31 December 2010

In Search of George Pepki, Poet

Yesterday's Globe and Mail featured a short work of fiction by Preston Manning. Titled "2018: The new health care", it's of a particular, peculiar, unnamed genre in which political types imagine a future where their greatest fantasy is realized.

I don't know... let's call it porn.

What Mr Manning does – what all who write these pieces do – is set up a row of carefully chosen dominos, each in itself a fantasy, which when set in motion culminate in the greatest fantasy of all.

Call it a climax.

Here Mr Manning imagines the election in Quebec of a "reform-minded government", the death of the Bloc Québécois, a Wikileak that exposes "media executives, editorialists, journalists and television personalities" as health care hypocrites and a "Nobel Prize-winner [sic]" who has Liberals and New Democrats eating crow. And the greatest fantasy of all? The abolition of medicare, of course:
The House, now enlightened by science and buoyed with Christmas cheer, unanimously approved a motion endorsing the "mixed systems" approach to health care and commending it to all provinces and territories. The motion specifically affirmed that such a system was completely compatible with the Canadian way, since, as all members had always known in their hearts, "mixed systems are the very essence of Canada’s national identity."
God bless us, every one!

As I say, one man's fantasy... but what interests me is the domino that Mr Manning calls "The Pepki Case":
George Pepki was a retired Alberta farmer who suffered from a kidney ailment and was referred by his family doctor to a specialist. While waiting for over four months to see the specialist, George's condition became critical and his family rushed him to the emergency ward of an Edmonton hospital. After waiting there for more than six hours and receiving no help, the family in desperation flew George to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he was diagnosed, treated and released within 72 hours. The family sought to recover the entire cost of the unauthorized trip and treatment from Alberta Health Services, which refused to pay. The Pepkis then took Alberta to court, the case eventually reaching the Supreme Court of Canada about the same time as Quebec was instituting its health-care reforms.
George Pepki is one of only two names featured in "2018: The new health care". The other, Nobel Prize winner Dr Lars Aalborg, is a figment of Mr Manning's imagination, but George Pepki is very much a real person. How do I know? Because Mr Manning has mentioned George Pepki before – from the floor of the House of Commons, no less. Here's Mr Manning on 2 October 1996 debating Bill C-45:
Thinking of the ineffectiveness of bureaucratic action in these areas, the inability of bureaucratic measures and institutions to protect people or to rehabilitate criminals, I am reminded of a poem by the Canadian poet George Pepki, inspired by the children's nursery rhyme "Humpty-Dumpty'':

Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty-Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king's horses and all the King's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again.
And what is the moral to this little rhyme?
A moral with meaning for men in our time?
The moral is this, and its lesson is true:
There are certain things that the state cannot do.
If all the King's horses and all the King's men
Cannot put an egg together again,
Is it not a false hope, an illusion, a sin,
To ask civil servants to reconstruct men?

Now, we don't hear much poetry recited in the House of Commons, so you'll understand why this particular poem and the proud Pepki name have stayed with me. But here's the thing: in the fourteen years since, I've not seen another poem by "Canadian poet George Pepki". Not only have there been no volumes of verse and nothing in our little magazines, no more than this morsel from Hansard has made its way onto the web.

When yesterday's Globe and Mail hit the stands I'd all but forgotten George Pepki, but he's now very much front of mind. Has the poet actually suffered a kidney ailment? Did his family fly him down to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona? Was he really diagnosed, treated and released within 72 hours? Is there a case now winding its way to the Supreme Court? Or is Mr Manning simply imagining a future in which these trials will be visited upon George Pepki?

I've written the former Reform leader about the poet George Pepki, but have yet to receive a response.

Update: On 4 January I received a very generous email from Preston Manning in answer to my queries. Mystery solved... for me, at least; Mr Manning has asked that I keep the contents confidential. It's my hope that one day he'll share the secret of George Pepki with the public at large.

26 December 2010

The 75-Year-Old Virgin and Others I Acquired

Published in 1935 by les Éditions du Quotidien, a first edition by one of the most important Canadian writers of the twentieth century. I bought Sébastien Pierre this year for ten dollars. A full 75 years after publication, its pages remained uncut. Three of the 23 illustrations featured are revealed here for the first time.

Such a sad commentary on the country's literature, and yet... and yet this same sorry situation enables souls like myself to amass a fairly nice collection of interesting and unusual Canadiana.

Case in point: Thomas P. Kelley's pseudonymous No Tears for Goldie (1950), which was purchased in February for a mere five dollars. No hits on Worldcat, absent from Abe, nothing at all at AddAll.

Rare, bizarre, but not really worth a read.

Of the obscurities reviewed here these past twelve months, the three I most recommend:

These are not great works of literature, but they are engaging and very interesting. Each depicts a dark, disturbing and gritty Canada found in very few novels of their time.

Financially speaking, my best buy was a very nice first edition (my second) of Tender is the Night (sans dust jacket), which I found just last month for $9.50 in a Montreal bookstore. The year's favourite purchase, however, is of negligible commercial value: a 1926 edition of Anatole France's Under the Rose. I came across this at a library sale, flipped through a few pages, and happened to spot the name Peregrine Acland, a subject of ongoing research, stamped ever so discretely in the front free endpaper.

What luck!

Still no luck, I'm afraid, in tracking down Sexpo '69, that elusive novel of lesbian erotica set at Expo 67. Will I never find a copy?

Of course, I will.

A Happy New Year to all!

22 December 2010

Hard Copy

Mention here is a bit late, but not so much that one can't pick up a copy as a last minute stocking stuffer. The new issue of Canadian Notes and Queries features the debut of The Dusty Bookcase on paper. Subject? Nothing less than John Glassco's most intricate piece of hoaxery: The Temple of Pederasty. Banned in Canada, pulped in the United States, its history is one involving deception, forgery, plagiarism, smuggling and a cold government bureaucrat.

I'll say no more except to point out that the very same issue features a very fine piece by Zachariah Wells' on The Mulgrave Road, Harry Bruce's 1951 collection of verse.

Neglected, not suppressed.

20 December 2010

Reclaiming Mark Strand

The Planet of Lost Things
Mark Strand (William Pène Du Bois, illus.)
New York: Potter, 1982

We're a funny lot, forever going on about Jack Kerouac's French Canadian parents, clutching Dollarton squatter Malcolm Lowry to our collective bosom, while ignoring writers who were actually born in this country. I refer here not to Wyndham Lewis, brought into this world on his father's yacht off the coast of Amherst, Nova Scotia, but to those like Saul Bellow who began their lives on Canada's fertile soil.

Yes, let's look at Bellow, a man who was born and lived the first nine years of his life on the Island of Montreal. His name is not found in The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature or Encyclopedia of Canadian Literature. Is this Nobel Prize recipient not worthy of even a passing reference?

And what of Mark Strand? Look up his birthplace, Summerside, Prince Edward Island, on Wikipedia (that most unreliable of reference tools) and what do you find? Seven NHL players, a few singer-songwriters and an Olympic bobsleigh gold medalist. Pretty impressive for a town of just 14,000 souls. Strand was born and spent his first four years in Summerside, but we ignore that fact, just as we choose not to recognize his Pulitzer Prize or the term he spent as United States Poet Laureate... or this very fine little book. It can be found in nearly three hundred public libraries across the United States, but in Canada we must make do with one lonely copy held in the Toronto Public Library.

There's no poetry in The Planet of Lost Things... by which I mean there's no verse. A children's storybook, this is one of the oddities in Strand's bibliography. It tells the story of a young boy, Luke, who dreams of traveling the solar system in a rocket ship. When he comes across an unknown, planet, the young astronaut decides to investigate. What he finds is a building filled with lost mail, forgotten umbrellas hanging from barren trees and a park populated by lost cats and dogs.

The celestial body's only human inhabitants are the Unknown Soldier and the Missing Person, found by Luke next to a cluster of lost balloons. Together the three wander a melancholy world, breathing an atmosphere that consists largely of air that has escaped from leaking tires.

It all makes for a fun little bedtime story. The challenge for Canadian parents, of course, comes in finding a copy.

Object and Access: A sturdy hardcover with a flimsy dust jacket, the only decent volume currently listed online is being offered at US$60.

15 December 2010

A Gentleman of Pleasure

Just announced by McGill-Queen's University Press:

A Gentleman of Pleasure: One Life of John Glassco, Poet,
Memoirist, Translator, and Pornographer

Brian Busby

April 2011

The first biography of Canada's most enigmatic literary figure, a self-described "great practitioner of deceit."

John Glassco (1909-1981) holds a unique position in Canadian letters and a somewhat notorious reputation throughout the world. He is best known for his Memoirs of Montparnasse, the controversial chronicle of his youthful adventures and encounters with celebrities in the Paris of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Ernest Hemingway. Less known are his poetry, his instrumental role in the foundation of modern translation, and his numerous - and widely popular - works of pornography.

A Gentleman of Pleasure not only spans Glassco's life but delves into his background as a member of a once prominent and powerful Montreal family. In addition to Glassco's readily available work, Brian Busby draws on pseudonymous writings published as a McGill student as well as unpublished and previously unknown poems, letters, and journal entries to detail a vibrant life while pulling back the curtain on Glassco's sexuality and unconventional tastes.

In a lively account of a man given to deception, who took delight in hoaxes, Busby manages to substantiate many of the often unreliable statements Glassco made about his life and work. A Gentleman of Pleasure is a remarkable biography that captures the knowable truth about a fascinatingly complex and secretive man.

More, including pre-ordering information, can be found here.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the cover is by the talented David Drummond.

11 December 2010

And These Were Her Magnificent Breasts

This was Joanna
Niel [sic] H. Perrin [pseud. Danny Halperin]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1949

Of all the novels read this past year, not one has left so great an impression as Neil H. Perrin's The Door Between. In the second of two posts about the book, I described it as "one of the most peculiar Canadian novels I've ever read". Here I reconsider: The Door Between might well be the most peculiar Canadian novel I've ever read. It's portrayal of 1948 Toronto as a dark, sexual sin city, populated by stricken, agonizing souls certainly runs counter to the staid and sober images that linger in popular culture.

These same sorry sods would find fit in This was Joanna, which was published twelve months earlier. We never actually meet Joanna – she's found dead on page one by an unnamed fisherman, as depicted on the cover of the publisher's American edition: "...for one witless moment he looked down on the haunting perfection that was Joanna, the closed eyes in a kind of rapture, the long, strained throat, twisted torso, magnificent breasts, profound hips, proud legs, crouched in death like a supple cat."

Profound hips...

This is not the dead woman's story, rather it concerns an ex-lover, a nameless newspaperman who attempts to solve the mystery that was Joanna. His quest brings him into contact with her other past paramours. As with The Door Between, sexual disfunction and perversity pervade. We see this on Joanna's wedding night, as described by her husband Charles:
At last she stood nude before me. When I looked at her I was shocked to see the most brazen smile on her face.
Then, without hesitation, her fingers sure, carefully, slowly, she began to undress me. I went slightly hysterical then. I began to shudder to laugh, to giggle, to squirm. I simply went berserk. In the grip of nameless emotions that shook my whole body and dazed my mind I began to fight with her, to hit her, to drag her toward the bed.
What Joanna thought of this I don't know. We have never discussed it. I only know that later, all passion spent, as I lay beside her in the muttering gloom, I realized that on our wedding night I had gone mad, had beaten my wife and had virtually raped her.
Joanna never forgives Charles, whose desperate attempts to win her back render him a cuckold. The tryst with the newspaperman is just the first in a series of extramarital flings. It's with penultimate lover Ted Wrisley that Joanna's amorous adventures come to a climax. A sensualist who owes much to J.-K. Huysmans' Jean Des Esseintes, Wrisley introduces Joanna to "the arts of which immortal Ovid and the Marquis de Sade have written." He takes delight in showing his "chamber of horrors" to the newspaperman:
On the walls of the room were hung all sorts of gadgets of torture; long needles, small, hairy whips, knouts, knives sharp as razors, silken threads of unbelievable length. Over the mantlepiece were afixed two large peacock feathers; the end of one was a rubber stopper, the end of the other a handgrip. I dared not ask the significance of these feathers for fear of being told.
Suspended from the ceiling were two long cords, obviously used to hold a person up from the floor by his (or her) thumbs. On the floor, as if alive, lay the stuffed corpse of a sinuous cobra. The most unspeakably evil paintings adorned the walls and, in one corner of the room under a blue light, sat the grinning statue of Priapus, the phallic symbol of the ages.
This was Joanna was banned in Ireland.

Wrisley's playroom – which, incidentally, is soundproof – stands as Priapus in what is otherwise a remarkably flat environment. Like an American soap opera, This was Joanna is set in a neutral everyplace that is populated by the pampered and privileged. How bland compared to the torrid Toronto of The Door Between! I can't help but compare – had it not been for one I would not have read the other – and yet... and yet I still recommend the novel. This was Joanna might not be the most peculiar Canadian novel I've ever read, but it's up there.

Trivia: News Stand Library's American edition of This was Joanna, published in November 1949, two months after the Canadian, marks the last time the book saw print. Why Halperin's pseudonym was changed from Neil H. Perrin to Grant R. Brooks remains a mystery.

Object: A mass market paperback that is typical of News Stand Library's shoddy production values. Streaks of black ink run along the edges of a dozen or so pages, making for challenging reading. The author's name is misspelled on the cover and title page (but is correct on the spine and back cover). "I before E, except after C", I suppose.

Access: Only the University of Calgary has copies (both the Perrin and Brooks editions). This was Joanna might be all but absent from libraries, but that doesn't mean it's expensive. Ten copies – all fairly decent – are currently listed online at between US$7.50 and US$30. One bookseller describes his offering as "a bit misscut [sic]". Par for the course, really.

07 December 2010

Many Happy Returns

The Ottawa Citizen, 3 December 1960

McClelland and Stewart's Christmas offerings from half-a-century ago. Only This Side Jordan is in print today. Pity that, Robertson Davies' A Voice from the Attic is a particularly good match for a snowy winter's day. "A witty, robust and wonderfully opinionated book on the joys of reading and the author's own offbeat likes and dislikes." There is truth in advertising.

Which of this fall's McClelland and Stewart titles will be in print in 2060, I wonder. I'm betting against Ezra Levant's Ethical Oil (and even 2009's Shakedown, which I was once told "belongs in the category of Uncle Tom's Cabin".)

My recommendations for this season's gift-giving favours presses that are hard at work mining the neglected riches of our past.

First up, Véhicule, which this fall launched its Ricochet Books series of pulp fiction reprints. (Full disclosure: I'm consulting editor for the series.)

The Crime on Cote des Neiges
David Montrose
The series debut, returning Montrose (Charles Ross Graham) to print after after an absence of more than four decades. Originally published in 1951, this edition includes a foreword by yours truly.

Two blondes, one brunette, a roadster and a whole lotta Dow. It doesn't get much better.

Murder Over Dorval
David Montrose
Foreword by Michael Blair
"In one hand she held a plane ticket to Montreal, in the other a wad of greenbacks. She was a gorgeous looking redhead. For the sake of her lovely green eyes, Russell Teed took the plane and the money. But it wasn't long before h realized that whatever she had offered, it wasn't worth it."

Recognition of Dundurn's Voyageur Classics series is long overdue. For four years now it's been "bringing forward time-tested writing about the Canadian experience in all its varieties." This year's titles:

Hugh Garner
Introduction by Paul Stuewe

Scott Symons
Introduction by Christopher Elson

Wyndham Lewis
Introduction by Allan Pero

Grey Owl
Edited and introduced by Michael Gnarowski

Note the handy links to the publishers' websites. Of course, all are also available from booksellers, whether online or not, but I'm not playing favourites.

Related post: Books are Best

04 December 2010

The Healing Hands of Rocke and Locke

The third part of my review of The Canada Doctor by Clay Perry and John L.E. Pell 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

Related posts:

01 December 2010

The Canada Doctor: Second Visit

The second part of my review of The Canada Doctor by Clay Perry and John L.E. Pell 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