18 April 2014

Claire Martin's Novel of the 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 who turns up one day at his office with manuscript of 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. They maintain separate flats and marriage is never mentioned.

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 central character defers. 'Tis Lolita, not Humbert. This Montreal Anglo, incompetent in French, takes issue with only David Lobdell's translation of the 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.

Few heterosexual men 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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11 April 2014

The Return of Hugh Garner's Neglected Novel

As promised, after a sixty-three year and nine month absence Hugh Garner's Waste No Tears returned to print last week. The fifth Vehicle Press Ricochet Book, it marks something of a departure in the series as the first reissue set in Toronto. It is also the first novel written by a
Governor General's Award-winning author, which begs the question: Where is David Montrose's award? Murder Over Dorval is a hell of a lot better than The Pillar.

Never mind.

Waste No Tears was Garner's third novel, and follows Storm Below in being the second published. As mentioned elsewhere, the original News Stand Library edition from July 1950 is uncommon – three of our university libraries have copies – but this only goes part way in explaining the neglect and indifference shown by those who have written on Garner and his work. The novel receives no mention in  The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. Yet, the novel is ever-present in the bibliographies featured in the author's books. Here it is in Hugh Garner's Best Stories, for which he won that Governor General's Award:

Garner's early paperback originals have been too readily dismissed. It seems that only Cabbagetown has been deemed worthy of attention – in large part, I think, because the bowdlerized Collins White Circle first edition was restored and published by respectable Ryerson Press.

In his Canadian Literary Landmarks, John Robert Colombo writes of Waste No Tears as "hack work". Paul Stuewe, Garner's biographer, echoes in describing it as a "book noteworthy only as an example of how rapidly a professional writer can produce hackwork when necessary."

Hey, we non-academics have to make a living somehow. Besides, writing produced with an eye on manna can have value.

As with Brian Moore's pulp work – similarly neglected – there is much to explore in Waste No Tears. I recommend Michael P.J. Kennedy's "Garner's Forgotten Novel and Its Relationship to the Stories", which deals with the links between Waste No Tears, "Lucy", "Mama Says to Tell You She's Out" and "The Yellow Sweater". Amy Lavender Harris gives us not only "Hugh Garner's Forgotten Toronto Novel, Waste No Tears", but graciously accepted my invitation to write the Introduction to the new edition:
Although Morley Callaghan’s early Toronto novel Strange Fugitive – set in a long-vanished downtown slum district known as 'the Ward' – often receives literary credit for exposing the city’s seedy underside, it is Garner’s paperback novels – Waste No Tears and Present Reckoning chief among them – that reveal how narrow is the line that separates 'Toronto the Good' from its seamier shadow. It’s a line drawn precisely along Jarvis Street, a street that even now remains incompletely improved, the converted mansions and corporate towers at its north end still sliding irrevocably downhill toward the rooming houses and massage parlors where brutal necessities continue to be transacted in what remains of Toronto’s notorious skid row.
More Toronto novels to come. Promise.

More Montreal, too. Another promise.

But first, Niagara Falls.

That's a tease.

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07 April 2014

Remembering Edith Eaton and D'Arcy McGee

It's become something of a tradition here to acknowledge Thomas D'Arcy McGee on this day, the anniversary of his assassination. And I will. But it would be wrong to let this seventh of April pass without paying homage to Edith Eaton, who died one hundred years ago today.

Writing as "Sui Sin Far", Eaton has been described variously as "the first Chinese-American fictionist", "the first Chinese-American woman writer" and "the mother of Chinese-American literature", but these descriptions come from our cousins to the south. Pay them no mind.

The eldest daughter of Englishman Edward Eaton and his Chinese wife Lotus Blossom, she was born in 15 March 1865 in Prestbury, Cheshire, emigrating to Montreal seven or eight years later.

Eaton's earliest writing appeared in The Dominion Illustrated, The Montreal Daily Star and The Montreal Daily Witness. Both fiction and non-fiction, all show a great sensitivity toward the Chinese communities of Canada and the United States, as reflected in her modest memoir, "Leaves from the Mental Portfolio of an Eurasian", published in the Independent (21 January 1890):
I have come from a race on my mother’s side which is said to be the most stolid and insensible to feeling of all races, yet I look back over the years and see myself so keenly alive to every shade of sorrow and suffering that it is almost a pain to live.
Never a healthy woman, in her mid-thirties she left Quebec for more temperate California. The writer spent roughly a decade on the American west coast and lived briefly in Boston before returning to Montreal. A monument stands in her honour at Mount Royal Cemetery, in which D'Arcy McGee is also interred.

This year, a poem to the politician by Joliette's Louis-Thomas Groulx, written six days after the assassination.

Assasinat de l'honorable Thomas D'Arcy McGee — 7 avril 1868


O mon Dieu!… c'est horrible!… une assassine
     A tranché le fil de ses jours….
Mais son âme set allée à ta bonté divine
     Qui sourit aux martyrs – toujours.

     Il meurt ennemi du désordre
Et de ces hommes vile qu'on nomme Feniens.
     Prions pour ce martyr de l'Ordre,
Nous tous qu'il a servis, ô mes concitoyens.

Dieu veuille que son sang répandu par ses frères,
Ne tombe – encore tout chaud – sur leurs fils et sur eux.
Appraise, O doux Jésus, la haine et les colères
Qui vont semant le meurtre et font le deuil affreux.


Il ne reverra plus sa femme ni sa fille,
Ni son fils qu'il aimait d'un amour infini.
Tous vont pleurer, hélas! – Console la famille
Seigneur, et dis: enfants, votre père est béni.

La Nation prend soin de l'épouse chérie,
De la famille et du fils – tendre orphelin qui prie,
Il est pour chaque vie, une heure de douleur
Que je ne saurais pendre et qui bris le cœur.

Alors, heureux qui meurt: mais malheur à qui tue.
Des vivants et des morts, Dieu seul se constitue
Juge. Aussi, seul il a droit de vie et de mort
Sur tous. Caïn, – tuer d'Abel – en vain se tord.

De désespoir. Son crime est avec lui, sans cesse.
Et suivra, partout, soit qu'il coure ou bien cesse
D'Aller. Qu'il veille ou dorme, Abel agonisant
Sera, devant sa face, à toute heure, présent.

Caïn voudrait mourir de remords qui l'oppresse,
Mais son crime est si grand qu'il lui faudra longtemps
Encore, ouïr la voix douce mais vengeresse
Qui dit toujours: "Caïn, que te faisais-je, aux champs."

Il ne dormira plus le cruel fratricide;
Et le bon Dieu, pourtant, l'a pris sous son égide,
Disant: en quelque lieu qu'il aille – ce vilain –
Chacun reconnaîtra mon signe sur Caïn.


Que l'assassin se nome Eagleson ou White,
Ou de tout autre nom qu'on entend prononcer,
Son forfait odieux rend mon âme interdite,
Et c'est presque mourir, mon dieu! que d'y penser.

Le ciel saura punir une action si noire.
Maintenant que McGee a vu Dieu dans sa gloire,
Et que sa voix se mêle au séraphique chanr,
Regrette-t-il la terre où l'hommes est si méchant?


A quoi me servirait de biaiser ou de feindre?
La pauvre humanité, certes! est bien à plaindre
L'homme détruit, Dieu crée, et la gouffre béant
Dévore ce que Dieu fait sortir du Néant.

Qui sondera, Seigneur, ce mystère insondable?
Je vois, partout, l'énigme écrite par ton doigt.
Toujours, ce que tu fais me parait admirable
Ce que tu laisses faire est indigne de toi.

Tu ne réponds jamais, quand l'homme t'interroge
Pourquoi m'as-tu donné l'entendement, la voix
Et la cœur, si ce n'est pour faire ton éloge?
Mais le ferai-je…. après le meurtre que je vois?

Ou donc regardais-tu, quand fut ourdi ce crime?
Quand tombait, sous le coup, l'innocente victime?
Comment as-tu souffert – toi si juste et si bon –
Que D'Arcy fût atteint par balle de plomb?

Je ne veux pas, Seigneur, que mon âme murmure,
Mais je dis: ton enfant trouve cette morte dure!…
Merci. --Dieu parle enfin. Vici ce que j'entends:
"J'ai pris votre martyr." – Et le bourreau? – j'attends.

"L'ivraie est dans le blé, la rose a son épine,
"Je fais une Merveille avec une ruine.
"J'appelle à moi le bon et j'attends le méchant
"Mais que le juge humain sévisse et attendant.

"Que vos lois aient leur cours. Mais que votre sentence
"Ne fasse pas périr la timide innocence.
"Faites que la justice atteigne l'assassin.
"Ce qu'il doit, qu'il le paie à son fatal destin.


"Meurtrier, tue encor, tue encore et te hâte.
"Toi, martyr, souffre encore, souffre comme Socrate
"Sans te plaindre et pardonne. Ils viennent les temps dûis
"Ou ma faux abattra comme des épis mûrs

"Les hommes – cœurs pervers – qui font de la malice
"Et leur unique étude et leur plus cher délice.
"Je sais qui fait le mal, et sais qui fait le bien
"Je vois l'être maudit qui fait le Fenien.

"Il est tout près de moi; je le sens, je le touche
"Peu s'en faut que son nom ne sorte de ma bouche
"Et si je n'avais pas horreur de ce gueux-là,
"Mettant le pied dessus, je dirais – le voilà.

"On dirait que le peuple – aveugle volontaire –
"Ne voit pas le serpent, avec sa tête altière,
"Qui se plie et s'allonge, et se promène et va
"Jusqu'aux pieds de son Roi qu'il enlace déjà."

Quoi, donc, est le serpent? Est-ce le Royalisme,
Ou la démocratie, ou le saint-Simonisme,
Ou l'Athéisme encore? – Dis, seigneur, qu'est-ce enfin?
" – Aucun de ces mots-là ne convient au Matin.

"Vous le verrez bientôt. Son ardente prunelle
"Vous illumine avec sa brillante étincelle.
"Il s'en vient du Midi, sinon de l'Orient
"Qu'il souilla comme il veut souiller tout l'Occident.

"Si je n'étais pas là, quand paraîtra la Bête,
"Le combat serait court, et sûre le Défaite.
"Mais je veille sur vous et sur le Trône, aussi,
"Et garde auprès de moi mon fidèle D'Arcy."

Joliette, 13 avril 1868

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