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Murray Pomerance and the Paris of Edith Valmaine

January 24, 2011

Last night I went and played at the Be There bar again, and found out there was sometimes an open jam after, so I joined in on that and played for another 45 minutes or so. But I want to take a little break from the music today to mention something about the novel I’ve been reading most of the time in recent weeks as I took the metro to my various musical events.

Edith Valmaine cover, novel by Murray Pomerance

Edith Valmaine cover, novel by Murray Pomerance

It is a unique and unusually poetic – and slightly mad – story written by a friend of mine, Murray Pomerance. It’s important to me because Murray was one of the most important influences on my own writing career, going way back to my university days at the University of Toronto. In fact, he was the guy who finally showed me the trick about writing a novel that helped me graduate from doing short stories to novels: “Start on page one and write every day until to get to the last page, 300 or so pages later, and the word ‘The End,'” he said. “That’s how you do it.”

Until then, I’d had 700 pages of Zola-esque plans for my first effort … and no novel. It just never occurred to me to start at the beginning, write to the end, and then go back and rework stuff after, where necessary.

I used to house sit at Murray’s place when he went off on trips here and there, which he did fairly frequently at the time, as he was – and still is – a professor at Ryerson University. He teaches in the sociology department, but always seemed to have interesting courses about things like films, photography – I think – and other peripherally sociological subjects. He has published many essay collections and books, including fiction, cinema studies, critical essays about Hitchcock and Johnny Depp, etc.

My best memories were of Murray reading out loud at his dinner table his latest works of fiction-in-progress. One that fired up my imagination was a collection of stories called “The Pick of Paris.” As I recall, he had a top flight agent, and the book was an “almost sold” at several top New York publishers, or at least one or two. But it never happened.

The stories, as I recall them, were very colorful, Fellini-esque tales of a Paris that fired up the imagination of an adult the way Disneyland would a kid. And Murray had a very colorful way of reading them that, whether the listener understood anything or not, he was entertained and left with a sense of a crazy world of the Pomerance imagination.

When two or three years later I ended up moving to live in Paris myself – and visited it for the first time – I must say that while I loved the place, I also found all sorts of inconveniences to life in this extraordinary city that Murray’s stories never touched on. Silly things like daily frustrations at the time of telephone booths not working, toilets being crappy as hell and without toilet seats, invariable illness during the mild winters, etc.

Murray Pomerance

Murray Pomerance

But as a splendid ideal of a Frenchness and a Paris-ness that might be, there was little to beat Murray’s vision. In some ways I thought I had found his inspiration in the writings of Ludwig Bemelmans, who wrote many novels earlier last century, and the famous Madeleine stories. Murray wrote the Bemelmans bibliography.

But on receiving this latest novel of Murray’s a few weeks ago, and sitting down to read his new portrayal of the world of Paris, I was immediately reminded of the stories from the “Pick of Paris.” But this time I actually held the book in my hands and read it myself. What a treat. Whatever you may think of the fantastic world he portrays, the prose is inviting, tantalizing, lush and colorful. And personally, while I like lean and spare prose, I also love the masters of colorful poetic prose – By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – and prose that really has a personal voice. Edith Valmaine is woven from that.

For me, the story that is told is almost secondary to the prose, the imagery, the feel, the ride. From the publisher’s site, here’s what the story is about:

“Edith Valmaine is the story of a man whose wife is habitually unfaithful. A story set in Paris, a city known for its love and its melancholy. A novel about more than Paris or betrayal. A novel about friendship and the small, everyday acts that make life worth living. Most of all, a novel about the tiny, exquisite events that cause the story to unfold as it does. The sound of a police vehicle near the river. Electric rain. The photograph of a man sitting in a neighbourhood café. A night ride on a motorcycle. The old, old story made new and unimaginably pungent by the skill of a great story-teller.”

But here is a sample of the prose, in fact, why not the opening lines: “Freesia were resting complacently on a table beneath the shelf with the willow-green Hogarth edition of the Freud, and the tea in the grey mazagran had gone cold. All of Freud was there, in gilded bindings from the Rue des Fosses Saint Jacques, and along with Freud Charcot, and along with Charcot Voltaire and Vouilly de la Tour and Talmouse-Lafontaine and Forix de Puydeville, even Lips of the Future. The obscure writings of the ecclesiastic Umberto Sorrego were in scarlet leather, three volumes, a gift from an old man in the south who had owned an old hotel, preferring in the evenings to discuss moral philosophy with young men in a room full of red velvet and flocked wall paper and with glasses of Cointreau.”

The edition is a fine one, the book is published by Oberon, one of Canada’s top literary publishers, and I hope Murray sells a pile of this novel to ensure we get a few more of them – why not, for instance, the Pick of Paris, finally!?!?!

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