22 April 2014

Of Thucydides, Themistocles and Richard Rohmer

Thucydides wrote that Themistocles' greatness lay in the fact that he realized Athens was not immortal. I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; but, if it is going to go, let it go with a bang rather than a whimper. 
— Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 30 March 1988
Week fifteen of Reading Richard Rohmer and I admit that we've stalled. Events have conspired, travel has intruded, but more than anything the fun has gone. Seven novels in – PaperJacks would have had me believe it's eight – Rohmer nears something approaching competency. Talk of scheduling, formatting and rescheduling cabinet meetings no longer fill his pages. Where old inconsequential subplots were dropped, the new reach weak conclusion. Facts and figures are few, have relevance, and are repeated less frequently.

Rohmer's first four novels stuck together from being soaked in a sticky syrup of nationalism. They were led by the likes of Colonel Pierre Thomas de Gaspé, an übermensch who might thwart American invasion one month, then launch a hostile takeover of Exxon the next. Indeed, Colonel de Gaspé did these very things in Exxoneration.

And yes, Exxoneration is the title. It was all silly fun… but no more.

Triad follows Balls! and Periscope Red as part of a trilogy that is clearly designed to appeal to the American market. Time was Rohmer risked Canada ending in a bang, but Balls! produces not so much as a whimper (ignore that exclamation mark). The country disintegrates after Quebec votes to succeed, and Prime Minister Peter Lockhard pretty much hands over the keys to the American president. Canada is mentioned twice in Periscope Red,  but only in passing. In Triad, cancan rests with boozer Bud Black, a former Canadian Forces fighter pilot who prostitutes himself as a mercenary. He's no Colonel Pierre Thomas de Gaspé.

I'm stuck at page 130 in Triad, all of which was tackled three weeks ago during a two-hour train trip from Toronto.

Lest you be impressed:

Triad reprints twenty-three pages from Periscope Red. I didn't bother to so much as skim. Rohmer can't be trusted when "attempting to condense and summarize", but is very adept when using safety scissors and paste. His "Note to the Reader"acknowledges an unenviable habit. Separation begins by reprinting the final chapter of Exodus/UK. The very same reappears in  Separation Two, which is in itself little more than a reprint of Separation. Again, PaperJacks would have had me believe otherwise… so as to take $3.50 earned through my minimum wage summer job at Consumer's Distributing.

I correct:

In fact, neither province decided to secede from Canada. Quebec does hold a referendum. The "No" side wins.

America is indeed sent reeling by a disastrous natural gas shortage, but it has to do with corporate incompetence and weak government regulation. The Soviets and NATO do not figure.

Rohmer's stab at the American market amounted to nothing. As sales figures slumped north of the border, PaperJacks reminded Canadians of the titles that had once sold so well:

In fact, Richard Rohmer never enjoyed eight straight years of best sellers – and even if he had, it had been done before. All I can claim is two weeks on the Australian non-fiction bestseller list.

Oh, Canada.

Oh, Canada. Remember when we had a prime minister who could speak to Thucydides on Themistocles?

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18 April 2014

Claire Martin at the Start of a Quiet Revolution

Best Man [Doux-amer]
Claire Martin [pseud. Claire Montreuil; trans. David Lobdell]
Ottawa: Oberon, [1983]

Claire Martin turns one hundred today. I can't think of another Canadian literary figure who has joined the ranks of the centenarians. But why focus on such a thing? Longevity is just one of her many accomplishments, as reflected in honours received: the Prix du Cercle du liver de France, the Prix du Québec, the Prix France-Québec, the Governor General's Award, l'Ordre national du Québec and the Order of Canada.

I've not read Best Man in the original; even if I had my Beaconsfield French is such that I wouldn't have been able to comment on David Lobdell's translation. That said, I imagine the act of translating this work was particularly interesting.

Best Man is a novel written by a woman, translated by a man, featuring a male narrator who in love with a female novelist. And that narrator? His rival is a man who fancies himself a translator. I add that Martin herself has translated Markoosie, Margaret Laurence, Robertson Davies, Clark Blaise and…

I see I'm making the simple confusing.

Martin's straightforward plot begins with the unnamed narrator, an editor at an equally anonymous publishing firm, reflecting back on a twelve-year love affair. Gabrielle Lubin, the object of his affection, enters his life as an aspiring novelist, turning up one day at his office with manuscript in hand. It proves to be a poorly written work, yet our man takes on the arduous task of making it publishable. Why? All these years later he can't quite say:
I fear all these distant memories may have been distorted by subsequent events. The memory, like the heart, is subject to abuse; sometimes, indeed, by the latter.
The collaboration between author and editor leads to passion, most of which emanates from the latter. Gabrielle places her writing above all else. Critical and commercial success, both quick to come, change little in her life and lifestyle; she maintains routine, to which our narrator happily conforms. Separate flats are maintained, marriage is never discussed.

Jarringly, the regular and familiar is disturbed by a young dilettante who whisks Gabrielle from cocktail party to bed to the altar. The novelist knows that she has made a mistake, but does her best to prolong the doomed marriage by appealing to her editor. Our man, her former man, publishes the husband's passable novel and a weak translation of one of Gabrielle's works in order to maintain contact and chart the disintegration.

As one would expect with stories of obsessive love – Nabokov comes to mind – the narrator defers. 'Tis Lolita, not Humbert. This Montreal Anglo, incompetent in French, takes issue with David Lobdell's title: Best Man for the Claire Martin's Doux-amer (Bitter-sweet).

It is Gabrielle Lubin, not the narrator, who is the central character. She is a new woman, set in print the very year that the Quiet Revolution began. Unlike any that came before – I'm looking at you Angéline de Montbrun and Maria Chapdelaine – she is self-assured. She commands.

Who can resist?

Object: Published simultaneously in paper and cloth. My copy, an example of the former, was purchased in 1985 from a bookseller located on the Westmount stretch of Sherbrooke Street. Can't recall the name of his store, though I do remember his price: $2.00.

Access: David Lobdell's translation enjoyed just one small printing. Four copies are currently listed for sale online, though only two are worth consideration: a Very Good paper copy at US$23.00 and a Fine cloth copy (sans dust jacket) at US$40.25.

Beware the Ontario bookseller who dares list an ex-library copy as "Good". This is simply not possible, as further description proves: "Covered in Mylar; one stamp on back page, and with tape holding mylar to book. Stain on end pages of book where dirty fingers opened it, and on pages where DJ tape touches paper. One library tape on page 5." Ugh.

While Best Man is held by most of our university libraries, only Library and Archives Canada, the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Vancouver Public Library serve those outside the world of academe.

Doux-Amer is better represented, in part due to the fact that it is still in print thanks to the fine folk of the Bibliothèque Québécoise.

I add that at C$9.99 it is a bargain.

And isn't that cover image great?

15 April 2014

Doing Right by Robert Fontaine

I've never paid much attention to humorist Robert Fontaine, in part because I didn't think of him as Canadian, but a recent query by an old college flatmate has had me exploring the author's work and reconsidering his allegiances.

Fontaine was born on 19 January 1908 in Evanston, Illinois, to a French Canadian father and Scots-Irish mother. At the age of three, he was brought to Ottawa, where his papa found work in vaudeville and, later, as a violinist with the Château Laurier Hotel Orchestra. Though Fontaine returned to the United States as an adult, ending up in Springfield, Massachusetts, he always considered himself to be Canadian, as did the newspapers of the day. His best selling book was The Happy Time, light sketches inspired by that Ottawa childhood. William Arthur Deacon, our leading critic, described it as "the kind of book Mark Twain would have written if he had shared a drop of French blood."

Published in 1945 by Simon and Schuster – I much prefer the 1947 Hamish Hamilton cover above –  The Happy Time was adapted to radio in a weekly CBC series, then turned into a long-running Rogers and Hammerstein-produced (but not penned) Broadway play, starring Johnny Stewart, Kurt Kasznar and Eva Gabor.

Playbill, 24 January 1950
Still greater success came with a 1952 film adaptation directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan, Marsha Hunt and Kurt Kasznar. Bobby Driscoll plays Robert "Bibi" Bonnard (read: Robert Fontaine), while Linda Christian takes on the role of magician's assistant Mignonette, and wins a battle with a bad hairdo to come off as the object of adolescent desire.

My wife described it as Looney Tune Ottawa, with impeccable streets, Model Ts and Victoriana as retro kitsch. I add: more front porches than Celebration, USA.

Though clearly not shot in the nation's capital, I have to give Fleischer and screenwriter Earl Felton credit. I can't think of another Hollywood film that takes place in Ottawa. And how many others mention McGill, the University of Toronto and Queen's and include a lesson on our parliamentary system?

Location is not important. This is a story about awakening sexuality. On this, wise papa Charles Boyer provides his own lessons:
Papa: Now, Bibi, we speak now of love. And where there is love, there is also desire; they go together. Love must have the desire; I don't believe there can be love without it. But, it is possible to have the desire without love, and this is where the world falls apart. For instance, you don't understand why the principal of your school beat you.
Bibi: No, papa.
Papa: Well, it is because he has been brought up to believe that the desire is wrong. And since he himself has the desire, he's even more mixed up than we are! He has been brought up in a world where the desire has been used so badly – so badly, believe me – that it itself is thought to be bad; and this is wrong. This is wrong, Bibi. And you know the reason for this condition? It is because so many people are without love.
There's a good deal of darkness in The Happy Time. Bibi sneaks into Mignonette's room, watches her sleep, then steals a kiss. The next morning he is beaten after the principal finds "a dirty picture from La Gay Paree". The principal soon finds himself confronted by Bibi's papa and two uncles; one, a drunk who walks around with a cooler filled with wine; the other, a travelling salesman who collects garters as trophies:
Maman: Bibi, what have you got on your sleeves?
Bibi: They're too long. Before he left town, Uncle Desmond gave me some garters to hold them up.
Maman: Women's garters! Take them off! Look at them! Off some stranger's legs!
Grandpère: To Desmond she was not a stranger.
Ribald? You bet! How's this:
Maman: Where are you going?
Grandpère: Out.
Maman: You should be in bed!
Grandpère: It is only a matter of time.
How many of these words can be credited to Robert Fontaine I can't say. Our town library doesn't have a copy, nor does that of the next town over, nor the one after that. The author himself is pretty much forgotten. The Canadian Encyclopedia has no Robert Fontaine entry, and he is not so much as mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature; yet he seems to have had a good run, mining his Ottawa childhood further in My Uncle Louis (1953) and Hello to Springtime (1955).

For now, all I can do is recommend the film:


Don't be deceived by the 1968 Broadway musical of the same name. Here Fontaine's material was taken on by a reluctant N. Richard Nash who insisted it be married to his own story about a small-town photographer. "Suggested by the characters in the stories by Robert Fontaine", reads the credits. The author had no say in the matter; Fontaine had died in1965, aged fifty-seven.

It was nominated for ten Tony Awards, making winners out of Robert Goulet (Best Performance of a Leading Actor in a Musical) and Gower Champion (Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography). A sample is provided by the awards ceremony broadcast:

I recognize Robert Goulet as a fellow Canadian.

14 April 2014

Leonard Cohen Stands Out as a One Woman Man

Death of a Lady's Man
Leonard Cohen
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1978
Death of a Ladies' Man
Lee Roberts
New York: Gold Medal, 1960
Death of a Ladies' Man
James McQueen
Melbourne: Penguin Australia, 1989
Death of a Ladies' Man
Alan Bissett
Edinburgh: Hachette Scotland, 2010

13 April 2014

Gay on Sunday: The Temperance Poems

Teetotalism trickles as gentle, concordant music through the verse of our James Gay. No Carrie Nation, the man abhorred violence. True, he was a gunsmith, but then he was also a carpenter, an innkeeper and, of course, Master of All Poets. Where Mrs Nation wielded a hatchet, Gay preferred the written word. Consider, for example, this stanza from "The Great Exhibition", written in anticipation of the 1875 Guelph Fair, in which he entreats fellows in his profession to forgo the drink (if only temporarily):

Few words for our Town Innkeepers, I hope you won't get tight.
Carry out your business decently from morning until night.
So as our visitors by the thousands will return and have to say
They've been treated in our town of Guelph in a kind and friendly way.

Only two Gay temperance poems survive – I've always assumed there were more – both found in Canada's Poet (London: Field & Tuer [1885?]). I leave you this Palm Sunday with his words:


Your poet is a great advocate for good. All our duty as far as we can,
Is to love and respect our fellow-man;
Rush to do him good, that's if we can;
Whether Greek, Gentile, or a Jew,
We are in duty bound to help him through.
It's not the church of any kind
Can destroy the peace of your poet's mind;
He's a true believer every day,
Lives as happy as the flowers in May.
Anything for good that we can see
We should turn out and help like that busy bee;
Those are a guide for our fellow-man,
Doing good is their every day's plan;
All through the day all do their best,
When night comes on they take their rest.
All insects have their cunning ways;
All those are of one mind
To make their homes so neat and fine.
Oh, if man could only see,
And live as happy as that bee;
Cast off bad thoughts of any kind,
The world very soon would be of one mind.
Live on this earth in love and peace,
And not to act as brutes and beasts.
Let temperance be our guide while on this earth we stay;
With good of all kinds
Be on our minds.
And throw all our grog bottles away,
Like J. Gay.


Temperance and sobriety all should understand,
Two of the best things ever carried out by man;
Study this word temperance all for the best,
To be taken in so many ways, carry nothing to excess.

Intemperance is the forerunner of crimes,
Draws thousands into rascality and death before their times;
And still don't blame liquor for all,
Other things too are not for the best;
We should never fill our bodies to excess.
So many rascalities carried out by man,
Better than Gay who can understand;
Allow me to warn you of your danger of doing so,
But running further into sin is all the go.

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