A Gentleman of Pleasure

This blog was originally intended to recount my thoughts on non-fiction I was reading, as the majority of things I read do tend to be non-fiction. However, I embarked on this right before I introduced a steady stream of fiction to supplement my diet. I’ll probably change the name of the blog sooner or later but for at least the next two reviews it’s appropriate.

Late last year I happened to win a free copy of The Dusty Bookcase from a contest held on Brian Busby’s blog of the same name, on which the book is based. Both the blog and book consist of reviews of forgotten pieces of Canadiana, including both lost treasures and the justifiably forgotten. I originally chanced across Busby’s blog while researching Bilingual Today, French Tomorrow, one of a half-dozen screeds published in the late seventies and eighties by BMG Press, that I had found at used book sales in Ottawa. Busby had wrote an entry on the book, which was among the only explanations online of what exactly it was. That entry, and a follow-up on the author’s sequel Enough! both made it into the book of The Dusty Bookcase. Having read my copy through three times already, I’ll revisit it some-time in the future, but in the meantime it comes highly recommended.

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I have intended to read Busby’s earlier books for a while, and after recently reading I Do Remember the Fall motivated my choice of today’s subject. In discussing that book I made much of how well John Glassco’s quotation on the back cover captured the essence of the novel. As it happens, Busby’s had written a biography of John Glassco, titled A Gentleman of Pleasure. As a biography, the subject matter of the book is obvious, since it beings with Glassco’s birth and concludes with his death. Born to the wealthy daughter of a Montreal magnate, and a father who would become bursar at McGill University, John was an early achiever. Despite his early academic promise, his parents held him back from university at age thirteen and instead sent him to a miserable boarding school existence. Eventually Glassco would reach McGill at fifteen and meet other rising literary figures in Montreal, including F.R. Scott, A.J.M. Smith, and Graeme Taylor. Taylor, four years his senior, would become a life partner of Glassco’s and constant companion for the next several decades.

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Glassco and Taylor’s relationship is one the most tragic aspects of the biography. Glassco would travel with Taylor to Paris when he was seventeen, settling in the Monteparnasse district alongside many artists and literary giants. The two engaged in various menage a trois with a succession of partners, but nevertheless remained together as the different third partners came and went. One of these triangles, involving a woman from Western Canada, put stress on their partnership, and Taylor returned to Canada. Glassco and the girl soon separated anyway, and he returned to Canada after he contracted tuberculosis. After Glassco’s recovery he and Taylor moved to a farm in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. By this time Taylor career as an author was basically behind him; his nominal success as a novelist was over. Though Glassco had always looked to Taylor for literary mentorship, he began to see Taylor as holding him back as a writer. The tragedy of their relationship comes to a head when Taylor is diagnosed with berger’s disease and swiftly deteriorates. Upon the death of Taylor one gets the sense Glassco not only mourned him, but also felt Taylor’s death freed him from a presence which had been increasingly holding him back.

In many ways the subsequent years proved him right in this regard. The bulk of Glassco’s literary output came only after Taylor’s death. There are other worthy details of Glassco’s life, such as his subsequent marriage to a Russian emigrant who gradually lost her mind and came to believe herself the reincarnation of Nefertiti, or his ongoing struggle to find a publisher who would publish his erotica. However, it is worth drawing attention to the main contribution of Busby’s biography in particular. A Gentleman of Pleasure impresses by attempting to parse the truth from John Glassco’s lies, and tracing the presence of the man through the works of the many literary figures he encountered throughout his life. Not only did Glassco’s early years with Taylor in Paris’ Monteparnasse inspire Glassco’s own critically acclaimed Memoirs of Monteparnasse, but Glassco and Taylor make small appearances in a half-dozen books by other authors who lived in Monteparnasse around the same time. Busby tracks down many of these references, including the allusions that change their names, and compares the stories to each other and the sparse known facts.

This is an impressive scholastic achievement, and necessary, given that Glassco delighted in pulling a fast one on people. As Busby explains, it is well known today that Memoirs of Monteparnasse contain significant embellishments and some outright falsehoods all built around a the kernel of Glassco’s real experiences. What Busby has managed is to write as good a biography as is possible about someone who was continually throwing up smoke-screens and misdirection. The biography was also a pleasant introduction to Glassco the author, situating his works within the context of influence drawn from both his personal experiences and literary surroundings. Best of all, it interested me in John Glassco’s body of work, which is no mean feat given I have barely any familiarity with poetry or erotica.

Perhaps I’ll start with Memoirs of Monteparnasse. Regardless, Glassco himself could only have been pleased to have as good a biography on himself made as A Gentle of Pleasure.

The Vision

This review will be exceptional in that its subject is neither Canadian nor a book. At least part of what I plan to discuss is something I read, however, to which I say: good enough.

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A dear friend sent both volumes of The Vision (2015) earlier this year. I have read almost no comic books in my lifetime, but this Eisner Award winning limited series was as good a place as any to start! The story follows the titular Vision, a synthetic human who wants to live a more normal, human life, despite being both robotic and a superhero. To pursue this end, he crafts for himself a nuclear family, and they all move into a quaint Virginian neighbourhood. The comic follows their efforts to be normal and human, and in doing so draws considerable pathos out of their near success. I won’t spoil any of twists and turns from the comic since anyone remotely interested in comics should consider reading it.

These days the most widely known version of Vision is the one portrayed by Paul Bettany in The Avengers movies. The character is introduced in a confusing sequence in the mess that is The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Ultron’s creation of Vision is faithful to the comics, but his motivation for doing so is unclear in the movie, and adds nothing to the overall story. As a matter of necessity the MCU changes a number of things about Vision. In the comics Ultron was created by Hank Pym (the original Ant Man), not Tony Stark, and had nothing to do with the Mind Stone, which in the MCU was used by Stark to make Ultron’s artificial intelligence. In the movies the Mind Stone also became the thing which brought Vision to life, and is situated in his forehead, whereas in the comics the device in his forehead was some kind of microchip that contains a copy of Wonder Man’s brain waves. The changes, while separating Vision from anything to do with Ant Man, better integrated him into the overarching plot of The Avengers movies, which has to do with the Infinity Stones.

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The Vision Family Tree (Comics Only)

Today I watched the fourth Avengers movie, Infinity War, where the Infinity Stones story finally comes to a head. Curiously, Avengers: Infinity War is not really based on the comic Infinity War (1992), but on the earlier Infinity Gauntlet (1991). The Infinity Gauntlet is one of the other few comics I have read, and sadly most of my favourite aspects of the comics did not make it into the new movie. The most significant change for the movie is Thanos’, the lead villain, motivation. In The Infinity Gauntlet Thanos has some bizarre infatuation with the personification of Death itself, and his intention is the collect the Infinity Stones and achieve godhood so that he will be able to be with his beloved Death. The destroying of half of all life in the universe is something Thanos does with his power in his efforts to impress Death. The Infinity War (2018) movie changes Thanos motivation into something Malthusian: he believes killing half of the universe’s occupants is necessary to prevent it from running dry of its finite resources. I expected this aspect of the story to be changed, given Thanos’ original motivation, but it resulted in others which disappointed me more.

Arguably the main character of The Infinity Gauntlet is the character Adam Warlock, who simply does not exist in the Marvel movies. In the comics Adam possessed the Soul Stone, but in his absence Vision has the Mind Stone. I am perfectly content with this change for selfish reasons, in that I like the character of Vision and have no special interest in Adam Warlock. There are other characters absent from the movies which interest me more. For instance, the first half of The Infinity Gauntlet sees Thanos receive council from Mephisto, the allegory for the devil in Marvel comics. Although Mephisto pretends to be on Thanos’ side for part of the story, he does this to convince Thanos that to impress Death he has to give some heroes a chance of winning. Mephisto attempts to undermine Thanos since the latter’s godhood threats him just as much as anyone else in the universe. Another major omission from the MCU are Marvel’s cast of “cosmic” characters. After the normal heroes are defeated in their assault on Thanos, Marvel’s embodiment of things like Chaos, Time, and even the Universe itself arrive to combat Thanos. This is frankly my favourite part of the comic, since the battles are said to be “beyond words” and are rendered artistically.

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Thanos vs. Eternity, the embodiment of the universe itself

Now, there is a remote possibility that the Marvel “cosmic” characters which I enjoyed in The Infinity Gauntlet could appear in the second part of the Infinity War movie, though I doubt it. The Marvel films have shied away from depicting most “cosmic” characters, and with good reason, they are bizarre. The changes and omissions in the MCU have had the benefit of giving Vision more screen time than I anticipated he would have. Although his relationship with the Scarlet Witch is rushed in Infinity War (2018), more was included in the film than I expected. If I have one disappointment about Vision’s portrayal, it relates to how easily he was kicked around throughout the movie. Despite participating in more fights than I expected—that is, more than one—he is soundly trounced in each. A beggar can’t be a chooser I suppose. Alas! If only he were as competent as in his own solo series.

The Vision (2015) comes highly recommended. Infinity War (2018) is alright if one has an interest in big, loud action movies with dialogue consisting primarily of heartless quips.

I Do Remember the Fall

The New Press Canadian Classics was General Publishing’s answer to the New Canadian Library. I began collecting the NCL as a gateway into Canadian literature generally, so I have no qualms with picking up and reading their competition as well. I recommend this sadly abandoned NCL collecting blog for details on both of these imprints.

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I remarked last time that after two trips to Montreal, albeit separated by 200 years, a visit to the prairies would be a nice change of pace. Upon approaching my expanding shelf of CanLit I was impressed by a quote from the back cover of I Do Remember the Fall.

“… the most appalling picture of a Saskatchewan small town I have ever read, and deeply depressing with its joyless drinking and certain loveless fornication that is more than redeemed by a great and touching tenderness.” – John Glassco

Randy Gogarty is a young man in his late twenties, but already washed up as a journalist. Blacklisted after his previous job in Toronto he manages to land a job writing for small local newspaper in Elk Brain, Saskatchewan. After his arrival by train we are introduced to his coworkers, the town of Elk Brain itself, and whispers of an upcoming strike. When the prophesied strike finally comes Randy walks off the job in solidarity, with assurances from management that it won’t cost him his job. The novel follows his efforts to survive in Elk Brain, including his misadventures with coworkers, a woman named Laurie, and the ongoing strike. I enjoyed this book too much to let on anything more than I have.

I Do Remember the Fall is a book defined not so much by any events as tone; the Glassco quote which graces the back cover is instructive. The novel is pervaded by a gloom and drudgery, punctuated by moments of insight within Randy’s narration. The portrait of prairie life is at once depressing in its frequent meaninglessness, but sympathetic to the people who struggle through it anyway. There is something pedestrian about many of the scenes Randy finds himself in, but M.T. Kelly mines them for a lot of pathos. Of the three Canadian novels covered so far here I Do Remember the Fall is the best, and we’ll see if it can retain that title going forward.

Since I discussed The Alley Cat just recently, I’ll conclude with a little comparison. Now, I Do Remember the Fall and The Alley Cat are very different sorts of books. The former is a more grounded tale with painfully human characters, and the latter is full of Dickensian exaggeration and farce. Yet the protagonists Florent and Randy are both about the same age, and have similarly flawed personalities. Why then is Randy much more sympathetic than Florent? Keep in mind our introduction to Florent is his helping an injured stranger on the street, while Randy is introduced attempting to hit on a disinterested passenger. A lot of the difference boils down to Randy’s humanity. Although he often comes across as selfish or conceited his narration succeeds in making otherwise insignificant annoyances and frustrations relatable. The reality of Randy’s circumstances – in contrast to Florent’s exaggerated Montreal – also makes it easier to sympathize with his plight. The reader is more likely to have attended an awkward work party than have been blackmailed by an eastern European man who speaks in riddles and tricked you into buying a restaurant.

I Do Remember the Fall comes highly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of T.M. Kelly’s work. Next time we venture back into non-fiction with a biography of the author who directed me towards Kelly in the first place.

 

The Alley Cat

I chose this book initially because it was the longest novel in my growing NCL collection.

The Alley Cat begins with a good deed. A man walking along a Montreal street is struck in the head by a metal letter that fell from a sign. Florent Boissonneult, a twenty-something passerby, phones for help and waits with the injured man until emergency services arrive, before departing for work. Although the man dies, Florent receives messages from a rich eccentric who saw the act and who claims he wants to help Florent achieve his dream of owning a restaurant since he knows Florent to be pure of heart.

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The Alley Cat is a difficult book to review because despite my overall enjoyment of the (sometimes) dark comedy, I found myself disappointed. Yves Beauchemin’s book is often described as “Dickensian,” which is most noticeable in its characters. The characters are larger than life, and embody certain traits and archetypes. Like the Macawbers or Uriah Heap, Beauchemin’s novel has an obscurantist foreigner of uncertain extraction, Ange-Albert the laid-back couch-surfer, or Picquot, the hot-headed French chef with a heart of gold. The Alley Cat is populated with interesting and unique characters which do bring to mind Dickens. I once read Dickens characters described as “caricatures” because of their exaggerated personalities and attributes, although I felt that a touch uncharitable. Those found in The Alley Cat do possess an exaggerated but engaging characterization however. A favourite character in the novel is Florent’s cousin, a priest who spends all day reading and who attempts throughout the book to find a stove into which Gogol threw a hitherto lost work, which he hopes to recover. The chief strength of The Alley Cat is its characters, although their wasted potential relates to some of its greatest flaws.

The novel made a bad first impression from which it never escaped. Despite beginning with Florent cast in the role of good Samaritan, in the first couple chapters he supposes that his mysterious benefactor must be “some old fag”, he cheats on his wife on a whim, and casually uses the n-word. By themselves, these facts do not present a problem, even to the semi-comedic tone the book intends. However, they are endemic to a larger issue I had with the book: I did not find Florent sympathetic. This is important because much of the book depends on the reader cheering Florent to get back at those who swindled him, and sympathizing with his indignation. There were points at which I was sympathetic with Florent and his circumstances—particularly when his malefactor refused to let him move on with his life—but I had to struggle to cheer for him. To wit, my complaint is not that The Alley Cat contains certain slurs, but that it puts them on the tongue of someone we are supposed to root for and seems to believe this makes him a relatable every-man.

Florent is at once the dullest and least likable in a cast of interesting personalities. His dullness actually fits with the characterization of Beauchemin’s works as Dickensian in style; David Copperfield is among the least interesting characters in David Copperfield because of his role as reader (and author) surrogate. However, David is a good person, whose misfortunes are either just that, misfortunes, or mistakes made from ignorance, not malice. Despite the Dickensian nature of the characters in The Alley Cat, the novel also fails to live up to the aspect of Dickensian format I enjoy most. The recurrence of characters and their plot-lines is important in Dickens; a character introduced early in a novel will likely reappear later and impact the plot in some relevant way.  Rarely does Dickens set something up which ultimately has no payoff. Take Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, who appears three times in the novel. First, she appears as a grotesque due to her deformity, then on her second appearance she displays hidden depths, and finally in the end she takes on a heroic role. Even Mr. Mell, the kindly but impoverished school teacher fired in the childhood portion of the same novel reappears in the final moments of David Copperfield. Although Mr. Mell has little impact on the main plot after his early departure, the reader is nevertheless rewarded for following and remembering his plot.

Most of the characters in The Alley Cat do not have a payoff. Now, in a novel in the style of Canadian social realism this would be fine. In real life people come and go with more or less impact on our lives. In a novel like Waste Heritage or I Do Remember the Fall this same feature takes on a different meaning because they are different kinds of stories. In a Dickensian novel the lack of payoff leaves a reader feeling cheated. Take my favourite character, the bookish priest whose subplot involves retrieving the wood stove thought to contain the remnants of a lost work of Gogol. The subplot ends in the most predictable and bland way possible. The stove arrives, and while fragments of the work are inside it, they are too fragile to move. The priest character adds nothing else to the plot, aside from attracting Florent’s scorn for the crime of being too nice. At one point he almost becomes useful by attempting to decipher a cryptic book written by the novel’s villain. Ultimately he fails, the code-book goes undeciphered, and that specific plot cul-de-sac goes nowhere.

At one point in the novel I suspected that the priest might decipher the book and provide Florent with some clue which would help him revenge himself upon his malefactors. Yet the solution Florent comes up with is all his own. It is also a solution he could have come up with without at least a third of the book having to occur. The plan Florent executes to sabotage his enemy’s eatery is one he could have enacted just as well without sojourning for hundreds of pages to Florida, and Quebec’s eastern townships on some glorified side-quests. Since his experiences leading up to his revenge contribute virtually nothing to its execution, the a reader is left wondering why they were taken on that journey in the first place. The final showdown with the novel’s primary antagonist is woefully anticlimactic, resolved not by Florent’s efforts or clever scheming, but by an implausibly grievous injury inflicted by the book’s eponymous feline. I enjoyed the journey that is this novel! My disappointment is that the journey adds little to the experience of the conclusion.

Those are my misgivings with The Alley Cat, a novel I enjoyed overall, despite the bad aftertaste. A more common criticism of the book is something else I noticed: the only significant non-francophone characters in the novel are villainous. The primary villain of the piece is an eastern-European immigrant of uncertain extraction. A disillusioned ally of the villain claims late in the novel that this character is in fact native to Canada, but the truth of this claim is left ambiguous, like most everything about the villain. The secondary villain is an anglophone Quebecker, in fact the only one to appear. I’ll admit that this did not bother me awfully much. The francophone characters which populate the rest of the novel run the full gamut of morality, so it is not as though francophones are portrayed as unambiguously good and non-francophones as evil.

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I raise this point because, when I initially completed the book a month ago I happened across Bob Coleman’s 1987 review for The New York Times. Coleman, bizarrely, I think, believed Beauchemin has it out for Americans specifically. His evidence for this claim is the fact that the main villains are non-francophones, and that Floridians depicted in The Alley Cat are unlikeable. The latter is debatable, as plenty of the francophone Quebeckers depicted in the novel are equally peculiar and unsympathetic. The former struck me as a singularly bizarre claim given that the allophones in question were not even Americans. Judith Freeman of the LA Times, while complaining similarly to me that there is a weird mean streak in the novel, concurs with Coleman that Americans get the worst of it in the novel. Methinks they are in a hurry to tilt at windmills.

Next time: after two adventures in Montreal, a change of scenery is in order. Perhaps a journey our west?