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.

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 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.

All My Puny Sorrows

Until recently I lived just off the Danforth in Toronto. One strange Torontonian practice I noticed while there was that some people would leave unwanted books on their lawn, so I happened to pick up this book one day while walking to the subway station.

51g7ashvlrl-_sx317_bo1204203200_

I found the book in perfect condition beside a water damaged copy of Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which I might attempt later on down the line. I decided that I would read it as a break from my adventure through the NCL and its competitors.

All My Puny Sorrows follows a middle-aged woman, Yolanda, whose older sister Elfrieda is suicidal. Since Yolanda is the narrator of sorts, the book follows her efforts to respond to her sister’s suicide attempts and manage the other aspects of her life in the meantime. Twice divorced, Yolanda has two teenage children, and several short-term lovers which make appearances throughout the book. For my money the most compelling character is her mother, who remains emotionally strong and lively despite the innumerable sorrows she encounters throughout her life.

I choose a good time to read the book as I was teaching in a bioethics course at Toronto just as I began reading, with one of the units being focused on assisted suicide. The book raises the question, which Yolanda grapples with, of whether she should help her sister kill herself more peacefully. That her sister does not have a terminal illness, but is only inconsolably depressed, makes the question interestingly complicated. The details of the case muddle how ideal of an example the book offers however, since Elfrieda is clearly not receiving ideal medical care. The more difficult thought experiment would present us with someone who has the best help available but remained inconsolably depressed; with Elfrieda there remains a possibility that a better healthcare system could save her.

I was not surprised to learn that the core of the book is based on the author’s experiences with her own sister who committed suicide. The depiction of the Canadian mental health infrastructure is particularly scathing and is what made me suspect the author had some first-hand experience. The doctors and nurses Yolanda meets are, with some exceptions, generally jaded, unsympathetic, and self-absorbed. In fairness, this is how they seem to Yolanda’s eyes, a woman desperately searching for help for her sister. Stressed under the circumstances, it is easy to see why she would think medical professionals do too little.

I do not want to say too much more about the book as it is more recent than most I cover here. However, a colleague did catch me laughing aloud more than once at it, so that says something positive about its capacity for effectively mixing sorrow with a comedic touch.

In this book Yolanda is a writer who mostly writes tween fiction about the adventures of Rodeo Rhonda. This prompted me to reflect on how many of the viewpoint characters in the novels I’ve been reading are writers, especially since the central character in the last book I had read, The Town Below, was also an author. I realize this results from authors writing “what they know” which is frequently “being an author” but I wish more of them would branch out. I Do Remember The Fall also featured this kind of plot device, although the protagonist was a sort-of journalist, not a novelist, and not a successful one at that. I can give some modest praise to The Alley Cat here for depicting a protagonist proficient at something other than writing, namely restaurant management. It will be interesting to see whether this trend of author protagonists continues, and honestly I hope otherwise.

For next time I intended to read Antonine Maillet’s Pelagie, but having found it a difficult book that demands careful and patient reading, I’ve decided to return to it later. Instead I’ll be reading Earle Birney’s Turvey, a comedy about one man’s farcical attempts to join  the Canadian army during the Second World War. Given my current work  this seemed an appropriate book to give a read.

The Town Below

51ykezez41l-_aa218_

Roger Lemlin’s The Town Below comes recommended by another author whose work I recently read: Brian Busby. I selected it to read based on the vague recollection of the recommendation from his blog, however I forgot some of his comments from that same blog post. More on that later.

 

The Town Below mainly follows Denis Boucher and Jean Colin, two young men in the Duplessis era Quebec City. Set in the city’s “lower town” the novel depicts a vibrant and bustling working class community with its internal divisions, eccentricities, and cast of strange characters. The highlight of the book is certainly the glimpses of this community, from the disjointed Liberal Party meeting, to the frantic bingo game at the local church.

I complained in my review of my favourite whipping boy, The Alley Cat, that the events of the novel do not come together into anything unified. Neither do the events of The Town Below, but that suits this sort of social satire, with its comparative realism and depiction of life as a series of not-necessarily connected events.

While the depictions of the community were what I found the most enjoyable, I did find the central conflict of the novel frustrating. Denis and Jean comprise two thirds of a love triangle completed by Lise, a girl recently returned from a convent school. Though Jean makes an early good impression, Denis quickly takes the lead and retains it for the rest of the novel with ease. This grates since Denis is pretentious, annoying, and unsympathetic, whereas Jean is hard-working, well-meaning, and doomed. The novel recognizes Denis is full of himself, but the small moments of insight the narration offers the reader does not alleviate one’s annoyance at seeing an arrogant youth have his pretensions confirmed.

Late in the novel Denis, having decided he would like to be a great writer, has entered a writing contest. I wanted him to lose. I thought he would lost because it would take him down a peg and cause him to realize that he is not simply better than everyone else by virtue of having attended school and trying (but failing) to not be emotionally invested in women. When he won the writing contest I was audibly disappointed and nearly put down the book. However, the author is clearly having some fun at the expense of this character. Although the reader and author are aware of his pretensions, Denis is not.

As much as I disliked Denis, I rather liked his foil, Jean, which added to my frustration. Jean did not have the luxury of the kind of schooling Denis is flaunting, but perseveres anyway. To impress Lise and better himself, Jean borrows some of Denis’ school books and makes some headway. Early in the book he injures himself attempting to impress Lise by collecting plums, and walks with a limp for the rest of the story. This causes him to be subjected to abuse by his parents and others who accuse him of faking the injury for sympathy. I will not spoil his fate here, but I had an inclination of where his story was going once I read the title of the book’s second of two parts.

Despite having forgotten that Busby discusses the issue at length in his blog post I noticed early on that the translation was less than ideal. Although the book is too ambitious for its own good, packing itself with more characters than it can handle, it is more muddled by a weak English translation. The NCL version I read happens to be this translation. I won’t reiterate Busby’s comments on the problem, but if possible I recommend reading the book in French. The Town Below is deserving of a better English translation.

I’m pleased to note The Town Below is currently available through Dundurn’s Voyageur Classics series, however it remains the same bad English translation as the NCL version.

Next time, something more contemporary.

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.

portrait_incredible

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.

g0pkuge

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.

main-qimg-845fb73c09832278bf948577f1bea9cd

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.

5126xkdozml-_ac_us218_

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.

300926

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.

064487_360w

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?

Antoinette de Mirecourt

Recently I have taken up collecting books from the New Canadian Library (NCL), the late McCelland & Stewart’s collection of Canadian literature. Having amassed thirty some odd volumes I’ve begun to read them in order to justify picking up more.

s2-antoinette-de-mirecourt-cover-190x150

Antoinette de Mirecourt has a dual claim to historical importance, having been penned in 1864 just as Confederation was being negotiated, and being set a hundred years prior in the 1760s, just after the conquest of New France. The titular Antoinette is a strong-willed but virtuous Canadien girl who travels from the genteel country-side setting of her youth to Montreal to live with her frivolous and excitable middle-aged cousin, Mrs. D’Aulnay. At one of Mrs. D’Aulnay’s regular parties, Antoinette is seduced by the handsome and charming Major Audley Sternfield. Antoinette and Sternfield are subsequently married in secrecy at the encouragement of Mrs. D’Aulnay, who tells Antoinette to marry for love instead of settling for the husband selected for her by her father.

Antoinette’s fortunes spiral downwards from there, as Sternfield reveals himself to be a jealous, tyrannical man who married the wealthy young heiress as a means of covering his gambling debts. I would consider this a spoiler of sorts, but the NCL edition I own (pictured above) spoils this turn of events on the front cover:

“In Montreal after the conquest, a young French-Canadian heiress is deceived by a fortune-hunting officer of the conquering British army.”

The introduction by Carl Klinck spoils not only this premise, but the very climax of the novel. In fairness I should have known better than to begin with the introduction.

The chief strength of the novel is its core cast of characters, which display just enough nuance and contradiction to make them interesting. Sternfield is charming, and even after the revelation of his hidden jealous and conniving nature, he exhibits moments of tenderness that make him a believable human, rather than a mustache-twirling villain. Antoinette’s other suitors, Louis Beauchesne and Colonel Cecil Evelyn are interesting in their own right. Louis, despite appearing the least, displays more respect than any other character in the novel for Antoinette’s autonomy, setting aside his unrequited love once she makes it plain she cannot love him back. Colonel Evelyn carries a sense of mystery and tragedy that he retains even after his past is revealed.

Having already begun, I’ll venture more into spoilers from here on out.

Mrs. D’Aulnay is a necessary player in the morality play without which the events would not be possible. Her loveless yet amicable marriage to Mr. D’Aulnay prompts her to tell Antoinette to marry for love, since she finds her bookish husband dreadfully dull. Klinck notes in the introduction how, despite events proving Mrs. D’Aulnay’s romantic advice dangerous, she is neither punished nor significantly changed by events. Combined with the fact that events eventually conspire to allow Antoinette to enter a loving and prudent marriage, the lesson does not seem to be that Mrs. D’Aulnay was entirely wrong. While I liked Mr. D’Aulnay, he was for the most part a bit character.

The character I least liked, for reasons unintended by the author, was Antoinette’s father, Mr. De Mirecourt. Although the text describes Mr. De Mirecourt throughout as indulgent and caring, this is seldom bore out in the narrative. An early chapter digresses entirely from the main narrative to relate the story of how Antoinette’s parents became married. Anoinette’s mother Corinne was the adopted sister of Rodolphe De Mirecourt, who spent his early adulthood in Europe serving France. Upon returning, home at a marriageable age, Rodolphe began courting various women. His adopted sister, who was deeply in love with him, keep her mouth shut until he accidentally discovered her affections, and they subsequently married. I relate this only to note how Mr. De Mirecourt is a hypocrite. His first action within the narrative is to send Louis, the husband he chose for Antoinette, to Montreal to inform her of their upcoming marriage. After Antoinette sends Louis home empty handed, Mr. De Mirecourt arrives in Montreal himself to accost and threaten his daughter. Although he married for love rather than any prudent reason, he denies his daughter precisely this right. This is eighteenth century Canada, so the subtext of Antoinette being the property of her father – and later her husband – is unsurprising, but even for its day Mr. De Mirecourt’s hypocrisy must have been contemptible.

I did enjoy how Antoinette’s reasoning for turning down Louis was precisely what made me uneasy with her parent’s union. Antoinette claims she could never see Louis as other than a brother, since they were childhood friends. This in contrast to her parents, who were legally siblings prior their marriage. An interesting touch.

Relatedly, the greatest weakness of the novel is how Antoinette is wasted as a character. Despite her evident wit and willfulness, Antoinette is more often the victim of events than their author. Her greatest act of agency in the first half of the novel is to blush profusely whenever so much as a stiff breeze passes by, and in the second half she begins to wilt and die while things happen around her. This is a shame, because as I mentioned, Antoinette is interesting. Colonel Evelyn’s romantic feelings are inspired by her strength of character and willingness to stand her ground. Were she a more proactive character in her own story these traits might be better showcased.

The novel does effectively make use of its setting as a backdrop for the story it wants to tell. The conquest of New France looms over the proceedings and the Canadian seasons are described in beautiful detail. I cannot fault the novel for shying away from specifics of politics, but I wish I could have heard Mr. De Mirecourt and D’Aulnay’s conversation:

“They found the gentlemen engaged in an animated political discussion, in which the grievances of Canada and the oppressive acts of the new government formed, of course, the chief topics. In deference to Mrs. D’Aulnay, who of late professed the greatest possible dislike to politics, nothing more was said on the subject, and the conversation turned to general topics.”

The climax of the novel sees Antoinette wasting away while being badgered by her secret husband Sternfield. When Louis, the childhood friend turned unsuccessful suitor, objects to Sternfield’s treatment of Antoinette the two have a duel that leaves Sternfield mortally wounded and Louis on the run. The duel happens off-screen, and is described in a single sentence in a hurriedly scribbled letter left for Antoinette by the fleeing Louis:

“This morning we met, and he fell, mortally wounded.”

In my view a missed opportunity.

Nevertheless, the subsequent chapter where Antoinette attends Sternfield’s bedside as he dies is for my money the best in the novel, which was needed, as it serves as the climax.

Antoinette de Mirecourt was a worth read. Despite my misgivings, the characters made the novel worthwhile. Rosanna Leprohon populated her novel with compelling figures, and more than once Sternfield or Evelyn made a suave remark, or the narration made an snide observation which made me laugh aloud. I especially recommend the novel to fellow friends of Victorian literature, and those interested in older CanLit.

Next in my NCL library is sometimes more voluminous from Yves Beauchemin.