08 November 2013

Munro, Bellow, Millar, Macdonald and Identity

I Die Slowly [The Dark Tunnel]
Kenneth Millar
New York: Lion, 1955
   "You look like an American and you act like one."
   "How does an American look and act?" I said, for the sake of continuing the conversation.
   "Well, tall and healthy and quite – neither beautiful nor ugly."
— Kenneth Millar's I Die Slowly
I have never before read a story which so piercingly and succinctly examined the terrors and hopes through which the intellectual and emotional life of Canada apparently must still, forty years after my graduation from UWO, find its way. 
— Kenneth Millar on Alice Munro's "The Beggar Maid"
Alice Munro's Nobel win last month forced our media to recognize 1976 recipient Saul Bellow. Qualifiers came quickly: Munro was the first Canadian woman; Munro was he first Canadian-born writer to set her work in Canada; Munro was the first Canadian who'd lived her life in Canada.

Jared Bland and Sandra Martin did not vacillate, beginning their Globe & Mail story by declaring  Munro the first Canadian to be accorded the honour. Bellow's name didn't appear until the third to last sentence (and even then only in parentheses):
(Saul Bellow, a previous Nobel laureate, was born in Quebec, but moved to the United States while young and self-identified as an American; so entrenched was he in American letters that he lends his name to the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.)
And Lord Stanley of Preston was a great Canadian.

More nonsense was provided by Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star:
Bellow was born in Lachine, Que., but moved to the U.S. as a child and lived there his entire life.
Mr Kelly is one of the paper's sports columnists.

The fault, of course, lies with the keepers of the canon – yes, a second swipe in six days – who embrace Louis Hémon (twenty months in Canada) and West Coast squatter Malcolm Lowry, while dismissing Bellow entirely. Understand, I'm not trying to argue that the author of Mr. Sammler's Planet wasn't a lion in American letters, but that the child is father to the man. Let's at least acknowledge that the nine years Bellow lived in Canada – his first nine – were formative. Dr Spock tells us so.

Kenneth Millar's situation is just as muddy. His California birth appears to have kept him out of The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature; how else to explain the entry for Kitchener-born wife Margaret. Millar was an infant when his Canadian parents returned home. He lived in Ontario, Manitoba and British Columbia, and attended the University of Waterloo (né College), the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto. By the time Millar returned to the States, in his mid-twenties, he and Margaret had already started their respective writing careers.

"We had a very Canadian eagerness to make something of ourselves," he wrote of those years.

The question of identity is key in I Die Slowly, and draws much from the author's life. Millar's first novel, it was written while studying at the University of Michigan. The setting is Arbana, a stand-in for Ann Arbor. Millar's narrator is Robert Branch, an associate professor at Midwestern University. Like the author, Branch visited 1937 Nazi Germany; unlike the author, he met and fell in love with a beautiful crimson-haired actress named Ruth Esch. This is all back story. The novel opens in the autumn of 1943 (the very time of composition) and a glorious Detroit day spoiled when Branch is rejected by the United States Navy (as had happened to Millar). Much worse is yet to come, but the associate professor's spirits are lifted heavenward – fleetingly – by the news that Ruth, with whom he had lost all contact, has somehow managed to make her way to Canada and will be arriving by train within hours to teach at Midwestern U.

What are the chances!

It seems that Dr Herman Schneider, head of the Department of German, had had Miss Esch as a pupil at the University of Munich. Good on him for helping her out. Herr Doktor Schneider invites Branch over to his house for dinner, after which they're to make their way to the station to meet Ruth.

Bolstered by the talents of his German cook, Schneider proves to be a passable host. However, son Peter commits a terrible faux pas in very nearly killing Branch with a sabre. When the doctor tries to murder Branch with his car, the associate professor begins to think that something is up.

The real nightmare begins when Ruth finally appears, seemingly sucking face with Schneider's son. Allowing for six years spent in a Nazi prison, the actress looks much the same, but has hardened. In short, she is a character acting out of character. Not at all the girl Branch once knew, she joins the hunt to kill him.

The pace of that chase is fast and there is strength in the details. Branch's visit to a bootlegger's shack-cum-brothel, at which he takes refuge, endures. One often makes allowances in reading first novels, but this isn't really necessary here. Yes, the coincidence in Ruth taking a job at Midwestern University is great, but we've all encountered something similar. Sadly, the cover illustration spoiled things a bit for this reader.

Perhaps I've said too much.

Trivia: The first thirteen of the novel's 14 chapters are set in and around Arbana, after which the action moves to Toronto and the mining town of Kirkand Lake, Ontario. The climactic and final scene takes place in the Kirkland Lake General Hospital.

More trivia: Margaret Millar borrows Arbana as a setting for her 1952 mystery Vanish in an Instant.

Dedication: To the memory of Millar's University of Western Ontario buddy John Gosnell Lee. A Pilot Officer in the RCAF, Lee was killed in a training accident on 29 November 1939. It was so early in the war that his name appears on page 8 of the Second World War Book of Remembrance.

Object: A well-constructed mass market, my copy is the second paperback edition. The first, published by Lion in 1950, has a more garish but equally appealing cover. While the scene depicted does not feature in the novel, the hair colour is correct.

The rear really gives the game away. Click to enlarge for the spoiler.

Access: A rare thing in our libraries, though common south of the border.

The good news is that it's currently in print, as The Dark Tunnel, through mysterious press.com. Used copies of the 1972 Bantam edition, the first published under the Macdonald nom de plume, can be found online for one American dollar. The first I Die Slowly edition is becoming hard to find; there are no copies listed for sale online. The second, is also becoming scarce. Expect to pay at least US$25 for a Very Good copy… if you can find one.

First editions (Dodd Mead, 1944) are well beyond my grasp with online prices beginning at US$650 for a copy Very Good copy sans dust jacket. Two enterprising booksellers offer Fine and "just about fine" copies in facsimile dust jackets for US$1200 and $1550 respectively. Copies in the actual dust jacket – four as of this writing – range from US$5000 (Very Good/Very Good)  to US$55,000 (presentation copy).
The novel has been translated four times. The tiles of the Polish (Mroczny tunnel) and Italian (Il Tunnel) play off the original. In Norway it appears as  Dødsfellen, which I understand means Deathtrap. Rather inspired, don't you think?

Must admit that I find the French title – A la déloyale! – a real head-scratcher.

Today is Ross Macdonald Day on Patti Abbott's Friday's Forgotten Books. Head over to her site for more Millar and Macdonald.


  1. What a lovely piece, Brian. Interesting to note how many of his initial themes would turn up in his future novels: the college setting, the family problems, the Trips to Europe for various reasons. I love Millar more but he is nearly her equal.

    1. Thank you, Patti. You know I share your admiration of Margaret Millar. She and Gabrielle Roy were the finest Canadian novelists of their generation.

  2. I was out of town when this was posted and just saw it today.

    The Dark Tunnel...a homosexual spy...is this title meant to be wry, witty and ironic???

    1. I'm at a loss. The only thing I can say is that our hero does run down a dark tunnel - twice - as depicted on the cover of the first edition. You gotta admire the artist's use of perspective.


  3. In studying the Lew Archer novels of Ross Macdonald I’ve tried to identify certain characteristics, themes, motifs, images – call them what you like – that crop up frequently throughout the various books. I don’t claim that the following are particularly important or have any special significance or meaning; nor do I say this is a comprehensive list. They are simply some things I’ve noticed in more than one of the novels.

  4. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.