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Crime fiction from Québec: Cloudy by the end of the day by Jacques Côté

April 23, 2017 10 comments

Cloudy by the end of the day by Jacques Côté. (2000) Original French (Québec) title: Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée. 

Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is set in Quebec City in 1976 just before the Montreal Olympics and it’s the first installment of the Lt Daniel Duval series. Duval is a thirty-six-year-old widower living with his teenage daughter Michelle. He used to work in the Montreal police force, the SQ (Sécurité du Québec). He relocated to Québec after his wife’s death.

His partner is Louis Harel, a fat man whose personal life clashes with Duval’s. Duval runs marathons, takes care of his daughter and generally lives a quiet and healthy life. Harel gorges himself with cakes, he’s married but unfaithful and he’s now infatuated with a dancer/junkie. Duval is more respectful and intellectual than Harel. We’re in 1976, feminism is in full force and it’s another difference between the two men: Duval is a modern man, he acknowledges women’s rights and respects their fight for equality. Harel is a womanizer who objectifies women but still fell in love with his mistress Sandra. He’s the kind of man who can’t take care of himself after a divorce because he can’t iron, cook or clean after himself. The Duval/Harel duo resembles the John Kelly and Andy Sipowicz duo in the first seasons of NYPD Blue. Harel is irritating and gets on Duval’s nerves but there’s a real bond between the two.

Now that we know the detectives a bit better, the plot. When the book opens, we are introduced to a troubled young man with a big chip on his shoulder. H. has a long past as a delinquent and comes from a broken home. He lost his parents when he was a child; they died in a car accident and he went to live with his aunt. His cousin Paul was like a brother to him and H. never recovered from Paul’s death that happened during a car chase with the police. H. is fascinated by cars, speed and car wreckages.

H. got a diploma in mechanics in prison and he’s on probation working in a garage. But the other employees pick at him, he’s only doing menial tasks and he’s not using his skills as a mechanics. He gets humiliated one time too many, he fights back and gets fired. This pushes him over the edge.

He wants revenge for all the wrongs in his life and starts shooting at cars from a bridge over the boulevard Duplessis, the ring of Quebec City. Cars drive fast on this motorway and the shootings lead to car crashes. And H. loves watching car crashes, the sirens of the firetrucks and ambulances arriving on site. H. signs his crimes with 1000 Bornes game cards. He feels powerful and in control of other people’s lives.

Duval and Harel have to track down the killer who shoots at random and plays cat and mouse with them. The plot is classic crime fiction with policemen chasing after a dangerous killer. I wasn’t impressed by the plot but I loved the setting and the language.

Jacques Côté attended Quais du Polar and I had the opportunity to ask him questions about this series. I asked why he set his books in 1976. He said that he loves US crime fiction from the 1970s, the clothes and the music of that time. He wanted to give life to Quebec City in this decade.

He also said once that Quebec people are Francophones with a North American lifestyle. It stayed with me and came to my mind when I visited Québec last summer and it struck me as true when I read his book. There’s this familiarity mixed with differences. The architecture, the cars and the lifestyle make you feel like you’re in America and yet everything is in French. In appearance, it’s Anglo-Saxon and yet, you feel you’re in France when Duval can’t go to the Saint-Sacrement hospital because they’re on strike. (!!)

The French in Nébulosité croissante en fin de journée is different from the French from France, obviously. I expected a lot of different words and expressions because Quebec speakers still use old French words that we don’t use anymore but still understand. French people know Quebec Francophones as purists who refuse to use English words in their French, to protect the language. I didn’t expect all the English words or expressions I found in this novel.  I asked Jacques Côté about it and he said he did it on purpose to reflect the 1970s language. The fight to keep the French devoid of English words started after the 1970s. He also mentioned that it is a way to differentiate social classes. The working class uses a lot more of English words in their French than the upper classes.

I know it’s a paradox but I thought you needed to speak English very well to fully understand Jacques Côté. There are all these English words but more importantly all these expressions that are literally translated from the English. I knew the English under this French, so I understood but I’m not sure a French would understand them otherwise. Here are a few examples:

  • La salle de lavage se trouvait à dix mètres des casiers. In English, The laundry room was ten meters away from the lockers. In French from France, La buanderie se trouvait à dix mètres des caves. The expression salle de lavage is the literal translation of laundry room and the exact French word for it is buanderie.
  • He uses the French word pot for pot (weed) while in France we’d say herbe. Weed means mauvaise herbe in French and un pot is more a jar or a tin.
  • Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu le damné store qu’il voulait remplacer par un voile. In English, He had slept soundly and hadn’t heard the damned blind that he wanted to replace with a curtain. In French from France: Il avait dormi profondément et n’avait pas entendu ce sacré store qu’il voulait remplacer par un rideau. You see here that the English swear word damned is replaced by the French damné, a word that exists but is only used in the religious sense in France. Ironically, the French equivalent of damned as a curse word is sacré, which means sacred. One religious word for the other!
  • Il voulut aller au Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce magasin à rayons. In English, He wanted to go to Towers but he remembered that the judge had forbidden him to go to this department store. In French from France, Il voulut aller à Towers mais il se rappela que le juge lui avait interdit d’aller dans ce grand magasin. Magasin à rayons is the literal translation of department store. I don’t know why Quebec speakers don’t use the word grand magasin for department store. This word exists since the 19th century, think of Au Bonheur des dames by Zola.

I find all these details fascinating and I loved tracking them down. I’m happy to have a Quebec edition of Côté’s book. Some French publishers ask to Québec writers to amend their books to better suit the French public. I don’t agree with this. I wouldn’t want a Quebec character to speak like a Parisian. It would sound artificial and it’s disrespectful for the author. We need to respect the diversity of the Francophony, it keeps the French language alive.

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

December 23, 2016 14 comments

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny (2007) French title: Sous la glace.

I know everybody’s doing end-of-year posts and all but I’m not quite ready to let 2016 go yet. 2017 is still one week away! So, I’m writing another billet.

penny_fatal_graceLast year I read Still Life by Louise Penny and enjoyed it so much that I bought the second instalment in her Armand Gamache series, A Fatal Grace. Armand Gamache is the head of the investigation department in the Sûreté du Québec. As in Still Life, A Fatal Grace is set in the fictional village of Three Pines. It’s located in Québec, in the Eastern Townships, the part of Québec between Montreal and the American Border.

The villagers are preparing Christmas in quaint Three Pines and the festivities include a traditional curling tournament on a frozen lake. A newcomer to Three Pines named CC de Poitiers is murdered during this tournament, electrocuted on the lake. CC de Poitiers had managed to alienate the village against her, her spineless husband and her neglected and unhappy daughter. CC neglects her daughter and openly treats her bad. She has a lover, Saul, that she brought around Three Pines for the holidays. She just wrote a self-help book and is convinced she will be famous and successful. She doesn’t hesitate to trample on everyone who’s on her way to success. But nobody ever thought she could be murdered, especially in these circumstances.

No. It was almost impossible to electrocute someone these days, unless you were the governor of Texas. To do it on a frozen lake, in front of dozens of witnesses, was lunacy. Someone had been insane enough to try. Someone had been brilliant enough to succeed.

Armand Gamache comes from Montreal to solve the case. He’s accompanied by his second in command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. Gamache is rather happy to visit Three Pines and reacquaint himself with Clara and her husband Peter or Gabriel and Olivier, the gay couple who operate the B&B.

It is a classic whodunit but the setting does everything. It’s Christmas time and the descriptions of Québec at this time of year make you want to hop on the next flight and see it by yourself.

Everyone looked alike in the Quebec winter. Like colorful marshmallows. It was hard to even distinguish men from women. Faces, hair, hands, feet, bodies, all covered against the cold.

Armand Gamache is an engaging character, a middle-aged chief inspector who’s been married to his wife for a few decades.

They’d both swelled since they’d first met. There was no way either would get into their wedding clothes. But they’d grown in other ways as well, and Gamache figured it was a good deal. If life meant growth in all directions, it was fine with him.

Thankfully for him, his private life is stable and he’s good at solving crimes. However, he made himself enemies in the Sûreté du Québec in a previous case. These bigwigs are still after him and not against using inside intelligence and underhanded methods to undermine his reputation. This plot thread started in Still Life, goes on in Fatal Grace and is not solved. This is something Louise Penny shares with Anne Perry: a brilliant and humane investigator in a stable relationship but not always in the good graces of his hierarchy. Gamache is one of these intuitive investigators that make the salt of this brand of crime fiction.

Gamache was the best of them, the smartest and bravest and strongest because he was willing to go into his own head alone, and open all the doors there, and enter all the dark rooms. And make friends with what he found there. And he went into the dark, hidden rooms in the minds of others. The minds of killers. And he faced down whatever monsters came at him. He went to places Beauvoir had never even dreamed existed.

Louise Penny writes in English but her prose reflects the geography of her novels and a lot of French words are laced in her English prose. And for a French speaking reader with English as a second language like me, it’s a delight. You find expressions like a one-vache village (in full English, a one-cow village) or sentences like I don’t mind tea,’ Clara raised her mug to them, ‘even tisane. (tisane means herbal tea) or they drove over the Champlain bridge and onto the autoroute (autoroute means motorway) I don’t know how Anglophone-only readers deal with this but for me, it’s a pleasure and it reflects how closely interlaced the two worlds and the two languages are in this part of Québec. But some habits are definitely French:

Gamache held the chair for Em and looked after the young man going to the cappuccino machine to make their bowls of café au lait.

They’re drinking café au lait in bowls. Typically French and French Canadian, apparently. Last Christmas, we had an Australian student at home. She was glad to see that, as she had learnt in French class back in Perth, we really do drink coffee and tea in bowls in France!

A Fatal Grace is a good read for a winter afternoon around Christmas and I’ll continue with the series.

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Javotte by Simon Boulerice

October 11, 2016 7 comments

Javotte by Simon Boulerice (2012) Not translated into English.

I was browsing through the shelves of French Canadian literature in a bookshop in Québec City when I spotted Javotte by Simon Boulerice. I wanted to read something contemporary, something about today’s French Canadians and not a bleak tale about peasants or the working class in the 1940s or the life a new immigrant in Montreal. I wanted to read a light novel anchored in the present and devoid of clichés. So Javotte it was.

Javotte Tremaine is 17 and when the books opens, she tells us how a car accident broke her feet and left her without a father. It’s a short chapter of barely one and a half page but it sets the tone of this first person narrative.

C’est une douleur exceptionnelle : mes deux pieds ont cassé en deux. Un instant ils étaient là, ces pieds, élancés pareil à ma silhouette, sur le tableau de bord où je les peinturais de rouge. (…)

L’instant d’après, mes pieds sont broyés, dans une forme nouvelle et compliquée. Ils sont là, devant moi. Ils reposent sur le tiroir cassé de la boîte à gants, comme dans un écrin. Mes pieds : deux bijoux émiettés.

It is an excruciating pain: my two feet have broken in two. One moment they are here on the dashboard, these feet, long and slim like my figure. I was painting them up in red. (…)

The next moment my feet are smashed into a new and complicated shape. Now they’re here before me. They lay on the broken drawer of the glove compartment as in a jewelry case. My feet: two crumbled jewels.

boulerice_javotteIt is tragic but told from a quirky angle. Javotte is a novella composed of short and punchy chapters and we’re always sharing Javotte’s thoughts. She’s your typical adolescent full of angst and self-deprecation. She thinks she’s gangly and ugly. She plays it tough and considers herself mean even if her self-protection walls aren’t as tall and thick as she’d like them to be. She has a huge crush on Luc, the star player of the basketball team at the high school. She’s jealous of the pretty Carolanne who captured Luc’s attention.

If Javotte could be summed up to this, it would be banal, another teenage book about adolescence, a pale Québec cousin of the Linnea trilogy by Katarina Mazetti.

But Javotte also lives with a coldhearted mother who holds her responsible for her husband’s death and favors her younger daughter Anastasia. (Or so we’re told, through Javotte’s eyes) Her relationship with Anastasia is rocky. It’s not based on equal footing and Javotte manipulates her gullible younger sister.

Javotte was close to her father and her loss is indescribable. Her grief doesn’t show in a straightforward and obvious way. It puzzles people around her. She seems odd. She’s a little nasty.

All these elements could lead to a bleak story laced with melodrama but Simon Boulerice dodges the drama bullet. His Javotte is bold. She experiments life. She has a peculiar thought process and seeks comfort in odd places. Out of spite and to have something on her, Javotte engages in casual sex with Carolanne’s father, Stéphane. This secret makes her feel powerful. There’s absolutely no romance in this relationship, only lust and opportunity. You can imagine that Javotte is not into political correctness. Its main character is blunt, it’s rather graphic, it talks about homosexuality, aids and is about a girl who’s far from the cliché of romantic teenagers. I bet it would make it on the Frequently Challenged book list in the US if it were translated into English.

Behind this assertive façade, Javotte isn’t that strong, that indifferent to others’ reactions. She’s looking for affection, something scarce in her life after her father’s death. I liked her spunk.

Au retour en classe, notre prof de français nous demande de nous définir. Un adjectif et une comparaison.

Carolanne écrit : « Belle comme le jour »

Luc écrit : « Sportif comme Saku Koivu »

Camille écrit : « Intelligente comme Simone de Beauvoir. »

Moi, j’ose : « Suave comme un verre de lait. »

Notre prof trouve que je me démarque par mon originalité.

Je suis du même avis.

Back in class, our French teacher asks us to write a definition of ourselves. With an adjective and a comparison.

Carolanne writes: “As beautiful as daylight”

Luc writes: “As athletic as Saku Koivu”

Camille writes: “As intelligent as Simone de Beauvoir”

Me, I dare to write: “As suave as a glass of milk”

Our teacher thinks my quirkiness stands out.

 I agree with her.

You know what? Me too.

PS: Unfortunately, Javotte is not available in English. I hope that an Anglophone publisher picks it one of these days.

 

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

October 2, 2016 9 comments

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay. (1978) Original French title: La gross femme d’à côté est enceinte.

Michel Tremblay was born in Montreal in 1942. He’s one of the most famous writers in Québec, well-known for his plays and novels. The Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal is a series of six novels set in the Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood in Montreal. The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the first volume of this series.

Everything in this novel happens on May 2nd, 1942. Spring is back, the sun is out and it’s the first warm day of the season. A forty-two years old woman is pregnant and stuck in an apartment of this popular neighborhood of Montreal. She’s never named but the family around her is. An extended family shares this apartment. The matriarch is Victoire, 75, a formidable dame who frightens or disgusts her grand-children. She has three children: Edouard, 35, single; Albertine, married to Paul and who has two children, Thérèse (11) and Marcel (4) and Gabriel, married to the pregnant woman and father of Richard (11) and Philippe (8). Six adults and four children live together. Paul is away at war on Great-Britain’s side. A fifth child is on the way.

Tremblay describes the life of the family from several points of view, the adults, the children. It goes outside the apartment, in the neighborhood and the reader discovers different people who have interactions with this family. Three old ladies knitting sweaters are ghosts acting as guardian angels for the inhabitants. Tremblay transforms the reader into an omniscient fly. He takes us everywhere and makes us witness of everyday life scenes. He shows snapshots of life in Montreal at the time. He gives us access to the characters’ innermost thoughts, one of them being a cat. Dialogues are written in typical Canadian French and the reader can hear the accent. All the characters are linked to each other, one way or the other. We follow the threads of the connections and fly from one household to the other, from one present to the other with backward glances at the past.

Not everything is joyful. Not everything is friendly. There’s a feeling of joyous mayhem in the house, of noisy meals, of adults making efforts to get along. Victoire dominates her son Edouard, who seems almost castrated by her presence. Albertine is worried about Paul and not overly fond of her role as a mother. She’s a bit jealous of the obvious tenderness between Gabriel and his wife. The children are more or less left on their own. Adults rely on Thérèse to watch Marcel. They form a group with its own rules and allegiances. Thérèse is on the threshold of adolescence and starts talking back to her mother. And the fat pregnant woman loves her husband very much, really wants that last baby and entertains herself with books.

Tremblay pictures the prostitutes who live around the block, the other pregnat women and the stories behind their pregnancies, the shopkeeper Marie-Sylvia and her cat Duplessis. This is a blue collar neighborhood, the one Tremblay grew up in.

WWII is in the back ground. Paul has been mobilized. Gabriel is at home because his wife is pregnant and the rumor mill works overtime: did he knock his wife up to avoid going to war? I didn’t know WWII had impacted Canada that much, with men at war and ration coupons. Tremblay relays a bit of rebellion against the thought of fighting for Great-Britain’s benefit. People don’t feel like this war is theirs too.

Through the descriptions, the reader grasps the workings of the society of the time. Old Tante Ti Lou used to live in Ottawa just a few decades after it was founded and is full of spicy stories about it. Victor Hugo was censored. The women from Plateau Mont-Royal never go to the English-speaking parts of the city. At the Parc Lafontaine, where Thérèse takes the children for the day, it is forbidden for boys over six years old to go on the playgrounds with girls. The authorities considered that swings and other games could show the girls’ panties and that it was improper for boys over six to see them, even if they were family. This rule is a problem for our group of children: Richard and Philip can’t go and play with Thérèse and Marcel.

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is a wonderful introduction to popular French Canadian language. Spoken language is transcribed on paper and it makes the picture even more vivid. It transports the reader back in time. It adds an indispensable soundtrack to accompany the images Tremblay creates. I checked out the first pages of the English translation and I’m afraid the accent is gone. To imagine what it sounds like, think of Thomas Hardy’s rendition of peasant speech: words cut-off, local expressions, popular dialogues.

Tremblay’s novel is full of nostalgia but not sad. It is a way to keep this neighborhood alive and give it immortality through literature. It is a faithful and good natured homage to small people. You imagine women meeting at the grocery stores, gossiping and calling each other from one flat to the other. You picture children playing on the streets with running noses and banged up knees. Tremblay winks at us and takes us for a ride in his childhood neighborhood. It’s like visiting Newark with Roth or listening to Renaud sing Les dimanches à la con. A fantastic trip down memory lane. I loved this book so much that I have already bought the second volume, Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Sex, jazz and literature or when Bukowski meets Baldwin

September 18, 2016 33 comments

How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (1985) Original French title: Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Cette chambre est bien le Q.G. de tout ce que cette ville compte de marginales ; cette mafia urbaine qui a trouvé d’instinct son île au 3670 de la rue Saint-Denis, au carré Saint-Louis, Montréal, Québec, Canada, Amérique, Terre. CHEZ MOI. This room is really the HQ of every marginal girl of this city, this urban mafia who instinctively found their island at 3670, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Louis quarter, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, America, Earth. MY HOME.

LaferrièreWhy did I wait so long to read Dany Laferrière? My trip to Québec prompted me to try his books and I decided to start by the beginning, Comment faire l’amour avec un nègre sans se fatiguer. It is translated into English under How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired. A provocative title that sure caught my eyes.

The narrator is a struggling writer who lives in a crappy room in the Carré Saint-Louis neighbourhood of Montreal. It is based on Laferrière’s own experience of his first years in Montreal after he emigrated from Haïti in the 1980s. His roommate Bouba is a couch potato/philosopher. Both have girls coming in and out of the apartment and have a very active sex life. Both are black.

The narrator relates his daily life and his interactions with various white female sex partners. Most of them are students and come from Outremont, a bourgeois part of the city. They’re sort of slumming it with him. And the narrator, who doesn’t treat them really well, makes blunt observations about the relationships between a black man and a white young woman. He’s half-amused, half-offended by the huge lies he manages to feed them about his African origins. They swallow every stupid description about customs, clothes and everyday life.

ET DIRE QU’ON ENVOIE CES FILLES DANS UNE INSTITUTIONS SERIEUSE (McGILL) POUR APPRENDRE LA CLARTE, L’ANALYSE ET LE DOUTE SCIENTIFIQUE. ELLES SONT TELLEMENT INFECTEES PAR LA PROPAGANDE JUDEO-CHRETIENNE QUE DES QU’ELLES PARLENT A UN NEGRE, ELLES SE METTENT A PENSER EN PRIMITIVES. POUR ELLES, UN NEGRE EST TROP NAIF POUR MENTIR. C’EST PAS LEUR FAUTE, IL Y A EU, AUPARAVANT, LA BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, LE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC. (*) TO THINK THAT THESE GIRLS ARE SENT TO A SERIOUS ACADEMIC INSTITUTION (McGILL) TO LEARN CLARITY, ANALYSIS AND SCIENTIFIC SKEPTICISM. THEY ARE SO MUCH INFECTED BY JUDEO-CHRISTIAN PROPAGANDA THAT AS SOON AS THEY TALK TO A NEGRO, THEY START THINKING AS PRIMITIVES. FOR THEM, A NEGRO IS TOO NAÏVE TO LIE. IT AIN’T THEIR FAULT, BEFORE, THERE WERE THE BIBLE, ROUSSEAU, THE BLUES, HOLLYWOOD, ETC.

They don’t question him out of ignorance but also to prove how tolerant and open-minded they can be. Blunt thoughts about how the whites see black people are spread in the book. It’s not the purpose of the novel but it’s part of the narrator’s experience as an immigrant in Montreal. This is the Baldwin side.

The Bukowski side is more in the way of life, the drinking, the sex, the dubious way he treats women. It reminded me of Post Office. Bouba and the narrator pick up girls who are like star-struck but neither of the men is really interested in them. They give them nicknames like Miz Literature or Miz Suicide according to their interests and background. One of them is lovely and seems attached to the narrator but he doesn’t really care about her. He’s on his personal journey as a struggling writer who suffers for his art in a poor hotel room like Hemingway or Bukowski. What saves him is his sense of humor. Sure, he wants to be a writer and while he wants to walk into the path of glorious writers, he doesn’t take himself too seriously.

Another link between Laferrière, Bukowski and Baldwin is certainly their voracious love for literature and their lust for life. A powerful energy pours out of their books. The narrator is a would-be writer, he reads all the time and books are in his blood.

Longue file d’attente au bureau de poste. On est serrés comme des sardines. J’avise une sardine, juste devant moi. Elle lit un bouquin. Je suis une sardine maniaque de bouquins. Dès que je vois quelqu’un en train de lire un livre, il faut que je sache quel est le titre, si elle aime ça et de quoi ça parle. Long queue at the post office. We’re packed like sardines. I see a sardine just before me. She’s reading a book. I’m a sardine obsessed with books. As soon as I see someone reading a book, I have to know the title, if she likes it and what it is about.

Doesn’t it sound familiar? I bet he also reads information on food packaging at the breakfast table, various instructions here and there because he’s a compulsive reader. As Guy would say, there are worse addictions. This is a most pleasant part of the book. The narrator shares thoughts about literature and shows how his reading is embedded in his everyday life. He has an intimate and casual relationship with writers, worship made of familiarity.

Faut lire Hemingway debout, Basho en marchant, Proust dans un bain, Cervantès à l’hôpital, Simenon dans le train (Canadian Pacific), Dante au paradis, Dosto en enfer, Miller dans un bar enfumé avec hot dogs, frites et coke…Je lisais Mishima avec une bouteille de vin bon marché au pied du lit, complètement épuisé, et une fille à côté, sous la douche. You must read Hemingway standing, Basho, walking, Proust, in a bath, Cervantes, in the hospital, Simenon, on a train (Canadian Pacific), Dante, in heaven, Dosto, in hell, Miller in a smoky bar with hot dogs, fries and coke…I was reading Mishima with a cheap bottle of wine by my bed, totally worn out, with a girl nearby, in the shower.

Laferrière has the humor and the bluntness of a John Fante. He’s a black man from Haiti who ended up in Montreal, lived in Florida and has been a member of the Académie Française since 2013. He’s the second black man elected in this institution, the first writer from Haiti and the first from Québec. A long way since Comment faire l’amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer.

Powerful stuff. Highly recommended.

(*) NB: The capital letters are in the original text and I did the translations myself.

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The anti-Maria Chapdelaine?

August 17, 2016 10 comments

A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais (1965) Original French title: Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel.

Blais_EmmanuelFirst day in Montreal and I was in a bookshop. Being abroad and being able to browse through books that are all in French is so unusual that I feel compelled to mention it. That’s where I got A Season in the Life of Emmanuel by Marie-Claire Blais. Published in 1965,  it won the Prix Médicis in France. A prestigious prize. I’d heard of Marie-Claire Blais and this one seemed a good one to start with.

Emmanuel is a new born in a household of peasants in Québec, probably at the beginning of the 20th century, although it’s not clearly defined. He’s something like the sixteenth child of the family. His grand-mother Marie-Antoinette is the only one who takes care of him, his mother doesn’t seem interested in him. Gradually, we discover the dynamics and the living conditions of the family. There are so many girls that they are seen as a collective entity rather than individuals. The mother has lost several children and the reader feels that she doesn’t have the energy to take care of this one or perhaps she’s afraid to get attached in case he dies too. One child, Jean Le Maigre is slowly dying of tuberculosis. His favourite brother, Le Septième, runs wild. Their sister Heloïse was thrown out of the convent because she was too exhalted. The father is a brute. The mother is ignorant of her sexuality. The Catholic church has an overwhelming power on the life of these peasants. The priest is everywhere. Children are sent to religious schools where some of the teaching priests are pedophiles. The classic theme saint or whore is present. The church meddles in the people’s sex lives, telling the women they have to accept conjugal duty. As a result, the mother’s sex life is more a succession of rapes than a relationship and she’s constantly pregnant. Neither she or her husband imagine for one minute that they should stop having children because the priest told them that they should accept babies as they come. The priest even pushes as far as saying that they are lucky to lose so many children because God claims them.

To be honest, I didn’t like this book at all. All the religious stuff put me off and made me angry. Strangely, the rates on Goodreads seem split between readers. Good rates come from Anglophones and bad ones from Francophones. I wonder if the translation did something to it or if Anglophones fare better with this hateful mix of poverty and religion. It still puzzles me.

Then comes the beauty of blogging. As I was writing my billet about Maria Chapdelaine, I started to make a connection between the two books. It feels like A Season in the Life of Emmanuel is a pamphlet against the idiotic conservatism of Hémon’s book. Instead of glorifying the life of the peasants of the era, Blais shows us another picture. These people were dirty poor. The children didn’t have time to go to school and when they went, they were taught by country teachers with no diploma. They had land but could never make a decent income out of it no matter how hard they worked. The church held people’s minds in an iron fist and used their power in a way that created more problems than it solved. It’s bleak, bleak, bleak. Violent. Desperate. Hopeless. And the winter is crushing. Life in the countryside is made of hunger, cold, ignorance and poverty. The condition of women is appalling: they work, they lay children, they are under their husband’s thumb.

From what I understand, the 1960s were a big change in Québec. Like in most Western countries, you might say. In 1959, Jean Lesage was elected and started the Révolution Tranquille. Major social changes were implemented and the Catholic church started to lose their power. Blais’s book was published in 1965. Considering its context and my reading of Maria Chapdelaine, I can’t help thinking it was written against Hémon’s classic tale of the Canadian settlers. It doesn’t make me like it more but I understand it better. Another novel with an agenda. One was trying to write a edifying tale and the other tries to take this fairy tale down. It makes me think of statues going down after a revolution.

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon

August 10, 2016 26 comments

Maria Chapdelaine by Louis Hémon (1913) French original title: Maria Chapdelaine.

hémon_chapdelaineMaria Chapdelaine is a classic from Québec, written by Louis Hémon. It was published in France as a feuilleton and was supposed to inspire young French people to move to Québec. It is a rural novel, the story of a peasant family in Québec, in Péribonka, on the bank of the Lac Saint Jean.

Maria is 18 and three young men want to marry her: François Paradis, a trapper, Eutrope Gagnon, a fellow pioneer and Lorenzo Surprenant who emigrated to Massachusetts to work in a factory. Each represents three possible futures.

Maria Chapdelaine is a book with a purpose not a literary entreprise. It describes the life of early settlers near the Lac Saint Jean. Maria’s story is just a prop to describe their life and fate. It could be compared to My Antonía by Willa Cather except that Cather is a gifted writer and her characters are far more complex than Hémon’s.

For this reader, Maria Chapdelaine has no interest from a characterization and plot point of view. It was still interesting as a testimony of life at the beginning of the 20thC by the Lac Saint-Jean. It shows the typical harsh life of the settlers. It depicts the long winters, the short and brutal summers and as often in peasant novels, the dependency on the whims of the weather. It is hard work in isolated places. The men and women work, work, and work and the outcome is not a given. Hémon describes the family’s life. In the summer, they font de la terre meaning that make land. Basically, they take the trees out, clean up everything (trumps, roots,) to be able to cultivate the land. Tough job. The women make preserve and prepare diner for the men. In autumn, the women caulk the walls with newspapers to prevent the wind from entering into the house. The men stock up wood. In winter, the two older sons go away to work as lumberjacks. The rest of the family stays in the house, with the father briefly going out to take care of the animals. The only distraction is when their only neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon, comes to visit. And the occasional trip to the church but that’s not too often because it’s too far away. From what I gathered of the history of Québec, it’s accurate and a good testimony of the times.

Personally I don’t see how Hémon hoped to entice young French people to leave cozy and temperate France to come and clear land in Québec. I totally see why Lorenzo Surprenant left for the USA.

The tone of the book is a vibrant plea for simple and rough life of peasants and the benefits of Catholicism. Maria expresses a naive faith in God, in the Catholic church and the local priest has a real hold on people’s lives. I thought it was too much and that Hémon wrote as a sanctimonious conservative. Not my cup of tea. Plus I don’t particularly like rural novels that glorify agriculture and describe urban life as miserable and corrupt. As I always say, if working in fields were that gratifying, please explain to me why there was such a massive rural exodus in Europe after WWII.

The only literary merit of the book is the language. Not that Hémon’s prose is imaginative, it’s as plain as his characters. Hémon wanted to show his land and his people. Their identity is intimately linked to their native language. They are a francophone community surrounded by Anglophones. In his attempt at picturing the rural community of the time, he gives back their Canadian-French or Québécois. And that was fascinating to me.

It’s probably outdated, like the French from the early 20th century is. But still. Some words sound old-fashioned, coming directly from the 16th or 17th century. Some words are a literal translation from the English, like vue animée for motion pictures instead of cinematographe used in France. I also noticed une couple d’heures for a couple of hours where a French would say quelques heures. Sometimes, Hémon uses English words, saying une fille smart or un foreman instead of un contremaître, or des hommes “rough”. What puzzled me was une job. In French from France at the time, nobody used the word job in French. It came in the 1980s, I’d say. In France we say un job, masculine, not une job, feminine. I don’t understand how “job” became feminine in Québecois. The notion is covered by words in masculine form: un travail, un emploi, le labeur, un boulot, un métier. If anyone can enlighten me, I’d love to hear the reason behind this.

All in all, I’m glad I read Maria Chapdelaine more to read in Québécois and about the life by the Lac Saint-Jean because I was travelling there. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s meant to be in my pantheon of books-you-must-read-before-you-die. I hope it’s not a mandatory read in Canadian schools, that’s not a way to warm students to literature…

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