25 July 2016

Bad News for Modern Man

The Cashier [Alexandre Chenevert]
Gabrielle Roy [trans. Harry Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

I wonder how much sleep Gabrielle Roy lost over this novel. It was conceived as the follow-up to Bonheur d'occassion, her bestselling debut, but ended up being published third. The author struggled with it for years, only to be awarded with weak sales. Criticism tended to be positive, save in Quebec where she received some of the most merciless reviews of her career.

How appropriate then that Alexandre ChenevertThe Cashier, in translation – opens on the title character suffering a bout of insomnia. He worries about recent acts of terrorism, tensions in the Middle East, the Chinese, the Russians, weapons of mass destruction, and the flood of cheap Asian imports. Just the other day, Alexandre read an alarming article that warned the planet is warming.

Roy's novel was completed in 1953 and is set six years earlier.

The author loved Alexandre Chenevert, even if readers did not. Truth be told, he's not the most attractive figure. Sour, dour, short, balding and skeletal, he stands slightly stooped at his wicket in Branch J of the Savings Bank of the City and Island of Montreal. The suits he wears have seen better days.

Alexandre's fight for sleep has been going on for years. The medicine cabinet he shares with his wife Eugénie holds something that might help. Alexandre bought it, but can't bring himself to take it: "But were he to at last savor sleep, how could he do without it afterward? The drug that conferred this boon he would long for, no matter what the price, and he would lack the will to give it up." Besides, the medication will only muddle his mind; it would only be a matter of time before he would make a mistake.

Alexandre forgoes the pills, and yet makes an error in doling out an extra hundred dollars to a client the very next workday. Lack of sleep, you understand. This, not the deaths of two infant daughters, is the crise that disrupts his life. He consults his branch manager's doctor, a fine fellow named Hudon, who advises Alexandre to not think so much. "You let things weigh too much on your mind. For heaven's sake... you carry the whole world on your shoulders!"

And yet, even when giving his diagnosis, Hudon recognizes something of himself in Alexandre. Exhausted by the steady stream of patients required to maintain his lifestyle, the doctor considers letting some go. But which to cast off? They've come to rely on him. A good man, Hudon can't help but worry about their wellbeing, as his patient is subsumed on a streetcar by calls for his help from Friendless Youth, the Salvation Army and the Jewish Federation of Charities:

Are you, Alexandre? Are you?.

Roy's bank teller is a man of modest means who must deal with a terrible inheritance:
Modern man was the heir to such a mountain of knowledge. Even had he limited his curiosity to that which was published in his own day, he could never have succeeded in absorbing it all. And where did truth lie in all this mass of writing? Alexandre lived in the age of propaganda.
The Cashier was never suppressed, nor is it forgotten, but it was ignored by me. I found my copy, a first edition, in the summer of 1985 at a bookstore on St-Laurent, a street on which Alexandre Chenevert walks. I'd been meaning to read it for three decades, taking care to ship the book in moves from Montreal to Vancouver, Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Vancouver, Vancouver to Ottawa and Ottawa to St Marys. I was twenty-two when I bought it. I'm fifty-three today, one year older than Alexandre Chenevert.

At twenty-two, under Mulroney, Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev, the world weighed heavy.

It's weighing heavier this summer.

I'll never be able to absorb it all.

A Bonus:

The Gazette, 15 October 1955
Object: An attractive hardcover in green boards. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited. My copy set me back $5.00... but remember, those are 1985 dollars.

Access: Binsse's translation was commissioned by Harcourt, Brace, its American publisher. The Cashier was also published in the United Kingdom by Heinemann (above). In 1963, the novel followed Brian Moore's Judith Hearne as the fortieth title in the New Canadian Library. Miraculously, it survives as part of the series today.

The original French was first published in 1954 by Beauchemin. That same year, it appeared from Parisian publisher Flammarion as Alexandre Chenevert, cassier. It remains in print to this day. The current edition, published by Boreal, follows the 'nineties NCL design in using Adrien Hébert's Rue St-Denis, 1927 on its cover. A bit off for a novel that takes place two decades later, but I like the painting so much that I don't care.

Nearly all of our university libraries hold French or English-language, often both, while our public libraries generally fail. editions are common in our university

The novel was published in German as Gott geht weiter als wir Menschen (Munich: List, 1956), which Google translates as God Goes Further Than We Humans.

I've never seen a copy.

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11 July 2016

The Paratrooper, the Professor and the Publisher: The Nasty Public Battle Over The Quebec Plot

The first review of my first book was negative. The reviewer's disappointment had to do with my having written the book I wanted to write rather than the book he had wanted to read.

The second review of my first book was written by a man who was identified in same as the model for a throughly dislikeable character in George Galt's novel Scribes and Scoundrels. The reviewer made no mention of this, though he did question my existence.

"Do not respond," a senior writer friend advised.

I didn't.

The reviews that followed were very positive. I remember nothing of them other than that – very positive – but I do remember the two negative reviews in detail. For example, I can tell you that the first reviewer got the price and page count wrong. I can also tell you that I was taken to task for not including an index. The book has one, but he'd read an advance copy. His was an amateur's mistake, published in the closest thing Canada has to "the organ of the trade".

Bad reviews stay with you in a way good reviews don't. I know not to read them. I don't read good reviews either. Every now and then I feel bad for not acknowledging a reviewer's kind words... and here I'm certain that they are all kind words.

"Do not respond."

Good advice I pass on to others. And yet all these years later I still fantasize about taking on the critics in question, which is why I so enjoyed Leo Heaps' thrust and parry with Patrick O'Flaherty found in 38-year-old editions of the Globe & Mail.

A professor at Memorial University, Patrick O'Flaherty was tasked with reviewing The Quebec Plot for the paper (22 July 1978). I have no idea why; I don't see that O'Flaherty had reviewed thrillers in the past. His opening sentence betrays a certain ignorance of the genre: "Leo Heaps, who has been reading James Bond stories and learning a little Canadian geography and history, has decided to write a thriller, some would say a roman a clef about the Quebec situation."

Ignoring the obvious (The Quebec Plot owes nothing to Ian Fleming)what irks is the insinuation that Heaps, then living in London, needed something of a refresher in things Canadian. This is very same thinking the most stupid of our cultural nationalists once employed against the great Mavis Gallant. Winnipeg-born Leo Heaps was the second son of A.A. Heaps. He was educated at Queen's and McGill, and lived most of his life in Toronto. At the risk of being accused of racism – more on that later – I find this quip about Heaps "learning a little Canadian geography and history" a bit rich coming from a man whose early education pre-dated his province joining Confederation. It's not O'Flaherty at his worst, but it's pretty bad. His lowest and laziest comes when he quotes two lines of dialogue out of context:
  • "I hope to God there's no armed revolution in Quebec."
  • "Let's get down to business."
This is a cheap trick that we've all seen before; indeed, Heaps himself recognizes it as such in his response. But before I get to that, O'Flaherty's conclusion is worth presenting in full:

Now, I'm the first to recognize that it is not always easy to come up with a decent conclusion to a review – look no further than mine of The Quebec Plot for evidence – but this one is a real head-scratcher. On the other hand, I'm no academic, which is why I so appreciated the University of Toronto's June V. Engel, who in a letter the Globe & Mail (1 Aug 1978) refers to Prof O'Flaherty's conclusion as "incomprehensible."

Engel wasn't alone in her criticism of the critic. An earlier letter found in the 28 July edition describes the professor's review as " jumbled, incoherent." The writer was someone named Caruso, who may or may not have been an academic him or herself.

By that time, Heaps had responded to the critic. In the 26 July 1978 edition of the Globe & Mail, he shrugs off everything to do with his knowledge of Canada, associations with Ian Fleming, Marian Engel, Charles Templeton and Little Orphan Annie creator Harold Gray, then presents a parting shot:
I have been away from Canada for some time and have grown accustomed to having my books read by literate people who are concerned both with their prose and the philosophical content of their reviews. If Mr. O'Flaherty is a professor of English in Newfoundland who is there to protect us from the academics who teach in our schools?
Fair question. I've been asking variations since my graduation from Beaconsfield High School.

Leo Heaps' letter drew no response from Patrick O'Flaherty, though Jack McClelland weighed in with a letter (4 Aug 1978), which reads in part:
At first I thought it was a bad Newfie joke. Then my reaction turned from disbelief to anger. Mr. O'Flaherty's judgement, in my opinion, ranks slightly below that of a Rhesus monkey and I have nothing against monkeys. 
Was the publisher being disingenuous? "It happens that although I am not the publisher, I have read The Quebec Plot," McClelland writes of a novel he would publish within a year. Might as well add that he also published the novel about the cardinal who doesn't want the world to know about the discovery of Jesus' bones and the one in which a woman tries to copulate with a bear.

Curiously, it was McClelland's letter that brought a response from professor. Notably tardy, here he is from the 24 August 1978 edition:
The letter from Jack McClelland (Aug. 4) comes out with abusive, racist talk – "Newfie," "monkey," etc. This letter, contemptible though it is, merits a few words of reply.
     In recent years I have reviewed a number of silly books published by McClelland and Stewart Ltd. rather harshly. Looking back over my reviews, my only regret is that they were not harsher.
     What does a reviewer do when he is sent a trashy book to review? Normally, I, for one, return the item to the editor with a note saying that it is not worth reviewing. But there is so much writing in Canada – especially at the "creative" level – and so much of it is published with the assistance of the Canadian taxpayer, that it is hard to resist occasionally damning bad books. And so I stand by my review of Leo Heaps' book.
I imagine the professor does to this day, ignoring the simple facts that The Quebec Plot received no taxpayer support and was never sold as anything other than a thriller.

The last word is owed Leo Heaps himself, as published in this letter in the 4 September 1978 edition:
I cannot resist taking a parting shot at my friend Patrick O'Flaherty who reviewed my book The Quebec Plot in your columns. I will miss the professor from Memorial College, Newfoundland, at his departure.
    Professor O'Flaherty has in his letter to your newspaper on Aug. 24 presented such a perfect and inviting target that I felt it was irresistable. His remarks either hide a character of infinite subtlety and wit or one of enormous pomposity and self-righteousness. Personally, I am inclined to favor the latter view. Mr. O'Flaherty has sounded like the budding parliamemtary candidate he is when he protests against the waste of taxpayers' money on behalf of Canadian authors struggling to make ends meet. (Unfortunately, I have never had any grants. All my books have been published abroad, except one, which won a Governor-General's Award.) Perhaps the professor might tell us where the subsidy came from to publish his somewhat obscure anthology of Newfoundland and Labrador writing, which he co-edited some years back.
     If Patrick O'Flaherty remains as severe as he is, "untroubled," as Browning said, "by the spark," and if he is allowed to indecently expose himself in book review columns, then one can begin to understand his concern about Canadian prose. One only has to read what the professor writes.
Yes, Heaps is owed the last word... but I can't quite bring myself to let him have it.

In January 2009, at a dinner celebrating the sixtieth birthday of the aforementioned senior writer, I was introduced to the second critic of my first book. On learning my name he paused – here it comes, I thought – and then said: "You wouldn't be any relation to Reverend David Busby? I was one of his altar boys."

"Yes," I replied, "he was my uncle."

"Nice man," said the critic.

"Yes, very nice," I said.

And then we parted.

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10 July 2016

If the rain comes...

In a long, hot summer of precious little precious rain, Seth's cover for the new Canadian Notes & Queries reminds booklovers to always be at the ready. Whether walking your dog, enjoying a pleasant read in the park, or both, the plastic bag is an essential item. Books are never to be used to protect one's do.

My copy arrived in the mail – a small miracle – on Friday, bringing art, articles and reviews by Kamal Al-Solaylee, Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, Nicole Dixon, Charles Foran, Alex Good, David Helwig, Jim Johnstone, Jason Kieffer, Rachel Lebowitz, David Mason and, um, Max Beerbohm. Jason Dickson interviews my friends Adrian and Brendan King-Edwards of The Word bookstore in Montreal. The issue is further blessed with three poems by Nyla Matuk and a new short story from Tamas Dobozy.

My contribution – The Dusty Bookcase on paper – is an interview with Gwendolyn Davies, Series Editor of Formac Fiction Treasures. Now celebrating its tenth year, the series has worked to revive forgotten works by mostly-forgotten Maritime writers. I'm right now reading its most recent title, A Changed Heart by May Agnes Fleming, Victorian Gothic set in St John, New Brunswick. Anyone who remembers my review of Fleming's The Midnight Queen will understand the attraction.


And pick up after your damn dog!

Subscriptions to Canadian Notes & Queries can be purchased here.

04 July 2016

Thriller Most Foreign

The Quebec Plot
Leo Heaps
Toronto: Seal, 1979

This is a thriller written by a man whose own story reads like a thriller. A Jewish Canadian paratrooper in the Second World War, Leo Heaps fought in the Battle of Arnhem, was captured by the Nazis, escaped, joined the Dutch Resistance and returned to fight another day. He served as an advisor to the Israelis in the War of Independence and worked on the International Rescue Committee during the Hungarian Revolution. Heaps was also the son of A.A. Heaps, a leader in the Winnipeg General Strike and one of the founders of the CCF. Anyone collecting OAS today should raise a glass.

With a background like that it should come as no surprise that The Quebec Plot isn't just a thriller but a political thriller. It begins with Marcel Legros, chief of the secret French intelligence agency CEDECE, catching a plane at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Cut to Martinique, scene of a clandestine meeting between Legros and Gilles Marcoux, newly installed Parti Québécois Minister of the Interior. Our hero, Mark Hauser, makes his debut in Stowe, Vermont, where he's looking to get in some end-of-season skiing.

Hauser is a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior journalist at a New York-based news syndicate. Far below, in age and experience, is a colleague named Freeman. When the younger man breaks his leg while on assignment in Quebec City, Hauser is tapped to take his place. Good choice. The American-born son of a French Canadian and a German Jew, Hauser is bilingual and knows a good deal about Canada. It would've been his assignment from the start had the agency thought there was much of a story.

What is the story? Harry Consadine, head of the syndicate, explains: "This new Quebec party wants the province to separate from the rest of Canada. You know how insular we are down here, Mark. We've always taken Canada for granted."

Still do, apparently, which is why they sent Freeman with his schoolboy French, and it is why Consadine reassures his star reporter that he'll be back on the slopes in a day or two. With great reluctance, Hauser leaves Stowe and his newfound love interest, an intellectual ski bunny named Hilda Beane, for an appointment that his boss has set up with Saul Klein at the Montreal offices of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Why? "The Jews are a seismograph. If they're leaving it's a sure sign something is wrong," Consadine tells him.

Klein is staying put.

The thriller only kicks into gear when Hauser leaves Montreal for Quebec City. Along the way he picks up a hitchhiker named Paul Lejeune who is heading for a hunting and fishing lodge north of Lac St-Jean... or so he says. Hauser notices an automatic weapon with folding stock sticking out of the Lejeune's rucksack.

What Hauser doesn't know is that his passenger is really en route to one of the training camps of something called the Quebec Army of Liberation. The Canadian government knows about the army, and is fairly certain that the bases exist, but can't seem to find any. Ottawa's doing much better with L'Inflexible, a French nuclear submarine it's tracking as it makes its way from Martinique to the Gaspé peninsula. Unbeknownst to the French, the Americans are following in their own submarine, Wolverine, which has been newly equipped with a secret weapon.

Ignore the bit about the secret weapon. Ignore the cover copy about H-bomb missiles (we're never told exactly what L'Inflexible is delivering). The most interesting parts centre on Hauser in Quebec City, beginning with his discovery that Freeman has disappeared from his bed at the Hôtel-Dieu hospital.

The Quebec Plot is taut, which is just the thing one wants in a thriller. I imagine it would've been tighter still had it not found a home with London publisher Peter Davies. I blame the intrusive hand of an editor for its worst page:

I won't criticize Seal – McClelland & Stewart, really – for letting these lines stand, but will take it to task for ignoring typos, "tyre" and glaring mistakes like "Party Québecois".

Don't let that dissuade you. The separatist movement of the 'seventies inspired several Quebec-based thrillers. Heaps' followed others by old pros like Philip Atlee, Lionel Derrick and Richard Rohmer. I expected little, yet found that The Quebec Plot rose high above the rest. Quite an accomplishment for a first-time novelist. The author's bio should've given me a clue.


Don't you believe it. That urbane Prime Minister is modelled on Pierre Trudeau. The chain-smoking Premier of Quebec is René Lévesque. The American President with the perpetual smile owes everything to Jimmy Carter.

Object: A 248-page massmarket paperback, featuring ads for The Snow Walker by Farley Mowat and Margaret Laurence's Manawaka series. The cover art is uncredited. I purchased my copy for three dollars in 2013 at the Merrickville Book Emporium. The following year, I came across a pristine copy of the Peter Davies true first (right) in London at Attic Books. Fresh as the day it was published, it set me back one Canadian dollar. 

Access: Held by seventeen of our university libraries, the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, Library and Archives Canada and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec.

After the Peter Davies first, The Quebec Plot reappeared in the UK as a Corgi paperback. Seal's first Canadian edition appears to have enjoyed one lone printing. Leo Heaps was no Richard Rohmer.

Used copies are plentiful. Very good copies of the Peter Davies edition begin at US$2.95. Pay no more than US$6.00.

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01 July 2016

'O Canada! beloved native land...'

On this Canada Day, still more English-language lyrics for 'O Canada'. These come courtesy of Violet Alice Clarke, from her 1919 collection The Vision of Democracy and Other Poems. "Published for the author" by Ryerson Press, it is her only book.

A Happy Canada Day to all!