26 February 2020

Reading Gérard Bessette on His Hundredth

Not for Every Eye [Le libraire]
Gérard Bessette [trans. Glen Shortliffe] 
Toronto: Macmillan, 1962
98 pages

Yesterday marked the centenary of Gérard Bessette's birth. I spent an hour or so reading this translation of his most celebrated work. A novella – not a novel, as Macmillan claims – it isn't very long.

Bessette's title, Le libraire (The Bookseller), refers to narrator and protagonist Hervé Jodoin. It takes the form of a journal written on Sundays, when the bars are closed. The first entry involves Jodoin's arrival in the fictional Quebec town of Saint Joachim, where he has accepted a job in a bookstore. In truth, it's as much a bookstore as, say, Indigo; the better part of the establishment has been given over to toys, stationary, and religious articles. The book department is in the rear, allowing Jodoin to pass a good portion of the day in a quiet snooze.

Killing time is Jodoin's main occupation. He quickly settles into a routine – "book shop, beer parlour, room; room, book shop, beer parlour." At the end of each workday, he heads for Chez Treffelé, a working class bar where he drinks alone at a table located conveniently near the lavatory. After that – meaning, after the bar closes – Jodoin makes for his rooming house bed.

A crack appears in what Jodoin describes as "the monotony of my life" when the store's proprietor, Léon Chicoine, determines that his new bookseller is a believer in liberty and is a proponent of free thought. Chicoine unlocks a door to what Jodoin had thought was a closet, revealing the "sanctum sanctorum," a small, windowless room lined with books found in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, and listed by Abbé Bethléem and Père Georges Sagehomme.*

Chicoine demands Jodoin's discretion, and asks him to sell the volumes (at inflated prices) to "serious purchasers." Our hero agrees, and starts off for Chez Treffelé "caressing the innocent notion that perhaps after all I was not yet completely useless, that perhaps my life might have a meaning."

Sadly, Jodoin's new customers fail to give meaning to his life:
They sidle up to me with a conspiratorial air and murmur into my ear the name of some author or book, all this in the same tone of someone asking for a condom or a suppository in a drug store. Others are more evasive still; they shower me with meaningful glances and ask me to recommend "something a little out of the ordinary" or "something with a kick to it."
Jodoin quickly comes to resent the extra work involved in retrieving volumes from the sanctum sanctorum, recognizing most aren't at all interested in liberty and freedom of thought: "If these jokers are looking for an aphrodisiac, they can find more effective ones."

The crack widens and drama begins with a pimply-faced boy he recognizes as a student of the Saint Roch School, "located a couple of miles from the town in open country, in the middle of a vast domain belonging to  a community of clerics who combine the dairy industry with the rearing of young men." The student asks for a volume by Voltaire, and whether "through curiosity or a kind of fellow-feeling produced by nostalgia for my own school days," Jodoin retrieves a copy from the sanctum sanctorum.

Le libraire was first published in Paris because Bessette was unable to find a Quebec publisher. This was in 1960, mere months before the Quiet Revolution began. Within two years, the novel had found a Quebec publisher, and had been translated and published in English.

I received this copy of Not for Every Eye as a gift on my twenty-third birthday. I read it the very same summer. A university student at the time, I used its story, and the story of its publication, in writing papers on the Quiet Revolution.

Much of the revolution took place when I was asleep in a crib.

I have people like Gérard Bessette to thank that it did.
* Researching this piece, I was amused to discover that Georges Sagehomme's Répertoire alphabétique de plus de 7000 auteurs avec leurs ouvrages au nombre de 32000 (romans et pièces de théâtre) qualifiés quant à leur valeur morale (1931), was revised nine times; the last – published twenty-nine years after his death – is Répertoire alphabétique de 16700 auteurs 70000 romans et pièces de théâtre cotés au point de vue moral.
Trivia: There is an actual St-Joachim, Quebec, located roughly thirty kilometres downriver from Quebec City, but it bears no resemblance to the town depicted in Bessette's novel.

More trivia: Adapted by M. Charles Cohen for CBC Television (1963) and CBC Radio (1967). The former starred Jack Creley, Larry Mann, and Barbara Hamilton.

Object: A slim volume consisting of white boards with purple type, as an objet Not for Every Eye is my favourite Macmillan of Canada book. Credit goes to Leslie SmartArnaud Maggs designed the jacket.

Bibliophiles will appreciate the adverts for other Macmillan titles on the back cover. I own three, but have read only one.

Access: The translation may be neglected, but it is not rare. Very Good copies are offered online for as little as ten dollars. I've seen some evidence of a softcover edition that may have been a rebind. It would seem that in 1977 the novella was absorbed into Macmillan's moribund Laurentian Library, though I've yet to encounter a copy. I have, however, seen the 1984 edition, issued by Exile (right). It is still available for purchase.

A second English translation, which I've not read, was published in 1999 by Guernica Editions. Its translator, Steven Urquhart has written a very interesting essay about the need and process:
Retranslating a Quebec Classic
The Urquhart translation is also still in print.

Remarkably, there is a Czech translation, Skandal V Knihkpectvi (Scandal in the Bookstore; Prague: Odeon, 1974). Collectors may be interested in a copy inscribed to Bessette by translator Ea Masnerova on offer from an Oregon bookseller.

Copies of Le libraire are plentiful. The cheapest copy I've seen offered online is going for one Yankee dollar. Few copies of the first edition, published in Paris by Jilliard, are in evidence.

17 February 2020

A Stranger Comes to Town; an Author Vanishes

Forever 33
Jacques Byfield
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1982
175 pages

The Alberta town of Breery exists nowhere outside Forever 33, but should be familiar to readers of Canadian fiction. Its five hundred inhabitants – those featured in the novel, anyway – will be equally familiar; there's the voluptuous waitress (she's up for anything), the tempted hardware store owner (his wife wants to start a family), the brooding farmer (he beats his kids), the widowed schoolteacher (with a heart of gold), and the troubled preacher (who is questioning his faith).

As might be expected from its Alberta setting, the novel takes place during the Great Depression.

The unfamiliar comes in the form of a one-legged gravedigger named John Evans. I'm betting that the novel's first sentence – "No one knew where he had come from, and no one went out of his way to find out." – inspired the copy on the back of the dust jacket:

The front flap looks to build upon the aura of mystery: "He was a stranger who seemed to know things people didn't know about themselves." The words "haunting" and "mesmerizing" feature, followed by this: "none is left untouched by the watchful presence of the gravedigger."

Memories of Evans, like this one, fill the earliest pages:
Pastor Clough remarked more than once that his gravedigger showed little concern for the rituals of pre-burial; he even went so far as to doubt the man's confederacy with Christianity. John Evans was never seen inside the church. He remained for the most part a man unnoticed, passing his days digging deep holes and then refilling them upon the heads the town's deceased. Occasionally he would disappear; on those occasions he would be employed at other towns in the vicinity digging for their burials. No one had to tell him where or when his particular services were required. He just knew. The man had a nose for death. He could sniff its adolescent scent on the breeze and be gone in its direction before the bereaved could gather.
All hints at the supernatural, bringing to mind Ray Bradbury's G.M. Dark (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and Stephen King's Leland Gaunt (Needful Things), mysterious outsiders who wreak havoc on small town America. I expected gravedigger Evans to be their Canadian cousin.

I was wrong.

Evans is a mysterious figure only in that the author doesn't share as much about him as he does Breery's townsfolk. His powers rest on observation, and are no more remarkable than those of local gossip Vera Roden:
The woman had an uncanny knack. If she caught only so much as one word of private conversation, then the cat was out of the bag.
As the novel progressed, I became less interested those living in Breery than I did the town as a whole. How did was it, I wondered, that a town of five hundred could support a hardware store and diner? How was it that everyone lived in comfort, despite the Great Depression? More than anything, I wondered how Breery was able to afford a full-time gravedigger.

Then there was Byfield's style, which swings wildly. Compare the passages quoted above with this, in which young Peter Carlson, son of the brutal farmer, chases after Evans:
The boy's breath billowed with the exertion of his haste. It was in his heart to consummate their earliest vague discussion. Since that first talk he'd been savouring with anticipation what he hoped the digger might tell him next. He hurried and was quickly upon the object of his haste.
Forever 33 was declared a finalist in the $50,000 Seal Books First Novel Award.

No winner was awarded.

How is that fair?

For all its flaws, Forever 33 is a better debut novel than Mordecai Richler's The Acrobats, Daniel Richler's Kicking Tomorrow, and Emma Richler's Feed My Dear Dogs. I admired Byfield's imagination and looked forward to a more mature sophomoric work... only to discover that his bibliography begins and ends with Forever 33.

The publicity sheet inserted in my copy informs that he author is at work on a new novel.

It's been thirty-eight years.

About the title: In reminiscing, the gravedigger recites lines from a song he remembers from the Great War: "The soldier knows that he will die and buried deep he'll be. The digger may live to be ninety-nine, but he'll stay thirty-three."

I've found no evidence that these lines exist outside the pages of this novel.

Fun fact: According to the Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data, Jacques Byfield was born in 1948, which would have made him either 33 or 34 at time of publication.

Object and Access: A slim volume bound in brown boards. The jacket design is credited to Fernley Hesse Ltd. My copy is a first edition. I see no sign of another.

I can find all of two copies available for sale online, neither of which is offered by a Canadian bookseller. How is that possible?

The cheaper of the two is priced at £15. I can't say it's worth the price. I can't say it isn't.

Held by Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, and twelve of our academic libraries. Of our public libraries, only that serving Toronto comes through. Not only that, it offers this photograph of the young author on its website.

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14 February 2020

Nothing Says Romance Like a Harlequin Romance

The Vengeful Heart
Roberta Leigh [pseud Rita Lewin]
Toronto: Harlequin, 1970
From the back cover:
His love would be her weapon. 
"You were lucky to marry me, weren't you?" Julia mocked. "But you'll never possess me, Nigel!" 
The knowledge should have filled her with a sense of power. Power over a man she hated! Nigel Farnham's ruthless prosecution of her father had sent him to prison, where he died alone. 
Julia had vowed to make Nigel pay; to destroy the lawyer's life the way he had destroyed her parents. And now she had to carry out her plan for revenge – no matter what the cost...
Happy Valentine's Day!

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10 February 2020

Erin O'Toole's Proud Disgrace

Yo! Conservative guys and Conservative gals,
You wanna lead this party, you gotta be like our pals,
You gotta talk into the mike,
You gotta tell us what you're like.
– MP Arnold Viersen, "Conservative Rap" (2017)*
Jeff Ballingall's is not a household name, not even in households that follow his Ontario Proud, Canada Proud, and BC Proud Facebook pages.

My only interaction with the man came in June 2018. A few days after the Ontario general election, I asked how it was that Ontario Proud, a page dedicated to the defeat of Kathleen Wynne, a page that had raised funds with the expressed purpose of defeating Kathleen Wynne, had then spent that money on attack ads targeting Andrea Horwath.

There was no answer. My query was deleted. I was blocked from posting.

More recently, in response to a Canada Proud post that criticized the treatment of women and gays in Iran, I asked why Proud Facebook pages allowed misogynistic and homophobic comments.

There was no answer. My query was deleted. I was blocked from posting.

Thus far, questions addressed to BC Proud have gone unanswered.

A former Sun News and Conservative Research Group employee, Jeff Ballingall is a man of many hats. In 2016, he founded Mobilize Media Group, an organization not terribly keen on letting you know what they're all about. Ballingall co-owns and is Chief Marketing Officer of The Post Millennial, home to faux-journalists who rewrite news stories from legitimate sources so as to inflame right-wing snowflakes.

This past October, following the Conservative's electoral loss, Ballingall joined fellow Sun News evacuee Kory Teneycke in founding Conservative Victory, a group dedicated to ousting Andrew Scheer as leader. In November, Ballingall was afforded a full hour on the CBC – what his Proud followers refer to as the "Communist Broadcasting Corporation " – to speak out against Scheer. In December, Scheer stepped down. In January, it was announced that Ballingall had joined leadership candidate Erin O'Toole's team. According to the National Post, he has been tasked to "oversee digital strategy."

The effect of this new position on the Ontario Proud, Canada Proud, and BC Proud has been immediate. And I do mean immediate.

New posts on Erin O'Toole's Facebook page are shared within minutes on Proud pages, complete with links encouraging donations to the candidate's leadership campaign. Not one Proud page has shared a post from fellow front runner Peter MacKay, never mind any other leadership contender. This is not to say that there haven't been posts featuring MacKay.

Further examples will be provided upon request.

With Ballingall onboard, O'Toole's posts have taken on the look and character – half-truths, disinformation, disingenuous editing – of his Proud pages. That the comments they prompt are similar and in some cases identical to those left on those pages is explained by the aforementioned sharing and the use of Mobilize Media Group's database in micro-targetting Facebook ads.

The result is a cesspool made up of lunacy and conspiracy. The prime minister is referred to as both a communist and a Nazi,

ignorance of the human reproductive system and basic English is on display,

Islamophobia runs rampant,

and, as is habit within the Conservative Party of Canada, Justin Trudeau's murder is encouraged.

And on it goes.

Not four months ago, in a Toronto Life interview, Ballingall sniffed: "They stereotype us – they think we’re all bigoted, racist rednecks. We’re not."

Who is "they," I wonder.

Never mind.

I don't believe Proud followers are all bigoted racists, just as I don't believe Erin O'Toole's followers are all bigoted, racist rednecks, though I do recognize that bigoted, racist rednecks exist within their number.

Does Ballingall?

More importantly, does O'Toole?

Why, after all these years, does Ballingall allow these comments? How is it that Erin O'Toole has hired a man who allows these these comments? More to the point, how is it that Erin O'Toole allows these comments?

Last week, on his Facebook page, I accused Erin O'Toole of scaremongering. I went on to suggest that he was soiling his campaign and his reputation.

Erin O'Toole hasn't blocked me. It may be that he's leaving that decision to Jeff Ballingall.

* MP Arnold Viersen's "Conservative Rap", played at the 2017 Conservative leadership convention. Enjoy!


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08 February 2020

The Poetry of Arnold Viersen

Earlier this week, during a House of Commons debate, Conservative Member of Parliament Arnold Viersen (Peace River–Westlock) asked fellow MP Laurel Collins (Victoria) whether she'd ever considered sex work. It was his most newsworthy act to date, though longtime Viersen watchers like myself hold aloft this untitled poem, which he recited in the House on May 6, 2016 (as recorded in Hansard):

    Springtime is here; our farmers are in their fields
    Assessing the moisture, gauging their yields.
    When rain is sparse and times are tough
    And the price of hay is especially rough,
    As Conservatives we understand
    It takes hard work to till the land.
    Alberta NDP passed a law for working on prairie farms:
    More expensive food – don't care who it harms.
    They said, “John dear, we want your food
    But only feed your cows when we're in the mood;
    No overtime or you'll pay the price”.
    Beef and pork will cost more than twice
    We're standing up for farmers, feeding cows 'till nine.
    We're standing up for farmers, working overtime.
    You eat their beef, you sit on leather,
    Your feet are shoed in stormy weather.
    Without their food, life would be grim
    Unless you plan to be awfully thin
    Family farms are getting fewer.
    Once they're gone, we're in deep manure.
    Don't egg me on, the yolk's on you.
    If farmers leave, what will we do?
    Bottom line – You want to eat?
    Support our farmers – Buy their wheat.

In his 1977 essay "The Poet as Performer Debases His Art," John Glassco puts it that few are able to do justice to verse in public recitation. But then, he didn't live on enough to witness something such as this:

Elected to the House of Commons in 2015, Mr Viersen is a graduate of Alberta's Canadian Covenant School in Neerlandia, situated at the intersection of Highway 769 and Township Road 615A between Mellowdale and Vega.

I'm saving Arnold Viersen's masterpiece, "Conservative Rap," for a future post.

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