28 November 2011

The Fugitive Bertrand W. Sinclair

Following Friday's post...

A couple of months ago, Vancouver's Ronsdale Press reissued The Inverted Pyramid, thus becoming the first Canadian house to in over eight decades to publish Bertrand W. Sinclair. Their choice was apt, I think. Sinclair didn't think of the novel as his best work – that would be Poor Man's Rock (1920) – but, as dedicated biographer Betty Keller tells us in Pender Harbour Cowboy, he'd hoped to be remembered for this "literary" novel.

First published in January of 1924 by Little, Brown, like The Hidden Places, The Inverted Pyramid is touched by the Great War. It tells the story of brothers Rod and Grove Norquay, and their divergent dreams for a family fortune that had been built on BC timber. Ronsdale describes the book as having been "a best-seller". An imprecise term to be sure, but still I can't agree. Back in 1923, Little, Brown had become so certain that the book would not be a best-seller that it sought to avoid the competitive Christmas market by postponing publication until the new year. There was no second printing, though A.L. Burt did produce one of its cheap editions. One could dismiss the relatively low sales as self-fulfilling prophecy – Little, Brown chose not to advertise the book – but evidence points to an overall lack of interest in this new, higher-brow Sinclair. Despite strong reviews, The Inverted Pyramid became the one novel that his agent failed place as a serialization.

"The Inverted Pyramid's poor showing in the bookstores had made him cautious about returning to literary novels in a hurry", writes Keller. "He opted to play it safe..." This meant falling back on pulp magazines – wells from which he drew until the 'forties, when they began to run dry.

It's interesting to consider that Sinclair's books, all novels, represent nothing more than a small percentage of his work. The pulps published over two hundred of his short stories; one encounters them from time to time in anthologies like Best Mounted Police Stories and Vancouver Short Stories, but they otherwise remain in the forgotten past.

Reading Betty Keller's very fine biography, one can't help but wish for a collection of Sinclair's stories. Let's not let another eight decades pass.

25 November 2011

Sex, Betrayal and the Scars of the Great War

The Hidden Places
Bertrand W. Sinclair
Toronto: Ryerson, 1922

With H. Bedford-Jones and Thomas P. Kelley, Bertrand W. Sinclair must surely rank as one of the most prolific Canadian pulp writers. I know of 246 magazine appearances, and I'm betting there are many more. Whether or not his short stores are worth reading I can't say, but I think The Hidden Places is the best Canadian novel published on the heels of the Great War.

This is not a war novel, but a post-war novel; for its tortured hero, the conflict changed everything. Born raised and educated in Eastern Canada Robert Hollister, was once a man of more than modest means. Before the war, he shared his life with wife Myra, whom he "loved with a lover's passion." But war creates the very worst of long distance relationships. Two years into the fighting, Robert receives a "Dear John letter". Days later, he becomes one of the 24,029 Canadian casualties at the Battle of the Somme, "lying just outside the lip of a shell-crater, blind, helpless, his face a shredded smear". He's saved by German surgeons, and spends the remainder of the war in a prison camp. Upon his release Robert learns that he'd been reported killed in action; Myra, meanwhile, has remarried, taking his money with her.

And that's just the backstory.

We catch up with Robert in the winter of 1919, just after his arrival in Vancouver as "a single speck of human wreckage cast on a far beach by the receding tides of war." Though intelligent, educated and healthy, his disfigured face limits opportunity; it's a challenge to rebuild one's life when others will not so much as look at you. Walking city streets, he is "a disagreeable spectacle" from which people turn with brief annoyance. Robert retreats to Toba Inlet, 150 miles up the coast. There, on his lone remaining property, he attempts to make a modest living through logging.

Coincidence features big in pulp fiction, but I found it difficult to pass this off as mere chance: Myra and her new husband, an Englishman, live on the neighbouring land. Certainly, I thought, something sinister is afoot; after all, Myra is supposed to have known nothing of the Toba Inlet property. But no, it all ends up as a great coincidence. Much more believable is Robert's chance meeting with Doris, a pretty woman who had years earlier lost her sight after being struck by a falling tree on, yes, his Toba Inlet property. Following a whirlwind courtship, the disfigured man and blind woman marry and move into a new house overlooking Myra's modest cabin.

The Hidden Places features a frankness about marriage and sexuality that is foreign to Canadian literature of the time. Never having divorced, Robert is tormented by the secret knowledge that he is a bigamist. He suspects that he has an "overstimulated sexuality" and wonders whether Myra suffers from the same. She left him for another, but this was not the man she married. Now, Robert watches from afar as other men visit in her new husband's absence. Sinclair never paints Myra in anything but a sympathetic light. A woman who is coming to terms with, as she puts it, "the nature I was born with", Myra struggles to remain faithful to her second husband, while nearly running off with another man. Ultimately, she offers herself again to Robert.

Tittilating to be sure, but what I find more interesting about The Hidden Place is its detailed condemnation of the British War Office as an impersonal machine that "would neither know nor care nor tell." Greater still is the indictment of Canadian society, as represented by the men and women who seek to avoid Robert on Vancouver's streets:
A great many men had been killed. A great number had lost their legs, their arms, their sight. They had suffered indescribable mutilations and disabilities in the national defense. These people were the nation. Those who passed him with a shocked glance at his face must be aware that fighting involves suffering and scars. It appeared as if they wished to ignore that. The inevitable consequences of war annoyed them, disturbed them, when they came face to face with those consequences.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that The Hidden Place first appeared in an October 1921 issue of The Popular Magazine. Thus, less than three years after the armistice, comes the damning accusation that Canada has turned away from its veterans.

Plus ça change.

Betrayal by a woman is one thing, betrayal by one's county is quite another.

Trivia: The author errs in placing the Battle of the Somme in "the fall of '17". In fact, it took place the previous November.

Object: A hardcover in dark blue boards, it is typical of its time. The Marshall Frantz frontispiece, a black and white reproduction of the cover image, is meant to depict Doris and Robert at Vancouver's Jericho Beach.

Access: A book by a British Columbia author, The Hidden Places is found only in Ontario libraries: the Toronto Public Library, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. Over eight decades out of print, those looking to buy the book will wade through over one hundred print on demand monstrosities. The most expensive comes from our old friends ExtremelyReliable of Richmond, Texas, which offers an ugly IndyPublish copy credited to "W. Bertrand Sinclair". Cost: US$199.27. Shipping and handling are not included.

As of this writing, no copies of the Ryerson edition – the only Canadian edition – are listed online. One copy of the equally scarce first English edition from Hodder and Stoughton is on offer for US$9.99 from a bookseller in Gateshead, Australia. Two awful copies of the first American edition, published by Little, Brown, can be had for under ten dollars; a third, with dust jacket, is going for US$75. Need I add that this is the one to buy?

21 November 2011

Dyson Carter's Long Exercise in Political Pathology

Despite Moscow's best efforts, it wasn't until a decade or so after the collapse of the Soviet Union that I first became aware of Dyson Carter. Northern Neighbors, "Canada's Authoritative Independent Magazine Reporting on the U.S.S.R.", which he edited for some 32 years, was not something I saw on news stands. I didn't notice his books, including those published by the Communist Party of Canada, though they were distributed in the thousands at home and abroad.

In my defence, I point out that Carter is not found in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature or Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. He is very much a forgotten figure, as is reflected in The Canadian Encyclopedia entry, which has yet to record his death.

Further defence: Nearly all of Carter's books were published before I was born. What's more, his moment in the sun had come decades earlier. In 1940, Carter published Sea of Destiny, a much-discussed work in which he warned that undefended Hudson Bay could be used by the Nazis for an invasion of North America. The following year, months before the United States entered the Second World War, Carter predicted the development of the atomic bomb. It would, he wrote, bring a sudden end to the conflict.

The Portsmouth Times, 5 May 1940

In 1942, Carter's first novel, Night of Flame, drew considerable praise from the New York Times and the Globe and Mail. In the Ottawa Citizen, reviewer W.J. Hurlow described Carter as possessing a talent "only a little down the street from genius... We cordially hail Mr. Dyson Carter as a Canadian writer of brilliant possibilities."

Possibilities require opportunities, and for a Communist like Carter these became fewer with the advent of the Cold War. Just look what happened to Night of Flame. The 1942 first edition was published in New York by Reynolds and Hitchcock. Four years later, the novel was reissued in Canada by Collins White Circle. But by 1949, when American paperback giant Signet looked to do likewise, authorship had to be hidden behind a nom de plume.

Could Joseph McCarthy and company really be so easily deceived? Yes, yes they could.

Carter was born and raised in a religious household, surrounded by the troubled youth that his parents sought to save. In his own youth, he turned away from Christ and towards Lenin, only to see – and recognize – the lies of the Soviet Union laid bare by glastnost. In 1990, at age eighty, he wrote one friend, "I publicized so many Soviet 'achievements' that were total falsifications that I consider my 'work' an exercise in political pathology."

Dyson Carter's contributions to this country's literature are slight, and his oeuvre might hold little interest outside the world of academe, but is it not time for The Canadian Encyclopedia to acknowledge his death?

15 November 2011

A Communist's Bodice Ripper?

The Governor's Mistress
Warren Desmond [pseud. Dyson Carter]
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

Oh, yes, a bodice is ripped, but I'm not so sure that this novel quite fits the genre. There's little romance in The Governor's Mistress, and passion, though present, is not as pervasive as cover copy would have you believe.

VIRILE - VIOLENT - WARM - WICKED - This was Angeline

Virile? Can a woman be virile? The OED answers in the negative. But then Angeline isn't violent either. She is warm though... and, it is implied, wicked in the sack.

Angeline – referred to as "Angel" on the book's back cover (and nowhere else) – is Angeline Paradis, a beautiful English spy who is sent into the heart of 17th-century New France. Hers, cover copy tells us, "is a tale kept out of school-books". Makes perfect sense; after all, Angeline was the creation of the author, and exists nowhere outside this book. She moves through pages populated by figures from our history... and it is here that this novel begins to falter. There is a supposition that the reader will know these men – they are all men – that is misguided. Frontenac? Yes. Radisson? Yes. But how many of us are familiar with the scandal and intrigue surrounding François-Marie Perrot, who served as Governor of Montreal from 1669 to 1684?

This Montrealer recognized his name.

That's all.

Pity the poor American reader, who I'm assuming has been taught little of the political machinations of New France. After all, it was to these folks that The Governor's Mistress was marketed. Its author, Dyson Carter, a card carrying member of the Communist Party of Canada, hid behind the pseudonym Warren Desmond only so that the novel might be sold south of the border.

The Governor's Mistress isn't so much a bad book as an irritating one. Stuff happens... but so often this takes place off-stage. When Radisson is put on trial for treason, an event that never actually occurred, he escapes the courtroom by painting his face with ghoulish features: "Thus had Radisson used the phosphorus oil he brought with him from Rupert's workshop." And thus we hear for the first and last time of Rupert's workshop.

Ultimately, The Governor's Mistress is a grand disappointment. The Harlequin set will find little in the way of romance, those seeking something spicy will be left dangling, and readers like myself who'd hoped for an oddball Marxist reading of life in New France will be met with nought but paper, ink and glue.

Object and Access: One of the publisher's more competent productions, the type is actually quite legible. I counted only two typos, which might just be a NSL best. Twelve copies are currently listed for sale online at between US$4 and US$18.29. All appear to have significant flaws, which leads me to think that mine could be the best copy out there. One copy – one – is housed by the University of Toronto's Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. After that: rien.

14 November 2011

POD Cover of the Month: Rila of Ingelside

L.M. Montgomery's Rila [sic] of Ingelside [sic], another fine product from Createspace. Their slogan: "Publish your words, your way."

Rila of Ingelside can purchased through amazon.uk.co for a mere £26.76.

First edition:

New York: Stokes, 1921
A bonus:

The Prince Edward Island house upon which Ingleside was modelled.

11 November 2011

Remembrance Day

Edward Maurice Busby

My grandfather... not forgotten.

05 November 2011

The Bank Swindler's Signature

A brief addendum to Wednesday's post, in which I happened to mention that my copy of Lucius A. Parmelee's The Confessions of a Bank Swindler is signed. One correspondent asks me to post the signature. I'm happy to do so.

Must say that for a man who made his money in large measure through forgery, it does seem rather awkward.

02 November 2011

A Bank Swindler Tries to Cash In

The Confessions of a Bank Swindler
Lucius A. Parmelee
Waterloo, QC: Duval, 1968

The author begins by boasting that a member of the Canadian Banking Assocation once suggested he be offered a pension as an inducement to retire, adding: "I achieved fame of a sort and did very well." These more modest words set the tone.

Born in 1889, Lucius Parmelee was blessed in being a member of family of affluence and influence. Newspaper editor and three-term Liberal member of parliament Charles Henry Parmelee – that's him on the right – was an uncle. Another uncle once served as Quebec's Minister of Protestant Education. The latter's good work is reflected in this, nephew Lucius' only book; until Conrad Black, The Confessions of a Bank Swindler was likely the best written work by a Canadian criminal. I provide as evidence this passage in which the author looks back to his earliest years in Waterloo, Quebec:
One must remember that in this day there was no auto, radio, TV, and the thousand and one distractions, which are today offered to gratify our jaded appetites. Nor were they distracted by the innumerable incidents of a bizarre, and even sinister nature, which is the record of our daily lives. I do not agree with the French philosopher Rousseau, that the solution to the world's ills consist of a return to a state of nature. I do feel that there have been times in the past history of mankind, when the clock of destiny could well have been arrested, for a temporary breathing space, at least. Our characteristically North American attitude of service to the Gods of progress, may well mean serving an illusion.
No common criminal.

As a young man , Parmelee set off down the straight and narrow as a bank clerk, only to develop a rooted resentment toward the very industry in which he was employed. The low pay, which our grand banks expected to be supplemented by clerks' families, led to his resignation. Parmelee tried his hand at a number of occupations, including farmhand and barkeep, but returned to the banks as an unwelcomed visitor during the Great War:
From a moral point of view I had no scruples whatever. They paid their employees atrocious wages. They offered very little in the way of a life career. They obtained subsidy from the general public, due to the fact that their employees must have help from their parents for a few years, and in the case of the institution in which I served they had no pension plan. All in all I considered them bigger, and more cowardly robbers than myself.

Make no mistake, Parmelee's crimes were not robberies; they were swindles carried out though study, impersonation and forgery. The author's criminal activity spanned three decades, interrupted by an ill-considered investment in a chicken ranch, work at a wartime munitions plant and time spent in San Quentin. His final foray into financial fraud, in 1947 Ottawa, was in his own words a "disaster". He hit the Royal Bank, the Bank of Toronto, the Bank of Montreal and the Dominion Bank, walking away with some $17,000... only to be arrested a few hours later at a railway station in Vars, Ontario. Contemporary crooks will learn no tips from The Confessions of a Bank Swindler; Parmelee's scams and schemes were dated well before his book was published. The world into which he was ultimately released, on 15 June 1955, was foreign. "Montreal proved a revelation to me", he writes, unable to reconcile the metropolis with the tranquil city of his youth. The Confessions of a Bank Swindler owes its existence to the late Weekend Magazine, which in 1956 published a rudimentary version of the memoir. I expect the reception wasn't quite what editorial director Craig Ballantyne had anticipated. Readers took considerable offence to Parmelee's unrepentant nature; the banks, it would seem, were unassailable. The swindler's memoir attracted no interest from McClelland and Stewart, Macmillan or Ryerson; it ended up being self-published through a little printer in the author's birthplace.* No fame followed. Having gone straight, the man was accorded no obituary. Crime pays.

Object: A trade-size paperback, my copy is signed and includes a Weekend Magazine clipping that appears to have been used for promotional purposes. The first edition, I think, the only other I've seen – also signed – was published in mass market by a short-lived Montreal house called Bodero.

Access: There are no copies of either edition listed for sale online; look instead to the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec and the Toronto Public Library. Seven of our university libraries hold the book. Library and Archives Canada? Don't ask.

* This was the very same printer that two years earlier produced John Glassco's self-published Squire Hardman.

Related post:

01 November 2011

'November the First' by the Master of All Poets

One of the more restrained poems composed as "a truthful guide" by James Gay, self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Canada and Master of All Poets.

Being one of the oldest settlers in your town,
I cannot remember of seeing such a beautiful day;
On the first day of November, see the stars so clear and bright,
They give us light,
All through the night.
Young gents and ladies walk out bold,
The weather is not too hot or cold;
Jack Frost has kept his hand away,
Those young and old can sport and play
All through the night till the break of day.
The leaves in October have passed away;
Like man on earth, he cannot stay,
Falling more or less each day,
Our bodies soon return to clay,
Thousands do never give this a thought;
Then what will be their awful fate?
With millions this word, too late, too late.
Leave off this sinful life, and try to act more clever,
Put your trust in Providence, life changes like the weather.
Related post: Local Poet!