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Thérèse, Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay – Montreal in 1942

September 27, 2020 12 comments

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel by Michel Tremblay (1980) Original French (Québec) title: Thérèse et Pierrette à l’école des Saints-Anges.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is the second volume of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal. Michel Tremblay wrote a six books saga about the French-speaking working-class neighbourhood of Montreal, the Plateau Mont-Royal. We discovered a few families in the first volume, The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant.

In the first volume, everything happens in one day, May 2nd, 1942. In this one, the story is spread in the four days before the religious gathering, la Fête-Dieu. We are in June 1942. Thérèse, Pierrette and Simone are best friends and attend together the catholic school of the Saints-Anges. The book opens to a very special day, Simone is back to school after her operation. She used to have a harelip and now she’s pretty. It’s a big day for her and her friends.

Tremblay weaves several story threads into a vivid tapestry of these four days.

One strand is related to the religious community who runs the school of the Saints-Anges. The headmaster is Mother Benoîte des Anges. She’s a despotic and cruel to the sisters she manages and is supposed to guide. She’s unkind to the pupils and contemptuous in her interactions with their families. It is well-known that she lacks a lot of basic human qualities but she’s good with managing the school’s budget, so she stays.

Tremblay shows us the relationships between the sisters, how each of them has her place and her reputation. Some are good friends, some may be more than friends and some barely tolerate each other. They live in a close circle and have to make do with everyone’s temper and specificities. They all live in fear of Mother Benoîte and the only one who dares to confront her is Sister Sainte-Catherine.

Tremblay shows us a catholic school with a headmaster whose behaviour is in total contradiction with the New Testament. Mother Benoîte summons a trembling Simone in her office to berate her: her parents say they’re too poor to pay their subscription to the school magazine and yet they can afford Simone’s operation. She must bring the money the next day. Instead of being happy for the girl, she only thinks about money. The truth is that Simone’s doctor arranged for a surgeon to take her as a pro-bono case. Her parents would never have been able to afford the operation. The scene where the doctor and Simone’s mother confront Mother Benoîte is sublime, the revolt of poor people who do as best they can and do not need more humiliation than the more already inflicted on them by poverty.

In that time the Catholic church had the same hold on French-Canadians as it had on Irish people. I don’t think it had the same power in France at the time, not with the strong anti-clerical movement in the French society.

Another thread is the friendship between Pierrette, Thérèse and Simone. Tremblay pictures the games, the relationships between the pupils, their interactions with the nuns. We see them in class, preparing the Fête-Dieu, a big parade, slightly ridiculous but very important to them. Who’s going to play Mary? Who’s going to be the hanging angel? This is childhood in its universal form and characters in the make. Thérèse is the leader and she’s a bit calculating. Simone is insecure and got her insecurity from her harelip. Now that she feels pretty, her confidence is growing. Pierrette is the kind one, the peace maker.

Boys and flirting make their appearance in the girls’ lives. Simone’s brother adores Pierrette and follows her with his puppy-love. It’s funny and lovely. Thérèse too, has an admirer. Hers isn’t a puppy. He’s a wolf named Gérard. He’s 21 and is obsessed with Thérèse, following her, staying near the school gates to watch her. Tremblay brings in this dark thread and I trembled for Thérèse, hoping nothing would happen to her.

Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel is a vivid picture of these four days of 1942. It sends direct punches to the Catholic institutions and the way they mistreat the people they should take care of. Their lack of compassion is shocking. It brings us to Montreal in 1942, into a poor neighbourhood and their attaching inhabitants. I was happy to be reunited with Thérèse, Pierrette, Simone and their families.

I love French from Québec and I had a lot of fun observing Tremblay’s language. It’s full of English words inserted in French sentences and I don’t always understand how they came with the gender of the words. Some English words have been translated into French. For example, Tremblay mentions un bâton de hockey, the literal translation of a hockey stick, aka une crosse de hockey. He also says un bat de baseball (direct use of the English word) when we now say une batte de baseball. Tremblay’s French is a delight and an homage to his origins. Contrary to Mother Benoîte, Tremblay loves these struggling families. Highly recommended.

The next volume is centered around another family member, Edouard.

PS: I should set up a contest about the ugliest cover ever. The Québec cover is a bit dark but true to the book. But tell me, who would buy Thérèse and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel on impulse with this ugly and silly cover?

The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant by Michel Tremblay

October 2, 2016 10 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.

Albertine in Five Times – A play

November 8, 2015 12 comments

Albertine in Five Times by Michel Tremblay. (1984) Original French title : Albertine en cinq temps

My new season at the theatre has started, so you’ll hear about plays again. The first one was Albertine en cinq temps by the Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay. The play dates back to 1984. Albertine is 70, she’s moving in a new home, probably a nursing home. It’s her first night in her new room and she remembers her life. Up to that point, you think it’s already been done. The originality of Tremblay’s play comes from the form. Five actresses are on stage, each picturing Albertine at one moment of her life. Madeleine, Albertine’s now-deceased sister is there too. The six of them will interact and slowly unravel Albertine’s life to the spectator. We learn that her husband died during the war, that her daughter Thérèse strayed from the common path and that her son Marcel is mentally disabled.

Albertine at 30 is in the country for a week away from her family. She was sent there after a drama with Thérèse.

Albertine at 40 is depressed and overwhelmed by her daily life with her children. She’s in a constant fight with Thérèse and Marcel requires a lot of attention. She’s become difficult to live with and believes her family doesn’t respect her or listen to her.

Albertine at 50 is freed. She has decided to cut her children out of her life. She has asked Thérèse not to contact her anymore and she put Marcel in an institution. She works as a waitress, earns her own money and feels free and liberated.

Albertine at 60 is at her lowest, addicted to pills to dull the pain.

Albertine at 70 has been to rehab and is now clean. She’s alone with her memories and tries to reconcile her past selves into her present one.

Through the fragmented Albertines, we eventually have a global picture of Albertine’s life and her misfortunes. It’s extremely well done. The different Albertines talk to each other, questioning their choices, underlining the consequences of a decision made by one Albertine to the life of the next Albertine.

We see the portrait of a bruised and battered widow who had to deal with two difficult children, without the support of a husband, with the constant putting down of her mother, with the love of a sister who had a perfect life.

Tremblay shows us the fate of a woman who was born at a time when being a wife and a mother was almost the only career path. Thirty-year-old Albertine asks Madeleine if she never felt trapped because there wasn’t many options. She felt prisoner of her fate as a woman. She doesn’t know how to interact with Thérèse. She wasn’t meant to be a mother and society thought that women were only on earth to be wives and mothers. She feels like a failure because she can’t be the good mother she should be. She is judged because it should be natural, so something must be wrong with her. And in the end, she is knocked-out by guilt.

Guilt to have put into the wold two “abnormal” children. Albertine at 40 shouts that people should remember they were two to make these children, that her husband died at war and became perfect in the process and that now everybody believes that it’s her fault if her children aren’t normal.

Guilt to fail them as a mother. She loves them but lacks motherly qualities. She has trouble to communicate with them, to show her love. But how can she when her own mother yells at her and belittles her? Tough love is the only one she knows. Is it her fault if Thérèse is now a drug addict and a floozy?

Guilt to have chosen her freedom and her sanity and to have abandoned them. People judged her for that and she had to live with her decision. Her relationship with Thérèse was going nowhere and was toxic for both of them. Sometimes cutting ties is the only solution. Marcel retrieved further into himself and cut communication too.

Albertine in Five Times is poignant play about the destiny of a woman who was caged in her time. She had no other choice than being a mother, she needed help but didn’t get any because she should have known what to do as if being a mother was a built-in skill coming with ovaries.

It is a play about memory and the different Albertines interacting is a clever way to picture our sometimes crowded heads. Although it’s common to talk about a trip down memory lane, memories aren’t linear. They bounce on one another, one leading to another, leaping from one period of our life to another. The simultaneous presence of the five Albertines on stage pictures it perfectly. It is difficult not to think about Proust with a character like Albertine. The opening of the play is Albertine settling in a new room and thinking about the past. It remined me of Proust in his room in Balbec. Proust is also a master in playing with memories. I can’t imagine there’s no reference to Proust with a main character named Albertine who has a son named Marcel. I wonder where Thérèse comes from, though.

I saw a version directed by Lorraine Pintal, with Lise Castonguay, Éva Daigle, Martine Francke, Monique Miller, Madeleine Péloquin, Marie Tifo.

The direction is flawless from the décor, the costumes, the movements on stage to the choice of actresses. The Albertines are dressed in the same colours and fashion with only the style of clothes adapting to her age. The only totally different clothing is Albertine at 50 when she revolted and left to be a waitress. The décor is full of vertical lines, showing bars to symbolise the prison of Albertine’s condition as a woman. Using different stairs allowed Lorraine Pintal to put each Albertine in her own place (room, café, house in the country) but didn’t cut the actresses from moving from and to each other and interacting lively.

Tremblay_Albertine

The actresses were from Québec and had a local accent. The first minutes were difficult but I got used to it. The differences between French and Québec French are real and rather puzzling and entertaining. For example, we have both imported the word job from the English, to say travail. In French, job is masculine, like travail. We say un job. In this play, they say une job. In French we use the word rocking chair, which is fair, after all in English, you say a chaise loundge, a name that obviously comes from the French chaise longue. In French Quebec, rocking chair has been translated and became une chaise berçante. There were lots of details like this and it enforces the sense of place. It was impossible to forget you were in Montreal.

If anyone reading this has the opportunity to see this play, rush for it. Everything about it is excellent, the text, the actors, the direction, it has it all.

 

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