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.

Tales from the Script

A couple weeks ago I was couch-surfing at a friend’s place over the weekend. A former roommate of my friend had been a German film student, and upon leaving he had left behind a book. Having no interest in the book, my friend offered it to me, and I took it.

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As the cover indicates Tales from the Script is a collection of anecdotes from professional Hollywood screenwriters. I knew almost nothing about screenwriting going in, and only a modest amount of knowledge about Canada’s own film industry. As I discussed with my friend when I took the book off his hands, the domestic film industry in Canada is bleak. The funding and distribution available for Canadian films is limited, with movie theatres stocking American films almost exclusively. The situation in Quebec differs somewhat as French inoculates it more from American cultural products, but I nonetheless respect the Canadian filmmakers who generally have an uphill battle getting their movies to market.

Tales from the Script is mainly of a series of thematically organized bloc quotes from the featured screenwriters. The book might be more rewarding to an aspiring screenwriter, but I found most of the anecdotes and advice somewhat pedestrian, and had a hard time retaining most of what was written. Most of what there is to learn from this book people would already know or guess about screenwriting. Only a fraction of the scripts screen-writers sell ever become finished movies, and once the script is sold it is typical for it to be warped out of recognition by the director, actors, and subsequent screenwriters.

The greatest lesson from the book is how little control a screenwriter has over whether a film will make it to completion, and what form it will take. Frequently, a studio will buy a script, fire the original scriptwriter, and hire a new writer to do revisions. A replacement writer will often even make more revisions than are necessary in the hopes that they can have the script attributed to them when the movie comes out. The thing the book taught me most about was the screenwriter arbitration process, where all writers who work on a film submit an appeal to receive credit for having written the script. A review board of other screenwriters at the writer’s guild then determine who is responsible for the chief elements of a script and awards credit for the screenplay to that individual.

The arbitration process benefits some writers enormously. David Hayter (know mostly to me as the voice of the Metal Gear Solid protagonist Snake) received credit for the first X-Men movie after not initially being the chief screenwriter, and this catapulted his career forward. The most memorable anecdote in the book about a particular script also, for my money, comes from Hayter. Hayter was tasked with writing a script for a proposed Black Widow movie, and he spent a year researching the script and character, even naming his daughter Natasha after the title character. Then, a succession of female vigilante movies came out around the same time, including Tomb Raider and Kill Bill, which did well, and BloodRayne, Ultraviolet, and Aeon Flux, which flopped. The studio determined the market was over-saturated, and the planned Black Widow movie was cancelled. Given the deluge of Marvel movies still coming out, their worries about over-saturation seem quaint now.

I cannot really recommend Tales from the Script, which is really just several interviews stitched together under some broad headings. Some screenwriters like John Carpenter, David Hayter, and William Goldman have interesting stories but most of the advice is the same: be prepared for failure and do not go into the industry if you do not love writing movies. Most scripts do not sell, and unless a writer loves their craft, they are unlikely to have the motivation to press on through the dry spells.

Next time, hopefully, a return to CanLit.

A Gentleman of Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much Ado About Culture

Although this blog records my thoughts on the Canadian nonfiction I read in my spare time, the majority of books I read are academic works. Some of these might be worth discussing here.

Keith Acheson and Christopher Maule’s Much Ado About Culture was obsolete almost as soon as it came off the press. Focused on the cultural provisions in North American trade agreements, the book first appeared in 1999, just as the internet became more accessible. The academic reviews are unforgiving in pointing out that much of the author’s carefully constructed analysis was in the process of being upended by the new technology.

For this reason I’m reluctant to be too hard on Acheson and Maule’s book, as it remains one of the few monographs on the culture policies of North American trade agreements. The book assesses the cultural provisions in trade agreements like the Canada-United States Free Trade Agreement (CUSFTA) and its eventual replacement the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Article 2005(1) and 2005(2) of CUSFTA are intended to protect the Canadian cultural industries from American hegemony by exempting them from the agreement, and these clauses were carried over verbatim into NAFTA.

Acheson and Maule are economists by discipline, and their arguments are somewhat predictably critical of Canadian cultural protectionism. The general suggestion is that Canadians would benefit more from market liberalization in the cultural industries than they stand to lose by competing unprotected against American cultural products. This argument is mostly unconvincing because the author’s analysis of the nature and importance of culture is not as adept as their insight into particular economic cases.

Although the book laudably attempts an account of what culture is near the beginning, the authors make much of the fact national cultures are internally diverse and that individuals have multiple, sometimes transnational, cultural allegiances. This truism is reflective of the multicultural character of the Canadian nation but overlooks how these differences are constitutive of the particular Canadian nation, rather than evidence that we should be sceptical of there being a specific Canadian identity. The effort to consider the nature of culture is praiseworthy, but there is no engagement with the theoretical work on culture, despite Canada having produced some of the world’s foremost cultural theorists. An economist would be justified in ridiculing any cultural theorists who made such sweeping comments about economics without consideration of economic literature. (And I’ll admit to having encountered those books too).

This loose analysis of culture leads to strange examples. Consider this list of “Canadian” children’s animation offered as an example of globally successful cultural products: Madeline, Babar, the Richard Scarrey Stories, TinTin, The Little Lulu Story, Bettlejuice, Paddington Bear, Rupert, and Franklin. Only one of the series are based on a Canadian intellectual property: Franklin. The rest are American, British, and French stories, but were produced by Canadian studios. This is a bad standard of Canadian content, since by this standard the recent Stephen King adaptation of It is Canadian since it was filmed in Toronto, Port Hope, and Belleville. This is why cultural subsidies distinguish between products “made in Canada” and those which actually were conceived by Canadians.

In fairness, the authors are generally aware of this phenomenon, and have some critical thoughts about the points system used to determine whether a work is Canadian content. Nonetheless, the authors are uncharitable with nationalists they characterize as saying a “100 percent market figure for the Canadian [book] market share is desirable.” I’ve never encountered a Canadian cultural or economic nationalist with such a ridiculous position. The authors note this would preclude classics of English and French literature. Yet they have nothing to say about the fact most classics of Canadian literature are simply out of print, in large part because companies which kept them on the shelves, like McClelland and Stewart (“The Canadian Publishers”), were bought by an American corporations.

Here is one reason Acheson and Maule’s arguments against cultural protectionism break down: they say it limits consumer choice, but Canadians can barely choose to read books by domestic authors. Two Solitudes is out of print, and books like Wacousta exist only in expensive, limited run academic editions. One might object that the situation of present authors is different, but simply perusing the local Chapters should be sufficient to dispel any illusions. When the authors argue “There is no justification for the government to influence the content menu” of cultural consumption, they ignore how American market power already does exactly this. Despite their argument culture is so fluid policies meant to protect it are misguided, their analysis of culture is too shallow to justify this claim.

Acheson and Maule’s book deserves a more thorough response than my rambling, broad strokes criticism, so as an apology for not providing that today, I’ll conclude with a couple compliments. Despite my lengthy reservations about the analysis of culture as a concept and Canadian culture in particular, the economic arguments in the book are prescient and challenging. I found the meticulous discussion of NAFTA’s cultural provisions to be immensely useful for a current term paper, so I owe them an academic debt. As an examination of the place of culture within the trade agreements and case studies, the book remains invaluable despite its age.

As best I can tell Keith Acheson continues to teach economics at Carleton University. Christopher Maule has since retired and periodically records his thoughts on his own blog: Christopher Maule’s Blog: Economics and International Affairs.

Little Comrades

Laurie Lewis began life in the Depression as the daughter of an important member of the Communist Part of Canada. Her father quickly became General Secretary of the Party’s Alberta wing, although he was a miserable alcoholic at home, and eventually lost his position in Alberta due to his addiction. The book is full of interesting anecdotes chronicling Laurie’s life from childhood to coming of age, and her inside perspective on the socialist circles she describes throughout is deeply humane.

Beginning in the depths of the depression and ending in McCarthy’s America, censorship of socialists recurs throughout the memoir. The Communist Party was banned for a time in the Canada of Laurie’s youth, and the anecdote which best reflects the memoir’s title involves Laurie and her brother being questioned by RCMP officers about their parents while children. The issue gains thematic importance by the memoir’s end, where Laurie refuses to betray her mother to the American authorities when questioned. The left-wing personalities populating the memoir are distinctly normal, and the scrutiny they face for their political beliefs would be ridiculous were it not so destructive to their lives.

Lewis is not afraid to present the Communist Party of Canada, or other circles she passed through, as they were, however. She notes explicitly that despite its emancipatory project and rhetoric, women in the Party were still expected to remain within their traditional roles. The division of labour within the household was not up for discussion, and never occurred to the men.

In the chapter “Lumpen” Lewis describes how her father instructed her to stay away from another group of children in the neighbourhood whose family he called lumpen. In Marxist thought, the Lumpenproletariet are members of the working class unlikely to achieve class consciousness. My own introduction to this term was through Huey Newman of the Black Panthers, who used it to describe the exclusion of black Americans from the white working-class proletariat. Lewis presents the terminology without explanation, presumably how her father presented it to her. This absence of elaboration lends an authenticity to the stories and a refreshing willingness to let them stand on their own and allow the reader to draw out their own meaning.

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The only image of this book on the internet, evidently

Strangely, most of my previous knowledge of the Communist Party of Canada comes from Erna Paris’ book Jews: An Account of their experience in Canada. Paris’ book is peculiar because, aside from the opening third about Montreal, it focuses on dropped threads in Canada’s Jewish community, like western farming communities and involvement with left-wing politics. Many Canadian Jews were attracted the Communist Party because of the supposedly positive Soviet policy towards Jews, but were barred from most high profile positions. After Khrushchev revealed the Stalinist purges of Russian Jews in 1956, there was an exodus of Jews from the Canadian Party.

I did not expect this oddly specific knowledge to be relevant to Lewis’ memoir, but was pleasantly surprised. After moving from Alberta to British Columbia, Lewis eventually ended up in Toronto. The socialist members of the Toronto’s Jewish community described in Paris’ book make a cameo appearance in the form of many of the friends of Laurie and her mother. The presence of New York’s Jewish community is also felt in the final stretch of the book, although I know virtually nothing about that community.

While I’ve focused on the passages of Lewis’ memoir which most spoke to me, my summation does not do justice to this touching work. I aspire to have a memory so strong when I’m an octogenarian!

Little Comrades is available from The Porcupine’s Quill, a lovely independent Canadian publisher, as is Laurie Lewis’ sequel memoir Love, and all that jazz, which I look forward to reading soon.

Next time: more from Canada’s margins…

Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician

Biographers have not been kind to Canada’s first female Prime Minister. To my knowledge there are three books which take Kim Campbell as their subject, and only two can be called biographies. Frank Davey’s small volume Reading “Kim” Right is less about the woman herself than perceptions of her in the 1993 election, and sexism in Canadian society. However, that curiosity is for another day.

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Not quite a biography

The “Acknowledgements” at the outset of Kim Campbell allude to the fact this was a rushed effort to capitalize on Campbell’s rise to attention. Fife relates the he and his editor guessed in November 1992 that Brian Mulroney would step down, and they staked their hopes on Campbell replacing him. When Fife contacted Campbell shortly thereafter to secure her involvement in the biography she called his move “presumptuous” yet agreed – until one of her advisers later cut Fife off from the candidate.The two actual biographies on Kim Campbell are Murray Dobbins’ elusive The Politics of Kim Campbell, and today’s subject: Robert Fife’s Kim Campbell: The Making of a Politician. All three of these books appeared in 1993, between the brief period of so-called “Campbellmania” and the 1993 election. Although I cannot yet speak to Dobbin’s book, more likely than not it suffers from the same drawback of Fife’s work: a lack of hindsight. In all but the most skilled hands, this is the inevitable pitfall of the timely political biography.

The speed at which the biography was produced shows. Fife is straightforward about how his sources were indirect. He did not have access to Campbell or her family, and was thus reliant on interviews conducted by other journalists. Although he approaches some political colleagues and acquaintances, the biography mostly collects together information about Campbell’s life which could already be found elsewhere at the time.

Nevertheless, it might be said Fife’s rudimentary biography is better than nothing. Though inartful it does trace her life from birth, through childhood, two marriages, provincial politics as a B.C. SoCred, the federal Mulroney cabinet, and her successful campaign for the P.C. leadership.

“There’s nothing more gratifying than several women in their servile places. Nothing more appalling than one who gets out of it,” {student John Kelsey} wrote. “[A man] must beat them into submission, showing no quarter, allowing no favour. And when he has subjugated one, he must start on another.”

What Campbell faced upon becoming Frosh President at UBC

Fife explicitly attempts to maintain his neutrality, although he clearly does not think highly of Campbell’s Ayn-Rand-worshiping first-husband. In the absence of a more intimate or scholarly biography, the book suffices to introduce Kim Campbell. While it remains to be seen whether Dobbin’s book is the better biography, there is reason to believe Fife’s is the more sympathetic.

In the absence of other scholarship Fife’s book is a resource for information on Campbell, and its limited access to its subject does lead to its one merit: it follows the political events as the average Canadian would. Events like the excitement over Campbell’s photo in Barbara Woodley’s photobook, or Jean Charest’s steady gains against her in the leadership race are documented at a distance, giving the reader the standpoint of the average Canadian.

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“Seriously, the notion that the bare shoulders of a 43-year-old 
woman are the source of some prurient comment or titillation, 
I mean, I suppose I should be complimented.” – Campbell

Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Some longer serving Prime Ministers have had to wait until a half-century after their deaths to receive a substantive biography. Poor Mackenzie Bowell of Belleville remains the only Prime Minister with no biographies whatsoever to his name. Yet Canadians should hope to receive a more complete treatment of the country’s first female Prime Minister in less time than that. Kim Campbell is still kicking around too; at the very least an update is in order.Limited though it is by its aim of being topical, Fife’s Kim Campbell is worth reading in the continuing absence of any more complete biographies. A Capital Scandal, Fife’s immediate project before this, is the superior of his books, however.

Next Time: depression era communism in the Canadian West…