Sunday, September 29, 2013

Review: The Marquess of Queensberry: Wilde’s Nemesis, by Linda Stratmann

“John Sholto Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry has the unique and unfortunate place in the history of literature: he is almost universally reviled as the man who precipitated the tragic downfall of Oscar Wilde. The ultimate though not exclusive  responsibility of Wilde’s downfall must be borne by Wilde, who committed a criminal offence, had the man who exposed him put on trial for libel, and then lied in the witness box, but Wilde’s well-deserved rehabilitation as a literary genius and a good if not flawless human being has led to the demonizing of his accuser.”

So begins Linda Stratmann’s thorough and fair biography of Queensberry (1844-1900), a man who is actually famous for two things: precipitating the destruction of Oscar Wilde, and lending his name to rules of modern-day boxing. Stratmann takes us on a linear journey to show the evolution of this divisive and surprisingly complicated man—a man driven by a passion for athletics, by moral order, and a deep sense of his own importance in the development of 19th century Britain. The act for which he is most notorious for—attempting to drive a wedge in the homosexual relationship between his son, Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and Wilde—was actually the culmination of a life rocked with familial suicides, tragic accidents, marital incompatibility, failure to attain a peerage, and an impotence that spoiled any chance of him attaining any sexual satisfaction of his own.

Stratmann’s details it all: the suicides that claimed the life of both Queensberry’s father and one of his sons; the tragic mountain-climbing accident that killed his brother Francis when Queensberry was on the cusp of his 21st birthday; his troublingly ill-suited marriage to his first wife, Sybil, a woman of genteel refinement who had no interest in the obsessions of her jock husband; the reflection of Bosie’s flamboyancy found on his father in law; and Queensberry’s frustrating attempts to secure for himself a seat in the British House of Lords, an honour bestowed on his son Francis at the age of 27 when he hadn’t really done anything to deserve it.

Readers will also find a detailed explanation of how Queensberry was able to shepherd along the rules that would return boxing from backroom bare-knuckle bloodbaths and back into the respectable fold of the western sporting world. What’s interesting learn here is that Queensberry didn’t actually devise the rules that bear his name. They were developed by his friend, the sportsman John Graham Chambers, and were first applied only to amateur boxing. But Queensberry did pay to have a tournament challenge cup created for bouts fought under these rules, and thus his name eventually became associated with them.

One should not believe, coming into this lengthy biography, that Stratmann has written a hagiography that downplays the man’s heinous behaviour when it comes to Wilde. She doesn’t. But what she has written is a detailed portrait of Queensberry and how he became the surly and infuriating man he became. Stratmann rightly puts the blame for Wilde’s downfall on key moments of the playwright’s own hubris and naïveté, especially during specific courtroom scenes during the libel trial. We are, perhaps for the first time, able to see those scenes through Queensberry’s eyes. In the end, we may not be left with a view on Queensberry that allow us to sympathize with him. But we are left with a rich record that will help us to better understand him.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Thomas Morton Prize

Hey writers: The deadline for The Puritan's Thomas Morton Prize for Literary Excellence is looming. To mark the occasion, the journal asked if I'd write up a little something for its blog, the Town Crier, about winning the poetry category last year. Check my piece out here:

The Puritan has also extended the deadline for this year's contest to October 10, so get those submissions in. I know I will!


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Q&Q review of Extraordinary, by David Gilmour ...

 ... is now online at the Quill & Quire website. Gilmour's new novel found its way onto the Giller longlist last week, which I think speaks volumes about how much sway his reputation continues to have over tastemakers here in Canada. I was a bit surprised myself, since I felt the contrivance at the heart of this book (about a woman who narrates her life story to a half-brother she hardly knows on the night she's asked him to help her commit suicide) was a bit of a stretch, as was the nature of the head injury that have led to her being disabled. Anyway, it'll be interesting to see if Extraordinary makes it to the next round when the shortlist is announced next month.

And for those who are interested, I also reviewed Gilmour's 2011 book The Perfect Order of Things here on the blog.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: Day of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

I’ve always suspected that Russian is an aphoristic language. I don’t know what is it about sloganeering, maxim-making, and other lapidary bon mots that speak to Russia’s national mentality, but I see it all over that country’s literature. My long-held suspicions have once again been confirmed, this time by Jamey Gambrell’s translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s infamous dystopian romp, Day of the Oprichnik. With lines that echo back to Bulgokov (oh, that great zinger about burning manuscripts) and Dostoyevsky, Sorokin’s novel is very much aware of the traditions in which it is ensconced.

The year is 2028 and the setting is Moscow. Russia has morphed into a devilish hybrid of monarchy, hyper-capitalism and brutal totalitarian state. The men in charge of keeping order and crushing sedition are called the Oprichniks. At the height of their vicious acts, these men will yell out phrases like “Work and Word!” and “Hail Hail Hail!” They murder, rape and destroy—all in the service of His Majesty, looking to breed absolute obedience and loyalty from the Russian population. Our protagonist, the hard-drinking Andrei Danilovich Komiaga, is at once brainwashed by the Oprichnik fraternity and capable of glimpsing the world that exists beyond, the consequences of  violence and unwavering order. His is not a story of slowly revealed revelation—a la Fahrenheit 451 or Nineteen Eighty Four. It is rather his own distanced description of a world that he knows on some level is immoral and yet cannot control or find a way out of.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately Day of the Oprichnik just doesn’t hold together. Sorokin—perhaps in the interest of appearing original—relies too heavily on elision: we never get a sense of the broader machinations of the society he creates or how Russia arrived in the state that it’s in. Komiaga’s inner world comes off as rather hollow. He doesn’t really change or evolve over the course of the novel, doesn’t ever build upon his sense of the magnitude of his actions or the role he plays in this horrific society.

In the end, Day of the Oprichnik feels somewhat half-assed and derivative. It’s sort of a cross between A Clockwork Orange and Lord of the Flies, only without the heart or the moral background. This is a highly touted novel, but probably worth skipping.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sad Peninsula update: novel and author added to Dundurn site

I was pleased to discover earlier today that my forthcoming novel, Sad Peninsula, now has an ISBN number and has been added to Dundurn Press's website. You can check out the book's listing here and my author page here. As you may notice, the release date is still an entire year away (almost to the day!) but it's still nice to see things moving along. More updates to follow as they unfold over the coming weeks and months.