24 June 2010


Une deuxième chanson pour la fête de la St-Jean. Composed by George-Étienne Cartier, "Avant tout je suis canadien" follows his better-known "Ô Canada! mon pays! mes amours!". It was first sung 175 years ago today at a banquet of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and was later adopted by les Fils de la Liberté. A president of the former and a member of the latter, Cartier seems a problematic figure for the Société and its allies. I've twice seen "Avant tout je suis canadien" attributed incorrectly to "les Patriotes". Manfred Overmann makes this mistake, and includes this song by a leading Father of Confederation in his Anthologie de la poésie indépendantiste et souverainiste.

This version is taken from the third volume of Benjamin Sulte's Mélanges historiques (Montreal: Ducharme, 1919).

Related post: A Song for la Fête de la St-Jean

21 June 2010

Lost in Translation

The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel [L'épouvantail]
André Major [Sheila Fischman, trans.]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977

In the latter half of the 'seventies McClelland and Stewart published translations of novels by Marie-Claire Blais, Hubert Aquin, André Langevin, Diane Giguère, Monique Bosco, Jean-Yves Soucy, Naïm Kattan, Jacques Ferron and Gabrielle Roy. Different times, especially for the house that refers to itself as "The Canadian Publisher" (in italics, always italics). The Roys aside, all were issued in hardcover and enjoyed a lone printing; there were no paperback editions. I can't say I've read all of these, but of those I have The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is the one I'd most like to see returned to print.

Originally published in 1974 as L'épouvantail, the novel begins with our hero, Momo Boulanger, waking up after a severe beating. There will be more to come. Momo is a man very much out of his depth, trying to make sense of the past. Fresh out of jail, he's come to Montreal to confront a red-haired beauty named Gigi. She's working as a hooker out of some seedy place called the Paradise, but short years before, in little St-Emmanuel, she'd been his girl. "If you were any kind of man you'd get me out of this hole", she'd told him. And so, desperate for cash, Momo had robbed a hardware store. Her father turned him in.

Gigi's whine is a cliché, and the plot resembles a pulp novel, but what sets this work apart from the cheap, yellowing paperbacks is Major's use of language. Anyone seeking evidence of Sheila Fischman's formidable talent as a translator need look no farther than this book.

Here's the beginning of chapter three:
He had stopped looking over the tops of the houses that formed an endless wall on either side of the street; there was nothing more to see up there now that night had fallen like a canopy, closing him completely inside a kind of deserted labyrinth where no one would turn around as he went by, astonished or smiling at his black eye and swollen lips; he walked slowly, dragging his feet, a stiffness of muscles of his calves, and for a moment nothing could stop him, not even the uselessness of his wandering, even though it seemed absurd to be walking like that, just for the sake of walking, as though the fabulous sum of his steps would finally lead him somewhere, or at the very least make him discover some goal to be reached, while the one really important thing to do was drink some hot coffee and take some time to rest up and get warm.
One sentence, it flies in the face of formula. Major's paragraphs often go on for pages, moving dreamlike between past and present, St-Emmanuel and Montreal. One dark scene follows another; even those depicting Momo and Gigi at the beginning of their relationship disturb. The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is not a pleasant read, nor is it an easy read, and yet once started it is difficult to put down. It's the finest novel I've read this year.

Object and Access: A slim hardcover, there are plenty of Very Good copies to be had at under C$8. Pay no attention to the Ontario bookseller charging C$10 for a "Fair" library discard. The Scarecrows of Saint-Emmanuel is rare sight in our public libraries, though it is found in most universities. A bit more scarce in the original French, despite having been reissued by Stanké in 1980.

16 June 2010

Entirely Off Topic

This blog's descriptor confines, but today I ignore all to draw attention to three paragraphs written by John Gale, an Englishman with no apparent connection to Canada or Canadian literature:
One night this year, on the walk home from the Underground in the falling snow, I had to lean against the wall of the crematorium where my father went up in smoke. I had had a few drinks. The wind pierced the short, old-fashioned black coat that had belonged to my grandfather. When I walked on a little unsteadily in the dark on the creaking snow, a girl passed on the other side of the road, her high black boots gleaming faintly. She looked across at me, and then went on in the bitter cold.
Our three children had measles; Jill was tired. The wind moaned beneath the doors; we were keeping fires going day and night, and the insects cried in the blazing logs. Our house is small, virtually a cottage, among terraced houses built, originally, for artisans; the road is the appendix of the suburb, with wealthier houses not far off. I like our house: scarcely a piece of furniture, not a picture, carpet or curtain did we choose ourselves; all was given or passed on by relatives; all, or almost all, is incongruous, tasteless, but well used.
At times I feel the small house is the centre of the world. It seems a turning-point for aircraft coming in to land at London Airport. Their engines change pitch as they come in from east and west, booming and whining through the dusk, their navigation lights winking hope. When I lie in bed I distrust all aircraft: where are they going? People should stay at home. I prefer the sound of trains far off at night, the clink of a shunting in a cold siding.
The beginning of Gale's 193-page autobiography Clean Young Englishman (Hodder & Stoughton, 1965), the words come courtesy of Steerforth who happened upon the book yesterday. I've ordered my copy: £10. The remaining 192 pages could be blank and I'd still consider the money well spent.

13 June 2010

Homophobes and Book Burners Weigh In

Orlando Figes made the news a couple of months ago when the Times revealed that he'd posted a slew of savage pseudonymous reviews of rivals' works on Amazon. "This is the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published", he wrote of Molotov's Magic Lantern by Rachel Polonsky, going on to pronounce books by Sovietologist Robert Service variously as "disappointing" and "a dull read". Then Professor Figes' focussed a critical eye on his own book, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia, writing that it "leaves the reader awed, humbled, yet uplifted." Once caught, he sullied himself further by lashing out, threatening lawsuits and allowing his wife to take the fall. At the end of it all, Stalin was to blame; it seems the stunning lapses in judgement can be traced back to Figes' study of the General Secretary's reign, which had led to a "very deep depression". You see, The Whisperers isn't really so uplifting after all.

Sordid, unseemly, this would all be old news were it not for the fact that it had no effect on an Amazon policy that allows would-be reviewers to hide behind cloaks of anonymity and paperless masks composed of silly pseudonyms.

Looking into the newish Penguin edition of The Wars, I notice that Amazon.ca provides 35 customer reviews of the novel, nearly all of which are anonymous or have been posted under noms de plume. Most are complimentary, but a fair percentage are not.

Who, one wonders, are these people?

Well, let's see. Someone going by the name Rudy Patudy claims to be a high school teacher. Here, in just two sentences, the educator not only displays creative use of punctuation and the lower case, but comes up with a whole new definition for the word "trollop":

Then there's Furyman from Coboconk, Ontario, a reader of books on the First and Eleventh World Wars:

That's right, don't you mistake Furyman for a book burner – though his motto, Gott Mit Uns, was used by the Wehrmacht right up to the fall of the Third Reich. No, the true practitioner of libricide is the brave anonymous soul who posted this:

Into the ground? What do I know – I've never been to a book burning.

Now, I don't mean to suggest that these negative reviews were written by rivals – I very much doubt that Rudy Patudy is Jane Urquhart – but has Amazon learned nothing from Professor Figes' lesson? Why allow anonymous reviews? Why encourage reviewers to use pseudonyms? Why not request that people put their names behind their misspelled words? Sure, the deceitful will continue to hide, but it's at least a start.

As it stands, Amazon has no one but itself to blame for such absolute trollop.

10 June 2010

Donald Jack Tackles Timothy Findley

The Wars shines brightly, even as Timothy Findley's star falls. A Penguin Modern Classic, it's assigned to reluctant high school and college students across the land. I'm betting a fair percentage actually read the thing. I know I did. Liked it, too. Would I today? Don't know. That said, The Wars has been on my mind since I came across Donald Jack's review in the 15 October 1977 edition of the Globe and Mail.

It's always interesting to read contemporary criticism of works that have entered the canon. Did the reviewer sense that there was something special? Would the piece feature some grand pronouncement? Some recognition of achievement? There's nothing of the sort in Jack's review, though it does make for interesting reading.

Jack wasn't known for his criticism, but he must have been a tempting choice. His bestselling Bandy Papers, described by the Globe as "a series of novels about the misadventures of Bartholomew Bandy during The First World War", was twice awarded the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour. What would he have to say about a less ribald work, one lacking slapstick, set during the very same conflict?

The answer follows.

Witness Jack's clumsy dance around the real reason he dislikes the novel, marvel at his gloriously hypocritical summation:
In his new novel, The Wars, Timothy Findley tells the story of a young Canadian's experiences in the first World War. Robert Ross comes from a rich Toronto family whose eldest daughter, Rowena, is hydrocephalic and Robert is her self-appointed guardian. When Rowena dies while playing with her rabbits, he blames himself. His alcoholic mother insists that Robert must kill the rabbits. "All these actors were obeying some kind of fate we call 'revenge.' Because a girl had died – and her rabbits had survived her."
Robert joins up. "The days were made of maps and horses: of stable drill and artillery range." He fails in an Alberta bordello. Though he sees a war hero locked in homosexual combat, it does not affect his subsequent attitude to that warrior. Though he is an officer, "Telling other people what to do made him laugh. Just as being told what to do made him angry."
He experiences the trenches, gas, and shell fire. He loves animals but there is little evidence of warmth, affection or concern for others, even in a war noted for the comradeship it inspired. He has an affair with Lady Barbara d'Orsay in England. It is described by others from a distant perspective.
He returns to France, and is raped by his fellow soldiers in the dark. So he doesn't know who they are. At the climax of the book his concern for the well-being of a trainload of horses and his state of mind causes him to attempt a rescue. When they try to stop him he kills several of his comrades. The rescue of the horses results in many of them being burned to death. Robert survives for a few years, mad and disfigured.
I know how much work goes into a novel, so I regret that I find Findley's picture of the war to be an unacceptable distortion.

No further comment is necessary.

Oh, okay. Two words: "homosexual combat".

07 June 2010

Allen Emergency Eye Wash

Beginning with the above, London publisher Grant Richards' 1897 first edition of An African Millionaire, six handsome Grant Allen books to flush away the harmful grit left by BiblioBazaar, Tutis and General.

Flowers and Their Pedigrees
New York: Appleton, 1884

Miss Cayley's Adventures
London: Richards, 1899

Flashlights on Nature
London: Newnes, 1899

Boston: Page, 1901

Belgium: Its Cities
Boston: Page, 1903

Related posts:

06 June 2010

What? No Tutis?

A correspondent wonders why I gave
Tutis Classics a pass in the last post. The reason is simple: the greatest offence done to Grant Allen comes not from the perplexing POD publisher, but from rival BiblioBazaar. Need another example? Here, BiblioBazaar takes the author's most enduring work, botches the title, then repeats the error with an alternate cover featuring an image that it tries to pass off as Paris.

Those familiar with The Woman Who Did will remember Alan and Herminia's time in the City of Light.


Here it is in full:
They took the club train that afternoon to Paris. There they slept the night in a fusty hotel near the Gare du Nord, and went on in the morning by the daylight express to Switzerland.
Fans of Tutis will be disappointed to learn that it offers only two Allen titles. These are not, as one might expect, The Woman Who Did and An African Millionaire, but The Great Taboo and The Science of Arcady. Lesser works to be sure – the latter is a collection of essays wrapped in a cover that resembles an old textbook – though the former might be of interest. The Great Taboo was the second of four novels Allen published in 1890; Peter Morton's The Busiest Man in England: Grant Allen and the Writing Trade provides a very good summary:
Washed overboard from a liner in the South Seas, Felix Thurstan and Muriel Ellis swim to a Polynesian island, where they are promoted to the status of gods of Rain and Clouds respectively. Their reign will be short, however; they can expect to be killed, eaten and replaced after some months. Fortunately they learn, from the babbling of an ancient parrot once owned by a sailor castaway, the exact process by which the reigning supreme god, Tu-Kila-Kila, is himself replaced; armed with this knowledge, Felix steals the golden bough from the sacred grove and kills the incumbent in single combat. Felix and Muriel then introduce a humane and rationalistic regime before escaping on a passing ship.
As I say, a lesser effort, though Tutis does offer two different covers. The first appears to depict Felix and Muriel windsurfing their way to freedom. Bit of a mistake there – they actually leave by lifeboat, courtesy of a gun-toting sea captain – but I wonder whether the second, placing Felix in Conan the Barbarian gear before the frigid, snow-covered mountains of Polynesia, is any better.

By Crom!

Related post: Awful Allens

04 June 2010

Awful Allens

Further to Tuesday's post. The cover of the Leadenhead Michael's Crag might not be as attractive as Rand McNally's (above), but is it not more interesting? "MR. GRANT ALLEN'S NEW STORY 'MICHAEL'S CRAG'" suggests.... what? Great anticipation? A long wait? Neither would have been true; even as Michael's Crag appeared, the author's next novel, The Scallywag, was being serialized in the weekly Graphic. What's more, it followed hot on the heals of Ivan Greet's Masterpiece etc. (1893), a collection of new and recently published short stories.

Allen was a busy man – in his opinion, the busiest in England – before dying of "liver related problems" at the grand old age of 51, he'd published seventy books. I know of only two that are in print today, The Woman Who Did and The Type-writer Girl, both fine scholarly editions from Peterborough's Broadview Press. These and nearly all the others are available from various print on demand firms. With few exceptions, they appear such nasty things, particularly when placed next to their Victorian counterparts. Compare, if you will, Ferro's 1896 edition of A Bride from the Desert to that offered by print on demand publisher BiblioBazaar.

Let's ignore the line-wrap and focus on the image. Intriguing, isn't it? What, one wonders, does a bamboo forest have to do with something titled A Bride from the Desert? The answer is, of course, nothing. The photo is one of several that BiblioBazaar places on their books. Look for no rhyme, consider no reason. Here the same photo is used on Allen's Flowers and Their Pedigrees (1884).

So, what we have is a cheap POD publisher with a set number of stock images. I get it. But is it not odd that BiblioBazaar uses two of these images, both appropriate for A Bride from the Desert, on their editions of Allen's Venice (1898)?

Ah, yes, Venice, the desert wasteland. BiblioBazaar also offers two different editions dealing with that maritime city we call Paris.

Lest anyone think I'm picking on BiblioBazaar, I end this rant by pointing to this beauty from England's General Books. Though I've never seen the first edition, I'm willing to bet a considerable sum that it is a far sight more attractive than this:

Related posts:
Wings of Delusion
What? No Tutis?

01 June 2010

Wings of Delusion

Michael's Crag
Grant Allen
London: Leadenhall, 1893
194 pages

This review, revised and rewritten, now appears 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

Related post: