23 May 2014

Young Mister Richler on the New Canadian Library

Further goodness from the May 1958 issue of The Montrealer with Richler reviewing the New Canadian Library's inaugural offerings. An interesting choice. Richler was no cultural nationalist – never was, as is evident in this piece, written at the age of twenty-seven. He spends the first two-thirds debunking the very notion of a Canadian literature:
Canadian writing is really regional North American writing and not a separate body. English-speaking Canadian novelists obviously have much more in common with their counterparts in the United States than with the French-Canadian writer around the corner.
And Canadian writers:
For my money the man who writes the best prose in Canada is Morley Callaghan. Yet he has surely been more influenced by Hemingway and Fitzgerald than by Frederick Philip Grove. He is an American writer. He just happens to live and write about Toronto just as others do about Boston, New Orleans, or Detroit.
Before surprising us all:
Whether or not the series goes further will, I guess, depend on public response. The New Canadian Library certainly deserves support.
Support it we did – though not always willingly. I'm still a bit pissed off about the copy of Canadians of Old I had to buy for a CEGEP course.

Over the decades the NCL has embraced then dumped many more titles than it has kept  – au revoir Jean Rivard – but the first four remain. In fact, all have been subjected to the sixth and most recent series redesign. Expect another before the end of the decade. Here are some excerpts from Richler's review for The Canadian Publisher™ to consider as blurbs:

Over Prairie Trails
Frederick Philip Grove

"It's too bad that the series has begun with Over Prairie Trails, because if there is a book that epitomizes all that is boring, ponderous, and self-important about Canadian literature than [sic] this is surely it."

Such Is My Beloved
Morley Callaghan

"I've got a blind spot when it comes to innocent priests and good whores although Mr. Callaghan, no literary slouch, certainly avoids the more obvious sentimentalities."

Literary Lapses
Stephen Leacock

"It seems to me, that this book is only unevenly successful, is already available in numerous editions – even, I think a thirty-five cent pocketbook – and that this further reprint is a redundancy."

As for Me and My House
Sinclair Ross

I'm much more grateful – maybe because it was completely unknown to me – for Sinclair Ross's As For Me And My House… it is, as Professor [Roy] Daniells writes in his preface, "a genuine artistic achievement."

Richler also quarrels with Frank Newfeld's "singularly unattractive" series format, singling out As for Me and My House: "Mr. Ross, whom I've never met, is drawn here to look like a comic strip detective."

I wonder what he thought about this 1965 Newfeld cover for New Canadian Library No. 45.

A bonus: The "thirty-five cent pocketbook" of Literary Lapses to which Richler refers is almost certainly the 1945 Collins White Circle edition. There had been no other. However, he is mistaken as to availability and price: the imprint ceased to be in 1952; all printings were priced at 25 cents.

The cover is by Margaret Paull, whose work also graces the Collins White Circle Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

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  1. Frank Newfeld has an interesting chapter in his equally interesting autobiography Drawing on Type (2008) which covers his NCL design choices. (Funny bit about Jack McClleland and Karsh.) He certainly revealed his versatility with styles of artistic representation and choice of type for each author within the overall design format. His portrait of Richler is very fine.

    My Andre Deutsch copy of Son of a Smaller Hero sports the dustwrapper image by R. F. Micklewright showing a young man, hands in pockets, who somewhat resembles the author. I wonder what Richler thought of that cover.

    My copy of his The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (Andre Deutsch, 59) at least represents the character on the cover and not the author. Duddy looks like one tough character. Bernard Blatch the artist for this one.

    I've yet to read Foran's bio of Richler. Must get to it this summer.


    1. I've always preferred Newfeld's series design over all others - especially the cheap one that followed. The portraits themselves are a bit hit and miss. Young Mr Richler's is very nice, but Grove's looks like it was meant for another book. And Callaghan… until I realized otherwise, I thought that the portrait was meant to represent Father Dowling. I don't see anything of Callaghan in the illustration.

      I'm lucky to have the two dust jackets you mention. The early Richler's certainly looked good. What's more they showed great imagination and care - unlike, say, Joshua Then and Now, The Best of Modern Humour, Writers on World War II and - shudder - The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays.

  2. I must agree that the Newfeld covers were mostly great. The Richler cover was one of the best examples.

    The second covers were the worst of all the designs and the paper stock left much to be desired when compared to the first designed books. Hazell Watson & Viney, the English printers did a much better job for the first set of books than their Canadian counterparts T.H. Best did for the second set.

    Although the second set were ugly and the paper browned and became brittle, they do seem to have lasted a long time. Much longer than the third set (the B&W covers). It seems every time I find a book in the third set and I read it the glue unhinges itself and the cover falls off.

    I think the third set is equally as inferior as the second set if not more so since they were printed a decade later and therefore should be be in better shape. Not to mention that the white covers turn brown over time and look ugly because of it. At least the second set is coloured so it hides the browning effect on its covers although the light does fade the brightness over time).

    If I were to order the 6 cover designs in order of likeability here is how they would rank:

    1. Series Five
    2. Series One
    3. Series Six
    4. Series Four
    5. Series Two
    6. Series Three

  3. Janet Friskney in her book on the NCL points out that among the first four, Stephen Leacock's Literary Lapses outsold the other New #Canadian #Library titles by a long shot. McClelland thus decided to use Leacock titles throughout the series to shore up finances.

    1. I'm not surprised that it outsold the other two, Nigel, though I wouldn't have predicted the degree to which it did. My only copy of Literary Lapses, a 1956 Bodley Head hardcover, is a 24th printing!