24 November 2014

The Dreams That Things Are Made Of

Farewell My Dreams [La fin des songes]
Robert Élie [trans. Irene Coffin]
Toronto: Ryerson, 1954 

Farewell My Dreams isn't a title I would've used; "The End of Dreams", the most literal translation, works just fine. No wispy romance, this debut novel is one of the most depressing and rewarding books I've read this year – and there are just thirty-seven more days to go.

Friends in youth, Marcel Larocque and Bernard Guerin enter middle-age connected only through respective marriages to sisters Jeanne and Nicole. No one is happy. Pudgy Marcel, a Montreal journalist, stares too long at his wife's youngest sister and dreams of past infatuations. Privileged Bernard, a lazy lawyer, wanders aimlessly, half-hoping that something will interest. When offered a seat in Quebec City, he goes through the motions, but stops in his tracks at the sign of the first obstacle. Meanwhile, the wives suffer.

Though the plot suggests otherwise, this is much more than a novel of mid-life crises. Démon de midi takes on new meaning as Marcel's mental illness, so very subtle in the early pages, comes to dominate his actions.

Six decades after first publication, La fin des songes remains in print; not so the English-language translation. I doubt this has anything to do with Irene Coffin, though her work is clumsy and talents ill-suited. The language is stilted, her dialogue peppered with words like "shall" and "forsooth".

Yes, forsooth.

Beaver Hall Hill is "Cote Beaver Hall" and Montreal's great commercial street appears variously as "Ste.-Catherine" and "Sainte-Catherine". The biggest gaff of all comes when the translator has Bernard announce that he is looking to be elected federally.

My advice? Read it in the original if you can. Read the translation if you can't. Either way, you'll be both depressed and rewarded.

A coincidence: Remember Douglas Sanderson's The Deadly Dames? Sure you do. That's the thriller in which a woman is killed by a streetcar rounding Peel and Ste-Catherine. Well, the very same corner features in La fin des songes:
He stopped a taxi which took him to the corner of Peel and Ste.-Catherine. The street-cars were making an infernal din and the crowd, as dense as at noon, flowed slowly. He landed in a tavern where smoke and bad lighting gave the beer drinkers a phantom-like appearance. It suited his mood well, but Bernard began to laugh. "I surely am not going to live in the atmosphere of detective stories."  
The critics rave: La fin des songes received the Prix David and has been described as the great novel of la Grande Noiceur. Reception of the English-language edition was enthusiastic – the exception being a critic I know only as "A.G.P.". Here he is in the 4 March 1955 edition of the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph:
When the psychologically sound people must face a reality that continues to be fairly rugged and seek escape through the medium of fiction, to depress them with neurotic maunderings is to substitute a stone for nourishing bread.
The critic later provides these words of advice:
There is an abundance of material in French Canada for more cheerful and more constructive themes. Judged by the standards of Mr. Elie's [sic] literary school these may be less dramatic but, so far as I have been able to feel their collective pulse, the contemporary reading public, by a large majority, want to be amused and to laugh. At the very least, it would be interesting for him to provide this sort of escape by way of change of pace, if nothing more.
A.G.P. makes the mistake of identifying Bernard as "Bertrand". Pay him no mind.

Object: An attractive 213-page hardcover bound in pale blue cloth with burgundy print, my copy belonged to my father. The dust jacket sells other Ryerson novels by Ada Pierce Chambers, Will R. Bird, Gaie Taylor and E.M. Granger Bennett. I'm a proud owner of the Bird title – bought for a buck last year in London.

(Cliquez pour agrandir)
Access: John Glassco once stole a copy of the first edition from the Royal Edward Laurentian Hospital; you'll find it with most of his other books at Queen's University. A total of twenty-three Canadian libraries have copies of the Coffin translation.

Though uncommon. decent copies of the Ryerson edition begin at under ten dollars. One copy – and only one copy – of the American edition, published in 1955 by New York's short-lived Bouregy & Curl, is on offer for US$14,

La fin des songs is currently available from Bibliothèque Québécoise, For some reason, I prefer Fides' earlier  Bibliothèque Canadienne-Français edition, even though the building on the cover does not appear in the novel. I purchased mine through the mail from a Montreal bookseller who claimed it was signed by Élie.

It wasn't… and the condition was much worse than described.

21 November 2014

The Mission of Sex: Canadians, Do Your Duty!

Rev. William Benjamin Basil King
26 February 1859 - 22 June 1928
A brief follow-up to Tuesday's post on Rev Basil King and his communications with the dead. This excerpt from The Abolishing of Death, King's 1919 non-fiction bestseller, quotes nineteenth-century chemist and photographer Henry Talbot*:

* Later in the book – blink and you'll miss it – Rev King reveals that this correspondent isn’t Talbot at all, but another dead man "well known throughout America and Europe". King explains that he does not feel free to disclose the true identity of his otherworldly communicant. Never mind. "As the interest of these papers is entirely in the nature of the message, the exact name of the speaker is of less importance," writes the reverend. What Henry Talbot thought of all this he does not say.
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18 November 2014

Basil King's Silent Unseen World

I'm not sure just why, but I've come to associate Basil King with the Christmas season. Perhaps it has something to do with my Church of England upbringing. An Anglican priest, this forgotten son of Charlottetown once led flocks in Halifax and Cambridge. It wasn't until failing eyesight brought early retirement that the reverend turned to writing novels. Given the his affliction, it seems an odd decision, though it's very much in keeping with what must surely rank as one of the strangest literary careers this or any other country has ever seen.

I've written here about King before, beginning with this post on the mystery and controversy surrounding his sixth novel, The Inner Shrine (1909), and his sudden elevation to bestsellerdom. He's one of those writers whose life is more interesting than his books, yet I find much more enjoyment reading his work than that of any Canadian contemporary, including his fellow Islander L.M. Montgomery.

Sacrilege, I know.

My favourite King book is The Abolishing of Death (1919). Very much an artifact of the Great War, it assured grief-stricken parents – Arthur Conan Doyle, for one – that communication with the fallen was possible. The reverend, who had neither child nor dog in the conflict, writes that the war dead live on in a psychedelic paradise he describes as "the new Heaven". Blown off limbs have grown back, disfigurement has been erased, and everyone looks simply marvellous.

Not exactly Anglican doctrine.

King had fallen under the spell of an attractive young woman, identified only as "Jennifer", through whom he became convinced he could communicate with those who had moved on to the new Heaven. One such soul, "a woman who had never been married, and in whom we supposed the earthly springs of maternity to have dried up", told him that she was now a mother.

Such joy!

As if a sign that he was on the right path, King's greatest commercial and critical triumph quickly followed with his script for Earthbound, a film  described in the November 1920 issue of Screenworld as "the highest achievement in the history of Motion Pictures."

Motion Picture News, September 1920
San Jose's Evening News was so entranced that it lost the ability to spell.
4 April 1921
Frederick Palmer, the Robert McKee of his day, praised Earthbound in his 1922 Palmer Plan Handbook:
"Earthbound," written by Basil King and produced by Goldwyn, has immortality as its theme – life after death. This is perhaps the most fascinating subject that ever engaged the attention of mankind – this greatest of all mysteries. And it will continue to be so until the mystery is solved. Out of the miseries of the late war arose a tremendous heart-hunger for more light – more definite knowledge concerning the hereafter. In response to this feeling such pictures as "Earthbound" were produced. Other photoplays dealing with the same subject but with less dramatic power followed in rapid succession.

That same year – 1922 – Palmer provided this synopsis in his Photoplay Plot Encyclopedia:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
I include Frederick Palmer's dry description because Earthbound is a lost film, and there's no other synopsis so detailed. The movie ranks with A Daughter of the GodsLondon After Dark, Convention City and The Miracle Man as those I most want to see.

But I can't.

Not in this world.

So, I study images such as these:

And I hold out for a Christmas miracle.

A bonus: American Robert Bullock was so inspired his movie-going experience that he composed this poem, which was later included in his self-published Voices of Silence (Los Angeles, 1921):

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12 November 2014

Chasing Down a Thriller Writer's Hidden Verse

Arthur Henry Ward [pseud. Richard Rohmer]
Don Mills, ON: Musson, 1980

It all began late last year when I noticed a seemingly foreign title in Wikipedia's Richard Rohmer entry:

Poems of Arthur Henry Ward? Rohmer as anthologist? Of poetry? A joke, right? And who the hell is Arthur Henry Ward?

Turns out that Arthur Henry Ward is Sax Rohmer's real name. I didn't know this because my knowledge of British mystery writers is next to nonexistent. I understand that his novels aren't half bad.

I could be wrong.

In any case, the discovery gave rise to a question: If Ward is Rohmer, could it be that Rohmer is Ward?

Further investigation revealed that Poems of Arthur Henry Ward was added to the entry by someone using the name "General Richard Rohmer". To date, the Wikipedian has made only one other edit – this to the very same entry. More have been made under the username "Richard rohmer [sic]"; IP addresses traced to the general's adopted hometown of Collingwood, Ontario (pop. 19,241), have also been used.

Richard Rohmer, right?

So convinced am I that Poems is the work of the man who gave us Ultimatum, Exxoneration and Separation that I purchased the lone copy listed for sale online. The investment paid off in the receipt of what is now the most unusual volume of verse in my personal library.

The slim tome's first poem, "Critic", begins:
I am a Critic!
As such I render competent artists incoherent, impotent
through my unfeeling castration of
talented painters, sculptors, authors, actors and
the beautiful disorderly horde of intuitive creators of
intellectual art
Ninety-four lines follow, but I'll stop here because I was lost on first reading. Still am. I don't quite get why the castration of the talented renders the competent impotent. Were they standing too close? Did the castrator's knife catch? Is psychological trauma to blame? More than anything, I'm left wondering whether castration is ever done with feeling. I should write Joni Ernst.

That first stanza is the easy one. This, the fourth, is more typical:
but of course, if you are a critic and therefore a
perverted, certified insanist with no relationship
to the real world, it is agreed by all who are
not mercenary critics and therefore by the whole
of those humanly afoot/abroad that critics are as
above described —
Rohmer was never the critics' darling. Before John Gellner's incompetent reviews of Massacre 747, and Starmageddon, I'm not sure he'd ever received positive notice. Rohmer once sued Larry Zolf and various higher-ups at the Gazette over a review of Balls! I'm not sure even Erwin Rommel was so great an enemy as William French, whom Rohmer once described – unjustly  as "the most skilled literary critic (so-called) in Canada when it comes to putting down Canadian authors."

The Gazette, 22 September 1979
Oh, but then a lot of authors hate critics. It wasn't until the first eight lines of the second poem, "Smoker", that I knew for certain that Ward was really Rohmer:
contaminators who foul the already grit-crud filled
atmosphere of a crowded world, chemical waste
pouring into steams, rivers, lakes, oceans upward
into the moving air masses that insidiously fly
parasitical minute particles of man-generated
poisons to be lowered imperceptibly, secretly
enveloping the unsuspecting body
Smokers, you see, crowd Rohmer's novels, invariably falling into one of two camps: the weak and the villainous.

Some will take exception to me and "General Richard Rohmer", pointing to words like "already grit-crud filled / atmosphere", "chemical waste / pouring into steams, rivers, lakes, oceans", and the "parasitical minute particles of man-generated /  poisons". They will ask how these could come from Rohmer, a man who has spent decades arguing for aggressive expansion of the oil and gas industry in our far north. To these doubters I say there have always been contradictions within Rohmer's writing.

Consider his 1979 big bestselling Balls! In the novel, his fifth, a natural gas monopoly shuts off supply to the City of Buffalo without warning. Twenty thousand people die as a result – the President of the United States included – though everyone agrees that Congress is at fault for not imposing stringent industry regulations. The new president sets things right, spending billions to purchase and retrofit several dozen oil tankers. These in turn are handed over to the very same corporations that had caused the crisis. As the vice-president explains, the government is a great believer in private enterprise. So is Richard Rohmer.

I dwell on Balls! because it was the first Rohmer from General Publishing. In 1979, the company paid $35,000 for the privilege. A year later, it gave Rohmer $75,000 ($210,000 today) as an advance on Periscope Red, Patton's Gap and Triad.

I doubt one of those books earned out.

Poems was set loose by Musson, the General imprint that had forty years earlier published Memory Hold-the-Door. I suggest that its existence has at least something to do with the company's desire to please its bestselling author.

Rohmer the poet is much different than Rohmer the bestseller. The language is different. A man who typically dictates his books  Generally Speaking while driving his car  I suspect he actually wrote Poems; hence "thence" and  hundred or so other words not found in his prose. His style is best described by my Reading Richard Rohmer colleague Chris Kelly, a more accomplished certified insanist than I:
What’s the difference between a poem and an angry diary entry? A poem has arbitrary line breaks. Also, in a poem, whenever you get to something you know two other words for, use all three.
     That way people know you won’t be silenced, censored, cowed.
I haven't encountered a more angry book. Only once, in "Flyer", does one detect another emotion:
I fly
free, up
a bird machine
strapped to my ass
in my hands, under
the coordinates of my
concentrating brain 
Poems cannot be easily dismissed. Months have passed since its purchase, and I've still not made my way through the twenty poems contained within its cardboard covers. It is not possible to read one after another; it is not possible to read one stanza after another. My reading for today comes from the eighteenth poem, "Woman", stanza six (of twelve):
womankind, whose exclusive role of potential/actual
re-creation brings usually therewith a
lesser strength, physical, emotion but superior
determined doggedness peppered with erect, stiff,
bitchiness not overpowering for the mate but oftentimes
precipice teetering as equality syndrome
balloons prickly proofing deflatable on the edge-push
of the drive of woman to be her own person,
but just only/merely/something more than a semen
Again, I'm lost.

T & A?: Poems by Arthur Henry WardPoems by Arthur Henry Ward Jr.Poems by Arthur Henry Ward, Jr.? I'm going with the Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data.

Object: A slim, 60-page trade-size paperback. Part of Musson's short-lived, not-much-missed Spectrum Poetry Series. The Robin Taviner cover design appears to have been adopted as a logo.

My copy – a review copy – was purchased earlier this year from Paris bookseller Nelson Ball.

I've not been able to find a single review.


Access: For a thirty-four-year-old book from a major Canadian publisher, Poems is surprisingly scarce. No copies are currently listed for sale online. Library and Archives has a copy, as does the Toronto Public Library and twelve of our academic libraries. That's it.

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11 November 2014

Remembrance Day

Maurice John Busby
Pointe Claire, Quebec, 1943

My father… not forgotten.

10 November 2014

A Great War Poem by Peregrine Acland's Father

"The World's Honour Roll" by F.A. Acland, from the December 1914 number of The Canadian Magazine. At the time, son Peregrine was training in the mud and muck of Salisbury Plain.

The same issue features this less accomplished verse, which was accompanied by an illustration by J.E.H. MacDonald.

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