teeth. Blame lies not with Messrs David Bowie and Bryan Ferry – both collectors – but with a disinterested press and unresponsive public. Not that Ryerson didn't try. Below is the company's 1941 Christmas advert, in which we see Anglosaxony sandwiched between war correspondent Leland Stowe's No Other Road to Freedom and They Got Their Man, a collection of mountie tales by Philip H. Godsell.

The Globe and Mail, 6 December 1941

All this provides an excuse to present this link to Tom Hawthorne's very fine profile of Lewis collector extraordinaire Cy Fox, first published in the 27 May 2009 edition of the Globe and Mail.

07 September 2009

Author and Publisher as Forgotten Men

Forgotten Men
Claudius Gregory
Hamilton: Davis-Lisson, 1933

For Labour Day, a Depression-era story of strife, struggle and messianic fantasy. Christopher Ward is a young man of wealth and privilege. The son of a steel mill owner, he lives life adrift until happening upon an impromptu meeting of unemployed men in a public park. Wonderment is reawakened. He devotes his life to some hazy idea called 'the Cause', becomes close friends with the unemployed Peter Bronte, is mentored by holy man Reverend John, and meets a prostitute named Mary. 'Mary. That is my mother's name, too', Christopher says when introduced. Well before he amasses his group of twelve, known as the Society of Forgotten Men, the reader senses that things will end quite badly. It comes as no surprise when he's betrayed by Society member Jude Braithwaite and is arrested while having that one last supper in a modest eatery.

That said, the reader is left wondering at the charge: sedition. Christopher is long on describing the suffering of the working man, short on its causes and silent as to the solution. This is not to say that the messianic figure hasn't been proposing something, but that Gregory, for all his verbiage, chooses not to reveal the goal of the Society of Forgotten Men. Christopher's thoughts only hint at the answer:
Beginning. 'In the beginning.' But, of course, everything must have a beginning. It was plain now, quite plain, the task he must undertake, the part he must play. Millions of forgotten men were depending upon them, men whose very souls had ben exploited because they did not understand what was theirs by right. Yes, there was a thought in that. One should say, by birthright. There it was again. A man's birthright: something which came to him in the beginning. There were millions of men who would be powerful enough, once they understood, to select leaders among themselves to govern, to select men incapable of being influenced by the taint of party politics. He had no socialistic ideas; that was not the thought.
No, but if that is not the thought, what is? The answer is invariably cloaked. In this passage, for example, we see it in the next to last sentence with Christopher's dreams of leaders untainted by party politics. To put it more plainly, the publisher's next book was Is Fascism the Answer?, a work praising Benito Mussolini, penned by Brampton police magistrate and corporal punishment advocate S. Alfred Jones.

Gregory dedicated Forgotten Men to its publisher, Thomas Dyson Lisson, adding a dense three-page Acknowlegement devoted to 'the man whose collaboration gave the story.' Here Gregory tells us something of the novel's failure by revealing that the plot was woven around Lisson's 'outstanding thoughts', as expressed in self-published brochures, such as 'Did You Ever Look at it This Way?' (1931) and the more ominous 'Eventually You Will Look at it This Way' (1933).

Forgotten Men was the first book for both Gregory, a transplanted Brit, and Lisson, co-owner of a successful Hamilton printing business. Despite their friendship, the author's next two novels, Valerie Hathaway (1933) and Solomon Levi (1935), were published by other houses. All were reviewed in the pages of the the New York Times, yet Gregory's life, literary career and death (1944) were ignored by the dailies in his adopted city of Toronto. Lisson, on the other hand, received some notice. During the Great War, it was reported that he may have thwarted a dastardly German plot to poison the good citizens of Hamilton.

The Globe, 13 September 1918

Then, in 1932, Lisson's printing plant was damaged in a fire so spectacular that it was front page news in Toronto – 'Exploding Celluloid Showers Hot Glass Upon Firefighters', reads the headline. Three year later, he returned to the front page as co-founder of the short-lived Reconstruction Party, lead by difficult once and future Tory H. H. Stevens.

The Globe, 12 July 1935
Lisson, seated across from the other leaders of the fledgling Reconstruction Party, Thomas M. Bell, H.H. Stevens and Warren K. Cook.
Lisson's own writing attracted little attention, though the arguments set forth in his 1937 pamphlet, 'Gold', were considered and dismissed by the mining editor of the Globe. Sadly, my search for his self-published titles hasn't borne fruit. Just as well – having read the ideas put forth in Forgotten Men, I can't imagine 'Birth Control and Scrap Labor-Saving Devices' is nearly as interesting as the title suggests.

Object and Access: A heavy, well-bound book, it's found in academic libraries across the country, but only two of our public libraries (predictably, Hamilton and Toronto) have copies. Library and Archives Canada fails us, yet again. Online booksellers describe the book as 'scarce', 'uncommon' and a 'hard find'. Don't you believe it. Very Good copies go for as little as US$15, while signed copies can be found in the US$20 range. I purchased mine with damaged dust jacket a couple of weeks ago from my local used bookstore for C$15.