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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 Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki – Lovely

February 10, 2019 25 comments

The Weight of Secrets by Aki Shimazaki (1999-2004) Original French title: Le poids des secrets.

Aki Shimazaki was born in 1961 in Japan. She emigrated to Canada in 1981, first living in Vancouver and Toronto before moving to Montreal in 1991. In 1995, she started to learn French and in 1999, she published her first novella. In French, her third language. I’m in awe.

The Weight of Secrets is her debut series and the original title is Le poids des secrets. It is a five-petal flower book. Each novella is a petal and the reader is like a little bee, going from one petal to the other, seeing part of the flower from a character’s point of view at different periods in time. After visiting the five petals, the reader has a global view of the history of two families who seem to live parallel lives but actually have open and hidden interconnections. It is the shared destinies of a woman, Yukiko and Yukio, born in Tokyo in the early 1930s and both living in Nagasaki in 1945 and survivors of the atomic bombing.

Each volume has a Japanese title, a name of flower or of an animal symbolic of this specific view on the story.

The first book is Tsubaki, (camélias/camellias), a flower symbolic of happy times for Yukio and Yukiko.

The second book is Hamaguri, a shellfish with a shell in two halves. It is a children’s game to have a bag of shells and try to find the exact other half to one shell. It is a symbol of a key person missing in the characters’ lives.

The third book is Tsubame (hirondelle/swallow). It is the nickname of a Catholic priest who plays a capital part in the story. He’s a swallow as he’s always dressed in a black-and-white cloth. In French we say that one swallow doesn’t bring back Spring but this man does, he brings life and hope after hard times.

The fourth book is Wasurenagusa (myosotis/forget-me-not). It belongs to Yukio’s father who was in Manchuria during WWII and separated from his family.

The fifth book is Hotaru (lucioles/fireflies), a way to symbolize dangerous attractions.

I’m aware that you still have no clue about the story. The truth is, I don’t want to give details about the characters. All you need to know is that it’s set in Japan, that it involves characters crushed by historical events like the 1923 earthquake in Tokyo and the subsequent massacre of Korean immigrants or the 1945 atomic bombing in Nagasaki. It is about racism against the Korean community and about the Japanese definition of what is proper or not. It tells the impact of customs on individual lives when they cannot meet society’s expectations. It’s the story of two beings who had a special bond, one they didn’t get to explore because their parents kept too many secrets and how they missed out. It’s the stories of two adults who healed each other and had a good life together, despite their own secrets and failures.

We go back and forth in time, we change of narrators and we unravel each character’s reasons to keep something or some part of themselves hidden. We only see people who do as best they can given the circumstances they are in. From one book to the other, we get a clearer picture of the characters’ lives and how some of the secrets get revealed to the next generation and how some die with the person. Each character has something they don’t know about their origins.

It’s written in a simple and lovely language and I wanted to know more after each volume. My favorite volumes were Tsubame and Wasurenagusa. I absolutely loved this series and I highly recommend it. If you pick it up, do not read the blurbs of the books, there are way too many spoilers in them and you want to keep the magic intact.

I don’t know if it’s a Japanese or a Canadian book. I’ve seen it in the Japanese section of my bookstore. I certainly thought it was Japanese until I wondered who was the translator, discovered there was none and started to research Aki Shimazaki. It’s difficult to qualify it. Its language is French but certainly not the French from Québec. Shimazaki’s native language probably left some marks in her way to think and write in French. It’s a Japanese book for its setting, its characters, its themes and its background culture. So, I don’t know, I’ll let you make your own mind about it but I feel privileged. I got to read a Japanese book in my native language.

Now the sad news and the ranting part. Sadly, it’s a Translation Tragedy. It’s published in Québec, it was a great success in the francophone world and it’s easy to read. And yet, it’s not available in English. Is there not an anglophone Canadian publisher to translate it into English? Like for Bonheur d’occasion by Gabrielle Roy, I really don’t understand how it’s possible that such books are not available in the country’s two official languages.

Good thing for readers who speak French, it’s a perfect way to practice reading in French. The books are short, the style is simple (short sentences, no very complicated words) and the story gripping.

The Tin Flute by Gabrielle Roy – Highly recommended

October 27, 2018 22 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?

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin – Road trip from Gaspé to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail

April 2, 2018 15 comments

Volkswagen Blues by Jacques Poulin (1988) Original French title: Volkswagen Blues.

Volkswagen Blues caught my attention because it’s a road trip from Gaspé, Québec to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail and it goes through places I’ve been to.

The trip starts in Gaspé, the far east of Québec, a beautiful place where they have the phare du bout du monde, the lighthouse at land’s end. It’s the story of a forty-years-old man from Québec City who’s looking for this brother Théo and the last time he sent him a postcard, it was from Gaspé. He meets a young woman who’s half Native Canadian – half white. She’s from the Montagnais tribe and her Indian name is Pitsémine.

Both characters don’t have a real name. The man is a novelist whose nom de plume is Jack Waterman. He nicknames the girl La Grande Sauterelle, the Tall Grasshopper. The narration alternates between calling the man The man or Jack. The girl is mostly the girl or La Grande Sauterelle and sometimes Pitsémine. It’s hard to ignore that the man chose a penname composed of Jack (like Kerouac) and Waterman (a brand of fountain pens, an instrument for a writer). I couldn’t help thinking of Van Gogh with a brother named Théo.

Names are important details as they are both on an identity quest. Jack has a sort of mid-life crisis that pushes him to look for his estranged brother. They haven’t seen each other for twenty years. La Grande Sauterelle has trouble with her mixed origins. This common point brings them together and they start a tentative friendship.

Gaspé

La Grande Sauterelle decides to embark on Jack’s VW bus and be his companion on the road. She has a kitten as a pet, his bus is like a pet to him and their common pet project is to find Théo. The starting point of their trip is an old postcard from Théo with a quote by Jacques Cartier, the French explorer who arrived in Gaspé, discovered Canada and claimed it as French territory. Théo was fascinated by the exploration of territories in Canada and the United States.

From one place to the other, they follow Théo on his trip to San Francisco via the Oregon Trail. During their journey, they learn about the Indian tribes who used to live there, revisit the story of the conquest of the West. They’re on the trails of the pioneers and their wagons. They encounter historical places of this westward migration and its difficulties. They also explore the terrible fate of the Native Americans, the massacres of the Indian wars and the extermination of the bison and the Plains Indian populations.

It’s a trip that reflects on the construction of North America. In its way, it’s a colonization war and shows that violence is at the basis of the construction of Canada and the USA. Violence against Native Americans but also violence of the climate and living conditions of the pioneers. All this is explored in mild tones, Jacques Poulin is a soft writer. His characters are friends, lovers sometimes but sex is more a comfort than anything else. They’re both adrift, looking for their place in the world. Who is the man? Is he Jack the writer, Théo’s brother or someone else? La Grande Sauterelle explains how tough life was for her parents and herself. They were ostracized in both communities, being a mixed couple was a tough choice to live with.

Volkswagen Blues has the music of mild rain, a comforting sound. I wanted to know how their trip would end, to see who they’d meet on the way and to which places they’d go. Like I said at the beginning, I’ve been to several places they visit on their trip. Gaspé, Québec City, Chicago, St Louis, San Francisco. I’ve been to some of the museums they visit and this personal side added to my reading. I enjoyed being with Jack and La Grande Sauterelle, two persons who are very different but adjust to each other and live in harmony. They accept each other the way they are, without a question, without judgment. They slip into each other’s life and habits to live this road trip together.

This is a book I bought in Montreal, which explains why I have the Quebec edition and not the French one. All the dialogues in English speaking places are partly in English, without translation. I don’t know what choice the French publisher Actes Sud made. Did they translate the passages in footnotes? As always, French from Québec has a special ring to it with its own words like chum, its expressions like faire le pouce for to hitchhike, where a French speaker would say faire du stop. I love the word cuisinette for kitchenette and still don’t understand why they didn’t find another word for coke and just use the English term.

I had a very peaceful and pleasant literary trip with these two lost souls. Volkswagen Blues is a quirky book told in mild tones but it still presses on difficult issues, to try to diffuse the pain they left as a trail. This trip is like a massage to their soul, a way to ease the tension, work in the knots they carry with them in the hope that they are gone when the journey ends.

Other review by Leaves and Pages: Crossing America in search of something ultimately undefined.

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 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.

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.

Runaway by Alice Munro

October 13, 2015 14 comments

Runaway by Alice Munro (2004) French title : Fugitives. Translated from the Canadian by Jacqueline Huet and Jean-Pierre Carasso.

Munro_FugitivesBefore I start telling you about Runaway, please allow me a little rant. I’m angry at the French publisher. I dare you to find a male Nobel Prize winner with such a pink cover for his books. The reasoning seems to be: it’s written by a woman, about women, therefore it is aimed at a female readership and it deserves a pink cover. I tell you, it is a shame to market a book written by such a remarkable author as it were a book by Sophie Kinsella. I wonder why they didn’t put a cupcake on the cover, the picture would have been complete. Grrr.

End of the rant.

Runaway is a collection of eight short stories, long enough to develop their plot and characters nicely. Each one is around 40 pages long, except for the last one. The short stories included in the collection are: Runaway, Chance, Soon, Silence, Passion, Trespasses, Tricks and Powers.

It is rather difficult to write about short stories. I’ve decided against retelling one or the other but will try to decipher a pattern, a common theme instead. In a nutshell, Alice Munro brushes through the characters’ lives and show them at different times of their existence.

Runaway is the title of the first short story. The French translator chose to call it Fugitives, which means “runaway” but in plural and in the feminine form. So, for a French reader seeing the book on a shelf, it is about runaway women. It’s an interpretation, I wonder if Alice Munro approved of it, but it’s a good assumption. All the characters live moments away from their routine or tell the moment they derailed from their usual days and how it affected their future.

All the main characters are women and in every story, this character has another woman in her shadow, a disquieting presence, someone who seems friendly or loving in appearance but has a negative influence on the character’s course of life. It is a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor, a housekeeper, a rival or a former rival in her man’s affections. The men in their lives are weak or tasteless. They lack personality, they’re accepting to the point of lacking a backbone. They got into a relationship because it was a thing to be done or because they didn’t want to be lonely. They all fail their partner, voluntarily or not. The passionate ones are on the dark side, they drink or they cheat. The others get sick and trap their wives in a caretaker role or die suddenly.

These women live a linear life and the short stories either reveal how they got there or picture a moment when their life made a detour. They got sidetracked. For example, Robin goes to the theatre in the nearby city once per year and it’s her alone time, stolen moments for herself, away from her ailing sister. They aren’t really unhappy but the reader has the feeling that their lives could have been better. If they had behaved differently. If they hadn’t settled with the wrong man. If they had been more assertive about their wishes, their needs. Most of them were born at a time when women had fewer options in life. Grace thinks, after meeting a lovely and perfectly dressed young woman:

She could not explain or quite understand that it wasn’t altogether jealousy she felt, it was rage. And not because she couldn’t shop or dress like that. It was because that was what girls were supposed to be like. That was what men –people, everybody—thought they should be like. Beautiful, spoiled, selfish, pea-brained. That was what a girl should ben to be fallen in love with.

They were expected to quit their jobs when they got married. University degrees were a means to be where the men with a bright future were. If they stray away from the designated path, they have to face the consequences. Juliet lives with Eric and has a daughter with him. We’re at the end of the 1960s and they’re not married. They live in Whale Bay, in British Columbia. When she visits her family near Toronto, she realizes how much her choice cost to her parents. Her father lost his teaching job. They’re ostracized and they’d rather pick her up at a farther train station than welcome her in their town’s station.

Runaway gives glimpses of the lives of women born before 1950. It is written in a sober tone, the angle shifting from one heroin to the other. I don’t have other quotes to share as I have the book in French. Alice Munro puts her characters on stage, giving a face and a voice to millions of quiet Canadian women. They’re average people, they could be you or me. They don’t live a grand passion, they have a quiet domestic life and yet, they’re unique. I felt like wandering in a cemetery, stopping randomly in front of a grave and listening to someone quietly telling me about the person buried there. Who she was. What happened to her. What event changed her life. It’s a lovely promenade with them.

A big thank you to the friend who gave me Runaway because I’m not sure I would have bought it myself, Nobel Prize or not. It’s been sitting on my shelf and became part of my #TBR20 project.

PS: A word about the #TBR20 project. I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms: I haven’t bought myself a book in months and I’m itching to visit a bookstore. I’ve managed to refrain by purchasing books as gifts and getting book related items, like bookmarks or a mug with Shakespearian insults on it. *sigh* Still 6 books to go.

 

‘Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table,’

August 22, 2015 32 comments

Still Life by Louise Penny. (2005) French title: Nature morte. Translated into Quebec French by Michel Saint-Germain.

In the twenty-five years she’d lived in Three Pines she’d never, ever heard of a crime. The only reason doors were locked was to prevent neighbors from dropping off baskets of zucchini at harvest time.

I bought Penny_Still_LifeStill Life by Louise Penny after reading Caroline’s review here and it’s been on my TBR since 2012. Then Louise Penny was signing books at Quais du Polar this year and it reminded me I needed to get to her book soon and it fit nicely in my #TBR20 project.

Still Life is cozy crime fiction of the good sort, the kind you’d want to take on a long flight to forget you’re squeezed in coach or one you’d save to read it curled up on the sofa by a nice fire on a cold and foggy winter day. It is also the first volume of a series featuring Armand Gamache, Chef de la Sûreté du Quebec.

Now the plot. The sweet old lady Jane Neal is found dead in the bucolic village of Three Pines, located a couple of hours from Montreal. She was killed in the woods by an arrow. It’s hunting time and the first question is: is it a hunting accident or a murder?

Jane was well respected in her village and almost everyone was fond of her. She was a bit eccentric: she loved painting but never wanted anyone to see her art and she also never let anyone past her kitchen in her house. Jane gets killed just after one of her paintings had been chosen for a local art exhibition, Arts Williamsburg but before the list of the selected artists was announced officially. Jane’s work raised controversy and the committee picking artists for the show. Does this event have something to do with her sudden death?

Her death strikes her friend Clara Morrow really hard as Jane was like a surrogate mother to her. Clara is a struggling artist, married to Peter, a painter whose art is rather highly priced but who doesn’t paint fast enough to make a decent living out of it. Clara and Peter were on the committee who approved of the painting for the art show and they were also hosting a diner with their friends the day the choice was made and only two days before Jane’s death. If it is a murder, is the murderer someone from the village?

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is in charge of the investigation and starts digging around, chatting with the villagers, Jane’s friends, settling an office in the old station, sleeping at the local B&B. His approach relies on science and evidences, observation and understanding of human nature. He’s perfectly aware that his investigation will play havoc with the villagers. The questions he asks will unearth secrets, including some that aren’t relevant for the investigation, they will make people look at each other differently. Gamache sticks to his principles, tries to see the best in his team and is committed to coaching rookies. This first volume starts to explore the characters of the police team: Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s second in command, Yvette Nichol, the rookie and Isabelle Lacoste, experienced but not as much as Beauvoir. It’s going to be nice to see how Louise Penny will develop them, especially Nichol and Gamache. Readers who like Thomas Pitt, the policeman in Anne Perry’s books will like Armand Gamache and vice-versa. The two men could be cousins.

Penny_nature_morteBeside the plot and the investigation, I enjoyed Still Life for Penny’s style, the setting in Quebec and her observations on human nature and on her country. Louise Penny is Canadian and anglophone. She writes in English and her books were translated in Quebec French before being available in France. I have the original version, though. At Quais du Polar, she explained that the French publisher Actes Sud kept the Quebec French translation instead of re-working it into French. Hearing that, I almost regretted to have the English version, just to have the pleasure of reading a book set in Quebec, in French from Montreal and not from Paris. In the end, the English version proved to be a delight with all the French words included in the text to give back the Quebec atmosphere. It enforces the sense of place and it works well like in these short examples:

Nichol waved toward the back seat while negotiating Blvd St Denis to the autoroute which would take them over the Champlain Bridge and into the countryside.

Or

Clara and Myrna stood in line at the buffet table, balancing mugs of steaming French Canadian pea soup and plates with warm rolls from the boulangerie.

The vocabulary sometimes gave me a lovely impression of outdated times. Chef de la Sûreté (Chief Inspector) propelled me to the Ancien Régime and police under Louis XV. The French-speaking characters had rather old-fashioned names like Armand, Reine-Marie or Yvette.

I wonder what Louise Penny thinks of the title of the French translation, Nature morte. I guess she discussed it with her translator. Still life is a genre of painting and since painting is in the center of the plot, it makes sense. And in French, when you discuss painting, a still life is a nature morte. However, in English, still life conveys another meaning, if you put aside the reference to painting and it is explained in the book by Myrna, the local bookseller.

I think many people love their problems. Gives them all sorts of excuses for not growing up and getting on with life.’ Myrna leaned back again in her chair and took a long breath. ‘Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of these people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting.’ ‘Waiting for what?’ ‘Waiting for someone to save them. Expecting someone to save them or at least protect them from the big, bad world. The thing is no one else can save them because the problem is theirs and so is the solution. Only they can get out of it.’

Nature morte (literally “dead nature”) doesn’t convey this meaning at all as this expression is attached to painting and nothing else. So part of the depth of the title is lost in French. Honestly, I don’t know what else the title could have been, though. 

The investigation and the description of Three Pines and its inhabitants are combined with thoughts about the relationship between anglophones and francophones in Quebec. Some anglophones characters say they feel out of place sometimes. I don’t know if it’s true but it intrigued me. I also thought that the following observation…

It was, reflected Gamache, one of the fundamental differences between anglophone and francophone Quebecers; the English believed in individual rights and the French felt they had to protect collective rights. Protect their language and culture.

…seems relevant for France as well. The protection of collective rights is the source of social security and collective pension schemes. Indeed, in France, you don’t pay for your own pension plan, you pay for the people who are retired now and the next generation will pay for you. We also want to protect our language, our way-of-life and our vision of the world.

In other words, Still Life is a solid cozy mystery with more depth than a book by Agatha Christie. It mulls over the impact of a police investigation on a community and lets the reader see glimpses of the society it is set in. Recommended.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

July 10, 2015 15 comments

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (2011) French title: Les frères Sisters.

My very center was beginning to expand, as it always did before violence, a toppled pot of black ink covering the frame of my mind, its content ceasless, unaccountably limitless. My flesh and scalp started to ring and tingle and I became someone other than myself, or I became my second self, and this person was highly pleased to be stepping from the murk and into the living world where he might just do as he wished. I felt at once both lust and disgrace and wondered, Why do I relish this reversal to animal?

DeWitt_SistersEli Sisters is the one talking. With his brother Charlie, he’s part of a duo of hitmen, the Sisters Brothers. We’re in Oregon and California at the time of the Gold Rush. The Sisters Brothers are on their way to San Francisco to kill Hermann Kermit Warm. It’s a job, they have no idea why the man is to be eliminated but they have no qualms about their mission. In appearance, at least.

We’re following the two brothers on their journey. Eli is our narrator and his rather candid voice needs to be reconciled with the killer curled up inside him and ready to attack if needed. Charlie is the leader and Eli follows him blindly because he doesn’t know anything else. They had a difficult childhood and their sticking together is their only way to have a family.

But now, they seem to be drifting apart. Eli would like to settle down, get married, open a shop and leave violence behind. Charlie is in a totally different place:

But yes, just as I longed for the organized solitude of the shopkeeper, so did Charlie wish for the days of continued excitement and violence, except he would no longer engage personally but dictate from behind a wall of well-armed soldiers, while he remained in perfumed rooms where fleshy women poured his drinks and crawled to the ground like hysterical infants, their backsides in the air, shivering with laughter and brandy and deviousness.

What an evocative description. You can imagine Charlie in the back room of a seedy saloon, clicking his fingers and having minions at his beck and calls while easy girls are all over him. This quote is representative of deWitt’s craft. He managed to mix the codes of westerns, demystifying the adventure and coupling it with a character who’s searching for a meaning to his life. The trip from Oregon to San Francisco is full of funny moments in the wilderness. Eli’s horse is slow and silly, they come by a haunted house, Eli gets a rash, discovers the usefulness of toothbrushes, they meet up with strangers, they fight, they camp and Patrick deWitt winks at us, saying “Remember all the classic scenes in western and see what I make of them”, like here:

Short, late-winter days, and we stopped in a dried ravine to make up camp for the night. You will often see this scenario in serialized adventure novels: Two grisly riders before the fire telling their bawdy stories and singing harrowing songs of death and lace. But I can tell you that after a full day of riding I want nothing more than to lie down and sleep, which is just what I did, without even eating a proper meal.

This picaresque novel is full of humour and I had a lot of fun reading it. It is a strange combo of humour, violence, adventure, thoughts about life set in a vivid picture of California in the 19thC. Eli’s a funny narrator…

Charlie’s door was locked and when I knocked he made a guttural sound communicating a desire for solitude.

…even candid sometimes. The reader tends to forget he’s killed a lot of people, that the Sisters Brothers are famous for their track record as cold-blooded gunmen. It’s hard to reconcile Eli, the man self-conscious about his weight, longing for conjugal bliss, generous to horses, women and kids with the professional killer he is. He cares deeply about Charlie, even if the feeling isn’t always requited.

An important part of the book is linked to the Gold Rush and the way the possibility to be rich encouraged all kinds of weird adventures. I don’t want to tell too much about that part because it would spoil the book to others.

I’m not a great fan of westerns but this modern version is worth reading. DeWitt did something new, mixing light and deep, cartoonesque descriptions with soul searching moments. He dances on the edge of sadness and comedy. He calls to our common references about the American West and it works. It’s a page turner, well-written, endearing and entertaining.

Recommended.

Recommendations from Quebec

December 20, 2014 26 comments

Flag_of_Quebec.svgThis post is more a post-it than a billet. A friend from Quebec sent me a few recommendations about Quebec literature and I decided to store the information in a blog post and share it with you. I haven’t checked if these books are translated into English. I’m not proud to report I’ve never read a book written by an author from Québec or even set in Québec.

Nelly Arcan (www.nellyarcan.com) (1973-2009)

  • Putain
  • Folle
  • Paradis, clef en main

Marie Uguay (1955 – 1981)

  • Poèmes
  • Journal

Michel Tremblay (1942-)

  • Les Belles Sœurs (theatre)
  • Un ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle. (novel)

Pierre Falardeau

Louis Caron (1942-) especially the trilogy Les Fils de la liberté :

  • Le canard de bois
  • La corne de brume
  • Le coup de point.

Gabrielle Roy (1909 – 1983) www.gabrielleroy.mb.ca

  • Bonheur d’Occasion (The Tin Flute)

Anne Hébert. (1916 – 2000)

  • Kamouraska
  • Les Fous de Bassan.

Yves Beauchemin. (1941)

  • Le Matou

English-speaking writers

Margaret Atwood (www.margaretatwood.ca)

I knew about her but I’ve never read anything by her. Recommendations are welcome.

Anne Michaels:

  • Fugitive Pieces.

Have you read any of these writers? If yes, what did you read and how was it?

Genealogical cracks and earthquakes.

March 8, 2011 10 comments

Lignes de faille, by Nancy Huston. (475 pages) English version : Fault Lines.

 In geology, a fault is a planar fracture or discontinuity in a volume of rock, across which there has been significant displacement. Large faults within the Earth’s crust result from the action of tectonic forces. Energy release associated with rapid movement on active faults is the cause of most earthquakes, such as occurs on the San Andreas Fault, California. A fault line is the surface trace of a fault, the line of intersection between the fault plane and the Earth’s surface. (Wikipedia)

Fault Lines opens with a genealogical tree and includes four parts:

I) Sol 2004

II) Randall 1982 – Sol’s father

III) Sadie 1962 – Randall’s mother

IV) Kristina 1944-1945 – Sadie’s mother

Each section of the book is narrated by a child of the tree and relates the formative events that happened to them in the summer between their 6th and 7th birthday. Each had to face a tough moment and a change of life, a fresh start in a new place. I won’t tell about the events, to avoid spoilers.

Each time, war was part of the environment, distant or close, with particular massacres. For Sol, it’s the war in Iraq and the torture at the prison in Abu Graib, for Randall, the Lebanese Civil War and the Sabra and Chatila Massacre, for Sadie the Cold War and the 1962 Cuba crisis and for Kristina, WWII, the destruction of Dresden and the defeat of Germany.

Each of them has a specific beauty mole. Sol has it in the neck, Randall on his shoulder, Sadie on her left buttock and Kristina inside her elbow. They all have a particular relationship with it, either a talisman or a curse.

We gradually understand the family history, as Sol talks about all the members, his father, his grand-mother and great-grand mother. Randall has his own view of the relationship between his parents and gives us hints on Sadie’s temper and obsessions. Sadie adores her mother and let us have a glimpse at Kristina’s life in her twenties.

Sol is a disturbing child. Forget about the image of purity, innocence and kindness. Huston makes of him a nasty unbalanced boy. He made me feel ill at ease, I thought, “this is a future executioner, a future terrorist, a root of extremism, whatever extremism it is, religious or political.” Is that what Nancy Huston wanted to tell? How terrorists grow up? Where they come from?

Je vais commencer l’école cet automne et j’ai l’intention de tout écouter, de tout enregistrer et obtenir des notes brillantes mais en gardant un profil bas ; pour l’instant les autres ne doivent pas savoir que je suis le roi, Soleil unique et Fils unique, Fils de Google et de Dieu, Fils immortel et omnipotent de la Toile. WWW à l’envers c’est MMM : à part Ma Mère Miraculeuse, à qui j’en ai donné des aperçus, personne ne soupçonne la brillance, le rayonnement, la fabuleuse radiation de mon cerveau qui, un jour, va transformer et sauver l’univers. I’ll be starting real school in the fall and I intend to listen to everything, record everything and get sterling grades while still keeping a low profile; for the time being I don’t want anyone else to know that I’m the Sun King, Only Sun and Only Son, Son of Google, Son of God, Eternal Omnipotent Son of the World Wide Web. WWW turned down is MMM: apart from My Miraculous Mother to whom I’ve allowed brief glimpses, no one has the vaguest notion of the brilliance, the radiance, the fabulous radioactivity in my brain that will one day transform and heal the universe. (Nancy Huston)

Creepy, isn’t it? Sol believes it, it’s not just a boy dreaming about being superman.

I liked Randall a lot, a little boy, living with a dysfunctional couple and feeling guilty, not enough. 

Ce n’est pas que tes parents ne t’aiment pas comme tu es, c’est juste que quand on est petit on a beaucoup de choses à apprendre et on se dit que plus on apprend, plus ils vont t’aimer, et peut-être que le jour où on reviendra avec un diplôme universitaire on n’aura plus de souci à se faire. It’s not that you parents don’t love you the way you are, it’s just that when you’re little, you have many things to learn and you think that the more you learn the more they’ll love you and maybe the day you come back with a degree, you’ll be off the hook. (my translation)

I pitied Sadie, a little fat, self-conscious and who craves her mother’s love. She thinks she’s responsible for her mother’s absence:

Si j’étais vraiment une petite fille sage au lieu de seulement faire semblant, j’habiterais avec ma mère et mon père comme tout le monde. If I really were a quiet little girl instead of just pretending, I’d live with my mother and my father like everyone else. (my translation)

As for Kristina, her stolen identity will be her DNA as her wordless songs.

In these children’s lives, the men are absent (Sadie’s father, Kristina’s fathers) or relaxed, funny and involved in the education of the child. (Randall for Sol, Aron for Randall, Peter for Sadie). The mothers default their children, except for Tessa, Sol’s mother. But then Tessa is the exact opposite of Sadie: she’s a stay-at-home mother, devoting her whole life to Sol and thoroughly implementing modern methods of growing up children. But ironically, Sol who lives in the most stable environment sounds the most unbalanced of all the children talking here.

 Each generation has to deal with the burden left by the former generation. Several images float through my head. Events bouncing on lives like an uncontrollable wild ball. A doctor unfolding bleeding lives until he reaches the original cause of all the following pains.

Re-read the definition of a fault line at the beginning of this post. This book is full of genealogical fault lines, cracks in souls that create disasters in lives. It is also full of moves linked to these fault lines (Sadie’s researching her mother’s past, for example) that end up in earthquakes for other members of the family. 

Fault Lines is a marvellous book, haunting and masterly crafted. Nancy Huston left clues everywhere to let the reader collect the information and create their own mental picture of the family. Events click together, completing the puzzle in the end.

I’m not particularly fond of books with children as narrators. But here, using children as narrators is powerful, they have a limited knowledge of the world, mix words and come to their own explanation of situations. For example, Sadie innocently says her mother got pregnant from a beatnik named Mort and with whom she used to “play music, drink wine and smoke kerouac” They candidly depict situations and the adult reader reads between the lines. — Are the children’s words another kind of “fault lines”?

I included the covers of the French and American editions. I prefer the French one, the American one focuses on Kristina, the origin of the family and gives a wrong image of the novel. This is NOT a misery book. It is a book about guilt, about responsibility of adults toward children, about secrets and lies and about inherited grief.

Lignes de faille won the Prix Femina in 2006, a well-deserved prize. I found another review at the Guardian, but I think it reveals a lot about the plot. This one by another blogger, Another Cookie Crumble is interesting.

PS : Of course, I’ve read the French version. I translated most of the quotes but Nancy Huston’s version will unequivocally be superior.

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