21 April 2017

CNQ Scores National Magazine Award Noms

Word from Toronto yesterday that the Canadian Notes & Queries "Games Issue" has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Congratulations to all who contributed:
Chris Andrechek
Tobias Carroll
Vincent Colistro
Daniel Donaldson
Alex Good
Spencer Gordon
Kasper Hartman
David Mason
Maurice Mierau
David Nickel
Alexandra Oliver
Mark Sampson
Robert Earl Stewart
Kaitlin Tremblay
Most of all, congratulations and thanks to editor Emily Donaldson, who not only put the whole thing together, but earned a second nomination for her essay "Pinball: A Walking Tour". Emily's essay is available online here at the CNQ website.

My own contribution to the issue, concerning Pierre Berton and Charles Templeton's foray into the competitive board games industry, can also be read online: "Tour de Force Reawakens".

Related post:

17 April 2017

A Motorola TV Hour Nightmare

A not-so-brief follow-up to last week's post on Judith Merril's Shadow on the Hearth.

"The title of my book had been chosen by the publishers in preference to about a dozen other titles I had provided, all of which pointed towards the idea of atomic war," writes Judith Merril in her unfinished autobiography, Better to Have Loved (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002). Was Atomic Attack one of them? I prefer Shadow on the Hearth, just as I prefer her novel to the television adaptation.

Atomic Attack aired on 18 May 1954, as part of the first and only season of The Motorola TV Hour. The director was Ralph Nelson, justly celebrated for the films Requiem for a Heavyweight and Lilies of the Field. So why is this so bad?

Blame lies with writer David Davison's script, though I do wonder whether it was entirely his fault. A New York newspaperman, in 1947 Davidson earned significant praise for his debut novel, The Steeper Cliff. The story of an American serviceman's search for a missing person in post-war Bavaria, it was published in the United States, Britain and Australia (right). Through much of the 'fifties, Davidson made good money writing for Kraft TheaterThe Ford Theater Hour, The Alcoa Hour, The Elgin Hour, and The United States Steel Hour, but had become disenchanted by decade's end. Davidson's moment in the spotlight came in 1961, when he appeared before the FCC to testify on the networks' deteriorating standards, which he blamed on the pursuit of ratings. By that time he'd all but given up writing for television. His two remaining decades were spent teaching.

Was Motorola just after ratings with Atomic Attack?

I ask because it ended up with so much more. Cold War historian Bill Geerhart informs that the teleplay was used in Civil Defense instruction and was listed for rent or sale in government catalogues. Indeed, the opening of Atomic Attack sounds every bit like propaganda:
The play you are about to see deals with an imaginary H-Bomb attack on New York City, and with the measures Civil Defense would take in such an event for the rescue and protection of the population in and around the city.
Davidson cuts the first two pages of Shadow on the Hearth, in which Veda calls in sick, and begins with the Mitchells – Gladys (Phyllis Thaxter), Barbie (Patsy Bruder), Ginny (Patty McCormack) and Jon (uncredited) at breakfast. It's a short scene, though it establishes all we need to know about the family and the busy day ahead: Jon is off to work, the girls are off to school, the maid is ill, and there's washing to be done.

Cut to the blandest of establishing shots:

Gladys descends the stairs and there is a blinding flash of light. She thinks a blown fuse is to blame, until rocked by a shockwave. Air raid sirens sound.

Extreme overacting follows, though I can't quite bring myself to fault Thaxter, who is stuck delivering this long monologue as she races about the house:
"Air raid? No. No, no, it can't be! Children! Jon! Clouds of smoke! Coming up from the south, from New York! Mrs Jackson! Mrs Jackson, what's happened! Don't you hear me? Oh, please! Is nobody home?"
This last bit is yelled out her kitchen window. Gladys rushes through the dining room and living room to the vestibule closet and then the telephone:
"Children at school. Jon! Jon at the office in New York. Oh, New York. New York. Operator? Long distance. No answer. Try the local operator. Operator? Somebody? No answer from anybody! Children. Must get down to school."
She throws on her raincoat and is almost out the door when the radio she'd turned on moments earlier comes to life:
"Your attention, please. We interrupt our normal program to cooperate in security and Civil Defense measures as requested by the United States government. This is a CONELRAD radio alert. Listen carefully. This station is now leaving the air. Tune your standard radio receiver to 640 or 1240 kilocycles for official Civil Defense instructions and news. Once again – Your attention, please! Your attention, please! This is your official Civil Defense broadcaster. An explosion has just taken place in New York City, which has believed to have resulted from the dropping of a hydrogen bomb. The bomb was probably carried by a guided missile launched from a submarine at sea! All Civil Defense workers report to emergency stations immediately."
"The children!" she cries. Gladys rushes to leave, but stops when she hears this:
Stay where you are, unless you are in immediate danger! Do not attempt to join your children if they are in school! They are being well taken care of where they are! Do not try to telephone! Remember: radioactivity may make food and water in open containers dangerous. Use canned and otherwise protected foods until further notice. Do not attempt to enquire about relatives in New York – as yet there is no information!

It reminded me of nothing so much as an old Gilda Radner sketch.

The remaining forty-three minutes of Atomic Attack – it runs fifty – aren't quite as funny, which isn't to say that they're not worth watching, particularly for readers of the book. After all, Shadow on the Hearth was written by a Trotskyist who would one day relocate to Canada in part because she "could no longer accept the realpolitik of being an American citizen." Atomic Attack strips away all shading and uncertainty, with everyone living under a government that has the situation well in  hand. Nowhere is this more evident that in the depiction of Jim Taylor, the Civil Defense Block Warden. Where in the novel he is a nefarious figure who sees the crisis and his new status as a means of manipulating and ultimately bedding Gladys, the Jim Taylor of Atomic Attack (William Kemp) is a by the book, no-nonsense and reliable.

Scientist Garson Levy – rechristened "Garson Lee" (Robert Keith) – has much the same background, but a very different future. As in the novel, he is being pursued by the authorities, but as he discovers this isn't because of his activism; they want him to set up a research project on "radiation exposure and how to deal with it."

Garson should know better than to distrust authority.

A youngish Walter Matthau plays young Dr Spinelli, but nothing is mentioned of his Shadow on the Hearth pacifist background. As in the novel, he takes Ginny to be examined at the hospital, which is here depicted as a calm, professional place with little activity. Ginny aside, the only patient seen is a rambunctious young scamp with a few sores on his face. "They're only important if they're not kept clean," Dr Spinelli reassures.

Other differences have less to do with propaganda than the challenge of cramming a 277-page novel into an Hour that isn't an hour long. Drunken neighbour Edie Cowell is replaced by Mrs Moore (Audrey Christie), one of several homeless people dumped at the Mitchell house by Block Warden Taylor. One of their number, Mrs Harvey (Elizabeth Ross) gives Gladys the opportunity to open up about her concerns for her husband. The scene is interrupted by a phone call from Jon's secretary, who more or less implies the worst. This is the greatest departure. As a reader of the novel, and a viewer familiar with the Hollywood Ending, I fully expected Jon to appear in the closing minutes. This never happens. And, so, a daring, unexpected conclusion.

In Better to Have Loved, Merril writes:
Watching the adaptation was sort of like having a different lens on each of my eyes. One part of me was saying, "They killed my book. They've killed my book." The other part was saying , "But they did the best they could to translate it into television."
I wonder about this.

Atomic Attack can be seen today on YouTube. When did Judith Merril last see it? I'm betting decades before her death – and perhaps only once.

Atomic Attack didn't kill Shadow on the Hearth, nor was it the best one could expect from television. The novel has great potential for adaptation today. Imagine a period piece in which it is believed that exposure to extreme radiation is might be cured. Imagine a time when nuclear weapons weren't nearly so numerous or powerful, a time in which most might actually survive all-out nuclear war.


Trivia: Radio broadcasts come fast and furious in both the novel and the Motorola TV Hour adaptation. In the latter, but not the former, Gladys uses Motorola radios to keep abreast of developments.

Product placement.

Related posts:

16 April 2017

Easter Verse by Ethel Ursula Foran

Mature juvenilia by Ethel Ursula Foran, from her first volume, Poems: A Few Blossoms from the Garden of My Dreams (Montreal: Beauchemin, 1922):  
                     The holy Lenten season
                     At last has passed away.
                     And to-day we celebrate
                     Our glorions Easter Day.
                     "Reserrexit sicut dixit"
                     The Angels sweetly sing,
                     And in humble adoration
                     Pay homage to their King.
                     "He is risen," Yes, we knew it;
                     He had but the word to say
                     And His glorious, sacred Body
                     Rose from out the tomb that day.
                     Christ has risen," Alleluia,
                     Let us all our treasures bring
                     To the feet of our sweet Savior,
                     To our dear triumphant King.
                     Only one sweet tiny treasure
                     Jesus asks with love divine,
                     'Tis your heart — then won't you give it
                     To your risen Lord and mine?
Related posts:

11 April 2017

A Nuclear Family Nightmare

Shadow on the Hearth
Judith Merril
New York: Doubleday, 1950

Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is leading the life of June Cleaver. True, there had been struggles in her past – the Great Depression, for example – but things are now going swimmingly. She and husband Jon, a highly successful engineer with his own firm in Manhattan, can take pride in having provided a comfortable family home for their three children. Their eldest, freckle-faced Tom, is in the ROTC. Babsy – she now prefers "Barbara" – has begun putting on airs, but is otherwise an agreeable fifteen-year-old. And then there's Ginny, the baby of the family, an adorable little girl of five whose best friend is a stuffed toy horse.

The novel opens on a day like any other with the family – sans Tom, who is away at school – seated around the breakfast table. But then Veda, the poorly-paid Mitchell family maid, calls in sick. Barbara needs some clothing washing done, which means that Gladys won't be free to attend a ladies' luncheon. Oh, and she'd been working so to be accepted!

Jon leaves for work, dropping the girls at school along the way, and Gladys attends to the laundry. She's down in the basement, hovering over her washer and dryer, when there's a sound that is something like thunder. The light streaming through the window doubles in intensity, then becomes very dull. Dismissing it as "a freak electric storm", Gladys dons a new dress, powder and lipstick. It isn't until after the girls return, courtesy of nice new schoolteacher Miss Pollack, that Gladys comes to realize there has been an atomic attack... Atomic Attack being the title of the 1954 Motorola TV Hour adaptation. The news comes courtesy of the radio:
"For those of you who have just tuned in, we repeat: several atomic bombs of unknown origin landed in and near the harbor of New York City this afternoon. The first explosion occurred at about 1:15 P.M., Eastern Standard Time, and was followed by others over a period estimated to be approximately one half hour. It is know that no bombs were dropped after two o'clock. Eyewitnesses state that the first bomb exploded underwater at the mouth of the East River, affecting harbor shipping in New York and Brooklyn, and substantially damaging a large part of the lower tip of Manhattan Island."
Gladys listens in horror – "Jon was in the city all day!" – realizing that she alone must care for the girls and... well, the hearth. If only Veda
hadn't called in sick!

Nearly all 277 pages of Shadow on the Hearth take place in the Mitchell home, which is not to say that things aren't eventful. Early in the crisis, Gladys must deal with troublesome neighbour Edie Crowell, who persists in phoning, despite instructions to leave the lines clear. On the second day, she shows up drunk as a skunk on the front steps.

Can you blame her?

There's a gas leak, which probably has nothing to do with the bombs, but does add to the drama. At another point, thugs try to break in, but are beat back by Dr Garson Levy, the high school's science teacher. Barbara fills her mother in on the doctor's background:
"He knows everything about atom bombs. He was at Oak Ridge and everything… Only he got black-listed or something on account of refusing to do war work, and making a lot of speeches and being on committees, so he had to go be a teacher."
Yes, he had to go to be a teacher.

Levy has been running from house to house informing parents that their children have been exposed to radioactive rain. Local Civil Defence officials are in hot pursuit. When the heat becomes to great, Levy is offered temporary refuge in the Mitchell home, filling something of the void left by missing husband Jon. He fixes a toy, boards windows, and devises a clever solution to that pesky gas problem. Gladys comes to think of him as "Mr Fit-It", but he's so much more. Garson Levy comes equipped with personal geiger counter and everything required to monitor the white blood cells of the Mitchell children.

It's all a bit much.

Fortunately other characters are better drawn, the most interesting being Jim Turner. The Mitchell's hard-nosed next-door neighbour, Gladys is surprised to learn that Turner is the leader of the local Civil Defense squadron.
"Well, nobody else knew either," he assured her. "Nobody who wasn't in it. When you want to win you got to keep a poker face and play it close to the vest. And any time the government let out any information about what we were going some scientist would start yelling about warmongers, or some reds would have a demonstration."
Turner turns up frequently, revelling in his newfound authority, and doing prep work to put the moves on Gladys. As evacuation looks imminent, he tries to dictate where she will live and what she will be doing. Maid Veda reenters the story, dragged in by soldiers who are investigating whether she is a foreign agent. Neighbour Edie plants the seed that maybe, just maybe, the Civil Defense would prefer people like herself dead. We learn that Peter Spinelli, the young medical doctor who accompanies Turner on his route, was denied funding for his studies because of his association with pacifist groups. The press is censored and then disappears, replaced by government broadcasting that consists almost exclusively of lengthy lists of casualties.

These sinister elements run beneath the surface, overwhelmed by a flurry of activity and the ever increasing challenges faced by the survivors. It's such that a broadcast reference to "the military government" passes without comment. Before anyone has a chance to catch their breath, the war comes to an abrupt end. The news comes over the radio:
"Five thirty-seven A.M., Friday, May seventh,” a hoarse voice intoned. “That is the historic moment. We have just received official news from General Headquarters. The war is over! The enemy conceded at 5:37 A.M., Eastern Standard Time, just five minutes ago. Ladies and gentleman, the national anthem!"
As for Jon, he somehow survived the bombs that rain down on Manhattan. In fleeting scenes – vignettes, really – he escapes an infirmary and makes his way to Westchester. Nearing home, he's shot through the shoulder, loses a good amount of blood, and is carried the rest of the way by good Dr Spinelli. Merril's original ending had Jon die. Doubleday wanted a happy ending... so why am I left with the impression that things are only going to get worse?

Object: A first edition of the author's first book, my copy was purchased last year in London at Attic Books. Price: $6.25. The ugly jacket was designed by Edward Kasper, a man whose awkward work I first encountered in the inner gatefold of The Band's Moondog Matinee.

Access: The 1950 Doubleday was followed three years later by Sedgwick & Jackson's first British edition (above left). Remarkably, Shadow on the Hearth has appeared only once in paperback: a 1966, edition published in the UK by Compact Books (above right). It is currently available in Spaced Out: Three Novels of Tomorrow, a collection of Merril's novels published by the New England Science Fiction Association.

There are plenty of first editions listed online, the least expensive being a Good Sedgwick & Jackson at £7.00.

At US$375, the most expensive is a Very Good signed copy of the Doubleday first once belonging to International Festival of Authors' founding Artistic Director Greg Gatenby... but let's not get into that. The bookseller is throwing in a copy of the festival's newspaper tribute to Merril signed by Samuel Delany, Michael Moorcock, Frederick Pohl, Spider Robinson and the lady herself. I recommend the Fine signed copy being offered by a Michigan bookseller. Price: US$87.00.

A German translation, Dunkle Schatten (Dark Shadows), was published in 1983, complete with cover that looks every bit like it comes from the Reagan Era... because it does. In fact, the enemy is never identified. The Italians did a much better job with the covers on their translation, Orrore su Manhattan (Horror of Manhattan), which has twice seen print (1956 and 1992).

Library patrons will be disappointed. Library and Archives Canada, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities have copies.

Related post:

09 April 2017

Canon Scott's Vimy Ridge Poem

Verse written on the occasion of the greatest Canadian victory of the Great War by one who was there. This version of Scott's poem is taken from Canadian Poems of the Great War, edited John W. Garvin (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918).

Related post:

01 April 2017

Verse from an April a Century Past

Likely the penultimate poem by Toronto's Bernard Freeman Trotter – killed by a German shell the following month – from his posthumous A Canadian Twilight and Other Poems of War and Peace (Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1917).

Related posts:

21 March 2017

An Award-Winning Novelist's Bowdlerized Debut

The Pillar of Fire
Gordon Green
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

The Praying Mantis
H. Gordon Green
Fredericton: Brunswick, 1953

H. Gordon Green received an Avery Hopwood Award for The Praying Mantis. I wasn't much impressed because I'd never heard of the Avery Hopwood Awards. Now that I'm familiar, I'm still not much impressed. Open only to University of Michigan students, dozens are handed out each year. In 1948, Green was awarded $600 for his unpublished manuscript. A year or so later, he received a further $400 by selling the condensation rights to Export Publications for use in their News Stand Library.

"I was horrified when the paperback came out to see how the original had been murdered," he later wrote. "Only about half of the original was used [and] I look back on my dealings with them with no pleasant memories."

What did he expect? News Stand Library never published a book longer than 160 pages. The Pillar of Fire, the title slapped on the condensation, comes within two of that number (and its pages are very dense). It wasn't until 1953, with Brunswick's The Praying Mantis, that Green's novel was published unabridged. While I can't say it was worth the wait, I will allow that many of the best bits were lost in the cutting.

Have you read Erskine Caldwell? I haven't, but I once collected Signet paperback editions of his books because I liked the cover art. Judging those books by their covers has me thinking they're mildly risqué tales set amongst poor, uneducated folks in the rural American South.

I could be wrong.

In any case, I thought about Caldwell when reading The Pillar of Fire and again when tackling The Praying Mantis. Both versions of the novel were published when Caldwell was at the height of popularity, a time in which his books were selling in the hundreds of thousands per annum. Green didn't share that good fortune.

His novel takes place in rural Ontario. His heroine, Myra Leduc, is a swell-looking girl of nineteen. She lives with her French Canadian father, her English Canadian mother, and far too many siblings. Because the Leduc family is impoverished – again, too many siblings – Myra travels to take a job with Uncle Jurd, her mother's brother. Judd Galloway is an interesting character, though we have seen him before. A successful farmer, he holds great sway over his dry country as the fiery pastor of the Foursquare Gospel Hall. Jurd's Lord isn't merciful, nor is he:
Judd came slowly down the walk. Myra saw the little woman timidly draw him aside, heard her speak. "... I was thinking about Pat," the woman faltered, begging the fevered eyes that looked down at her now. "Pat used to play the fiddle you know. But is was only for the old-time squares and the likes of that. He couldn't play jazz.... And he was a very good man really.... Well, you remember how it happened. That time his car hit the bridge he was... he was coming home from playing that French wedding party... but he was a good man, really.... Don't you think?...."
     The old woman dared say no more. She didn't have to.
     Judd said, "Playing the fiddle for the lust of the flesh, Sister? And for a pagan wedding?" He shook his head slowly, with a terrible finality. "The wrath of ou God is an awful thing, Sister. An awful thing!"
As I say, we've seen characters like Jurd before in American literature. His kind may feature in Caldwell, but I haven't read Caldwell. While I haven't encountered anyone like him in any other Canadian novel, I'm sure they're there somewhere.

Judd is very tightly wound, and things are only getting worse. Myra has come to his farm because her Aunt Belle, Jurd's wife, is dying of cancer. And then there's simple son Matt. "He wouldn't hurt a fly... really," Aunt Belle tells Myra, but Jurd feels otherwise:
"When a lad is mature in his body and not in his mind, he's likely to get a lot of urge that could be mighty dangerous to an attractive girl like you. especially when he's strong."
Judd's warning appears in The Praying Mantis, but not in The Pillar of Fire. It wasn't until I read it that I realized Matt was an adult; the shorter version somehow had me thinking he was an adolescent. News Stand Library was never known for its editing – authors were lucky if their names were right – but I can't really blame the nameless for the
misconception. I come to praise, not bury. In order to make Green's manuscript fit the 158-page format, over half the novel had to be excised. The skill demonstrated is worthy of the surgeons who once worked on Reader's Digest Condensed Books. Green's plot is left virtually intact, which isn't to say that I don't prefer The Praying Mantis. The widow's hesitant query about fiddler Pat doesn't feature in The Pillar of Fire, nor do Jurd's sermons about "writing and jiggling and jitter-bugging and bunny-hugging and flat-foot-floogying" with "niggers". Pastor Jurd of The Praying Mantis is even more reprehensible.

In both books, Aunt Belle dies, and young Myra becomes the object of Jurd's desire. Recognizing as much, the firm-breasted niece flirts, poses and rubs against her uncle to curry favour, all the while enjoying a clandestine romance with a young McGill science student named Napoleon Cadotte. Skinny dipping is a nightly occurrence.

Does that sort of thing feature in Caldwell? I haven't read the man.

Does it feature in Green's other novels. I'm not sure I care enough to find out.

The critics rave:
It's a common lament that Hopwood winners don't keep on writing. The idea is that the novel, or play, or series of poems with which they won their awards somehow ended rather than began something. Their art was an attempt to impose order on hitherto clashing elements in their own experiences. It was, in short, autobiographical, autocathardic, and, alas, artistically suicidal.
– A.M. Eastman,  Quarterly Review,  August 7, 1954
Objects: One of News Stand Library's more competent productions, The Pillar of Fire enjoyed just one printing. I bought my copy in 2012 from bookseller and poet Nelson Ball. Price: C$25.00.

The Praying Mantis passes itself off as a first edition; no mention is made of it's previous incarnation.  With 309 pages of text and a good number of blanks, it's a fairly bulky thing. It was issued simultaneously in cloth and paper. There was no second printing. My paper copy was purchased five years ago at Attic Books. Price: $3.75. It seems to have once belonged to a woman named Eleanor Coulter, who blessed it twice with her signature, and took the time to transcribe Annie Charlotte Dalton's "The Praying Mantis" on one of the book's many blank pages.

Access: Two Very Good copies of The Pillar of Fire are currently listed online by American booksellers. Prices: US$20 and US$25. A third Yankee offers an incomplete copy in very rough condition at US$12 The University of Calgary appears to be the only library in the country with a copy. The Praying Mantis is not as common as one might expect; only fifteen of our academic libraries and the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec have it in their collections. Five copies are listed for sale online, in both cloth and paper editions, at prices ranging from US$3.14 to US$40.00.  I recommend the copy pictured below, offered at US$30.00 by Scene of the Crime in St Catharines, Ontario.

20 March 2017

'Spring Waking' by Isabel Ecclestone Mackay

               A snowdrop lay in the sweet, dark ground.
                     "Come out," said the Sun, "come out!"
               But she lay quite still and she heard no sound;
                     "Asleep!" said the Sun, "no doubt!" 
               The Snowdrop heard, for she raised her head,
                     "Look spry," said the Sun, "look spry!"
               "It's warm," said the Snowdrop, "here in bed."
                    "O fie!" said the Sun, "O fie!" 
               "You call too soon, Mr. Sun, you do!"
                    "No, no," said the Sun, "Oh, no!"
               "There's something above and I can't see through."
                    "It's snow," said the Sun, "just snow." 
               "But I say, Mr. Sun, are the Robins here?"
                    "Maybe," said the Sun, "maybe";
               "There wasn't a bird when you called last year."
                    "Come out," said the Sun, "and see!" 
               The Snowdrop sighed, for she liked her nap,
                    And there wasn't a bird in sight,
               But she popped out of bed in her white night-cap;
                    "That's right," said the Sun, "that's right!" 
               And, soon as that small night-cap was seen,
                    A Robin began to sing,
               The air grew warm, and the grass turned green,
                    "'Tis Spring!" laughed the Sun, "'tis Spring!"

from The Shining Ship and Other Verse for Children
Isabel Ecclestone Mackay
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1918
Related posts:

06 March 2017

An 'Other Novel' from Margaret Millar

Wives and Lovers
Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith
Margaret Millar
New York: Syndicate, 2016

The thirteenth of Margaret Millar's twenty-five novels, Wives and Lovers is often relegated to a spot near the end of the author's bibliographies. The one included in this third volume of the Collected Millar does just that, placing it after the "Paul Pyre Novels", the "Inspector Sands Novels", the "Tom Aragon Novels", and the "Novels of Suspense" as one of her "Other Novels". The category is a small one, shared with only Experiment in Springtime, which I've not read. Until last week, I hadn't read Wives and Lovers either, though I'd long been curious about it. Why the distinction? What makes it so different?

The novel is set in California's Channel City (read: Santa Barbara), fairly familiar territory for Millar. As with so many of her novels, focus shifts between characters, first landing on Hazel Philip, assistant to dentist Gordon Foster. It is a brutally hot day, made somewhat bearable by the absence of patients. Only two people enter the practice, the first being Ruby MacCormick, "a friend of one of his nieces from up north." Just last week, Hazel had helped Ruby get a job at her ex-husband's restaurant out on the pier. Now, the girl needs help again.
Gordon dried his hands on a linen towel. "Who was at the door?"
"The girl, the one who was here last week."
"Ruby MacCormick."
"Well," he said carefully. "What did she want?"
"She's still here."
"She wants a room. She's moving. I was just trying to find a place for her to go."
Did you catch that... "he said carefully"?

Gordon's wife, Elaine, is the second person to walk through the door. She reminds him of her plans to take the children to the beach.
Elaine believed that Gordon could have been a real doctor if he had more initiative, or if he'd met her earlier in life, so that she could have supplied the initiative. As it was, when they met, Gordon was already a dentist, and even Elaine's considerable powers couldn't make him into anything else. Their marriage had been coloured by Elaine's bile-green feeling that she had been cheated, that Gordon should have been a real doctor because she herself had all the attributes of a perfect doctor's wife.
At the end of the day, Hazel returns the house she shares with her unemployed cousin, her simple-minded brother, and his petite pregnant wife. Ruth, the cousin, goes on about household finances and the suit she'll wear when presenting herself before the School Board. Ruth wants to teach again.

But why isn't Ruth teaching now? Santa Barbara has a shortage of teachers. And did you notice that Ruby showed up at Gordon's office with all her belongings? Why is she suddenly out on the street?

There are many little mysteries in Wives and Lovers; what sets it apart from nearly every other Millar novel is that the most serious crime is the stealing of a pair of hedge clippers. There are no bodies. I spoil nothing in writing this. Consider cover copy. Here is Syndicate's description of Vanish in an Instant, the novel that preceded Wives and Lovers:
In this classic noir tale of blurred guilt and flawed innocence, a cynical lawyer uncovers the desperate lives of a group connected only by a gruesome murder.
And here's the description of Beast in View, the novel that followed Wives and Lovers:
Hailed as one of the greatest psychological mysteries ever written, Beast in View remains as freshly sinister today as the day it was first published.
Now, compare with that for Wives and Lovers:
A sincere compassionate novel about the complications of married life, and the love, loathing, pain, loyalty, disappointments and friendship that grow out of marriage.
What makes Wives and Lovers like other Millar novels is that characters are key. What makes it so interesting is that criminal acts are always a possibility. Lives become unstable, desperation takes hold, jealousy and pettiness rear their ugly heads, and the reader braces for violence that never comes.

In other words, Wives and Lovers is a novel about the lives most of us live.

He said he'd like to take a little trip.
     "To San Francisco again?" Elaine said with sweet irony.
     "What do you mean, again?"
     "I only mean that you seem to have had such a gay time there a couple of months ago."
Object: A 553 page trade-size paperback, comprised of Vanish in an Instant, Wives and Lovers, Beast in ViewAn Air That Kills and The Listening Walls, along with a brief Introduction by Tom Nolan. The Master at Her Zenith is the first third volume – though first to be released – in Syndicate's Collected Millar. I purchased my copy last September. Price: C$19.99.

Access: Published just six months ago, The Master at Her Zenith is easily found in good bookstores. Wives and Lovers itself was first published in 1954 by Random House (above). It appears there was no second printing. Twenty years later, Avon published a mass-market paperback edition. There has been only one translation: Erwecket die Liebe nicht (Düsseldorf: Dörner, 1964).

Nearly all our libraries let us down. Whether separate or as part of the Master at Her Zenith, Wives and Lovers is held only by Library and Archives Canada, the Kitchener Public Library, the Toronto Public Library, and six of our universities.

Related posts:

27 February 2017

A Novel That Killed a Novelist?

In Quest of Splendour [Pierre le magnifique]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Harry Lorin Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

Roger Lemelin's first three novels were published within five years of each other. Au pied de la pente douce (The Town Below), his 1947 debut, was a bestseller. The following year, Les Plouffes (The Plouffe Family) achieved even greater sales, and then went on to became the country's first hit television series. Lemelin's third, Pierre le magnifique didn't fare so well.

The dust jacket of this lonely printing of the English translation depicts the author in repose. I expect Lemelin was deep in thought, though it is hard not to see him as defeated. Long dead critics thought little of Pierre le magnifique, and weren't all that excited by its translation. The Americans, who had published English-language editions of Lemelin's first two novels, took a pass. It would be three decades before he wrote another novel... and that work, Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe (The Crime of Ovide Plouffe), wasn't very good.

In Quest of Splendour is a very good novel. My greatest quibble has to do with its title, but this is the translator's fault; Pierre le magnifique is much better.

Pierre is Pierre Boisjoly, the nineteen-year-old son of a widowed charwoman. Highly gifted and somewhat handsome, he has benefitted from a good education thanks to the patronage of Father Loupret who sees the makings of a cardinal in Pierre. The young man is certainly on the right path, but on the very day of his graduation from Quebec's Petit Séminaire he's thrown off-course by a brief encounter with another young man.

It's not what you think.

Through that young man – name: Denis Boucher – Pierre meets Fernande, whose features are "exactly those of the girl who for years had slept in the depths of his senses." Such is her beauty that the student has no choice but to abandon all plans for the priesthood. That evening, having informed Father Loupret of his decision, he visits Denis and Fernande in their small bohemian flat. Pierre has his first sip of beer and, lips loosened, lets slip that his mother spotted an envelope stuffed with cash while cleaning the home of Yvon Letellier, his wealthy Petit Séminaire rival. Intent on stealing the money so as to pay for his new friend's education, Denis dashes off to the Letellier's. Pierre sets off to stop him. The pair meet up at the house, struggle, and accidentally knock over Yvon's grandmother. She dies on the spot.

The Globe & Mail, 19 November 1955
No one sees the death as at all suspicious – she was old and frail – but Pierre flees the city just the same. He isn't so much running away from the law, but his future past as a Catholic priest. The young man ends up in a lumber camp, where he is exposed to Marxism. Pierre sides with the camp's owner, only to find that he has cast his lot with a violent, unstable drunk who hires prostitutes for the pleasure of beating them. Upon his return to Quebec City, he finds that liberal Father Lippé, the teacher he held above all others, has been placed in a mental institution. The priest's mistake was to enrol in independent sociology classes taught by European schooled Father Martel (read: Georges-Henri Lévesque).

Forget the old lady's death, it's here in the second of the novel's three parts that things become really interesting. Lemelin's The Town Below surprised this reader, born in the early years of the Quiet Revolution, with its mockery of the Catholic Church. In Quest of Splendour goes much farther. Here the Church is depicted as corrupt, punitive and insincere, working with the provincial government to suppress dissent and education. Quebec's Attorney General, who happens to be Yvon's uncle, plays the Communists, enlisting them to smear while targeting moderate liberals for acts of violence. Of course, in real life – our world – the position of Attorney General was not held by Yvon's uncle but by Premier Maurice Duplessis.

Students of history will recognize the risk.

In Quest of Splendour
is as ambitious as it is bold; a brave work by a man who had everything to lose in its writing. Is it really so surprising that reviews in Duplessis' Quebec were lacklustre?

Lemelin's least known novel, it is his best.

About the author:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
Object: Two hundred and eighty-eight dense pages bound in dull grey boards with burgundy print. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited. I purchased my copy twenty-eight years ago in Montreal. Price: two dollars.

Access: Pierre le magnifique is in print from Stanké. Price: $13.95. The scarcity of the original, published in 1952 by the Institut littéraire du Québec, is a reflection of its failure in the marketplace.

Harry Lorin Binsse's translation also fared poorly. The McClelland & Stewart was followed the next year by a British edition published by Arthur Baker. As far as I can determine, neither enjoyed more than one a single printing.

Very Good copies of the Canadian edition are being sold online for as little as US$6.50; the British, which shares the same jacket, will set you back just a touch more. At 875 rupees and change, India's Gyan Books offers a print on demand version. Pay no heed, I am certain they're breaking copyright.

An Ontario bookseller offers signed copies of both the Institut littéraire du Québec and McClelland & Stewart editions at US$35 each. Trust me, they're worth it.

Related posts:

15 February 2017

A Small Town's Biggest Novelist

The newest issue of Canadian Notes & Queries arrived last week, containing all sorts of goodness wrapped in a cover by Seth. My contribution concerns Helen Duncan, the best selling novelist of St Marys, Ontario, our adopted hometown. I'm confident in claiming that Mrs Duncan enjoyed more sales than all others, if only because she also holds the distinction of being the only St Marys novelist to have landed a publishing contract. Her books were issued by Simon & Pierre, were reviewed in Books in Canada and, decades later, can be found in academic libraries as far from this town as Australia's Flinders University.

Mrs Duncan managed to get three novels into print, but the only one I discuss in any length is her 1982 debut, The Treehouse. It's a bildungsroman, a roman à clef, and heavily autobiographical. The family at the novel's centre is modelled on Duncan's family. The house in which they live – that of the title – is modelled on the second of her three childhood homes. It still stands today at the corner of Jones and Peel.

I spoil nothing in revealing that the fictional family later moves into this Queen Anne on Church Street South:

As the title suggests, houses play significant roles in this novel; one might argue that they are better drawn than the characters they shelter. The most interesting is that belonging to the needy widow down the street. The model for this house also stands, at the corner of Jones and King, and is for sale as I write.

A perfect gift for the obsessive Helen Duncan fan.

This issue's "What's Old" features two selections from Regina's Spafford Books, and three of my own: Three Novels of the Early 1960s by Ross Macdonald (New York: Library of America, 2016), Collected Millar: The Master at Her Zenith (New York: Syndicate, 2016) and The Complete Poems of George Whalley (Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2016).

Also featured are contributions by:
Marianne Apostolides
Max Beerbohm
Leone Brander
Jim Christy
Jason Dickson
Deborah Dundas
Andre Forget
Stephen Fowler
Pascal Girard
Emily Keeler
Richard Kemick
David Mason
Dilia Narduzzi
Sarah Neville
Suzannah Showler
Bardia Sinaee
Bruce Whiteman
Did I mention that there's a new story by K.D. Miller? Well, there is!

Suscriptions to CNQ – always a bargain – can be purchased here through the magazine's website.

Related post:

13 February 2017

So... not a bodice ripper

Unlacing Lady Thea
Louise Allen
Toronto: Harlequin, 2014