21 November 2013

A 49-Year-Old Fifty Shades? S&M from M&S?

A Stranger and Afraid
Marika Robert
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964

My title is a cheat, a lame attempt to draw attention to one the finest novels yet discovered through this casual exploration of Canada's suppressed, ignored and forgotten. That Marika Robert's A Stranger and Afraid is so very good and so very remarkable has had me wondering about its decent into obscurity. A quick tour of my immediate circle, a bookish lot, finds not a single soul who has so much as heard of A Stranger and Afraid, yet it was given to us by McClelland & Stewart, once the great
Canadian publisher. The work was brought to American readers by Doubleday, which pitched it as "A NOVEL OF PARIS TODAY".

It wasn't.

A Stranger and Afraid is very much a post-war novel, and Paris features only in the first half. It begins in the spring of 1949 with Kristina, our narrator, attending an elegant party on the banks of the Seine. A Hungarian refugee, young and beautiful, she is far too naive to be on her own:
I was not yet eighteen, hungry-looking, long- legged, and skinny. My unruly hair, cropped by a refugee barber – who might have been a bank director at home – was always a mess. Though several people had commented on my budding beauty the bud was still very much closed.
Cut off from her mother and the wealth and privilege of her early years, she is very much adrift. Guidance, of a sort, has been provided by friend Georgette, a flaky femme fatale, but Kristina doesn't have the confidence follow. Here it is worth noting that she's wrong about her beauty. It has indeed begun to bud.

It's at the party that Kristina meets André Duval, a sophisticated parvenu two decades her senior. Though a snob of the highest order, it gradually becomes clear that he's naught but a gigolo to a beautiful wealthy woman who lives with a cuckolded husband in the South of France. Lucky André has parlayed her gifts into what must surely be the most lucrative black market racket operating in Paris. André does have his pretentious, reintroducing Kristina to the world of culture that had been enjoyed by her parents before war and displacement, all the while using her as a mule in his operations. The first time she disappoints, André applies belt to backside.

In Toronto: A Literary Guide, Greg Gatenby describes A Stranger and Afraid as "the first S&M novel in Canadian history to be published by a mainstream house." I disagree.  A Stranger and Afraid has as much to do with Kristina's penchant for punishment than a displaced person's struggle for place.

The second half of the novel opens with our heroine having left Paris for a new life in Toronto. There she finds a job in an appliance company and a husband in its youngest executive. Where in Paris Kristina had thought the idea of Canada "rather repulsive," she quickly comes to love her adopted land: "It had accepted my roots, and it would nourish them and in time I would shed all my old leaves infested with nostalgia and grow new ones that no longer turned toward the east."

Now living in comfort she grows uncomfortable. Husband Neil, though loving, is more than a bit bland; worse still, he's overly considerate, forever deferential and so very kind. Wouldn't hurt a fly. As their marriage enters year two, Kristina begins to look around for a man who will dominate, going so far as to place a personal in the notorious Justice Weekly.

Anyone looking for titillation will be greatly disappointed; Robert is always quick to close the bedroom door. Her focus is on the power struggles that surround the act, not the act itself. It all makes for fascinating reading.

This is not to say that A Stranger and Afraid is without flaws. One curious aspect of the novel are the truly bad sentences that have somehow infected what is on the whole a very fine and polished piece of prose.

How to explain?

I suppose mother tongue may have something to do with it. Born 1927 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, Robert (née Barna) emigrated to Canada in her early twenties. She wrote for Maclean's and Chatelaine, and seems to have been well-connected; the reception for her second marriage, to George Sereny – two months after A Stranger and Afraid appeared in shops – was hosted by Pierre and Janet Berton. In 1973 she and partner Otto Pal opened Cafe Marika in the mall at 77 Bloor Street West. She died on 27 May 2008 in New York City, where she and her husband had been living. According to her obituary, she had intended to return to Toronto.

Sadly, she left us with just one novel. Sadly, we're not giving it the attention it deserves.

Object: A hardcover designed is by Frank Newfeld. The cover photo, reproduced on printed boards, is by Lutz Dille.

Access: The stuff of university libraries, only the Toronto Public Library serves. Library and Archives Canada fails once again, I'm afraid. 

Though few copies are being offered online, they do go for cheap. The Doubleday edition takes the low end with prices beginning at US$3.37 (Very Good in an iffy dust jacket). As far as I've been able to determine, the American and Canadian firsts enjoyed no second printings.

The novel has appeared only once in paperback – in 1966 as part of McClelland & Stewart's Canadian Best-Seller Library. At US$7.95, the Very Good copy offered by a Burlington, Ontario bookseller is a bargain. I've never come across a copy of this edition.

An American bookseller is offering a Very Good signed copy of the Canadian first at US$75.


 There were no translations.


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