The Long Dark

I haven’t had much time for pleasure reading in the last several months, although I did have the chance to purchase and play The Long Dark on the Switch. I have a soft spot for Canadiana, and a video game set in Canada is a novelty. I’m also happy when I have the chance to support a Canadian game studio, especially when the game itself is interesting.

The Long Dark is set in the near-future, a decade after a global economic depression, and shortly after a fictional geomagnetic phenomenon began that tampers with electronics. The player finds themselves stranded on a large, remote island implied to be off the coast of northern British Columbia. There the objective to survive. In Survival Mode, the player is the only living person to be found on Great Bear Island, and the game is self-directed. The story mode, called “Wintermute,” adds a few people and some quests and side-quests.

The main challenge is survival, with the game tracking hunger, thirst, temperature, and fatigue. I had not played any games in this single-person survival genre before, although some games I own and enjoy have survival mechanics and a broadly apocalyptic setting. This War of Mine is an even bleaker depiction of war-torn city, where you have to help a small group of civilians survive. I also like Death Road to Canada, although it is a decidedly comedic zombie-apocalypse romp. However, aside from the emphasis on survival and inventory management aspects of these games, they are not that similar to The Long Dark.

The art style of the game has a painted and impressionistic quality that is nice to look at and has granted the game some much needed longevity despite its lengthy development. Billed as a “quiet apocalypse,” since the end is coming not from some sudden catastrophe but a slow decline, the game is often quiet, slow paced, and sombre. The encounters with wildlife—especially wolves and bears—are often tense since even getting some clothing torn can spell disaster, let alone being wounded. I think the game shines most in its quiet moments, when one is left to reflect on their isolation and the indifferent wilderness. I don’t usually include spoiler tags on my blog, but I do discuss the plot in what follows.

The story of “Wintermute” involves a bush pilot whose ex-wife, a doctor, asks him to fly her to a remote community for unspecified reasons. A geomagnetic storm causes them to crash and become separated. Only three of the five storyline episodes have been released so far, although the fourth is coming soon. I enjoyed the story, which adds some people to speak with and help. The characters encountered on Great Bear Island have a tendency to speak somewhat cryptically, especially in the first two episodes (in which only five other people appear, mind you). This often adds to the mystique and atmosphere of the setting, although it can also make some conversations unnecessarily obtuse and hard to follow.

One subplot I’ll mention where I found the writing a tad weak related to the prisoners of Blackrock Penitentiary. Early on in Episode #1 of Wintermute, you find that a prison bus crashed while en route to a maximum security prison located on the island. The escaped prisoners ransacked a nearby town just before you arrived and (accidently) killed nearly all of its few remaining residents. This, in itself, is mostly fine. Setting the prisoners up as an antagonistic human element makes enough sense, even if “they’re criminals” is a less interesting explanation of why a someone would act viciously than out of desperation.

What I find less compelling is how the prisoners are one-dimensional evildoers and the narrative presents them being murdered as tacitly acceptable. Now, I should mention that the player only encounters two living prisoners in the episodes released so far, while others can be found dead across the island. The first prisoner we encounter is Hobbs, who found seriously wounded after having been stabbed. He tells the player about how the prisoners (accidently) killed the residents of the town and is amused by their deaths.

The player is then given what is presented as a moral decision that does not make much sense. You can either pull the knife out of Hobbs, and thereby “help” him, or shove it in deeper and kill him. It’s been pointed out that removing the knife would probably do more harm than good in reality, especially since the player doesn’t have the option to give him any of their medical supplies afterwards. Setting that aside, there is no serious moral question here. You either kill a helpless, injured man or help him by leaving him injured somewhere where he will likely die anyway.

The only countervailing moral considerations are ones you make up for themselves. For instance, when playing I had the thought: “My character will probably have to sleep in this house tonight. Sleeping near this man might be dangerous, I should do something.” Of course, Hobbs is gravely wounded which already makes him less of a threat, and just restraining him would be enough to allay this worry in reality. Naturally, there is no in-game reason to worry about resting near the dangerous criminal. I bring this up only as it’s the only reason I could think of as to why someone would consider killing Hobbs.

The game instead presents this as a serious decision because Hobbs is a bad man, and as a bad man he doesn’t deserve to live. The only relevant information about Hobbs is that he is a convicted criminal, he (accidently) contributed to the deaths of the town’s residents, and he tried unsuccessfully to attack the player character’s ex-wife. So, he’s not a good man, but why is his being murdered by the player character presented as reasonable? It’s not self-defence, Hobbs is entirely at your mercy. One implication is that because he is a criminal his life is expendable—and this implication is further evidenced by Episode #3.

In Episode #3, we meet a character who allowed her abusive husband be killed by wolves without intervening to save him. The narrative goes to great pains to point out that she didn’t kill her husband, she merely let him die, which is viewed as less morally troubling. Despite the narrative distancing this character from the death of her husband, in part to make her story more sympathetic, she determines after his death that she dislikes men in general and begins killing the escaped convicts on the island. The narrative does not feel the need to further justify or explain away her murder of the convicts in the way that it explained the death of her husband as not her fault. Convicts are bad and deserve death. Though in fairness, this character’s actions are not framed as straightforwardly heroic.

My general point is that the narrative includes some unexamined assumptions about the moral acceptability of killing bad people who are not an immediate threat. The prisoners are somewhat one-dimensionally evil, when even making them three-dimensionally evil would be more interesting. The Long Dark includes themes of desperation and the choice with Hobbs is framed in terms of whether mercy and kindness is compatible with survival when things get tough. The choice would be stronger if survival were at stake, or helping him cost something. “Do I save this evil man whose dying with things I need to survive?” is a more compelling choice than “Do I kill this helpless man because he’s a bad person?”

Anyway, I’ve written at length about this subplot despite it being relatively minor. Part of the reason is because the upcoming Episode #4 will introduce Blackrock Penitentiary and will likely be more focused on the convicts. I’m hopeful that some of the writing related to them will be sharper, but I also want to reiterate that on the whole I love this game and have spent more time on it than I can easily justify. So, I do highly recommended it!

The Infernal Library

The Infernal Library is a book with an excellent premise and middling execution. Daniel Kalder offers readers a tour of various entries in the canon of “dictator literature,” that is, written works produced by various despots of the twentieth and twenty-first century. We hear from Lenin, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, and a coterie of lesser known or more recent entries in the dictatorial canon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Kalder notes that beyond being ethically pernicious, many of their works are dry, lengthy, and poorly composed.

The pitch here is a solid one: what if we took a close look at these many books penned by powerful, authoritarian figures? We could learn something about their psychology, the relation of the written word to dictatorial power, and have some laughs at their terrible prose along the way. The novelty of the premise alone goes a long way toward sustaining interest in the book, but Kalder struggles to make good on the strength of that premise.

There are three basic components to the book – history, literary analysis, and comedy – and the execution of each is spotty. Much of the book consists of truncated biographies of the despots being discussed, with an appropriate focus on their literary output. As Kalder covers about two dozen dictators in about 350 pages, these biographical elements cannot be comprehensive, all that should be expected is that he provide the requisite context for discussing their texts. Yet, it is arguable whether he accomplishes this. There is too much focus on events unrelated to the texts, and he does not go into detail in the right places.

Finding the right balance when it came to presenting the history surrounding these texts would have been one of the harder things to accomplish though. Missing the mark is then forgivable. So, what about the literary analysis Kalder provides of the works themselves? This is where the book is the most disappointing. Kalder does not bring much in the way of literary criticism to bear on the dictatorial canon. He observes that certain of the books are long and dry, others are surprisingly well-written, and he summarizes their contents. The criticism never goes too far beyond providing historical context, applying adjectives, and describing the gist of the work. This is disappointing because I had hoped that a tour of these “catastrophes of literature” would have something insightful to say about them.

All of this is forgivable if the book is funny. Kalder’s approach to the works is irreverent, and you’re never going to feel bad laughing at a dictator. If it’s open season on anyone it’s presumably the people who’ve inflicted the some of the most suffering in recent history. Given that these were books people were coerced into revering an irreverent approach is an appropriate one. Kalder’s primary comedic approach is a kind of detached, above-it-all sarcasm. This works best in the latter portion of the book, as the dictators become more cartoonish and thus lower hanging fruit for jokes. Earlier on, it sometimes grates.

I did enjoy this book, and it does come recommended if the premise sounds interesting. The idea of examining so-called dictator literature is a good one, even if I came into the book hoping for something else in the execution.

The City Man

Howard Akler has become one of my favourite authors. I’ve read three of his — I’m told — four books: Splitsville (2018), Men of Action (2015), and now The City Man (2005), accidentally reading in reverse order. All are available from Coach House. The book I haven’t yet read is his first, Toronto: The Unknown City, the title of which is unsurprising given his novels.

I’ve lived in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and I can’t say that Toronto is my favourite. Yet, Akler’s novels endeared me to Toronto more than living there did. The city is central to both Splitsville and The City Man. In the latter, Union Station features prominently as a profitable haunt for pickpockets in the 1930s. In Akler’s prose, the setting receives more love than it has during the past decade of endless renovations. The action of Splitsville has as its backdrop the events surrounding the stillborn Spadina Expressway, construction of which was halted in 1971 after public outcry. I’m a sucker for local history, and Toronto is a city too busy to often remember its own, so I admire how Akler works it into his writing.

Akler’s prose leaves ample space for the imagination to fill the gaps. The descriptions are terse and sparse, and delivered in brief, evocative turns of phrase where every word pulls its own weight. What’s artful here is that this isn’t a matter of omission, but rather clever use of negative space to let the story breath. On a busier page the reader might be rushing through the crowded sentences searching for the next important piece of information. A page out of Akler’s books instead invites the reader to slow down and chew on each word carefully, mulling over its individual importance and contribution to the whole. This less-is-more approach to his prose means Akler can say more with less, and sometimes speak volumes without stating anything. In the autobiographical Men of Action, he describes his process as carrying around a memo book to “work over original sentences, loosen their knots until each one is limber enough to connect to the next.” When I read this, it made perfect sense. This careful, piecemeal approach to sentence-craft is evident in his works.

I haven’t had much to say about the plot of his novels, because if anyone ever reads this I’d prefer they read the books for themselves. The City Man follows Eli Morenz, the titular reporter for the Toronto Star who is assigned to report on events in the city. In doing so, he stumbles across a cadre of small-time pickpockets working “the whiz” — as the racket is called. I’ll leave it at that, since I don’t want to describe any specific scenes or events that would given them away. What I will say is that the story is not complicated. In many ways it reflects the prose, in that the focus is on small moments instead of big set pieces.

I love this novel. It’s the third debut I’ve read in a row and for my money the strongest. Sadly, Akler recounts in Men of Action that it took him eight years to write The City Man. And it was another thirteen years after that before Splitsville first appeared. So I’ll likely be waiting a while before I hear from Akler again. At least it’ll be worth it.

Reading Log – February 10th, 2021

Back to candidacy paper readings today. I’m working on a paper related to philosophical intuitionism and epistemic self-defeat. That is, I’m interested in arguments concerning whether arguments undermining intuition (in the technical, philosophical sense of the word) are ultimately self-defeating since they must rely on intuition. I actually began the Smithies paper a couple days ago but set it down halfway through due to its length. The Smithies piece didn’t turn out to directly relate to my project as much as I’d hoped, but was still an illuminating read in the vicinity since it discusses intuitionism. The Zouhar reading relates directly to my project, and while I disagree with most of what he has to say that’s what makes his essay interesting and valuable.

  • Smithies, Declan. “On the Global Ambitions of Phenomenal Conservatism.” Analytic Philosophy, Vol. 60, No. 3, 2019. 206-244.

This is the longest standalone article I’ve read while reading for my candidacy paper. It’s an attack on Michael Huemer’s theory of ‘Phenomenal Conservatism,” though it’s also a companion piece to Smithies’ book The Epistemic Role of Consciousness (2019), given that he’s continually referring the reader back to the book for the details on his own theory of “Accessibilism,” which features prominently in the article. It’s probably for the best since the article is long enough – though too much of its length is repetition of the same ideas. I should say something about substance instead of complaining about the style and length. Although Smithies attacks Phenomenal Conservatism his own theory still takes intuitions as evidence, so it’s not a direct challenge to my own thinking. His claim that intuitions lack presentational phenomenology, and are in that way dis-analogous to perception, does seem to raise some problems for proponents of sui generis intuitionism, however.

  • Zouhar, Marian. “On the Alleged Indispensability of Intuitions to Philosophy.” The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2015. 37-44.

Zouhar’s target is George Bealer’s argument that modal intuitions are indispensable to philosophy. He think that Bealer is mistaken since certain philosophical arguments can be formulated without referring to intuitions. Likewise, Zouhar thinks modal intuitions can be arrived at through induction, without the need for intuition. I think Zouhar misses the point of Bealer’s arguments, but I haven’t read all of the relevant Bealer yet so I could be wrong. Regardless, certain modal intuitions (about, say, the necessity of accepting the conclusion of a sound argument) do seem indispensable to philosophy and argumentation in general. Zouhar states that we can simply “assume” these things without evidence, but that seems an abandonment of the search for answers rather than an actual one. There are real concerns that “intuition” might not be a reliable source of evidence, but I don’t think denying the need for evidence is a plausible alternative. Still, a very helpful read!

Reading Log – February 9th, 2021

I intended some time ago to begin a daily log of what I was reading, both to remind myself and to record some thoughts before I moved onto the next thing the following day. Today I took a break from reading for my candidacy paper to re-read material for a publication.

The paper I’m preparing is tentatively titled “The Regress of Nationalism” and is intended for Medjunarodne Studije/International Studies, a bilingual journal that publishes articles in English and Croatian. Back in November I gave a (virtual) talk at the State (In)Stability 2020 conference at Libertas International University called “Multiculturalism and the Regress of Nationalism”, which was an early version of the paper I’m writing. The speakers were invited to submit their papers afterward for a special edition of the associated journal.

Here is what I (re-)read today:

  • Moore, Margaret. “On National Self-Determination.” Nations and Nationalism: A Reader. Ed. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 221-236.

I agree with Moore that nations are best understood according to a subjective definition, but that might be all we agree on. She provides a strong argument for affording political sovereignty to nations, but I think it is misguided. In particular, I think it’s a mistake to identify the “people” who are owed self-government with a particular nation. In short, national identities are shifting, overlapping, and unstable. You can never design political boundaries that perfectly align with national boundaries, so there must be another basis for the state. In the paper I intend to argue the necessity of multicultural accommodation that can permit the multi-national coalition building required to ground a political state.

  • Trudeau, Pierre. “The New Treason of the Intellectuals.” Against the Current. Ed. Gerard Pelletier. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1993. 151-181.

I first read the collection of Pierre Trudeau’s writings, Against the Current, during high-school. The critique of national self-determination he provides in “The New Treason of the Intellectuals” has always stuck with me as powerful. To briefly summarize, if the principle of national self-determination is consistently granted to national groups then each will find another minority nation within itself as soon as it achieves independence. The result is a regress with no stopping point at which a stable state can form. This is at the heart of the paper I’m working on. There is much more of value in this essay by Trudeau as well, particularly his optimistic proposal for what Canada could become.

Ross Rifles RPG: The Sapper (Playbook)

I’m a fan of table-top RPGs. A favourite of mine is Apocalypse World, and in the past few years there have been a number of other other games developed that use the Apocalypse World system (called AW hacks, or “Powered by the Apocalypse”). I’ve had the chance to play some of these, like Dungeon World, Tremulus, and Urban Shadows. A couple years ago a new AW hack was announced that combined my interest in table-top RPGs with my love of Canadian history: Ross Rifles. I’ve created an unofficial, bonus playbook for Ross Rifles.

Ross Rifles is designed to capture the Canadian experience during the First World War, and the sourcebook is a clear labour of love replete with historical detail. The authors worked to capture the dreary, appalling conditions of life in the trenches. The game also does an admirable job of incorporating the psychological toll of warfare through its Stress system. There are detailed accounts of WWI era Canadian firearms, modules based on four major battles Canadians participated in, and details on life in the German trenches so that game -runners can flesh out the enemy. There is everything you need to set your story in WWI.

In most AW hacks, character creation utilizes “playbooks” which the player fills in with the details and abilities that their character has. These are similar to “character sheets” in other games. Ross Rifles comes with seven playbooks, which are each an archetype that a player’s soldier can embody. For instance, The Creative playbook represents an artist who tries to use their artistic skills to inspire their comrades. After choosing a playbook, players make further choices to individualize their character with the playbook giving them a range of related abilities to choose from. There is a long tradition in AW hacks of folks making unofficial playbooks to give players more options and create possibilities for the game. In keeping with this tradition, I created The Sapper playbook for Ross Rifles.

The term “sapper” refers to combat engineers. To this day in the Canadian Forces, trained Privates in the combat engineer trade hold the rank of Sapper. You’ll probably notice that the Sapper playbook also includes abilities and equipment related to signalers. During the First World War, Canadian signalers were part of the Engineering Corps. Only later would signalers became a fully separate trade within the Canadian military. Consequently, I took the opportunity to design The Sapper playbook to have features of both the engineer and signaler trades, so that players can choose to create a character that fits into either trade.

A further option included in The Sapper playbook is to play as a Despatch Rider. Despatch Riders were messengers who rode either motorcycles or horses to deliver their messages. They were rare, but existed throughout the military, not just the Engineering Corps. The rationale for including them in this playbook is that most Canadian despatch riders were signalers, and since all signalers were sappers, most of the despatch riders were sappers.

The inclusion of these three trades should indicate that there are multiple ways to play a character using this playbook. The more engineer-oriented moves are intended to enable preparation instead of being immediately useful in the thick of battle. A character might gather materials and use Constructive Contribution in advance of the upcoming trench raid to build a bridge that bypasses a significant obstacle in the section’s path. Or maybe they’ll take Tunnelling, and try to strategically place mines under the enemy’s position.

The signaler-oriented options also centre on supportive actions but with an appropriate focus on communication. Linesman is meant to facilitate coordination with the player’s NPC allies within the narrative; if they maintain the lines they may be able to call another section or artillery for assistance. Wireless Set keeps the game’s momentum moving by permitting the player to send out a message or try to overhear the enemy — always with the potential cost of being overheard themselves or hearing something wrong. Despatch Rider is the most straightforward move on the playbook: you get a horse or a motorcycle.

My only worry in designing the playbook is that a Player Character could accumulate too many useful abilities in a long campaign. I’ve written the playbook so that a player only gets one of these abilities at the start of a game, and while they can acquire more through advancements, Ross Rifles is a game that is better suited to one-shots or short campaigns. I think it’s safe to assume that most campaigns won’t last long enough for this to become an issue, and in the cases where they do the character might end up being killed anyway. The only part that bothers me is that it’s improbable that a real soldier would have gotten both engineer and signaler skills instead of staying in their lane. In the end, this is just a game, and who knows, maybe if a sapper lived long enough they’d learn different things!

I made this playbook for use in my own game, but I hope other people enjoy it. If I get feedback from my own or other games perhaps I’ll make some adjustments. Regardless, I encourage people to play Ross Rifles and support the developers by buying the game. The legacy of the First World War is likely to be increasingly contested in the coming decades, but whatever people come to think of it a great many Canadians sacrificed their lives for their country. Ross Rifles is a loving tribute to their experiences and I’m really grateful to those who brought the game to life. Ross Rifles can be bought from Dundas West Games.

St. Ursula’s Convent

St. Ursula’s Convent was the first novel published in Canada which was also written by an author born in Canada. Though this fact alone entitles the novel to a place in the annals of Canadian literature, there are several other remarkable facts about the work, not the least of which being that it was written when the author was only seventeen. Published first in Kingston in 1824, St. Ursula’s Convent had been written ten years earlier when the author was a teenager living in Nova Scotia. That the author of Canada’s first home-grown novel was a young woman informs the novel in interesting ways.

St. Ursula’s Convent passes the Bechdel test by its second chapter. A refreshing surprise given my complaints about the lack of female characters in the last novel I read — however understandable that is in a eight-decade-old novel about the Spanish Civil War. In fact, the novel centres mainly on two female protagonists. The foremost character, Adelaide, is the daughter of a Quebec seigneur who attends a convent in Quebec City as part of her education. There she meets the titular Nun of Canada, Mother St. Catherine, whose story occupies much of the first half of the book. Many of the other characters of any importance are also women, with the story being told from their perspective.

It’s difficult to summarize the plot of St. Ursula’s Convent, as the novel covers significant ground in only 200 pages. The introduction to my edition notes that some early reviewers describes the pace as “manic”, and I think that’s a fair characterization. To give you some idea of the general plot: Adelaide attends a convent in Quebec City, where she meets the virtuous Mother St. Catherine, who shares with Adelaide her own disheartening life story. Adelaide also becomes close friends with Charlotte, the daughter of a British officer living in Quebec, and is invited to travel with them to England. During her travels to Europe, Adelaide discovers some secrets about her own past, and that of Mother St. Catherine.

The novel includes piracy, kidnapping, shipwrecks, and effusive praise of the Canadian countryside. Children are revealed to have been swapped at birth, people given up for dead make a surprise appearance, and as a consequence I understand why early readers were critical of the novel’s sometimes melodramatic plot. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it though. The final quarter of the novel drags since by that time the central mysteries and drama have already been revealed and solved, and the denouement stretches longer than is necessary. The prose is mostly “tell” and not “show”, which generally hurts the novel. However, there are places where this works to the advantage of the story. At least two lengthy stretches of the novel consist of characters retelling their own pasts, and here the tell-don’t-show prose effectively captures the feeling of someone relating an anecdote to an audience. I’ll admit I’m more forgiving since I know the author was a teenager at the time — I couldn’t have written this well at seventeen. Perhaps I owe Ted Allen an apology for saying This Time A Better Earth “has the hallmarks of an early career work”, however.

Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart would go onto write two other novels, Tonnewonte, and Edith, or The Doom. I will definitely locate, read, and discuss these other two novels here at some point, although to my knowledge Tonnewonte has never received a reissue after it’s initial publication in 1825. There are probably scanned digital versions I can find online, but I might be thwarted in my efforts to find a physical copy to read. The case of Edith, or The Doom is even more unfortunate. Some selections from the novel were published in New Brunswick newspapers in 1848-9, but the finished novel was never published. There does exist a scholarly edition of Edith, in the form of an MA thesis completed by Jennifer Slauenwhite (née Jeffries) in 1991. At the moment that’s the most accessible version I can recommend. I’ve spoken with Ms. Slauenwhite, who stated that she might have the chance to revisit her edition of Edith in a few years, and hopefully find a publisher. I hope she gets the chance — I think Julia Catherine Beckwith Hart deserves more critical and scholarly attention that considers more than just St. Ursula’s Convent.

Perhaps because of its place in the history of Canadian literature, St. Ursula’s Convent has had better luck when it comes to remaining in print. My edition comes from the Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT), a sadly defunct project based out of Carleton University. Initially published by Carleton University Press, McGill-Queen’s took over distributing the books reissued by the CEECT when Carleton University Press closed up shop in 1999. Twelve books were reissued through the CEECT series, between 1985 and 2012. Of these I have St. Ursula’s Convent and their version of John Richardson’s Wacousta. On the basis of these two editions I highly recommend the CEECT versions of any book.

The 1991 CEECT reissue of St. Ursula’s Convent is the most recent to my knowledge, and remains in print through McGill-Queen’s. There were two earlier reissues, one through the “Maritimes Literature Reprint Series” based out of Mount Alison University in 1978, and one through The Cherry Tress Press in 1981. The most commonly available version of St. Ursula’s Convent appears to be the CEECT one, although I have seen a few copies of The Cherry Tree edition online. Naturally, the CEECT edition comes highly recommended.

This Time A Better Earth

In 2020, I read some Earle Birney, Mordecai Richler, and a few offerings from smaller Canadian presses like Coach House. The last book I read this year was Ted Allan’s 1939 novel, This Time A Better Earth.

This Time a Better Earth, by Ted Allan: A Critical Edition: Allan, Ted,  Vautour, Bart: 9780776621630: Books - Amazon.ca

The University of Ottawa Press publishes an excellent Canadian literature series, and my copy of Ted Allan’s novel is their 2015 reissue. I had previously read their reissue of Irene Baird’s Waste Heritage, and earlier in 2020 I read their fantastic collection of Earle Birney’s early Trotskyist writings, edited by Bruce Nesbitt. The epithet “critical edition” is more than applicable to the uOttawa Press editions, which contain scholarly introductions that highlights each work’s literary and historical importance.

This Time A Better Earth is a novel about the Spanish Civil War. Allan’s book is based on his own time serving in the International Brigade during the war, specifically the Abraham Lincoln Brigade which housed most of the American and Canadian volunteers. The novel follows a Canadian volunteer, Bob Curtis, who goes to Spain to serve in the International Brigades and support the Republican forces against the Spanish fascists. After being wounded during an aerial bombardment while travelling to the front, Bob is tasked with writing and sending English radio broadcasts to North America and sent to Madrid. In Madrid he cultivates a romance with a German photojournalist named Lisa Kammerer.

The only work about the Spanish Civil War I’d read previously was George Orwell’s autobiographical Homage to Catalonia. The two books make for an interesting contrast given that Orwell served in the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM) faction of the Republican forces rather than with the International Brigades. The POUM had a broadly Trotskyist membership that opposed the Stalinist communism adopted by much of the Popular Front that led the Spanish Republic forces. There was significant infighting between the POUM and the Popular Front in the Spanish Civil War, despite their being on the same side of the conflict, culminating in the May Days clashes in Catalonia.

From Orwell’s perspective the POUM was antagonized and suppressed by the Stalinists eventually being declared illegal. Ted Allan, however, adopts the perspective of the Popular Front government:

A week later came the news that the POUM had attempted to overthrow the Popular Front government in Barcelona. With it came the news of an intensified fascist drive in Asturian and Basque provinces. The communiques were brief and to the point. After three days of street fighting, the Popular Front government had restored order. The leaders of POUM were arrested.

This Time A Better Earth, 137

At best the description of the May Days street fighting is an over-simplification. Though in fairness to Allan, this is surely how the Popular Front government in Barcelona would have told their members in Madrid the events occurred. POUM is only mentioned in passing in This Time A Better Earth, since the action of the novel focuses on the International Brigades near Madrid. Several characters express exasperation at the Republican infighting, though in Allan’s novel the fault lies squarely with POUM.

Related to the brief mentions of the POUM in Allan’s novel, the problems of unification and divisions within the Republican forces recur in the story. Early on Comandante Kuller addresses the amassed volunteers of the International Brigades heading to the front to tell them that there are no politics or party divisions in the Brigades, they are simply unified by opposing fascism in Spain. Kuller’s speech is less a statement of fact than a instruction not to allow sectarian divisions to undermine the cause. Although most of the international volunteers are socialists or collectivists of some stripe, there are some interesting outliers. Late in the novel appears Captain Brown, a self-described Tory Imperialist from Britain who joined the International Brigades to promote Britain’s imperial interests in Spain. The novel does not have much explicit to say about the fault lines in the Republican forces yet it does effectively capture the perspective members of the International Brigade had towards the divisions.

As the critical introduction helpful explains, the character of Lisa Kammerer the protagonists’ love interest is based on real life female photojournalist Gerda Taro, who died during the Spanish Civil War. Taro was a compelling figure to fictionalize in the novel, although Lisa Kammerer’s personality and vocation are more interesting than her romance with protagonist Bob Curtis. The romance is the weakest aspect of the novel. The constant objectification of Lisa Kammerer the “pretty blonde” by the other characters, while maybe true to life, is also grating. The real Gerda Taro was a skilled artist and daring war photographer. While there are glimpses of that in her fictionalized counterpart, the more intriguing questions surrounding her motivations and vocation are sidelined for the stilted romance.

Don’t let my complaints about the romance subplot sour your impression of the novel, however. This Time A Better Earth is strongest in its depiction of the Civil War itself. Allan’s early portrayal of aerial bombardment employs a clipped, staccato prose that effectively communicates the chaos and dread. Bob is continually shaken by the destruction he witnesses, and unnerved by how his comrades come to accept it so quickly once stationed at the front. Though clearly aligned with the Republican cause, the novel does not avoid depicting their disorganization and frailty. This Time A Better Earth has the hallmarks of an early career work, but for a debut novel penned in Allan’s mid-twenties it impresses.

Next I plan on looking at another novel of historical interest, this time reprinted by the sadly defunct Centre for Editing Early Canadian Texts (CEECT). More on that soon.

The NCL Collecting Blog

There used to be an blog called NCL Collecting, run by ‘The Ignorant Intellectual.’ The purpose of the blog was to document the author’s collection of New Canadian Library titles. The blog was a useful resource since the NCL had gone through several iterations where some titles were dropped and others added, and there is no readily available list of what books belonged to the NCL at various times. The NCL Collecting blog was helpfully developing a list of titles that belonged to the NCL, as well as some of its competitor series like the Laurentian Library, Macmillan Paperbacks, and the New Press Canadian Classics.

The NCL Collecting blog was defunct by the time of my review of I Do Remember the Fall in 2017, since the last update had been in 2015. Nevertheless, the blog remained online, so the reference lists remained available. I noticed recently that the domain for the blog (nclcollecting.ca) has lapsed, so the blog has gone offline. Luckily it’s still possible to access most of it through the WayBack Machine, so its contents are not completely lost to digital decay. My plan is backup some of the useful information here so that similarly interested people might be able to find it online without needing to know where to look.

One of the effects of the blog going offline is that the posted images are not retrievable. Much of the blog’s space was dedicated to exhibiting the cover art from NCL series, but the images are not saved by the WayBack Machine and appear as broken when viewed through the archived version.

The blog contained information on several CanLit series I’m interested in collecting:

  • The New Canadian Library

The famous Canadian literature line published by McClelland & Stewart, starting in 1958. As the most prolific series of CanLit ever published, the NCL occupies a special place in the history of our national literature.

  • The Clarke Irwin Canadian Paperbacks (1963-1970)

A series published by Clarke Irwin that’s distinctive for not limiting itself strictly to novels and short stories as the NCL typically does. It also included some non-fiction, autobiographies, histories, and plays.

  • Copp Clark: Studies in Canadian Literature (1970??)

A brief series of biographies of major Canadian writers, including Charles G.D. Roberts, Morley Callahan, and Hugh MacLennan. The NCL collecting blog was aware of eleven books which existed in the series.

  • Forum House: Canadian Writers and Their Works (1969-1972)

A series of short biographies of Canadian authors written published by Forum House, an imprint of Coles Publishing. Only six books were published during the series’ life.

  • Laurentian Library (1967-1979)

A competitor to the NCLs fiction line that achieved at least 75 titles during its run. The Ignorant Intellectual suggests that it struggled against the NCL since the material used to make the books were of inferior quality.

  • Macmillan Paperbacks (1979 – Late 1980s)

Macmillian replaced the Laurentian Library with this series in 1979. In the later eighties Stoddart and the Canadian Publishing Corporation purportedly took over the series and published some titles themselves.

  • New Press Canadian Classics (Early 1980s – Mid 1990s)

An imprint of General Publishing, which was based out of Toronto. General was owned by Jack Stoddart of Stoddart Publishing and both companies published NPCC books. The series published 58 titles in its lifetime and many of its more successful entries were absorbed by the NCL after it was concluded in the nineties.

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

I consider Mordecai Richler one of my favourite authors, though I have read shamefully few of his books. The books I have read are also not his most famous or acclaimed. The first I read was an NCL edition of Son of a Smaller Hero, which I borrowed from my uncle last year. I have also read an NCL collection of Richler’s nonfiction, The Great Comic Book Heroes and Other Essays. Son of a Smaller Hero was Richler’s second novel, and the first of many set in Montreal’s Jewish community. His first novel was the little-spoken-of The Acrobats, whose obscurity continues to pique my interest. Regardless, it is fitting that my second foray into Richler’s fiction is his fourth novel and his second centred in Montreal.

9780140252521-us-300

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz follows the increasingly unscrupulous ventures of Duddy Kravitz, from boyhood to early adulthood. The novel begins by chronicling the youthful, if often malicious, pranks being played on Duddy’s teacher, before advancing to his late teens. Driven by his grandfather’s maxim that a man is nothing without land, Duddy schemes to buy all the land around a hidden lake in order to one day construct a resort. The novel traces his ambition, and the moral arch of the steps he is willing to take to achieve his dream. The novel itself is excellent a deserving of its standing as one of Richler’s best. Since I recommend anyone who has not already read the book do so for themselves, instead of recapping its events I rather comment on a few choice details.

The novel opens with Mr. MacPherson, a once idealistic teacher whose desire to raise a generation of successful young men slowly gave way to reality. Although he succeeded in raising many students who moved on to become doctors and lawyers, they do not gather as he had hoped at his home and celebrate their success with him. Having forgotten their one time teacher they moved to more prosperous districts of Montreal. Mr. MacPherson’s wife is also deathly ill, despite his tender care. Mr. MacPherson is the victim of Duddy’s continual harassment and pranks, which ultimately result in the death of his wife when a prank phone-call results in her leaving bed and over-exerting herself. A once idealistic teacher thereafter renounces his prohibition on strapping students and begins drinking. In the later parts of the novel a character mentions off-hand that MacPherson eventually found himself locked away in the asylum, having presumably drunken himself there.

Richler was particularly unkind to the educators who appear in his fiction – at least those I’ve encountered so far. I was reminded of the fate of Professor Theo Hall from Son of a Smaller Hero, who takes in protagonist Noah Adler as a boarder and student, and has his wife cheat on him with Noah for his troubles. Both MacPherson and Hall are idealistic in their pedagogical views and goals, although they are each held back from achieving their dreams by being average talents. The comeuppance for their idealism is ultimately both failure and the loss of their partner. Perhaps the parallel is a coincidence, since I cannot detect any special commentary on educators intended by Richler, but I find it interesting.

Another archetype common to Richler’s fiction is the sullen Jewish grandfather, zeyda. In Son of a Smaller Hero, Noah Adler’s grandfather looms over the proceedings as patriarch and the secret of what he is hiding in the office lock-box has hardened his heart. Duddy’s grandfather is both less present and transparent, although he seems mostly disheartened by the (apparent) failure of his preferred son to provide him with grandchildren. It is the grandfather who relates to Duddy the maxim that a man without land is nothing, and by the end of the novel it is his disappointment that signals Duddy’s ethical failure. The old men in Richler’s novels often represent both tradition, naturally, but also the moral core of the story. In Son of a Smaller Hero, the grandfather’s most prized possessions were in the end sentimental rather than monetary, and in Duddy Kravitz the grandfather cannot approve of Duddy’s acquisition of land regardless of what it costs those around him.

Reading Richler’s nonfiction essays (in the NCL collection) was rewarding in that many are reflections on experiences he continually mined for material in his fiction. Quebec’s resorts feature prominently in Duddy Kravitz – Duddy goes to work at his uncle’s resort early on, and is determined to build his own after discovering a hidden lake. Although I could have surmised what was going on, Richler’s essay describing the Jewish and other get-away resorts in Quebec provided a background against which I could appreciate the setting of those portions of Duddy Kravitz. Likewise, another essay in the NCL collection contains Richler’s reflection on writing his first novel, The Acrobats, while a young man in Paris. I recognized this experience as mined for the character of Hersh, a schoolmate of Duddy’s who eventually becomes an author and travels to Paris. Although a bit-player in Duddy Kravitz, I hear Hersh returns as the protagonist of a later Richler work.

Having fallen behind in my blogging, I’ve already finished reading next time’s novel. So for next time, my first time reading Brian Moore.