18 September 2023

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Self-Improvement

Pagan Love
John Murray Gibbon
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1922
310 pages

The start of this novel sees a suicide thwarted. Walter Oliphant awakens to the dawn of a day he'd determined would be his last. He walks leisurely, fully resolved, to the bank of the Thames, where he catches sight of a figure falling into the drink:
Nothing to be seen yes, there a ripple and there a hand stretched out of the waters. It was not a hand that he altogether welcomed, but hands to shake were rare in these days, and so our loiterer stretched out to grasp it. This was foolish, for the grasp of a drowning man is not so easy to escape. The hand that clung to his became an arm and a shoulder and then, by some instinct, our loiterer used his feet as leverage, and pulled out from the stream a Man.
The "Man" had been mugged. A wallet had been stolen. A whack on the back of the head had been given. The victim is Frank A. Neruda, a visiting millionaire from New York City.

But this is Walter's tale, and the backstory is not pretty.

Walter had wanted to kill himself because he could not longer stand the pain of starvation. A young poet from Aberdeen, his condition has as much to do with public disinterest in his work as it does the Great War, during which he served as cannon fodder. "The two years of after-the-war had reduced him to atrophied inertia, a bundle of nerves barely attached to skin and bone."

Neruda takes Walter under a wet wing, slowly nursing him back to health. In doing so, the millionaire seeks to inspire by sharing the Frank A. Neruda Story. It begins with a Czech childhood, a mother's death, and emigration to America. Weeks after arrival, the father is crushed in a Pennsylvania coal mine.

Neruda's ascent begins as an orphaned breaker boy working by oil lamp at that same mine, and leads to a commercial empire valued at ten million American dollars.

A self-described self-efficiency expert, Neruda is intent on remaking Walter. The first lesson takes the form of a performance:
"Have you ever considered what puppets we all are?" remarked Neruda. He was manipulating, on a tiny stage, for Walter's entertainment, a marionette play in which Faust sold his soul to Mephistopheles and became a master of magic, raising spirits from the dead until the Devil came to fetch him, Neruda was so expert with the fantastic figurines, that the Devil himself could not be more inhumanly human.
   "Who is it that holds the strings?" asked Walter.
   "The God of Success for me," said Neruda. "I haven't yet made up my mind whether I am Faust or Mephistopheles.
This is by far the most whimsical scene in the novel. As part of his make-over, Walter is inundated with books and articles. All written in a staccato style, they coach Success:
"As you dress, repeat to yourself inspiring sentences. As you are brushing your teeth, say to yourself firmly:
   "'Let me never be the Skeleton In the Family Cupboard.'
   "When you are buckling on your garters, repeat these words three times:

            'I will not be a Has-Been.
             I will not be a Has-Been.
             I will not be a Has-Been.'

   "When you are tying your necktie, say four times:

            'Why should I not be a Pierpont Morgan?
             Why should I not be a Pierpont Morgan?
             Why should I not be a Pierpont Morgan?
             Why should I not be a Pierpont Morgan?'

   "Be god-like in your bearing. Grab off opportunity. Don't be afraid to be a Rockefeller. Learn to talk, and cash in on your conversation. Concentrate on Confidence. Get busy with old Tempus Fugit. Say 'Boo' to worry. Be virile, vital, valiant, versatile, invincible, vigorous. Know yourself for a Giant. Cultivate health, hope, happiness, hilarity, holiness. Prime yourself with pep, pugnacity, psychology and perfection. Purify the soul with purpose and publicity. Vibrate your solar complex. Conserve every moment. Develop your Conscious Cosmos and incarnate your essential quiddity. Put punch into your pith and ginger into your jocosity. Carry on your face the lines of rectitude and integrity. Move among the Brighter Intellects and the Masterfully Tactful. While your dinner digests, read Ruskin's Crown of Wild Olives [sic]. Cultivate Art. You can study Michael Angelo while you are sipping soup."
Neruda and apprentice travel by way of Quebec City to New York where Walter is installed as a staff writer for the millionaire's Aduren Publishing. Walter belongs to the company's House-Organ Department, contributing to publications tailored for corporate interests. Aduren's other half is the Foreign-Language Newspaper Agency. Though there is no communication between the Department and Agency, their raisons d'être are the very same same. Both are intended to mollify workers.

Walter rises quickly through the ranks at Aduren, his income seeming to double every fortnight.

A Success Story!

Before long, Walter is appointed General Editor of the House-Organ Department. He finds himself living in luxury building owned, as he discovers, by Frank A. Neruda. The millionaire demands Walter's time, but there are occasions to slip away.

The Scot has taken a shine to his boss's pretty, plump, petite secretary Beatrice Anderson, a gal from British Columbia who is caring for her dad. Father Tom Anderson is going blind, the result of a mine explosion, and hopes that New York doctors might save his eyesight. The Andersons introduce Walter to a welcoming contingent of Canadian expats: a musician, a singer, a painter, a doctor, and another writer. The sociability is a welcome relief from the Aduren day-to-day; a refuge, that is spoiled when Walter recognizes Neruda's attempts to separate him from Beatrice.

But why?

Anyone thinking of giving Pagan Love a read is advised to stop here.

The Regina Morning Leader, 4 November 1922
The 4 November 1922 Regina Morning Leader carried one of the novel's earliest reviews. For a newspaper, it's unusually long. It's also extremely positive, though its author, Prof William Talbot Allison of the University of Manitoba, expects not all will not share his opinion. He predicts that Pagan Love would "divide the critics and the reading public, to say nothing of Scotsman, New Yorkers, Labor leaders, Czechs, romanticists, moral uplifters, and the fair sex."

I would've thought the same, yet I've not found a single review that isn't enthusiastic about Pagan Love. The following year, the novel was awarded a prix David.  

Le Nationaliste et Le Devoir, 24 May 1923
Returning to Allison:
I read this story with avidity to the last line of the last page; in other words, I found it intensely interesting, but if I were at liberty to disclose the plot, which in fairness to Mr. Gibbon and to the readers of his book, I am unable to do, I could register my own personal reactions.
In fact, the professor does share his personal reactions – and the greater percentage of the plot. What Allison doesn't share is anything beyond the first twenty-three (of twenty-nine) chapters.

In 1922, Pagan Love was sold as "A Story of Mystery and Romance with a Surprising Climax."

I have no doubt readers of one hundred and one years ago were surprised. This twentieth-century boy – much younger than Marc Bolan – had the advantage of a twenty-first century viewpoint. The novel's great reveal was unexpected, though it didn't come as a great shock. There were hints, the most interesting being a conversation Neruda and Walter share as they stroll arm-in-arm during outside the Château Frontenac.

At the climax, Frank A. Neruda is revealed as a beautiful woman. In fact, she reveals herself – scantily-clad as Cleopatra for a masquerade ball. Her love for Walter gives the novel its title.

I'll say more because I don't want to spoil every last thing.

The St Petersburg Times, 18 March 1923
The first Canadian edition of Pagan Love was published by McClelland & Stewart. The first American edition was published by transplanted Torontonian George H. Doran. Neither company went back for a second printing. Given the critical reception, I found this surprising; all the more so because there is evidence of controversy.

Pagan Love is a tragedy. Walter may be the protagonist, but at the end of the day it is the story of a woman who must disguise herself as a man so as to achieve wealth and power. As a girl, it was only by pretending to be a boy – a breaker boy – that she was able to place a foot on lowest rung of the ladder that brought her success. I took away this lesson and two more:
It's hard to make an honest buck.

In business, it's who you know.
Personal note: Wikipedia informs that John Murray Gibbon had "a major impact on the creation of a bilingual, multicultural, national culture," yet I never encountered his name in high school. The same can be said about my university years, during which I majored in Canadian Studies and English. The Canadian Encyclopedia informs: "His book Canadian Mosaic (1938) popularized the 'mosaic' as a metaphor for the diversity of 'the Canadian people.' It has since been used by politicians, educators and policy makers to describe the cultural makeup of the country."

In my many decades, I've yet to hear a politician, educator or policy maker reference Gibbon.

Object and Access: An attractive hardcover, typical of its time, lacking the all-too-rare dust jacket. I purchased my copy, the first Canadian edition, earlier this year from a St John bookseller. Price: US$35. Awaiting its arrival, a Yankee bookseller listed a jacketless but inscribed copy at US$25, but what you really want is an inscribed Canadian first in dust jacket. Offered by a Nova Scotia bookseller, it can be found online at US$250.

I share the bookseller's photo so as to encourage the sale. If that isn't enough, I add that the inscription is addressed to a woman named Beatrice.

The novel has been out of print ever since.

Of all the out-of-print titles I've read, Pagan Love ranks amongst the two or three most deserving of a reissue.

I'm looking to you Invisible Publishing.

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05 September 2023

Summer of a Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Sexpo '69
Winston Smith [pseud Charles E. Fritch]
North Hollywood: Brandon House, 1969
176 pages

The years leading to '69 have not been easy on Lisa Garris. A twenty-something gal from upstate New York, she'd moved to Manhattan with dreams of Broadway, but Broadway hadn't been much interested. "There were too many girls who were prettier, more talented, and willing to sleep with anybody to get ahead in showbiz." Lisa tried a similar path by allowing a producer to paw her, but there'd been no callback. With her savings exhausted, Lisa was forced into a dead-end clerk-typist job and shared apartment. Roommate Jayne, a blonde buxom bombshell with a habit of walking around in the nude, is an impetuous gal; out of nowhere, she'd announced that she was leaving Manhattan for Montreal: "How about coming along, Lisa. It's a real swinging town, especially with Expo 69."

The Sherbrooke Daily Record, 20 May 1967

The two found a one-bedroom flat on Tupper Street. Jayne was in her element; Montreal satisfied her "nymphomaniacal tendencies." Lisa's pleasures are more innocent:

She enjoyed taking the bus up to Mount Royal lookout, where she could see the entire panorama of the city below, with its uncluttered skyline etched against the background of the St. Lawrence River and the blue sky. She loved to stroll through the downtown area, with its combination of gleaming new buildings such as the Royal Bank Building in the are around St. Catherine and Peel Streets, mixed with old-style architecture as the City Hall, the Mary Queen of the World Basilica, interrupted by green oases of parks such as Dominion Square...
And, of course, there were visits to Expo, though not even a world exposition could dim the "incandescence in her loins."

There's more to the backstory, but let's ignore all that and focus on the action. Sexpo '69 begins with Lisa entering her flat to the sight and very loud sounds of Joyce and her latest lover. The apartment is dark and the bedroom door is open. Lisa watches from the living room, raises her skirt, then searches for and finds "the seat of her mounting desire."

The Gazette, 9 December 1969
A few pages on, our heroine sneaks out in search of booze. This is something of a habit; dealing with her "familiar itch" by drowning herself in alcohol. She passes the Cock 'n Bull, ending up in an unidentified side street dive bar. After four strong drinks that run lowly Lisa is approached by a fat drunk who suggests they return to his apartment. She turns him down, he turns her over, pulls up her skirt, pulls down her panties, and gives her several swats on the derriere. This is followed by a chase into an uncommonly dark and deserted street. Somehow, the fat man manages to catch up with Lisa and is in the midst of assaulting her when scared away by the headlights of a passing car.

The woman behind the wheel rescues Lisa, takes her to her luxurious house, plies her with liquor, bathes her, plies her with more liquor, and takes her to bed: "I will make love to you, my darling, the way only another woman can." 

Sexpo '69 came in the afterglow of lesbian pulp fiction's golden age, and features many of the genre's greatest clichés. Consider Lisa's sexual relations with men, which are not only unfulfilling, but abusive in the extreme. Her backstory includes an ex-fiancé who, upon receiving the news of Lisa's pregnancy, kicked her in the stomach, causing a miscarriage.

Bobbie Posner, Lisa's rescuer, is an older, short-haired woman. After their initial "escapade" – Bobbie's word – the younger woman asks for space. The older woman will have none of it. Ignoring Lisa's wishes, she's aggressive in her pursuit, phoning persistently:
"The truth is, well, last night was sort of – well, unexpected, I have to have some time to think things over."
   "I understand, my pet,""Bobbie crooned. "May I call you tomorrow?"
   "I'll call you," Lisa decided.
   "Very well, my sweet, " Bobbie said softly,"but I shall miss you tonight, all alone in the big bed. I shall dream abut you, and perhaps tomorrow my dreams will come true."
Bobbie phones again the next morning.

Offstage is a milquetoast character with a curious name: Vince Balluck. He and Lisa went out on two perfectly fine dates when she lived in New York. Vince phones her long distance – which is not cheap! – because he's coming to Expo and would like to see her again. Turned down, he does not phone a second time.

Thrown into the mix are scenes set at Expo, the most memorable being an evening Lisa visits La Ronde with Bobbie and another lesbian couple, Lorraine and Nancy. This includes a page-long description of a ride on the Gyrotron, a ride I was too young to enjoy.

The following afternoon, finds our heroine in the Arts Centre, where some of Bobbie's paintings are on display:
It was no surprise to Lisa to discover that Bobbie's subject matter consisted of female nudes very realistically represented. She felt a pang of jealousy as she wondered if the artist had had affairs with all these girls. 
As genre dictates, Lisa's is knocked off-balance by her lover. Of a sudden, Bobbie flies off to Chicago with explanation that she has been invited to present a one-woman show. Is she being honest or unfaithful? It might be said that Lisa has herself been unfaithful, fantasizing about Joyce while having sex with Bobbie. One night, unable to control her urges, she slips into her sleeping roommates bed:
"I at least thought you'd have some understanding of the torment I've been going through. Remember when you didn't have any sex for a few days, you were going out of your mind."
   "But I didn't turn queer!" Joyce snapped.
Joyce is gone by morning.

That evening, Bobbie returns from Chicago. Lisa arrives at the artist's house to find Nancy in a "diaphanous shortie nightgown." A catfight ensues, which leads to sex and, eventually, a ménage a trois. The three women live together until Lisa, increasingly jealous, delivers Bobbie an ultimatum:
"I am sorry, Lisa, but I must choose Nancy."
   The words struck Lisa like an electric shock. She had never considered the fact that Bobbie wouldn't choose her. Tears stung in her eyes. "But –"
   "Why? Because Nancy was a lesbian when I met her, she is a lesbian now, and she always will be."
   "But I'm a lesbian now and always will be," Lisa protested.
   Bobbie shook her head sadly. "Do you know how many heterosexual women have lesbian experiences? More than you would guess. College girls who have pajama parties with other college girls and go on to become housewives. Housewives bored with their life who invite other housewives over on afternoons to have fun in bed while their husbands are away at the office... You've had bad experiences with men, and good experiences with me – but that doesn't make you a lesbian necessarily."
It's a dramatic scene, but the climax – unconvincing – comes when Joyce makes a surprise return to the apartment she'd once shared with Lisa. She apologizes to her former roommate, revealing that she had in the past, on occasion, been with other women:
"Nothing serious or very long, just a few pajama parties in college where we – well, sort of fooled around. I tried to kid myself that it was the same as masturbating, but I know it wasn't. I guess I knew subconsciously I tended to be bisexual all along and consciously tried to disprove it by sleeping with as many men as I could." 
And with that out of the way, Joyce tries to convince Lisa that she too is bisexual. She encourages her friend to go out on another date with Vince. Maybe she'll enjoy sex with him. After all, Lisa has had sex with only five men. Sure, she didn't like it, and sure the ladies are batting three for three in this regard, but who knows? She may even marry Vince! And if Lisa feels the need for lesbian sex there are always ladies "bridge clubs."
"Where does this leave us now?" Lisa asked.
   "Friends, I hope ," Joyce said sincerely. "I'd like to be your roommate again, if you'll have me."
   "I'd like that, Joyce, very much – except I'm not sure I can keep my hands off you."
   Joyce gave a reassuring smile. "After that little escapade we had honey, I'm not sure I want you to keep your hands off me. Who the hell do I think I'm kidding anyway. I enjoy sex, all kinds, and putting a label on certain kinds is making life difficult."
And then Lisa and Joyce have fun in bed; this time consensually.

So, a happy ending after all, but not terribly satisfying.

About the author: For the most obvious of reasons I'd assumed "Winston Smith" to be a nom de plume. Was the author even Canadian? Brandon House provides no biography. All seemed a mystery – and not only to me – until I happened upon this entry in the Catalog of Copyright Entries, Third Series: January-June, 1969, published by the Library of Congress:

Charles Edward Fritch (1927-2012) was a writer of science fiction, mystery, and horror. Erotica can now be added to the mix. Consensus has it that Negative of a Nude (1959) was his first published novel.

Fritch's bibliography is a matter of further research. Sexpo '69 was not the only book he wrote under a pseudonym. To known works Strip for Murder (1960; as Eric Thomas),  Seven Deadly Sinners (1961; as Christopher Sly), and Psycho Sinner (1961; as Eric Thomas), I add Lesbian Blow-Up (1968). Winston Smith erotica, it seems to have garnered one lone review: 

Unsigned, it's found in the December 1968/January1969 issue of The Ladder, published by the Daughters of Bilitis. The same issue includes 'The House Guest,' an uncollected short story by Jane Rule.

Fritch was not Canadian. He was born in Utica, New York, and lived his life in the United States. I wondered whether he'd visited Expo '67 – hundreds of thousands of Americans did – until I found this photo of Fritch (right) with science fiction writer William F Nolan taken outside Fort Edmonton at La Ronde.

My thanks to members of the Expo 67 Facebook page for identifying the location.

I wonder whether Fritch saw the 27 May 1967 edition of Tab International:

Object: A mass market paperback, typical of its time, the novel itself is followed by sixteen pages of adverts for other Brandon House titles, including the classics Candy, Teleny, EvelineFanny Hill, My Secret Life, The Pearl, The 120 Days of Sodom, and of course Lesbian Blow-Up.

Access: WorldCat suggests that only UCLA and the San Francisco Public Library have copies.

I purchased my copy last year, ending a hunt that began in the 20th century. Price: US$45.

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