WHITE FANG IN SUNNY CALIFORNIA

Winter in Ontario — where, as John Kenneth Galbraith wrote,”The seasons are good and strong” — can try the patience. So this March we decided that a visit to California, to see our relatives who had just moved there was essential to family harmony. Flying to L.A., then driving up the coast to the Napa Valley, north of San Francisco, would be a great inconvenience, of course. But for family, we all have to make sacrifices. Right?

Our sacrifices included being ushered around L.A. by my cousin Doug Caldwell and his wife Judy McAlpine (both formerly of CBC). Their place in the hilly Silver Lake district (and L.A. is made up of many distinct parts of the city) gave us a view of the famed “Hollywood” sign, while allowing us easy access to the old downtown core . And we were whisked from Malibu to the Huntington Centre and its Desert Garden, to the Los Angeles Library and the Getty Centre, and so on, before we staggered off in a haze of delight.

And there was no ice to chip off the driveway. At any point.

The drive up the Central Valley around Bakersfield, where North America’s fruit and nut crops are grown, was long, but instructive. The miles of orange groves are dropping millions of oranges, left to rot, for want of Mexican pickers. President Trump seems to have turned his back on this California problem.

We spent happy times in the hills near Los Gatos with two old friends, then paid — yes, paid — for  a hotel room near Half Moon Bay. We spent one afternoon, then a morning, walking along the beach beside the booming surf. Because I have Scottish skin (my friend Matthew Swan, of Adventure Canada fame, claims that he can get sunburned from watching a night-time fireworks display) I soon got a robust, red, sunburn.

Then it was, ho, for the North, across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to Sonoma and Napa, where Jane’s brother Michael is now based, with his Saskatoon-raised wife, Jan. Joined by Jane’s brother Peter, and his wife Heather (down from Kelowna) we had a fine few days of family reunion. We may even make the sacrifice again next year.

But what about Jack London? To our surprise we learned that this man who made a reputation for his books about the Klondike, later bought a ranch near Napa. with his second wife, Charmian Kittredge. Near the town of Glen Ellen you can still visit that ranch, and learn all about the experiments he made, to improve on the old system of ruthlessly mining the soil, and then moving on. His new system involved contouring his vine plantations so that, like ancient Chinese plantations, they would last for many years. His attempts to grow cactus for cattle and pig feed were less successful, and his ranch is now regarded as a failure. But the old Publisher in me was pleased to see that his expenditures on the ranch led him to increase his requests to his luckless publishers for higher advances on his next book.

But of course, Jack London was at the time, thanks to THE CALL OF THE WILD and WHITE FANG, the most successful author in the English-speaking world. In the Napa Valley today we can visit the Jack London Park and the Jack London Museum and learn all about his farming life, about which I knew nothing.

TWO ANNOUNCEMENTS.

You can get a copy of my Podcast (a decade by decade look at Canada’s greatest storytellers from 1867 onward) ABSOLUTELY FREE if you are on i-tunes. Simply sign into your i-tunes account and go to podcasts, and then search douglasgibsonliterary talks. You can download it for free.

Also, you can get a copy of my NEW AUDIO BOOK by encouraging your local Library to stock it. You’ll find that they ask you to fill in a form, where you explain that ACROSS CANADA BY STORY is an Audio-book, that it’s available from ECW Press, that it came out in January, 2019, and that the ISBN Number is 9781773053776 .(You might want to take this form with you, unless your memory is remarkable.)

Then they’ll order it, and you’ll be able to listen to my 16 hours of reading, FREE. And I’ll be very grateful to you.

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REACTIONS FROM CBC LISTENERS TO THE HUGH MACLENNAN CHAT

As you know, I used this blog to spread the word about my forthcoming chat with Michael Enright on The Sunday Edition. But I sat there nervously, listening to the show.

It seems that I was wrong to worry.  Lots of kind people got in touch with me to tell me that they enjoyed it. Sometimes they told me fascinating, moving things. One friend, for instance, really liked the positive spin I put on Hugh’s use of the term “Two Solitudes”. He said that he came from a family with a French-Canadian father and a mother whose language was English. At her funeral  he spoke about the successful touching of the two solitudes in the house where he grew up.

Others wrote about family memories involving The Watch That Ends The Night. One man proudly recalled that his father ran the Bookstore Launch for the book in Montreal in 1959. Another spoke excitedly of her recent discovery of a fine Dartmouth restaurant named The Watch That Ends The Night. Another wrote warmly about the book’s excellence, remembering especially the moonlit escape by canoe by young Jerome after his mother’s murder in the New Brunswick lumber camp. ( I recall when I put together the anthology, Hugh MacLennan’s Best, just after his death, that particular set piece leaped out of the book, although the book was full of very fine essay and novel selections).

As you know, greatly daring, I read aloud the passage in Barometer Rising where Hugh sees Canada, coast to coast, as if from outer space. My claim that this paragraph marked the start of Canadian Literature seems to have pleased a number of people. Many told me that they now had TWO books by Hugh MacLennan on their reading list.

The CBC people keep track of the impact of the programme. Before the show, the Toronto Reference Library had no “holds” on Hugh’s great novel. By Monday there were over 50  such eager requests. Even more today, maybe. It’s the perfect response to a show that’s intended to get people reading neglected books.

One of the other results was that people brought out their memories of Hugh the man. One woman contacted the programme with her memories of being a high school journalist who, with another over-awed colleague, were assigned to interview the great man, in 1962. Hugh was, of course, charming, and the interview went well. Afterwards he bought both of them a chocolate milk-shake. To this day, she says, milk-shakes make her think of Hugh MacLennan!

A West-Coast book trade friend recalled taking Hugh on a publicity tour. Hugh was concerned about my friend’s  limp, the result of weeks of lugging boxes of heavy books. The long-term implications worried Hugh so much that he insisted on taking my friend back to the Hotel Vancouver, showing him important back exercises, and even massaging his back. When he was in mid-massage, there was a knock at the door, and both the masseur and the patient roared with laughter at the gossip column possibilities of the massage.

Under Michael Enright’s shrewd direction of the conversation, I talked about how love was at the centre of Hugh’s great novel. But there was no chance to talk about Anne Coleman’s fine book about how friendly she and “Mr. MacLennan” became in her teenage years in North Hatley. She stresses that it was always “correct”, with nothing physical at any point. As an explanation, I’ve suggested that at the time Hugh was immersed in writing The Watch That Ends The Night, where one of the major characters is young Sally, who, like Anne, was a McGill undergraduate, and thus a very good model for Hugh to study.

Of course, people who have read ACROSS CANADA BY  STORY know that in Montreal I was approached by “Emily” who informed me that she was Hugh MacLennan’s daughter. The details of this proud love-child are in the book, and of the long affair Hugh apparently had with her mother. Fascinating.

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THIS SUNDAY ON CBC RADIO, AT 11 A.M.

Exciting news! Some time ago I sat down for an interview with my old friend , Michael Enright, in the “Sunday Morning” series about neglected classic Canadian books.

This Sunday, March 3 at 11. a.m. , or just after the news, you’ll be able to hear me talking about THE WATCH THAT ENDS THE NIGHT, the great 1959 novel by HUGH MACLENNAN.

As you’ll know from my chapter about Hugh in Stories About Storytellers, I believe that this is his best novel,  and I’m delighted to have the chance to persuade CBC listeners to read it….or to read it again! Michael  is, of course, a superb interviewer, and I recall being surprised by what he drew out of me, about this book, and about Hugh’s role in creating our own literature.

I’ll be listening with keen interest. I hope you will, too.

MY NEW AUDIBLE BOOK

Great news!
The fine folks at ECW have just launched a new edition of ACROSS CANADA BY STORY.
It’s an Audible version of the entire book, narrated by me!
When I have more time I’ll tell you what every actor already knows, that reading aloud for an audience, emphasizing THIS word, but pausing softly over that one, is demanding, exhausting work, sentence after sentence, page after page. But when the author is the one doing the reading. you can rest assured that the proper, intended emphasis is coming out. Very interesting, and sometimes surprising.
In this case the reading runs for 16 hours and 29 minutes, so the digital recording’s price of $34.99 is reasonable.
You can order the audible book — for yourself, or family, or friends who’d enjoy it — by contacting this site: https://www.kobo.com/us/en/audiobook/across-canada-by-story-2 .
I hope that you (and maybe your carload on long journeys) will enjoy it. Good listening!

CLAWS OF THE PANDA

As you know,in my blog I’ve been very pleased to talk about my old friend Jonathan Manthorpe’s new book about China and Canada. Well published by Marc Cote at Cormorant, it has shot on to the Toronto Star bestseller list — and has even gained a gold star for excellence in publication timing.

One of the book’s main themes is that Canadians have traditionally been naive in their approach to China.  Jonathan recommends a much tougher, more realistic approach in the future.

Which leads me to a story from forty years ago, when Canadian simple decency was almost lethal.

I  spent my publishing career concentrating on books and authors. As a sub-specialty, I got heavily  involved in Publishing Education, at the Banff Publishing Workshop, and then at the Simon Fraser Publishing  Programme. But I skimped in contributing to the politics of publishing. I recognise the importance of that work, and admire the public-spirited people who laboured nights and weekends in that area, but I avoided it.

Except for 1988, when I joined the Board of the ACP, the home-grown Canadian publishers’ association.

I remember a meeting held in Toronto right after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Like people around the Western world, the members of our Board were appalled. They wanted to do something helpful. They thought of our young Chinese friend, who had just spent a training year in  Canada, studying the ways of Canadian Publishers. After his own background years with the state publisher in China, he had proved to be a lively, helpful, and very welcome presence during his months in Canada, and he had made many good friends.

So, as decent Canadians, the Board was proposing to send him a letter of support. To a table full of enthusiastic nodding, the proponents spoke of a letter that would say, in effect : “We know you, we’ve worked alongside you, and we know how horrified you must be by what is going on in your country, and we want you to know that you have many friends in this country who are thinking of you now. This letter from the Association of Canadian Publishers comes with our best wishes, and our support.”

General satisfaction.

Then I spoke up. “You think you’re supporting him by sending him this nice, kind letter in a blue Canadian air mail envelope? You’re not supporting him, you’re fingering him, denouncing him. When this official letter comes in from Canada , it will be whisked away and added to his file. He may very well end up in prison, or even worse.”

No more nodding. Just general dismay. The letter was never sent.

I want to stress that these Board Members were all bright, intelligent people. This wasn’t a case of stupidity by stupid people. It was a case of idealistic Canadians simply being unable to imagine life in a totalitarian society where mail from abroad is intercepted, and foreign criticism of the country’s policy is unacceptable, associated with disloyalty.

When friends ask me what I did in the world of publishing administration I say: “Very little. But I may have helped save someone’s life.”

WARMING UP THE COLDEST CAPITAL IN THE WORLD

Ottawa is famous as the world’s coldest capital city, and the group of rowdy Russians in the Lord Elgin Hotel bar seemed right at home . When we were there on January 21, it was the coldest day of the winter here. So cold that TV and radio were warning people “DON’T GO OUT! STAY IN THIS EVENING!”
We knew that over 100 people had booked seats for our GREAT SCOTS show (about fine Canadian fiction writers down through the decades from 1867 with links to Scotland) to be staged at the Arts Court Theatre. But how many of them would defy the elements — and the terrifying storm of warnings from the media — and dare to show up?
To our delight, over 80 brave souls came to the theatre, and there was an instant sense of community. It was as if the fact that we had all trudged, or driven anxiously, through the bitter winds (the media had warned about wind chill of around minus 40) had made us all proud members of the same club. Unity through adversity!
Of course, we lost some good people, some of them apologizing for their “wuss” like withdrawal. And I was sorry to lose the older lady who had promised to ask me about Farley Mowat, whom she had known back in the original Mowat lands, where the visiting Farley, apparently, was a skilful peat-cutting man.
Finding our theatre was a challenge. When we came on another hall for an audience in the Ottawa Art Gallery building and shyly mentioned that we were about to give a show, the waiting technician swept Jane off. She was well on the way to having our show up on the screen when it emerged that the techie was waiting to set up another speaker, with an interesting talk about architecture. (We had to miss it because we were otherwise engaged — although it turned out that I knew a friendly man in the audience.) The main impact of our leaving the false-start theatre was that in the process Jane left her gloves and her toque. and in Ottawa that night their absence was serious.
Our group was in every sense a warm gathering. The two sponsoring groups — the Ottawa Public Library (Romaine Honey) and the Ottawa Scottish Society (Heather Theoret) — had worked hard to spread the word, and to arrange for a kind introduction for me. I began, of course, by talking enthusiastically about the people around us, some of whom were old friends, and even relatives. As usual, I found myself delivering a new, slightly different show. Perhaps the most interesting addition (for me) was adding to my Mavis Gallant piece. Here, for example, is what the narrator, Scots-Canadian Jean Duncan , wrote in the novella, ITS IMAGE ON THE MIRROR:

“My mother, presiding over covered vegetable dishes, received the passed-along plate on which my father had placed a dry slice of salmon loaf. The vegetable dish covers were removed to reveal creamed carrots, and mashed potatoes piled like a volcano, with a pat of salty butter melting inside the crater. The ritual of mealtime mattered more to us than the food. None of the women in our family could cook, and we felt that women who worried about what they were to eat or serve were wanting in character.”

Ah, Mavis! And ah, Bill Weintraub, who selected that great quote for City Unique, his excellent book on Montreal, which I was proud to publish.
At the end we had a lively Q and A session. Among the questioners was the old newsman, Hugh Winsor, who posed an interesting question about my work with non-fiction authors. I’m still kicking myself for failing to wind up with a lively summary of my work with Trudeau, Mulroney, and Martin, who famously said “Let me tell you what it was like being edited by Doug Gibson. If Shakespeare had been edited by Doug Gibson, there would be no Shakespeare! All the best stuff cut, and on the floor!”
At the end I signed copies of both of my books for the fine people at Perfect Books, and with 20 copies sold it was a good evening for them. And Jane and I got to see lots of old friends before fighting our way back to the Lord Elgin, sharing my gloves.

TRANSLATING YVES BEAUCHEMIN

The Globe and Mail on  Saturday, December 29, contained a book review written by the thoughtful Russell Smith.  The review is of Yves Beauchemin’s latest novel, The Accidental Education of Jerome Lupien, translated by Wayne Grady.

The review is headed “An all-around disappointment”. The sub-heading reads “The translation of Quebecker Yves Beauchemin’s 2016 novel is full of cliches, clumsy language and implausible scenarios that would do well as a humourous cartoon.”

Naturally, I rushed to read it.

I should explain right away that I know and admire all of the people involved here, even the people at Anansi who published the book. I always read Russell Smith’s commentary on the literary scene with interest. As for Yves Beauchemin, I am a huge admirer. I have thrust “The Alley Cat”, his 1981 classic, upon hundreds of readers, and in my role as Publisher at M&S I have proudly published several of his later books.

My enthusiasm was such that before publishing “Charles The Bold”, I dragged Jane around the mean streets of east-end Montreal’s Rue Ontario area in freezing weather . It was in fact so cold that when we took shelter in a nearby church, the tears that sprang to our eyes from  the temperature change meant that we were instantly at home in the funeral party that we had accidentally joined . Jane was impressed — not favourably — that we were roaming the icy streets to follow the landmarks in the life “of a fictional character?” For Yves Beauchemin it was worth it. His Montreal is always a special place. What London was for Dickens, and Paris for Balzac, Montreal , in all its modern variety, is for Yves Beauchemin

As for Wayne Grady, my admiration for this walking compendium  of bookish virtues is hard to express. He is an excellent editor, an anthologist, a non-fiction writer, a novelist , a reviewer….and a superb translator. I had the pleasure of editing his translations of several Beauchemin books. I used to enjoy my role of editing Wayne’s translation so much that I would joke –sotto voce — that instead of being paid for the work, I would happily pay for the pleasure.

I should explain that while my spoken French is childish (my ears and lips limping along behind the conversation, trying to imagine the sounds in print) my translation of written French is good enough that many of my short translations have been published, without complaint.

When we published Yves, whom I got to know and like in person, my practice was always the same. I had read the book in French, to start the publishing process. When Wayne’s translation came in, I would read it, setting aside and ignoring the French original. Only when something seemed strange about the English manuscript would I go back to the original. And  invariably I would find myself saying, “Ah, I see the problem. This is very tricky to translate.” And almost invariably Wayne would have made the difficult choice — skilfully — between  an uneasy literal translation and a dangerously free one. My faith in Wayne’s superb translating abilities is such that if he were now to use the word “Gadzooks!”, I know it would represent an equivalent old French exclamation.

Translating the commonplace conversational cliches of a difficult hero like Jerome Lupien creates a special challenge. For Russell Smith, Wayne Grady’s translation fails the test here, falling back on cliches. To which I  say, for crying out loud, Wayne’s everyday language surely must establish the banal level of conversation, and thought, of our anti-hero Lucien. It works for me.

Many of Russell Smith’s criticisms in the review are fair. This is not Beauchemin at his best. But it’s still Beauchemin. I found myself once again happily immersed in the world of named streets, and coffee shops, and brasseries, and bookshops, and enjoying the reading very much. And for a loyal Quebecois like Yves to plunge into the shameful swamp of price-fixing in the construction industry there, which has been amply proved in official enquiries, must have been a painful journey. It is a world populated by shameless lobbyists like Jerome Lupien that richly deserves  bitter satirical treatment.

So why did an  astute reader like Russell Smith not get more out of the  book? I have one suggested answer, which is, you might say, political. When the struggle for Quebec’s future was going on, Yves Beauchemin was the President of the Union Des Ecrivains Quebecois and a vocal, hard-working leader in the fight for independence. He and I disagreed about this, but  I admired his passion, and his use of words, and ideas, to make his case.

Imagine, then, how such an idealist must feel today, now that his hopes for an independent Quebec, a country of his own, are almost gone. That, I suggest, is what makes this book fascinating.

For instance, in the middle of the book Jerome goes to a Thai restaurant near Cote des Neiges, eating his meal “until a familiar voice made him look around. To his left, in the middle of the room, Jacques Parizeau, the former Quebec premier, was sitting at a table with a man in his forties who looked perfectly at ease. That said, during his university days he’d often seen the famous politician having lunch in a local restaurant — alone, on one occasion, an ordinary citizen reading his newspaper.”

“Parizeau had been his father’s idol”. Jerome remembered how his father had said…”that man REALLY works for Quebec. We’d be our own country today if it wasn’t for those cheats who stole the referendum from us in 1995.”

The revealing Parizeau scene concludes: “As he ate, Jerome snuck furtive glances at the former politician. He’d aged and was bent over, his grey hair almost white, yet the familiar intelligent energy and aristocratic presence that, among journalists, earned him the nickname”Sir Jacques” still emanated from his eyes, face, and smallest gestures. Simply seeing him made one forget the sordid aspects of human nature.”

Do you see what I mean? This is a deeply important book for people who wonder about what former fighters for Quebec independence are now feeling. It doesn’t make for relaxed, easy satirical fiction. It’s more like a lament. A new Lament for a Lost Nation. See what you think.