06 July 2020

A Queer Thing, Nationalism

What Fools Men Are!
Sinclair Murray [Alan Sullivan]
London: Sampson Low, Marston, [1933]
316 pages

It's possible that What Fools Men Are! has the worst first sentence in Canadian literature:
Otto Banta, whose appearance gave no suggestion that he was a millionaire in dungarees, was running a lathe, the end one in a long row of warring machines driven by belts that ran from a shaft just under the ceiling and looking down the row one saw a dwindling line of men's heads, most of them young and dark, each very attentive to the mechanical creatures controlled.
The second isn't much better:
Heads, belts, lathes, the song of speeding leather, the low grunt of tool steel as it bit into the revolving thing it fashioned, the constant rain of bright thin cork-screws of sheared metal into the iron pan beneath the lathe; that was the perspective to which Otto was now accustomed.
This is a novel about men, their shafts, their leather, low grunts, and tool steel. Its hero, Otto Banta, earns respect by working next to other muscular fellows in the factory he will one day inherit from his father. When comes the "swelling, full-throated roar" that signals the end of the shift, he doesn't hesitate in joining them in the showers. However, on this day, he's interrupted when a man named Oster touches his arm:
Oster glanced around the room now filling with men peeling off their shirts, exposing bodies whose alabaster whiteness contracted sharply with the grime on faces, wrists, and hands. Their muscles had a smooth, silky play, the biceps buldging when their arms went up over their heads.
     "Can you come around this afternoon?"said Oster in a low voice.
He has something to show Otto – and it wasn't at all what I expected. On Oster's worktable is a new aeroplane engine that is lighter, more efficient, and more reliable than any other ever made. The inventor is set to happily hand it over to the Banta family in exchange for royalties and a brass plaque bearing his name on each engine... which, I couldn't help but note would add unnecessarily to the engine's weight. Why not aluminum?

Oster is a bachelor, as is Otto, but do not get the wrong impression. The millionaire in dungarees is engaged to a woman, Hilda Theres, whose "white breast" – which one? –  he longs to one day fondle. His fiancée's parents, Hugo and Mathilde, emigrated from the Republic of Sardosa some fifteen years earlier. They're now prominent citizens in Lunga, the capitol city of neighbouring Aricia, in which Hugo has established a remarkably successful import/export business. Forty years ago, his home country was involved in a terrible war with Aricia in which the Province of Modoris was lost. It's best left unmentioned.

Hugo and Mathilde are just as happy with the engagement as Otto's parents, John and Maria. "Yes, I think they'll hit it off," John tells Hugo. "Of course Maria is very pleased, and holds there might be more of these marriages between your people and mine. Queer thing, nationalism, isn't it? I used to try and persuade myself that the world was moving away from it, but now I have my doubts."

The seasoned reader will know to share John's apprehension.

What happens next is packed with incident:

Though sworn to secrecy, Otto tells Hilda that he's been asked to form a team of volunteer aviators meant to supplement the Arician Air Force. Without permission, Otto takes his betrothed up in his aeroplane, crosses the Aricia/Sardosa border, and lands on the grounds of the Sardosan mansion in which she spent her earliest years. Though welcomed, Otto and Hilda don't know that the lord of the manor happens to be a man named Hammon, owner and editor of the influential Sardosan Tribune. The couple then return to Lunga for a private dinner hosted by Hugo and Mathilde Theres. Otto's parents are in attendance, as are Boris Parka (President of the Arician Republic), General Mark Kekwich (Arician Minister of War), and Paul Constantine (owner and editor of the Lunga News). As the evening winds down, Otto's departs for the Lunga Club, where he chairs the first meeting of his secret squadron.

Otto has had a long day; the steel shafts, leather, and showers, must seem so long ago. On the way home from the meeting, he happens upon a street artist flogging paintings beneath the imposing marble statue of Sardosian hero Dimitri Collo, a gift from Sardosa to the people of Aricia. Though the consequence is unintended, their brief exchange encourages the artist to deface the statue, making a mockery of a man Sardosians consider a national hero.

And then the shit hits the propellor.

The front page of the following day's Sardosan Tribune is devoted to the defacement, the news of Otto's incursion into Sardosa, and his role as secret squadron leader. Oster's engine is stolen by suspected members of the Sardosian Secret Service, a Sardosian Air Force hanger is destroyed by a saboteur, rioting breaks out in Modoris, anti-Sardosian sentiment takes root in the Banta factory, and the Arician political and upper classes snub invitations to the Theres family's monthly reception. Meanwhile, Constantine and Hammon stoke the fires by printing speculation and fake news in their respective papers.

As might be expected, these tensions have ill-effect on star-crossed lovers Otto and Hilda. Still,  I couldn't help but feel that war would be averted and that all was heading toward a happy ending. I can't say why. Blantyne–Alien, the only other Sullivan novel I've read, ends in great tragedy.

In any case, I was right that things end happily, but wrong in my prediction that the last page, as tradition dictates, would belong to Otto and Hilda. Instead, it's given over to minor characters General Mark Kekwich and his wife Alicia. Poor Mark had been banished from the bedroom due to his treatment of Theres family, but all is forgiven:
On the second floor of the house of the Minister of War, a big bedroom glowed warmly in softened light, and Alicia, her back against a heap of pillows, wearing a very low cut and diaphanous garment, toyed idly with a magazine, smiling to herself in the manner of one who contemplated the immediate future with delicately malicious pleasure, and it might have been midnight when a knock sounded on the door.
     "Come in." She spoke sweetly, aware that she was the most seductive thing in all Lunga.
     On the threshold stood Kekwich in slippers and yellow pyjamas, his cheeks dusky, eyes a little glazed.
     "Darling," he breathed. "Oh, darling!"
     The magazine slid to the floor and two very white arms extended towards him.
     "Silly!" said she as they enfolded him. "Silly old Mark! Come along." Then, a little later, rosy and delicious. "Of course, I loved you all the time – I never stopped – but why did you men get so excited over nothing at all? 
It's a jarring conclusion in that it doesn't fit with the tone of the previous 315 pages.

The last sentence is a joke, right?

If so, am I wrong about the first?

Trivia concerning white breasts: Hilda is not the only woman in Lunga with a white breast or two. Alicia Kekwich's rare appearances in the novel are almost invariably accompanied by some mention of her own. The introduction to the character, at one of the Theres family's soirées, features this description: "a small, fair, blue-eyed woman who carried her headline a flower and had, it was agreed, the whitest bosom in Lunga."

That she is Alicia from Aricia did not escape my notice.

Trivia concerning bachelors: Sullivan populates the novel with a fair number of single men – including Oster, Constantine, and Air Commodore Pollak of the Sardinian Air Force – remarking on their disinterest in women. The most prominent is Boris Parka, president of the Arician Republic, "a lean, saturnine man, a bachelor to whom women in general were neither an objective or of interest." We first see Parka in conversation with the stunningly beautiful Mathilde Theres "saying little but smiling faintly and watching her with cool appraising eyes in which none of her sex had ever caught the least flicker of desire."

About the author: A forgotten son of Montreal, Alan Sullivan published forty-seven books in his seventy-eight years. He was awarded the 1941 Governor General's Award for his historical novel Three Came to Ville Marie, but I think Sullivan is better remembered, when remembered at all, for The Rapids (1922), a roman à clef inspired by the rise and fall of his former employer Francis H. Clergue. Though Sullivan started his writing career as a poet – his first book was The White Canoe and Other Verse (1891) – novels dominate his bibliography (thirty-nine in total; thirteen as "Sinclair Murray"). I've now read two. I'm happy to keep going.

Edward Alan Sullivan
29 November 1868 - 6 August 1947
Object and Access: A bland production bound in bland orange boards. Nothing is on offer by online booksellers, though Queen's University, the University of New Brunswick, the University of Toronto, and the Toronto Public Library have copies. Sadly, Library and Archives Canada fails.

The Sampson Low, Marston edition is the only one. I've found no evidence of a second printing.

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  1. Going by the first two sentences the pub lisher must have accepted the book unseen, with a binding agreement to make no changes.

    1. If so, it must've been a multi-book contract.

  2. The first sentences of this bring to mind Madonna's Metropolis-quoting "Express Yourself" video, as well as relevant parts of Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg.

    1. Agreed! It reminded me of the opening of Heaven 17's "Crushed by the Wheels of Industry."

  3. OK, I have to admit I really LIKE that first sentence. The second one too. My hands are still dirty from cleaning some incipient rust off a couple wood gouges, so I might be biased towards the images. Delightfully quirky prose.

    1. My favourite part is the beginning: "Otto Banta, whose appearance gave no suggestion that he was a millionaire in dungarees..." The author is never one to pass on an opportunity to load a sentence with information. This one does raise the question of compensation. That Otto works alongside other muscular men in his father's factory may be exemplary, but this is not a case of equal pay for equal work.