Archive for June, 2013

 Happy summer, my fellow reading friends!

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Colors passing through us

 

Purple as tulips in May, mauve

into lush velvet, purple

as the stain blackberries leave

on the lips, on the hands,

the purple of ripe grapes

unlit and warm as flesh.

 

Every day I will give you a color,

like a new flower in a bud vase

on your desk. Every day

I will paint you, as women

color each other with henna

on hands and on feet.

 

Red as henna, as cinnamon,

as coals after the fire is banked,

the cardinal in the feeder,

the roses tumbling on the arbor

their weight bending the wood

the red of the syrup I make from petals.

 

Orange as the perfumed fruit

hanging their globes on the glossy tree,

orange as pumpkins in the field,

orange as butterflyweed and the monarchs

who come to eat it, orange as my

cat running lithe through the high grass.

 

Yellow as a goat’s wise and wicked eyes,

yellow as a hill of daffodils,

yellow as dandelions by the highway,

yellow as butter and egg yolks,

yellow as a school bus stopping you,

yellow as a slicker in a downpour.

 

Here is my bouquet, here is a sing

song of all the things you make

me think of, here is oblique

praise for the height and depth

of you and the width too.

Here is my box of new crayons at your feet.

 

Green as mint jelly, green

as a frog on a lily pad twanging,

the green of cos lettuce upright

about to bolt into opulent towers,

green as Grand Chartreuse in a clear

glass, green as wine bottles.

 

Blue as cornflowers, delphiniums,

bachelors’ buttons. Blue as Roquefort,

blue as Saga. Blue as still water.

Blue as the eyes of a Siamese cat.

Blue as shadows on new snow, as a spring

azure sipping from a puddle on the blacktop.

 

Cobalt as the midnight sky

when day has gone without a trace

and we lie in each other’s arms

eyes shut and fingers open

and all the colors of the world

pass through our bodies like strings of fire.

 

Marge Piercy ~ Southern California Anthology ~ 1999

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a doctor's pilgrimmage edmund a brasset 001A Doctor’s Pilgrimage: An Autobiography by Edmund A. Brasset, M.D. ~ 1951. This edition: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1951. First Edition. Hardcover. 256 pages.

My rating: 8/10.

What a great little autobiography this was! Totally unexpected. This was one of the books I picked up in Hope’s fabulous Pages bookstore recently; so far my eclectic selection of books from that source have been overwhelmingly rewarding.

A Doctor’s Pilgrimage covers only a small portion of the life of Nova Scotia physician Edmund Brasset’s life and career, and it appears, from a fairly involved internet book search, that this was Brasset’s only literary endeavour. One can only assume that the man was too busy with his career and family to continue writing, but this lone work is interesting and well written and gives a wonderful portrait of both the man and the time and place he was writing about.

From the inner flyleaf:

a doctor's pilgrimmage edmund a brasset 001 (2)

The book consists of anecdotes of medical school, internship and work as a novice doctor in rural Nova Scotia, first in poverty-stricken Canso and later in a variety of other communities, ending in the almost utopian Acadian community of Little Brook, a posting which changed Dr. Brasset’s focus for the continuation of his medical career. Dr. Brasset never talks down to his readers; medical terminology is used with great abandon, but never to impress, merely to inform. Character portraits abound, as do retellings of local legends – a mysterious case of spontaneous combustion; the morning discovery on shore of an unconscious man with both legs recently amputated; a woman who believes that she is surrounded by ghosts – as well as asides referring to the author’s strong faith in both the goodness of humanity and the existence of a benevolent God. A very individualistic and opinionated (in a very good way) memoir.

A grand little book, in its happy minor key.

From the back cover, more on the author. (Aren’t these old dust jackets great?)

a doctor's pilgrimage back dj edmund brasset 001

And last but not least, the Kirkus Review entry for A Doctor’s Pilgrimage, from September of 1951.

A lively, likable record of a doctor’s rewarding if unrewarded first years in practice, and a little black bag full of fascinating cases, Brasset’s story starts when he left Halifax and the ambition to become a brain surgeon behind for Canso in Nova Scotia, where there was only fish and fog. After two years in Canso and a rising debt of several thousand dollars, Brasset was forced to leave for New Waterford where he married Sally, and his obligations increased in spite of a grateful mobster’s attempt to drum up business. A year on the staff of a mental institution widened his experience but did not increase his income, and finally he found a good practice in the remote French-Canadian village of Little Brook. Later given the chance to become a neurosurgical specialist, Brasset found the indifference and institutionalism of working with cases, as against people, less satisfying, made the decision to return to his country doctoring in Little Brook… A record of service which has warmth and humor.

The family eventually moved to the United States; during my internet research I found mention of Dr. Brasset’s son Paul, who is now a successful winemaker in California’s Somona Valley, even naming his winery after his childhood home: Bluenose Wines . (What an interesting little side note I found this to be. One reason I love the internet – such an abundance of rabbit trails one can happily follow!)

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zigzag james houstonZigzag: A Life on the Move by James Houston ~ 1998. This edition: McClelland and Stewart, 1998. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7710-4208-6. 278 pages.

My rating: 9/10.

When we first visited Calgary’s Glenbow Museum in 1988 to take in the controversial but beautifully presented special exhibition on First Nations art and culture,  The Spirit Sings, we were impressed by the huge mobile, four stories in length, that hangs in the open foyer of the museum. “You should see it when it’s working!” we were told; plagued by continual malfunctions in the sound and lighting system, the mobile was hanging dim and silent. When artist James Houston installed the work in the newly opened Glenbow back in 1976, it was lit by moving lights coordinated to the strains of Debussy’s Snowflakes Are Falling. Though we visited the Glenbow numerous times during our Alberta sojourn, and again in 2005, we were never lucky enough to see the famed Aurora Borealis sculpture in its full glory, but it was a memorable sight nonetheless. (A bit more about the sculpture here. )

'Aurora Borealis', Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

‘Aurora Borealis’, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta

Several of the anecdotes in Zigzag concern the design of Aurora Borealis, and Houston and his son John’s personal transportation of the fragile, 5 to 7 foot long acrylic crystal “needles” by U-Haul truck from Rhode Island to Alberta. I will be looking at the sculpture with fresh appreciation on our next visit. (We are hoping to visit sometime this summer, to take in the current M.C. Escher exhibit before its closure in August.)

Joan Givner wrote in B.C. Bookworld, 1998:

James Houston’s second volume of autobiography, Zigzag: A Life On The Move begins as he leaves the Arctic to start a new life as a designer for Steuben Glass in New York. He has just spent 14 years working closely with the Inuit of the Arctic. [Houston is credited with discovering Inuit were producing great art and single-handedly creating a market for it. He also encouraged Inuit to adapt their work for North American buyers.] As he leaves Baffin Island, he receives two gifts from the Inuit: a carving of a walrus and a paper bag containing $33. “You’re going away, everyone says, to try and make more money,” they explain. “If at first you don’t have money in that foreign place, we thought to give some to you.”

The original purpose of Eskimo carvings was to bring luck and protection on hunting expeditions. Houston needs both luck and protection as he leaves a culture unconcerned with monetary gain (the market value of the walrus is $11,000) for one in which it is the be-all and end-all. In Manhattan in the 1960s, Houston at first has trouble adapting to the tyranny of clocks and schedules. Soon he becomes acclimatized and delights in the theatres, art shows, lavish parties and holidays on yachts where kings and presidents and Nelson Rockefeller casually drop by. Houston becomes a successful glass-designer, makes a fortune, teaches art in Harlem, becomes a successful writer, designs National Geographic’s centenary cover and even marries happily.

 It is, however, the Arctic which inspires and nurtures Houston. “I am thrilled by the frosted, Arctic-like appearance of deep engravings on glass,” he says. When the Glenbow Museum in Calgary asks him to design a sculpture, he creates his Aurora Borealis which is four storeys high. It is inspired by his memory of the spectacular ever-changing display of the Northern Lights. Either the protective qualities of the walrus carving or his years with the Inuit prevent him from succumbing completely to the glitzy life. He never confuses technological advances with civilization, nor economic gain with success. 

The final pages of the book describe his life in a cabin on another island, one of the Queen Charlottes now known as the Haida Gwaii, where he now lives part of every year. 

That anecdote about the paper bag filled with crumpled one dollar bills shows up in this collection of memoirs, as well as in the ending pages of Houston’s truncated account of his Arctic years, Confessions of an Igloo Dweller. It obviously moved him deeply at the time; it also made a “good story” and that, in essence, is something that James Houston liked to have under his hat.

Houston’s memoirs skirt extremely closely to the “If you want to know how good he is, just ask him” school of autobiography, but they are saved by his occasional self-effacing comments. He turns the laugh on himself as needed, and his frankness and willingness to comment openly on extremely intimate matters give small but crucial insights into his character. Whether that character comes across as intended is another story altogether; I frequently feel that there is a lot being left out of Houston’s story of himself.

What he does share is quite fascinating. Through Houston’s brief vignettes in both Zigzag and the earlier Confessions of an Igloo Dweller, we get glimpses of the Inuit world from the mid 20th century to the creation of Nunavut in 1999. We also get glimpses of what made this extremely driven and creative man “tick”; his great love for and pride in his two sons, and his lifelong dependence on touching base with the natural world to refuel him for his bouts of big city-based creativity.

He was an iconic figure in more ways than one in the numerous spheres he seems to have effortlessly inhabited. I suspect he might also have been a rather arrogant man to have bumped up against if one did not share his high opinion of himself, but I bet a dinner party with Houston at the table would have been a memorable thing.

Zigzag was a very good read; it lost a point merely because the vignette-style format jumped around an awful lot (to be expected, one supposes, from the very title of the work) and left me frequently wanting more than I was given.

Another volume of memoir, Hideaway, about the author’s cabin on Haida Gwaii, followed Zigzag and Confessions to form a trilogy of sorts. I will be reading this one when I come across it.

A memorable Canadian and a very gifted man; a complex persona in so many ways.

James Houston passed away in 2005. His artistic and literary legacy lives on.

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brief lives anita brookner 001Brief Lives by Anita Brookner ~ 1990. This edition: Penguin, 1991. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-014538-9. 217 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

Our bookshelves are in a constant state of flux. We’ve organized them in various ways throughout the years, even, for a brief halcyon time, in alphabetical order by author, just like a real library. Of course, that was many years ago, and just after a major inter-provincial move, so our joint collection was much smaller than it is now, after 22 years in the same house.

Most recently I’ve noticed we tend to group our books by type, as much as by author. Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, and Bruce Chatwin share shelf space with Thor Heyerdahl; Lucy Maud Montgomery and Dorothy Emily Stevenson are bookshelf chums – or, rather, kindred spirits – both being represented by stacks of well-read, gaudily-covered paperbacks stacked precariously upon a few treasured vintage hardcover editions of their works; Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies, Timothy Findley and Jack Hodgins anchor the Can-Lit section, with Farley Mowat off in solitary exile in our son’s cabin across the yard; Megan Whalen Turner and Robin McKinley are close at hand, right beside Diana Wynne Jones, ready to provide a escape into a well-created fantasy world when the real world loses its charm, as it occasionally does.

Off in a quiet corner there resides a community of women – and a few token men –  who are just a little bit difficult, just a shade sometimes-dreary. Their company is not often called for, though occasional visits prove refreshing; an antidote to the high drama and more obvious humour of so many of our other authorial favourites. The sisterhood on that shelf includes Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen; Vita Sackville-West and Nancy Mitford have settled nearby, as have H.E. Bates and D.H. Lawrence, the last two gathering quite a lot of dust, I must admit, though not in any way destined for the discard box. Though perhaps a bit out of place among that company of women, the melancholy tone of much of their work has placed them among the introspective ones.

And that shelf is where this author is headed. Anita Brookner’s Brief Lives is a fitting companion to Pym and Spark and Taylor and their ilk. It is quite beautifully written with a cleanly distinctive style, and an appreciable quantity of understated humour; the author is obviously one of the “intelligent women writers” who seem to have split their time equally between observation and introspection. The books on these shelves are rather thoughtful books, and, dare I say it, women’s books, in a most intimate way. Though men frequently feature in them, the intellectual emphasis is on the female characters, and the insights given are very much those of the feminine point of view.

Not much happens in Brief Lives; what drama there is exists mostly in the mind of the narrator; she is one of the self-aware observers who watch and hear themselves and rather brutally analyze their own actions and words and thoughts and feelings, while still proceeding with their outwardly “normal” ways.

Fay Langdon, narrator and chief character of Brief Lives, was once a modestly successful singer with a promising radio career. This ended with her marriage to a highly ambitious solicitor, Owen Langdon. Fay’s focus was shifted to the management and embellishment of her husband’s house, and to the frequent entertaining and socializing his rising career made de rigeuer. The marriage is childless, to Fay’s gentle regret, but she fills her days with her wifely duties, uncomplainingly accepting of her new role in the world, yet continually wistful for the life she once lived.

I accepted this routine without demur. I felt no indignation that he should give priority to the office; I doubt if many wives did in those days, or at least the sort of wife who came from my background, which I began to perceive was a little too simple for a man like Owen. He was used to complexity, trickiness, ambivalence; he would rather, I thought, be intrigued by a woman than disarmed by her. He hated those moments of unavoidable truth-telling which occasionally passed between us. I really think that he hated desire. He wanted a wife who would cause him no anguish, yet at the same time he wanted to hold her at arm’s length. He never seemed to sense the incompatibility of those two needs, the one for trust and the other for distance, even for a sort of formality, and I soon learned not to draw his attention to what was, to me, faintly alarming, his abrupt cancellation of intimacy as soon as the occasion for that intimacy had passed. My fault was precisely this, that I would seek to prolong our moments of closeness when I could see that he was already restless with the wish to do something else. My mistake was to lie in his arms moist-eyed with tenderness and gratitude, when the correct stance would have been a certain detachment, an irony, as if to imply that he would have to love me to a much higher standard to convince me that I had to take him seriously. I should have found such a tactic odious, but now I see that it is sometimes necessary to meet withdrawal with withdrawal, dismissal with dismissal. I did not know this then, and because of what happened since I remain unconvinced of it even now, but I see that if a woman has it in mind to bring a man to heel she may have to play a part which runs counter to her own instincts, unless her instincts are those of an aggressor, which mine certainly were not.

Fay is telling her story from the present day, looking back on sixty-some years of life. She is now widowed, and, left financially secure by her husband’s careful financial planning, she seeks to fill her days with some sort of meaningful occupation. Fay is carefully social on those occasions, increasingly rare, when she moves about among the people whom her marriage made into her peers. She is constantly mindful of overstepping the bounds of casual friendship; she dreads most of all becoming one of the emotionally needy women who others dread and eventually actively avoid.

Fay’s friend Julia has no such inhibitions. A decade older than Fay, and much more successful during her own show business career as a diseuse, a performer of dramatic monologues (I admit that I had to look that term up!), Julia’s husband was richer, her popularity greater, and her social circle higher and wider. Julia is a supremely unapologetic egoist; Fay has become an increasingly reluctant participant in the shrinking coterie of “helpers” whom Julia has collected to pander to her needs and desires.

The book opens with the announcement of Julia’s death in The Times, and Fay’s glimpse of Julia’s picture opens a floodgate of memories, and we follow along in almost horrified fascination as Fay monologues on about her life, marriage, and long and conflicted relationship with the acidic Julia.

I found, though “nothing happened”, I couldn’t look away from this novel. And yes, it was dreary, but I didn’t find it particularly depressing, even though I fully appreciated that Fay’s and Julia’s declining years were brutally lonely, and that they’d lived their lives in ways that fated them to an increase in that loneliness as the years advanced. I think it was the writing that tipped the balance. Anita Brookner, if this book is in any way a representative sample of her work, has a very readable, crisp and clean style; Brief Lives was an effortless read, in a very good way. I’ll be reading more Brookner in the future, and, yes, shelving her (I strongly suspect) right next to her literary sister Pym.

The novel lost points for its rather handy but not terribly believable removal of Julia from the scene right near the end. I felt it was a total cop out on the author’s part, though of course it allowed the character of Fay more scope for introspection without the bother of coping with the physical and emotional demands of her pseudo-friend. In real life I think this would have played out in a much more extended and ultimately tragic way.

An interesting author, with a dedicated following.

More on Brief Lives here:

Heavenali’s Review of Brief Lives

And more on Anita Brookner:

Anita Brookner – Her Life and Work

The Telegraph author interview – “A Singular Woman”

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crewe train by rose macaulay 001Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay ~ 1926. This edition: W. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd, 1926. (One Shilling Library Series.) Hardcover. 307 pages.

My rating: A solid 9/10. It’s been several weeks since I read this rather shabby, more than slightly foxed edition of Crewe Train, but the character of Denham has walked beside me ever since.

TO

THE PHILISTINES,

THE BARBARIANS,

THE UNSOCIABLE,

AND

THOSE WHO DO NOT CARE TO TAKE
ANY TROUBLE.

I must admit that after that introduction I was already more than half won over, which was a good thing, for my initial impression of the characters in this quirky novel was that they were sincerely unlikeable. Our heroine in particular.

crewe train macaulay page 1 001crewe train macaulay page 2  001crewe train macaulay page 3 001 (2)crewe train macaulay pg 4 001crewe train macaulay pg 5 001 (2)crewe train macaulay pg 6 001And yes, in her twenty-first year, everything changes for Denham. Her father’s in-laws, the Greshams, the family of his first wife, descend upon the Andorran establishment for a visit, and, perhaps brought on by the unwonted stress of having to socialize so strenuously after a self-imposed life of seclusion, Mr. Dobie fatally succumbs to a stroke in the night.

Denham’s stepmother makes no bones about her distaste for her sullen stepdaughter; in her loquacious outpouring of hurt at her new widowhood she presses the responsibility for Denham upon the Gresham family. “You had better take her away with you to England!”

So they do.

Culture shock does not adequately describe Denham’s introduction to English society after her lifetime of relative seclusion. She allows herself to be tidied up and dressed up and trained up in the social conventions; these do not take particularly well though the continually bemused Denham does not actively resist her attempted makeover into a more socially acceptable “young lady”. She merely remains stoic under her Aunt Evelyn’s well-meaning ministrations and her cousins’ continual encouragements. She processes all she’s being exposed to, and does her best in her slow, wordless way to try to live up to the Greshams’ expectations; her success is not noteworthy.

Time moves inexorably on. Denham meets a certain young man, Arnold Chapel, a junior partner in the Gresham family’s publishing firm. Arnold and Denham experience something of a meeting of minds, though Arnold’s quicker intellect runs rings around the plodding progression of Denham’s thought processes. The two embark upon a shared life, and the novel details the peaks and valleys the two must traverse – some literal, most strictly figurative – before coming to a place of joint repose.

A very clever book, this one. I frequently felt much in common with Denham as Macaulay writes her own rings around my own rather plodding (though appreciative) thought process. I identified tremendously well with Denham; I wonder if this is a universal response? Or do the rest of you see her as the unrelateable (though ultimately sympathetic) stranger within the gates of intelligent society?

I suspect we all have something of Denham in us, as onlookers and inner critics of the chatter and occasional excesses perpetuated by the self-proclaimed intellectual classes of our own time. Perhaps this explains the lasting appeal of this mocking (but frequently tender) confection of a tale?

Crewe Train is definitely on my personal short list of “Most Memorable Books of 2013”, even though the year is not quite half over. I am very keen indeed to explore more of Macaulay’s fiction; this novel has wet my appetite for something more of her creative style.

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the rendezvous other stories daphne du maurier 001The Rendezvous and other stories by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1980. This edition: Pan, 1981. Paperback. ISBN: 0-330-26554-7. 234 pages.

My rating: The first and last stories in this otherwise rather mild collection elevate my rating to an overall 7/10. Otherwise, probably not more than a 5, or maybe a 6. All are worth reading, but most are not quite top-of-the-line for this particular author.

In the Preface, the author briefly explains her inspirations, and mentions that these stories show her development as a writer. I think a nice addition to this collection would have been dates of writing or of original publication; this would have added much to my own enjoyment as a long-time Daphne du Maurier reader.

*****

Some excellent, some not so much in this 1980 collection of short stories from throughout the author’s long career. All are very well written; the “less excellent” ones are described as such only in comparison to this author’s absolutely brilliant “best”.

  • No Motive ~ Why would a sweet-natured, happily married, expectant mother fatally shoot herself ten minutes after cheerfully ordering new garden furniture? One of the longer stories in this collection, and nicely plotted out. 7/10.
  • Panic ~ A casual love affair goes terribly wrong. Fabulously atmospheric, but ultimately slight. The dénouement comes as no surprise. 5/10.
  • The Supreme Artist ~ An aging actor gives a most superb performance off stage, and comes abruptly to an intimation of his own mortality. 6/10.
  • Adieu Sagesse ~ Two men from the opposite ends of the social spectrum plot their escape from tedious lives. Loved this one; the right people “win”. 8/10.
  • Fairy Tale ~ A slight and unlikely snippet of a story of a ne’er-do-well husband and his adoring wife. “Fairy tale”, indeed! 3/10.
  • The Rendezvous ~ I expected much from the title story of this collection. A successful author who has spent his life in observation finally arranges an “experience” for himself, only to be disappointed at every turn. In general, well done. But I wanted something just a little bit more. 6/10.
  • La Sainte-Vierge ~ Innocence and corruption. A snippet of a story, but very evocative of both. 5/10.
  • Leading Lady ~ Cherchez la femme… Another theatrical setting. Daphne used her eyes and ears well when about the backstage world. 6/10.
  • Escort ~ A maritime ghost story set in World War II. It’s been done before, but this attempt is reasonably decent. Nice detail on board the ghost ship. 5/10.
  • The Lover ~ A damning portrait of a rather vicious “lady’s man”. Didn’t really go anywhere as a story. 4/10.
  • The Closing Door ~ A young man faces up to a dire diagnosis. His lover unknowingly twists the knife. No shortage of symbolic situation in this one; I suspect it is one of the earlier efforts of the author. 5/10.
  • Indiscretion ~ Be careful what you say and who you say it to. Three lives are changed by a single sentence. A mite too contrived for my full enjoyment. 4/10.
  • Angels and Archangels ~ Religion and hypocrisy. The hypocrites win. A bitter little tale. 5/10.
  • Split Second ~ This story is the definite high point of the book. A middle-aged woman goes out for a walk, and comes away from a brush with death to a very different world. Or does she? Brutally pathetic, and perfectly written. 9/10.

Here’s another assessment of this collection:

Savidge Reads – The Rendezvous and other stories

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ringing the changes mazo de la rocheRinging the Changes: An Autobiography by Mazo de la Roche ~ 1957. This edition: Macmillan, 1957. First Canadian Edition. Hardcover. 304 pages.

My rating: 9/10. What a fascinating autobiography! It was definitely readable, and full of vivid vignettes, capably portrayed.

But is it factual? Perhaps not particularly, from what I’ve  found out in some very desultory online research. It is very much a created portrait rather than a true glimpse into what made its subject tick. Nonetheless, I found it a compelling read and I will be approaching my future reading of the author’s works with this self-portrait very much in mind.

*****

First, some background information for those of you (and I suspect there may be some) who have no idea who Mazo de a Roche was, and why I’m finding her story so interesting. Feel free to skip this section; my response to the autobiography itself follows at the bottom of the post. I’ve spent a fair bit of time this past few days doing something of a mini-study on de la Roche; I’m not at all what one would call a fan, though I’ve read a few of her books in the past, without feeling the urge to read everything the author has written. She’s not quite my thing, though I’m intending to explore her fiction more in the future, nudged on by the new knowledge I’ve just gained. An intriguing woman.

Mazo de la Roche was born in Ontario in 1879, the only child of parents who, while not exactly poverty-stricken, certainly experienced ongoing financial difficulties. Young Mazo was a self-described eccentric child, and an avid reader. She created an imaginary world peopled by invented characters which she referred to in her autobiography as “The Play”, and this world, expanded and lovingly detailed as the years went on, is thought to be at least partially the basis of de la Roche’s eventual epic sixteen-book series about a fictional Ontario family, the Whiteoaks, and their home estate, Jalna.

When Mazo was seven years old, her parents adopted her younger cousin Caroline, and the two became as close as sisters – and in some ways perhaps closer. Their intimate relationship was to persist until Mazo’s death in 1961. The young girls shared in the imaginary world originally created by Mazo, and as they grew up they built a shared life which seemed to preclude either of them marrying or living independently of the other for more than brief periods of time. Mazo had written stories and poetry throughout her life, but her ongoing bouts of ill health and the need to care for her invalid mother prevented her from spending as much time writing as she desired to. Caroline became the breadwinner of the family group, while Mazo stayed at home, nursed her mother, and wrote in her spare time.

Mazo had had some success selling occasional short stories to magazines, but her first real literary break came with the publication of a series of linked anecdotal stories, Explorers of the Dawn, in 1922. Mazo de la Roche was at that point forty-four years old, and her greater success was yet to come. Explorers of the Dawn made it onto bestseller lists of its time, alongside The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Louis Hémon’s Maria Chapdelaine. A foreword by Christopher Morley (best known nowadays for his humorous novels The Haunted Bookshop and Parnassus on Wheels, but a respected literary editor and critic in his own time) gave credence to de la Roche’s evident talent, and her distinctive authorial voice.

Two more promising novels followed, the critically acclaimed Possession, in 1923, and Delight, a less popularly successful Thomas Hardy-esque rural satirical romance, in 1926. In 1927, the work that was to launch Mazo de la Roche’s career into the Canadian and eventually worldwide literary stratosphere was published. Jalna was a a soap-opera-ish family saga centered on an old Ontario family, the Whiteoaks,  headed by a wealthy matriarch. Something about it caught readers’ imaginations, and, when Jalna unexpectedly won the prestigious Atlantic Monthly $10,000 cash award – a small fortune in 1927 – for “most interesting international novel of the year”, it assured its author’s financial security and allowed her the freedom to write full time. At the age of forty-eight, Mazo’s creative life was about to become very much the focus of an overwhelmingly adoring public and a varied group of intensely opinionated critics.

Mazo de la Roche and Caroline Clement, 1930s

Mazo de la Roche and Caroline Clement, 1930s

Caroline was now able to retire from wage-earning work and she took on the role of her suddenly-famous cousin’s housekeeper, editor, secretary, and collaborator in creativity. “The Play”, so precious to the two in childhood and maintained throughout the years, continued to expand in their leisure time, as the cousins ought respite from the pressures of fame in their shared imaginary world. Suffering continually from blinding headaches and trembling hands – and at least one bona fide nervous breakdown – Mazo found that the only way she could sometimes get her thoughts down on paper was to dictate them to Caroline. While Caroline always disclaimed any notion that she originated the plot lines and characterizations that Mazo was so famous for, both women were very open about Caroline’s role as a sounding board and critic.

Fifteen more “Whiteoaks of Jalna” novels were to follow that first astonishing bestseller, as well as more novels, plays, short stories and, eventually, several autobiographical memoirs, of which 1957’s Ringing the Changes is the last. Mazo de la Roche died four years later, at the age of 82. Caroline survived her cousin for some years; the two are buried side-by-side in an Anglican church cemetery in Sibbald Point, Ontario.

It is estimated that the Jalna novels have sold more than eleven million copies worldwide in the years since 1927. They have been translated into more than ninety languages, and were adapted for the stage, movies and television, with varying degrees of popular, commercial and critical success. Despite – or perhaps because of – their bestseller status,  the Jalna novels were increasingly viewed with scorn by the literary world as being too “popular”  and “melodramatic” in plot and execution.

Mazo de la Roche, in the decades since her death, has slipped into literary oblivion but for a few dedicated readers who staunchly read and reread the Jalna saga, and passed the books along to their children. Mostly daughters, one would assume, as de la Roche was seen as a “women’s writer”; her works were thought to appeal mostly to the bored housewife seeking sensation and emotional escape from the humdrum everyday round.

A recent (2012) documentary by Canadian film maker Maya Gallus has brought Mazo de la Roche into new focus. Both her ambitious novels and her unconventional and rather mysterious life are being examined with twenty-first century eyes. It will be interesting to see if there will be something of a “Jalna Revival”; I’m betting that we’ll be hearing much more of this not-quite-forgotten Canadian in the months and years to come.

Pertinent links regarding the recent docudrama:

NFB – The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

Review: NFB docudrama: The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche

Quill & Quire – Interview with Maya Gallus

*****

(When reading) the autobiographies of other writers …  some appear as little more than a chronicle of the important people the author has known; some appear to dwell, in pallid relish, on poverty or misunderstanding or anguish of spirit endured. They overflow with self-pity. Others have recorded only the sunny periods of their lives, and these are the pleasantest to read.

~Mazo de la Roche ~ Ringing the Changes

Mazo de la Roche and her beloved Scottie, Bunty

Mazo de la Roche and her beloved Scottie, Bunty

Ringing the Changes itself is a diverting memoir, and, if the author indeed intended to record the frequent sunny hours of her life, she by and large succeeded. Tragedy both major and minor continually followed Mazo and her extended family, and while unhappy events are described, they are not dwelt on or singled out as an excuse for pathos. I never got the feeling that the author was “wallowing”, though I occasionally shook my head in wonder at the sad fates of so many of her relatives, and, frequently, of her family’s beloved animals. They did seem, so many of them, to come to such tragic ends…

I must confess that I knew very little about de la Roche before I read this book, though I had a pre-existing vision of her as a rather reclusive, mildly eccentric sort. I had read several of the Jalna novels way back during my teenage years, but had certainly not found them worthy of any sort of “fandom”, as so many others apparently have. I did pick up a number of the books quite recently in a library sale, thinking that my mother might enjoy them, but she was rather dismissive of the series, so they currently languish somewhere in a box.

In this memoir, Mazo looks back to her childhood, and, once a bit of genealogical discussion is gotten out of the way, launches into a compelling tale of gallantry, tragedy, heartrending anecdotes and humorous vignettes. “Gallant” is a term I kept saying to myself as I read Ringing the Changes; so many of the people in Mazo’s life demonstrated this trait, in particular her beloved cousin Caroline, who was the epitome of selfless devotion in numerous ways, though she appeared to have a full and satisfying independent life as well. The Mazo-Caroline relationship is still raising eyebrows – were they lesbians? what was Mazo’s hold on Caroline? who really wrote the books? – but, seriously, it does seem like that particular relationship was one of equals. Both women apparently had romantic interludes – with men – at various times throughout their lives; that they would choose to stay single and in a “family relationship” with each other and various other family members surely is a purely personal matter and rather understandable given their backgrounds and that of their extended family.

The argument for “closet lesbianism” for Mazo at least is quite strong, or perhaps one might go so far as to speculate that “cross-gendered” might be a more apt term. From her own statements in Ringing the Changes, in childhood she wanted to be a boy, she related on completely equal terms with her male editors and literary advisors, and, perhaps most tellingly, she frankly states that she identified extremely strongly with one of her male protagonists, Finch Whiteoak, who is portrayed as artistic, emotionally and physically fragile, and highly conflicted in his romantic yearnings.

In Ringing the Changes it does seem that Mazo de la Roche was continually striking back at her many critics, the ones who denied her work any place in the “literature” canon, due to its popular success and formulaic nature. She is highly defensive of her own motivations, and this oft-quoted passage sums up her rather hurt tone well:

I could not deny the demands of readers who wanted to know more of that [the Whiteoak] family. Still less could I deny the urge within myself to write of them. Sometimes I see reviews in which the critic commends a novelist for not attempting to repeat former successes, and then goes on to say what an inferior thing his new novel is. If a novelist is prolific he is criticized for that, yet in all other creative forms — music, sculpture, painting — the artist may pour out his creations without blame. But the novelist, like the actor, must remember his audience. Without an audience, where is he? Like the actor, an audience is what he requires — first, last and all the time. But, unlike the actor, he can work when he is more than half ill and may even do his best work then. Looking back, it seems to me that the life of the novelist is the best of all and I would never choose any other.

Ringing the Changes, read as a stand-alone book without reference to Mazo de la Roche’s fictional body of work, “works” as a memoir which can be read for the pleasure of the tale itself. Mazo de la Roche was, as even her harshest critics freely admitted, a “born storyteller”, and this account of incidents in her life, as deliberately selected and edited as they may be, is a very readable thing indeed.

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