12 September 2014

University Professor Writes Roman à Clef Roman

Fasting Friar
Edward McCourt
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963

Fasting Friar is a novel about the halls of academe and the politics therein, but I read it just the same.  The premise intrigued: Paul Ettinger, a professor at a nondescript prairie university, publishes a racy roman à clef about a professor at a nondescript prairie university. Titled The Proud and the Passionate, it raises the ire of the president, the board and fellow professor Walter Ackroyd. Not one week after publication, rumours swirl that Ettinger is about to be sacked.

Ackroyd, not Ettinger, is the protagonist of the novel – by which I mean Fasting Friar. A solitary Milton scholar whose reputation far exceeds that of the university, Ackroyd takes pleasure in the thought that the budding novelist might be on the way out. He's long considered Ettinger a disgrace, dismissing the popular professor as a showman, a "sloop-minded snapper-up of unconsidered trifles… let loose in a classroom to wreak destruction upon the intellect." To Ackroyd, The Proud and the Passionate is irrefutable evidence that Ettinger simply lacks the intellect and good judgement expected of his position.

The faculty begin to rally in defence of Ettinger, pressuring Ackroyd, their most esteemed member, to join the struggle. The asocial professor emerges from behind his office door, and is forced to recognize the assault on the very ideals that have been at the centre of his life's work. By degrees, Ackroyd becomes Ettinger's greatest champion, even as his dislike for the man grows.

McCourt himself was a professor, teaching at the University of Saskatchewan from 1944 until his death in 1972. Very much a forgotten figure, before coming upon this novel I knew him only as the author of Music at the Close and The Wooden Sword, two of New Canadian Library's abandoned titles. The former won Ryerson's All-Canada Fiction Award, which, as noted elsewhere, means nothing. McCourt published six novels in total, Fasting Friar being the last. Three more followed, but failed to find publishers.

Given all this, I went into Fasting Friar expecting little. What I found was one of the most interesting and enjoyable reads of the year. It's a complex, yet taut novel written by a sure hand.

Shows what I know.

Trivia: In 1965, Fasting Friar was adapted for television, consuming four episodes of the CBC series Serial. The 7 April 1965 edition of the Gazette reports that the "principal role" is played by Michael Sarrizin. At twenty-four, I'd have thought he'd be far too young. Other newspaper articles describe Peter Donat as the star. IMDb has no entry on the production.

Object: A 222-page hardcover in dark blue boards. Sadly, the dust jacket illustration is uncredited. I bought my copy in Montreal just last month. Price: $9.50.

Access: The public libraries of Calgary and Edmonton serve, as do twenty-five of our university libraries (University of Saskatchewan included).

The novel sold somewhere in the area of three hundred copies. Six are currently listed for sale online, all but one being Very Good or better. At US$40, the one to buy is signed by the author. The others are listed at between US$20 and US$37.

Improbably, Macdonald published a UK edition as The Ettinger Affair (1963). A true rarity, one lone copy is listed online at £6.99.

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  1. Hi Brian,
    I recommend A Road for Canada, McCourt's account of a road trip he took with his wife across the country in 1963, just a year after the Trans-Canada Highway officially opened. "In Canada there is too much of everything. Too much rock, too much prairie, too much tundra, too much mountain, too much forest."

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Dan. I'll hunt down a copy. I'm also interested in reading his biography of Sir William Butler. The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan describes it as "exceptional"!