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The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy (1945) Original French Canadian title: Bonheur d’occasion.

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983) is a Canadian novelist born in Manitoba. She moved to Montreal and started to live as a freelance journalist while writing her debut novel, Bonheur d’occasion, whose English title is The Tin Flute. It was published in Québec in 1945 and won the prestigious Prix Femina in 1947. It was translated into English and published by an American publisher. It was a great success when it came out, enough for Gabrielle Roy to go back to Manitoba to be away from all the noise. It was made into a film in 1983.

Bonheur d’occasion is set in the Saint-Henri neighbourhood in Montreal, in 1939-1940. Saint-Henri is a francophone area located near the Lachine Canal and the Atwater Market. It’s a working-class neighbourhood, not far from the Saint-Laurent and its industrial harbour. It is crowded, full of smoke from factory chimneys, noisy from cargos horns and trains transporting goods in and out of Montreal. Gabrielle Roy gives us a vivid picture of the area, here in the warm summer night:

C’était un soir langoureux, déjà chaud, traversé incessamment du cri de la sirène, et qui baignait dans l’odeur des biscuiteries. Loin derrière cet arôme fade, une haleine d’épices chassée par le vent du sud montait des régions basses au long du canal et arrivait par bouffées sucrées jusqu’à la butte où Saint-Henri se hausse de quelques pieds.

It was a sultry night, hot already, constantly pierced by ship horns blasts and bathing in the scent of biscuit factories. Far behind this bland aroma, a spicy breath came from the lower regions along the canal, pushed by the southern winds. It arrived in sweet puffs up to the hill where Saint Henri stood, a few feet above.

She takes us through the blocks, from winter to summer, entering into restaurants and cafés, cinemas and poor lodgings. When the book opens, we’re at the beginning of the winter 1939-1940 and the plot stretches until the summer 1940.

The protagonists are a gallery of young people and the Lacasse family. Jean Lévesque is a young man, an orphan who works in a foundry. Jean is ambitious and studies at night to have a promotion and better himself. He wants out of poverty. Emmanuel Létourneau is friends with Jean. He comes from a wealthier family and just joined the army. Then there’s the Lacasse family. I suppose they’re a typical family from Saint-Henri. The mother, Rose-Anna is around forty and pregnant with her eleventh child. Her husband Azarius is a carpenter by trade but there’s no work in his profession. He’s been working on and off, unable to hold a steady job, always chasing one grand scheme after the other. Each business endeavour ends in a failure and poverty sinks its teeth deeper in the family’s flesh.

The Lacasse are dirt poor, a poverty that is almost a character in the book with its overwhelming presence. Here’s Rose-Anna thinking:

Elle, silencieuse, songeait que la pauvreté est comme un mal qu’on endort en soi et qui ne donne pas trop de douleur, à condition de ne pas trop bouger. On s’y habitue, on finit par ne plus y prendre garde tant qu’on reste avec elle tapie dans l’obscurité ; mais qu’on s’avise de la sortir au grand jour, et on s’effraie d’elle, on la voit enfin, si sordide qu’on hésite à l’exposer au soleil.

She remained silent and kept thinking that poverty was like a disease that sleeps inside of you and doesn’t give you too much pain as along as you don’t move around too much. You get used to it, you end up forgetting its presence if you stay put, with it lurking in the dark. But as soon as you put it in bright daylight, you get afraid of it, you see it eventually, so sordid that you hesitate to expose it to sunlight.

Florentine, the eldest of the Lacasse children, is 19 and working as a waitress. She gives almost all her wages to her mother to help supporting the family. Her brother Eugène decided to enlist, thinking that the army was a way to have a steady pay, to be fed and clothed and see a bit of the world.

We follow basically two threads in Bonheur d’occasion. The first one is the story of the young people. Jean flirts with Florentine; he’s attracted to her and repulsed at the same time. She represents what he wants to leave behind. Being with her is acquiring an anchor in Saint-Henri and settling for a life of poverty or at best of barely scraping by. And Jean wants better for himself. Florentine is slowly discovering herself, boys and seduction. She wants to be young and careless but the financial situation of her family holds her back and eats her youth. She gets a lucid vision of her parents’ marriage, their inability to leave poverty behind. She wants better for herself too.

Rose-Anna is the most poignant character. Deeply in love with her husband, she’s not blind to his flaws but she forgives him everything. Meanwhile, she drives herself sick with worry. She counts money in her head, plans each and every spending. She keeps her little Daniel out of school because he doesn’t have clothes warm enough to go to school during the winter. She doesn’t sew fast enough for all her children to be properly clothed all the time. Moments of happiness are rare and it’s a miracle she doesn’t surrender to despair. Her children keep her going, she has no choice but to take care of them.

We’re in 1939-1940 and the war in Europe is a distant but permanent background noise. Young men have new opportunities in the army and the poor ones see it as a chance. They enlist out of idealism like Emmanuel or to be fed and clothed like Eugène and other Saint-Henri kids.

Gabrielle Roy takes us in a neighbourhood where people have little hope to climb the social ladder. They are in the claws of poverty: they don’t get a good education, they suffer from malnutrition and the adults are hit by a high unemployment rate. This is the end of the 1930s, after all.

Bonheur d’occasion is an apt title for this novel as it has a double meaning in French. It means both second-hand happiness and occasional or fleeting happiness. It’s exactly Florentine’s and Rose-Anna’s reality. Their happiness never shines as something brand new but always seems to be on borrowed time from their everyday life. And it’s fleeting. It must be caught quickly before it vanishes, like this happy outing at the maple grove during maple syrup season for Rose-Anna or this special day with Jean for Florentine. Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences.

Gabrielle Roy with kids from Saint-Henri in1945. From Wikipedia

Although Bonheur d’occasion sounds bleak, it’s not, thanks to Gabrielle Roy’s excellent prose. She roots for her characters and the reader can feel her affection for them, for the small people of Saint-Henri. She’s never judgemental and the dialogues in colloquial French Canadian give a special flavour to the characters’ interactions. As in Tremblay’s prose, there are a lot of English words in their French and I had a lot of fun with the language.

English expressions are transformed into French ones. Boyfriend and girlfriend become ami de garçon et amie de fille.  You give yourself a lot of trouble becomes Vous vous donnez bien du trouble instead of Vous vous donnez bien du mal.

English words are imported into French. At the restaurant, I’m going to order you some chicken becomes Je vas t’order du poulet instead of Je vais te commander du poulet. “Order” comes directly from “to order” and should not mean anything in French.

And as always, there’s this unbelievable tendancy to invert genders on words when they come from the English language. In French, une tarte (a pie) is feminine, so is une tourte (also a pie). So why does it become un pie in Québécois? Une fête (a party) becomes un party?

I really love the French from Québec and their imaginative way of changing English words into French or blending them into their French. It shows that the French language is more flexible than we think. I wonder how English translators fare with this, though. Do they put the English words in italic?

Bonheur d’occasion is great literature, a wonderful book about a working-class neighbourhood in the 1940s in Montreal. I don’t know if it’s often read in Québec and in anglophone Canada but it should be. I’m afraid it’s a Translation Tragedy, though. According to Wikipedia, there is no integral English translation of Bonheur d’occasion. When I looked for The Tin Flute on online bookstores, I noticed that there is no ebook version of it, at least not in English. I can understand that it’s not on American readers’ radars. But what does it mean about anglophone Canadians’ regard for Québec literature? Beyond the literary aspect, Bonheur d’occasion is a window open on Montreal during WWII, on the Saint-Henri neighbourhood, it should be seen as classic Canadian literature and be widely read.

Very highly recommended.

PS : Again, I’m puzzled by the English cover of The Tin Flute. Where does this coffee cup come from and what does it have to do with the book?

  1. October 27, 2018 at 9:55 am

    Good point about the failure to translate the book for English-speaking Canadians. You’d think it would have a high priority – indeed, to be almost automatic, in a bilingual country…


    • October 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm

      I don’t expect all books from Québec to be automatically translated but this one, it’s a classic and it’s excellent literature. It should be available in ebook and it deserves a new translation, especially because it’s difficult to translate and it’s exactly the kind of book that may be poorly translated.


  2. Nat
    October 27, 2018 at 4:33 pm

    I read this book in high school (in English, in Anglophone Canada), but that was a long time ago now. I really liked it at the time; thanks for reminding me of it with this very enjoyable review.


    • October 28, 2018 at 12:37 pm

      I’m glad to hear you read it in high school. It is the kind of book you’d expect to read in Canada.

      Is it still widely read?

      I also wondered why Gabrielle Roy was a French-speaking native when she was born in Manitoba. Isn’t Manitoba an English-speaking province?


      • Nat
        October 29, 2018 at 6:51 pm

        I’m guessing it is no longer on high school curricula in Anglophone Canada, which seem generally to have less challenging literature on them since I went through in the early ’90s. I’m not sure whether it is still read in Quebec.

        You’re right that Manitoba is now heavily Anglophone, but in the late 19th/early 20th centuries, there were efforts to encourage Francophone immigrants from Quebec to settle in Manitoba. I don’t know for sure, but I wonder if Roy’s family had originally come from Quebec as part of this wave.


        • November 1, 2018 at 12:09 pm

          I don’t think it would be read here too because it’s too long. Teachers tend to pick shorter books now.

          I didn’t know that Francophone were encouraged to leave Québec for other provinces. How interesting.


  3. October 28, 2018 at 8:29 am

    Not an author I had ever heard of, so thank you for the introduction. It sounds like a novel with a strong sense of place and community, two qualities that really resonate with me – that quote about poverty being like a disease is very striking.


    • October 28, 2018 at 12:38 pm

      According to what you review on your blog, I think you’d really like this book, Jacqui.


  4. October 28, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    Je ne connaissais pas du tout mais je suis sûre que j’aimerais le lire; dommage que les deux seuls exemplaires empruntables du livre en francais en Hongrie soient à l’autre bout du pays. Cet été, j’ai lu Dear Life d’Alice Munro, une collection de nouvelles, écrites en anglais et publiées en 2012, qui tournent beaucoup autour du Canada des années 1930 et 1940. Là aussi on voit beaucoup de vies assez étriquées.


    • October 28, 2018 at 3:41 pm

      C’est vraiment une belle découverte, j’ai beaucoup beaucoup aimé ce livre.
      Il existe en format Kindle mais si tu le veux en poche, envoie moi un mail, je peux m’arranger pour te l’envoyer.

      J’ai lu des nouvelles d’Alice Munro également, je vois de quelle atmosphère tu parles.
      En lisant Bonheur d’occasion, je me disais que cela aurait pu être en Irlande aussi.


      • October 30, 2018 at 8:02 pm

        J’accepte volontiers ta proposition (je n’ai pas de kindle), c’est très gentil à toi!


        • November 1, 2018 at 12:08 pm

          Je m’en occupe!


  5. October 31, 2018 at 4:16 am

    Interesting that the war in Europe seems so distant. I checked, Canada entered the war a few days after Britain. Conscription in Australia did not begin until well into the war in the Pacific (1942 maybe) but we had troops in Europe all along (we later had trouble persuading Churchill to relinquish them for the defence of Australia), as did Canada. I’d have thought French speakers would be doubly concerned, but of course Roy was there and I enjoy getting my history through the fiction of the time.


    • November 1, 2018 at 12:03 pm

      It’s distant because we’re really during the winter 1939/1940.

      You have a gift to guess what I leave out of my billets. 🙂 There is indeed a passage where Azarius expresses how he feels about France being at war and invaded. Very touching words to read for a French, I might say.
      In the few passages where the war in Europe is discussed, I had the feeling that, being from Québec, the characters were a lot more concerned about the fate of France than about the fate of Great Britain…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Vishy
    November 1, 2018 at 9:13 pm

    Beautiful review, Emma! I have a soft corner for French-Canadian literature and love Nicole Brossard’s and Nancy Huston’s works. I haven’t read Gabrielle Roy’s book, but now after reading your review, I want to read it soon. It is sad that French literature from Canada is ignored and is overshadowed by Canadian-English literature, because there are some wonderful French-Canadian writers. Your observation – “Each moment of happiness seems to cost double in unhappy consequences” – made me think of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Ecstatic Instant’ :

    For each ecstatic instant
    We must an anguish pay
    In keen and quivering ratio
    To the ecstasy.  

    For each beloved hour        
    Sharp pittances of years,
    Bitter contested farthings
    And coffers heaped with tears.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Will look forward to reading Gabrielle Roy’s book soon.


    • November 1, 2018 at 11:48 pm

      Thanks for your kind comment Vishy. I have other books from Québec on the shelf.
      Have you read Michel Tremblay? I need to get to the second volume of his Chroniques du Mont-Royal.

      I hope you’ll find The Tin Flute easily.


      • Vishy
        November 2, 2018 at 2:15 pm

        So nice to know that you have other Québec books on your shelf! I haven’t read Michel Tremblay, Emma. How are his books? Which of his books would you recommend I read first?


        • November 3, 2018 at 8:28 am

          The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant is the first volume of the Mont Royal series.
          There’s no cliffhanger, you can just read one of you want.


          • Vishy
            November 11, 2018 at 9:46 pm

            Thank you, Emma. I will add it to my TBR.


            • November 12, 2018 at 9:55 pm

              You’re welcome.


  1. November 3, 2018 at 2:37 pm
  2. January 6, 2019 at 11:07 pm

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