The title of Pasha Malla’s 2015 article in The New Yorker’s Page-Turner says it all: “Too Different and Too Familiar: The Challenge of French-Canadian Literature.”
Because it is a challenge to locate French-Canadian literature within the landscape of Canadian Literature, even for those of us who devote a significant portion of our reading time to CanLit.
The few volumes that I’ve read in recent years, I’ve loved, however; so I’m determined to unearth the classics and, then, explore more contemporary offerings. (Primarily in English, because I’m most comfortable reading at a middle-grade level, which means lots of cat stories and girls going for walks in the woods with picnic baskets!)
Roger Lemelin’s The Town Below (1944; Trans. Samuel Putnam 1948)
Scrawled inside the cover of my copy of this novel, in a schoolboy’s cramped pencil cursive, is “about five minutes” and “summary and best passages”. This is the kind of novel most often read (if at all) in a classroom these days: it’s easy to imagine someone being assigned a speech with these requirements. But in 1944, when Au pied de la pente douce was first published, Lemelin received the Prix David, the Prix de la Langue Française, and two Guggenheim awards. At that time in Canada, a successful novel might sell 2,000 copies; Langevin’s debut sold 25,000 in the province of Quebec in its first year. It takes readers out of the fields of rural Quebec and into the cities, it pokes fun at apple-stealing urchins but also the clergy and the politicians and there’s a spot of romance too. Even though I enjoyed his second novel more (see below), the initial appeal of this classic is still evident.
Gabrielle Roy’s La détresse at l’enchantement: autobiographie (1988)
At just over 500 pages long and in French, with a typeface that looks like an intern accidentally adjusted the setting on a copier to “made to fit” (lovely margins but teeny tiny words), it’s little wonder I’ve avoided this volume on my shelf for more than twenty years. But what a delight. One aspect which is especially appealing is that Roy spends about a hundred pages on her childhood, a period confined to a chapter or two in many writers’ autobiographies, so you feel like you really understand her long before she accepts her first position as a schoolteacher and gets to writing. For those who already have a familiarity with Roy’s work, like me (The Garden in the Wind, The Road Past Altamont, The Tin Flute, among others), there is a sense of her autobiography securing all those stories as she often refers specifically to situations which would later inspire a book long before she has begun to write it. But there are few spoilers in the bulk of the book (only in specific chapters where it’s obvious that there is more discussion of her writing and career) so this could serve as an excellent introduction to her work as well. And what a remarkable figure, who straddles the Francophone and Anglophone, rural and urban and northern, parts of Canada.
Roger Lemelin’s The Plouffe Family (1952; Trans. Mary Finch 1975)
What I did know about this story before I started to read? I loved the televised version when I was a kid. What I didn’t know? It takes place in the same neighbourhood as The Town Below, in Lower Quebec City, so within a few pages, readers have not only met all the Plouffes but also Denis Bouchard (one of a pair of key male characters in Lemelin’s debut, see above). John Moss’s introduction explains that Lemelin’s three novels are intended as separate works but “depict a world that is no less unified for its being somewhat distorted in each of the three perspectives”. In this instance of distortion, the mood is playful and entertaining here, despite its setting (wartime, 1938 to 1945). Although Moss suggests that the story is more about a people than a family, the grown Plouffe children and their parents, are distinct characters. “To think that while we’re having a quiet talk, men are killing each other in Europe, the monks are praying in this monastery, women are suffering in the poor houses at our feet.” These are characters concerned with settling out the details of their own small existences, who are grappling with the demands of the wider (English, Protestant) worlds as well.
Anne Hébert’s The Torrent and Other Stories (Trans. Gwendolyn Moore, 1973)
Beginning these stories on the heels of my Marie-Claire Blais phase? Perfect timing. Hébert, too, has these glimmers of fairy-tale imagery, and she is concerned with bringing experiences onto the page which are too often overlooked. In “A Grand Marriage”, for instance: “Augustin thought of his mother, crushed under the mountains of laundry to be washed, suffocating in the steam of the ironing. And he saw the strong, bony hands of Delia, the Métis woman who had shared his life for several years in the North. In the depths of his heart, he felt the injustice of the world, like an old wound, which he had sworn to avenge.” This collection includes “The Torrent” (1945), “The Coral Frock” (1939), “Springtime for Catherine” (1946-7), “The House on the Esplanade” (1942), “A Grand Marriage” (1962) and The Death of Stella (1963). Best read so that time elapses between pieces. Atmospheric and haunting.
With these four volumes, I’ve technically completed the Canadian Book Challenge, currently hosted by Melanie at the Indextrious Reader. This was the push I needed to focus more determinedly on Quebecois writers, but it’s a project I’ve been idling alongside for many years: I’m underway now.