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.

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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

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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.

A Gentleman of Pleasure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Vision

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

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

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

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The Vision Family Tree (Comics Only)

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

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

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Thanos vs. Eternity, the embodiment of the universe itself

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

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

I Do Remember the Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Alley Cat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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.

jews

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.

reading kim right

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.

kimcampbell

“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…