03 July 2015

Boum!



The Crime of Ovide Plouffe [Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe]
Roger Lemelin [trans. Alan Brown]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1984

On 9 September 1949 a Canadian Pacific DC-3 exploded over Quebec's Cap Touremonte killing twenty-three passengers and crew. Amongst the former was Rita Guay, the twenty-eight-year-old wife of Quebec City jeweller and watchmaker Albert Guay. The plane was to have flown between Montreal and Baie Comeau. Mrs Guay boarded during a stopover in Sainte-Foy, just as a special delivery package was being placed in the cargo hull.


Two weeks later, on what just happened to be his thirty-first birthday, Mr Guay was arrested. The tip-off might have been that an acquaintance, Marguerite Pitre, had had that special delivery package put on the plane. Or it could've been that on the morning of the crash he'd taken out a $10,000 accidental death policy on his wife. Maybe it was the sorry fact that he'd been having an affair with a teenaged waitress named Marie-Ange Robataille. Other names came out in court, including that of Guay's business associate Généreux Ruest, a tubercular watchmaker who possessed the very skills necessary to make the bomb. Such a sordid tale. It even turned out that Albert Guay had been lying about being a jeweller and watchmaker. He was a salesman.


This novel grew from the tragedy, but also from Lemelin's work in adapting Les Plouffe, his most successful work, to the screen. That the resulting film was such a great critical and commercial success surely inspired.

Lemelin's first novel in three decades, The Crime of Ovide Plouffe  bolts out of the gate. The year is 1948. Théophile is dead, Ovide and Napoléon are married, and Guillaume works as a guide on Anticosti Island. Josephine and daughter Cécile now live alone in the same Quebec City flat that had once been such a hub of activity.

It will be hard grasp any of this without having read – or seen – Les Plouffe. Because I'd sat down with the novel not two months back, it held my interest.

As the title suggests, this is Ovide's story. Much of it has to do with the unlikely rise of a jewellery business he runs with a crippled watchmaker named Pacifique Berthet. Just as much has to do with his marriage to former boot factory worker Rita Toulouse.

Readers of Les Plouffe will remember Rita as being a bit loose. They'll also remember that Ovide has always been drawn to beauty. Rita is so beautiful that her former fiancé, impotent Stan Labrie, has managed to have her named the new Miss Sweet Caporal. He's also given her money to sleep with men, all clients of his low-key escort agency.

This last bit struck me as a stretch, but Lemelin – his omniscient narrator, anyway – assures that a fair number of housewives turned tricks in post-war Quebec.

Sweet and tender Rita tells herself she'll never, never do it again. And of course she won't – not until the next time. But when Stan orchestrates a drunken afternoon that turns into something resembling both a game show and a ménage a trios – I won't go into details – she realizes just how far she's fallen. Repentant, and possibly pregnant, Rita confesses her sins to her husband. Humilated, Ovide seizes upon the betrayal as justification to begin his pursuit of waitress Marie Jourdan, the only woman in all of Quebec City more beautiful than his wife.

If you're at all curious, Marie is described as looking something like French film siren Viviane Romance.


"It was like a bad melodrama," begins one chapter. For the most part The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is just that. Les Plouffe lose a dimension, becoming cardboard characters. Plot is predictable and disguises are donned. I've not encountered such a concentration of exclamation marks since Thomas P. Kelley:
There was no doubt about it, his rock in Berthet's pond had made waves! He must be biting his nails now! Just wait, just wait!
That was the narrator.

At 408 pages – an even 500 in the original French – The Crime of Ovide Plouffe is Lemelin's longest novel.

It needn't have been.

There's an awful lot of repetition. Plot points are raised time and again, as if Lemelin has no faith in the reader's memory, while stretches of nostalgia intrude:
They were there to hear Charles Trenet sing "Boum! When my little heart goes boum!" and "The sun has a rendezvous with the moon," and "When I was small," and "Ménilmontant." Charles Trenet's genius symbolized gaiety and youth, relegating pre-war songs to the mothballs and anticipating Presley and the Beatles.


Lemelin's debut, The Town Below, is one of the best novels I've read this year; The Plouffe Family, his second, was nearly as good. So, what happened?

Lemelin set those two novels in what was then the recent past. The Crime of Ovide Plouffe was written at a distance of more than three decades, a period divided by the Quiet Revolution. Markedly different times, Lemelin struggles in depicting the past, inserting observations that disturb the narrative.

Or was it simply a case of atrophy?

I like to think that Lemelin had more good novels in him, but we'll never know. Diagnosed with lung cancer, he managed just one more book, Autopsie d'un fumeur, a memoir inspired by that death sentence.

And Albert Guay? He was hanged. Généreux Ruest was transported to the scaffold by wheelchair. Marguerite Pitre holds the distinction of being the thirteenth and last woman to be executed in Canada.

Trivia: Lemelin knew Albert Guay before the disaster, attended Rita Guay's funeral, and covered the subsequent trial for Time. In the novel, Ovide's friend Denis Boucher covers the events for the very same magazine.

More trivia: The novel was adapted to the screen in a 1984 production directed by Denys Arcand. Not quite as well received as Les Plouffe, this clip from YouTube is all I've seen of the film. Neither scene features in the novel:



Object: The first and only English-language translation, this particular edition is the only in any language to have been published as a hardcover. It's also the most attractive. I bought my copy – signed – at the 1992 McGill University Book Sale for two dollars.


Access: Dozens of Canadian universities serve, but very few public libraries. Alan Brown's translation enjoyed just one printing in hardcover. In 1985, McClelland & Stewart reissued the novel as a mass market paperback. It too enjoyed one lone printing. Both feature Brian Boyd's excellent cover illustration.

Very Good copies of the first edition can be had for ten dollars. One Montreal bookseller is offering a signed copy at $44.95, but I find this a bit steep. Lemelin was very generous with his signature.

Not surprisingly, the French-language original has done much better, going through several editions including a movie tie-in. Stanké is its current publisher.

With sales in the six figures, used copies of the French-language original aren't terribly hard to find. Another Montreal bookseller has listed a signed first edition at $25.00.

Seems fair.

Go get it.

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01 July 2015

'O Canada! our native land thou art!'


Canadian Heart Songs
Charles Wesley McCrossan

Toronto: William Briggs, 1912

For this day, on which we mark the 148th anniversary of Canada's birth, these words of celebration. Here Charles Wesley McCrossan takes Calixa Lavallée's "French-Canadian National Anthem", makes it British and encourages pride in a nonexistent flag.

'Twas a different Canada back then.

Progress.


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24 June 2015

La Fête: Il y'a 100 ans



For the day, verse from Octave Crémazie, father of Quebec poetry and – it needs be said – bookseller"Canadien-française" is available elsewhere, sure, but this is how it appeared in Fête national des canadiens-français: 24 juin 1915 (Quebec: Bédard & Gagné, 1915):


As it was then, this poem is brought to you today by the booklet's sponsors: M Gignac, M Giguere, Mille Noel, Mille Brownrigg, Mille Maranda and the Quebec City Transfer Company.


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15 June 2015

A Man's Struggle with Humiliation



Night of the Horns/Cry Wolfram
Douglas Sanderson
Eureka, CA: Stark House, 2015

Shame he isn't around to see it.

The year Douglas Sanderson died – 2002 – his twenty-two novels were many decades out of print. Two years later, Stark House brought back Pure Sweet Hell and Catch a Fallen Starlet. The last of his Canadian thrillers, The Deadly Dames and A Dum-Dum for the President, followed. With this volume, Stark House revives a fifth and sixth title; a seventh, Hot Freeze, will return this fall as part of the Véhicule Press Ricochet Books series.*

I read and wrote about the second novel in this pairing, Cry Wolfram (a/k/a Mark It for Murder),  a few years back. Night of Horns was something new, though it had always stuck in my mind as Sanderson's only Penguin.

Green bars and everything.

"A man's struggle with humiliation", the publisher's pitch, also stuck. Sanderson's previous thrillers dealt with murderers, drug traffickers, human smugglers, white slavers and political assassins. Here it's humiliation?

The struggling man is California lawyer Robert Race. Better known as Bob, he's made a name for himself by defending the disadvantaged. His latest case involves an immigrant named Garcia who is accused of having interfered with several young girls.

A lost cause.

His greatest victory involved Tony Fontaine, a latino teenager who'd been accused of dealing weed. Not only did Race get him off, he's clothing the kid and paying his way through college. Now twenty. Tony sometimes drops by the flat for a home cooked meal. Who can blame him? That Mrs Race – first name: Eve – is quite a cook… or not. What I know for sure is that she's a looker and is extremely amorous. Two years into marriage, the Races are as randy as ever.

Skirts rise, pants drop.

Trouble is that in springing his young charity case Race bribed a witness, and big time crook Al Kresnik knows all about it. He promises to forget everything if the lawyer agrees to pick up a suitcase and hold onto it for a bit. After some hesitation, Race does just that, only to be rolled and very nearly killed. He soon discovers the suitcase gone, along with his wife. This is where humiliation enters the picture.

Turns out that despite the married couple's incessant coupling, Eve had been seeing other men. Top spot was once held by fellow lawyer Paul Taylor, a neighbour from the floor below, but he's since been supplanted by bad boy Tony. It's almost certain that the young drug dealer – let's acknowledge it and move on – was the guy who stole the suitcase and tried to rub out poor Bob Race.

Faced with these harsh truths, the aptly named Race sets off in pursuit of the suitcase, Tony and his wife. It's in this that I found Night of Horns most interesting. Just what is Bob Race after? Retrieving the suitcase might just save his skin, but is he really out to get Tony? Or is it all about Eve?

Night of Horns is typical Sanderson in that the pace is frantic; like pretty much everything else he wrote, it begins and ends in a matter of days. Not much time, but enough for Race and the reader to come to hate Eve.

Do I spoil things in relaying that he finds comfort with a girl named Ginny Ferrer?

Give the guy a break.

Best passage: 
I'd met Mrs Fontaine twice before, once at the court, once at my office when she'd heard that I'd pay Tony's college fees. She had struck me as elderly, ill and pathetic. I guess I wanted her to be like that.
     She opened the door.
     She had on a negligee and a slip. The negligee showed most of the slip and the slip showed most of her breasts. Her feet were bare, her hair hadn't been combed in a while, her eyes were bleary and the rye on her breath would have knocked down a dray horse. 
Trivia: Night of Horns was first published in 1958 London by Secker & Warburg. The first American edition was published by Fawcett under the title Murder Comes Calling. Its back cover features dialogue that does not appear in the novel.


Might this be the work of the same hand that wrote the misleading cover copy on the Fawcett edition of Sanderson's Pure Sweet Hell?

More trivia: Adapted by Terence Dudley for a 1964 episode of the BBC's Detective. Frank Lieberman starred as Bob Race. Eve was played by the beautiful Barbara Shelley.


A Bonus: Another review, followed by much discussion about identity, categorization, markets and other preoccupations at Sergio Angelini's blog. 

Object: A 261-page trade-size paperback, mine is labelled an advance copy but is otherwise identical to the new Stark House edition that is right now hitting American bookstore shelves. Included is a very fine and informative Introduction by Gregory Shepard.

Access: Though Stark House has no Canadian distribution, Night of Horns/Cry Wolfram and its two other Sanderson books are readily available through the publisher's website.

Collectors may feel frustrated in that Secker & Warburg's true first edition is nowhere in sight. Not online anyway. Copies of the Penguin edition are plentiful and cheap. Prices range from £1.75 to £10.00. Condition is not a factor.

Murder Comes Calling, Fawcett's first American edition, was published the same year using the author's Malcolm Douglas nom de plume. Copies of this edition are just as plentiful and nearly as cheap. Prices range from US$3.44 to US$25.00. Again, condition is not a factor.

Good old University of Toronto has a copy of Penguin's Night of Horns. No Canadian libraries hold Murder Comes Calling.

* Full disclosure: I am Ricochet Books' series editor.

10 June 2015

A Rant on Saul Bellow's 100th Birthday



Today marks the one hundredth anniversary of Saul Bellow's birth.

Take my word for it.

The Canadian Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature and the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada have no entries. Why should they? After all, he was only born in Canada. He only began his education in Canada. He only decided to become a writer in Canada.

Saul Bellow wasn't even ten when his family left for the States.

Those aren't formative years, right?

Weird that we named a library after him.

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09 June 2015

About Those Butt-Ugly Laurentian Library Books



"'Butt-ugly' is a bit harsh, don't you think?" writes a friend in response to my description of Macmillian of Canada's not-much-missed Laurentian Library.

I'm not so sure.

I bought my first Laurentian Library book, Canada's First Century by Donald Creighton, in preparation for my first semester at John Abbott College.* Its pages had turned brown before leaving the campus bookstore. My second Laurentian Library purchase, volume two of Mason Wade's The French Canadians 1760-1967,  developed a curled spine, yet I never read the thing.

(Volume two of Mason Wade's The French Canadians 1760-1967 is nearly six hundred pages long.)


The Laurentian Library was meant to be Macmillan's answer to McClelland & Stewart's New Canadian Library. Cousins, they shared many of the same afflictions. NCL suffered no spinal deformities, but its pages were similarly discoloured. The covers of both were susceptible to wear; as with Tsarevich Alexei, the gentlest handling might bring harm.


Begun in 1967, nine years after NCL, Macmillan's series was heavy with Macmillan authors: Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Ethel Wilson, Mavis Gallant, W.O. Mitchell, young pup Jack Hodgins and others. It was an awkward list conceived with a weak eye on the academic market; the other concentrated on an effort to keep Macmillan titles in print and, by extension, in house. Robert Kroetsch's But We Are Exiles rubbed shoulders with Pierre Trudeau's Federalism and the French Canadians, which was followed by Erik Munsterhjelm's The Wind and the Caribou: Hunting and Trapping in Northern Canada.


The NCL offerings of the same years were the ugliest ever, but Laurentian Library's were uglier still. Future publisher Hugh Kane acknowledged as much in a 1973 memo to John Gray: "Our books are manufactured very cheaply, printed on newsprint, and do not contain introductions." Sadly, his push for a general editor, the introduction of introductions and proper production values were ignored.


Directionless, the Laurentian Library stumbled along for nearly two decades. In The Legacy of the Macmillan Company of Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2011), Ruth Panofsky counts fifty titles and pegs 1979 as the series' final year, but I know of over thirty more, including #77, The Periwinkle Assault by Charles Dennis.


I'd never heard of The Periwinkle Assault before today. The second volume of something called the Broken Sabre Quartet, it was followed by Mavis Gallant's neglected novels Green Water, Green Sky and A Fairly Good Time. The last Laurentian Library title of which I'm aware – #83 – is The Winter of the Fisher by Cameron Langford. It was published in 1985. Did The Winter of the Fisher mark the end of the series? If so, should we not acknowledge that the Laurentian Library went out on a fairly high note?

I'm not talking about the cover. I'm sure it was ugly.

Butt-ugly?

I've never seen a copy.

* September 1979, if you must know.

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