The French language in Canada
The valley of the St. Lawrence River, first explored by Jacques Cartier during his second voyage to North America in 1535, was colonized by France during the 17th and 18th centuries. The first French settlement was established in 1605 at Port-Royal, near present-day Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. In 1713 France permanently ceded to Britain most of the territory known as Acadia but maintained its hold over New France. As the territorial struggle continued, the British were increasingly frustrated by the reluctance of the Acadians, also referred to as the “neutral French,” to pledge allegiance to the British regime, and between 1755 and 1762 approximately 10,000 Acadians were forcibly deported. With the fall of the city of Quebec in 1759, the British gained control of New France. When the Treaty of Paris in 1763 officially confirmed British rule over New France, the predominantly Roman Catholic population of more than 60,000 persons spoke a language that was already a blend of several French dialects, although French was then not yet standardized in France itself.
After 1763 immigration from France virtually ceased, but the number of French-speaking inhabitants continued to increase. Today about five-sixths of Canada’s Francophones live in the province of Quebec. The remainder form a linguistic minority among predominantly English-speaking communities in other provinces. In many cases they have established vibrant, culturally active subcommunities, most notably in the Maritime Provinces, particularly New Brunswick, which is officially bilingual; in northern Ontario; and, to a lesser extent, in the western provinces. As Quebec nationalism led the province’s inhabitants to adopt the term Québécois to describe themselves from the 1960s, the term French Canadian was increasingly applied primarily to the Francophone minorities outside Quebec. (Today, however, many Canadians outside Quebec use the term French Canadian to refer to all French-speaking Canadians.) Although French Canadian literature is often considered separately from Quebec literature, this article examines both.
The French regime, 1535–1763
During the two centuries of French rule, not a page of French was printed in New France; there was no printing press in the colony until after the establishment of British control. The substantial colonial literature written in and about New France was published in France for a European audience. It included accounts of discovery and exploration, official reports and correspondence, travelers’ narratives, annals of missions and religious communities, and histories of the colony. Credit for the first theatre production written in New France belongs to Marc Lescarbot, whose pageant Le Théâtre de Neptune en la Nouvelle-France (The Theatre of Neptune in New France) was presented at Port-Royal in 1606. On his return to France, he published in 1609 Histoire de la Nouvelle-France (History of New France) and Les Muses de la Nouvelle France (“The Muses of New France”), the latter containing his poetry and drama. The most important of the missionary annals is Les Relations des Jésuites (1632–1673; The Jesuit Relations), which gives a fascinating glimpse into the life of the missionaries and their relationship with Canada’s native peoples. Also of interest are the writings, particularly the correspondence, of Marie de l’Incarnation, the first mother superior of the Ursuline nuns of New France. The colony also possessed an abundant oral literature composed of folk songs, folktales, and legends. Considerable scholarly effort has been expended on the recovery and study of the rich heritage of oral traditions and literary works surviving from the French period.
After the British conquest, 1763–1830
After the devastation of the Seven Years’ War, intellectual life was for a time inconceivable. During the first 70 years of British rule, journalism was vitally important to the French-speaking majority. The bilingual Quebec Gazette (1764) and, later, French-language newspapers such as Le Canadien (1806) and La Minerve (1826) offered the only medium of mass communication, of contact with Europe and the United States, and of political expression at home. The first scattered indications of literature (anecdotes, poems, essays, and sermons) appeared in their pages, as did the verses and songs of two French immigrants, Joseph Quesnel and Joseph Mermet. Quesnel, French Canada’s first significant writer, also composed dramatic texts for amateur actors; his comedy Colas et Colinette (1808; Eng. trans. Colas et Colinette), first acted on stage in 1790, was revived as a radio play in 1968.
Early literature, 1830–60
Publication of French Canadian literature in Canada began in the 1830s. The first collection of verse—Epîtres, satires, chansons, épigrammes, et autres pièces de vers (“Epistles, Satires, Songs, Epigrams, and Other Pieces of Verse”) by Michel Bibaud—appeared in 1830; the first novel—L’Influence d’un livre (Influence of a Book) by Philippe-Ignace-François Aubert de Gaspé—was published in 1837. In drama two works of note were the comedy Griphon; ou, la vengeance d’un valet (1837; “Gryphon; or, The Vengeance of a Valet”) by Pierre Petitclair, the first play published by a native-born French Canadian, and Le Jeune Latour (1844; “The Young Latour”) by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, Canadian theatre’s first tragedy. This literary development reflected in part the gradual organization of primary and secondary education and the increasing availability of French books and periodicals even before the resumption of commercial relations with France in 1855. More important was a growing sense of national identity, apparent in the campaigns for responsible government that preceded and followed the ill-fated rebellions against British rule in 1837 and 1838. The principal publication of the time, François-Xavier Garneau’s Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu’à nos jours (1845–48; History of Canada from the Time of Its Discovery Till the Union Year [1840–41]), embodied the new spirit of nationalism.
The literary movement of 1860
Under the Act of Union (1840), the peripatetic parliament of Upper and Lower Canada moved in 1859 to Quebec city, along with its clerks and public servants. The capital, being also the seat of the newly founded Laval University (1852), was an ideal setting for French Canada’s first literary grouping, sometimes referred to as the École Patriotique de Québec (Patriotic School of Quebec) or the Mouvement Littéraire de Québec (Literary Movement of Quebec). Often congregating at the bookstore of poet Octave Crémazie, its dozen members shared patriotic, conservative, and strongly Roman Catholic convictions about the survival of French Canada. Their spokesman, Henri-Raymond Casgrain, promoted a messianic view of the spiritual mission of French Canadians in North America, now that postrevolutionary France had fallen into what he perceived to be godlessness and materialism. Only a few French Romantic writers were admired and imitated. Philippe Aubert de Gaspé’s historical romance of the period of British conquest, Les Anciens Canadiens (1863; The Canadians of Old); Gérin-Lajoie’s colonization novel, Jean Rivard (1862–64; Eng. trans. Jean Rivard); and numerous collections of verse by Pamphile Lemay (Les Gouttelettes [1904; "The Droplets"]) and Louis-Honoré Fréchette (La Légende d’un peuple [1887; “The Legend of a People”]) illustrate the nostalgic and didactic preoccupations of the time. More original works were nevertheless attempted: Eudore Evanturel’s Premières poésies (1878; “First Poems”) broke with conventional imagery, and Quebec’s first woman novelist, Laure Conan (the pen name of Marie-Louise-Félicité Angers), published a sophisticated psychological novel, Angéline de Montbrun (1881–82; Eng. trans. Angéline de Montbrun).
The Montreal School, 1895–1935
By the end of the century, Montreal had become the province’s commercial metropolis, and the next literary movement was founded there by Jean Charbonneau and Louvigny de Montigny in 1895 with the École Littéraire de Montréal (Montreal Literary School). The society continued to exist, although intermittently, for nearly 40 years. Its members published extensively, mostly in verse; organized four large public sessions in 1898–99; and issued two collective volumes of their writings, in 1900 and 1925. Their literary doctrine was eclectic, although chiefly influenced by the Parnassian and Symbolist movements in France and Belgium.
The Montreal School included the first French Canadian poet who can be compared favourably with his French contemporaries. Émile Nelligan, indisputably a genius, composed all his poetry during his teens (1896–99) before lapsing into insanity. His intricate sonnets and rondels were published in 1903 by the critic Louis Dantin (the pen name of Eugène Seers). Another Montreal School poet of note was the invalid Albert Lozeau (L’Âme solitaire [1907; “The Solitary Soul”]).
During the first decade of the 20th century, two main literary groups emerged, the aesthetes (exotistes) and the regionalists. The aesthetes, among them René Chopin, Marcel Dugas, Paul Morin, and Robert de Roquebrune, had studied in Paris and were fascinated by contemporary French literature and culture. They founded a short-lived artistic magazine, Le Nigog (“The Harpoon”), in 1918, but they remained a tiny minority, often denounced as dilettantes. It was the regionalists (Gonzalve Desaulniers, Albert Ferland, Charles Gill, and later Alfred DesRochers, Claude-Henri Grignon, and Blanche Lamontagne-Beauregard) who became the dominant group over the next 30 years. Their preference for local subject matter and language, as expressed in their magazine Le Terroir (founded 1909; “The Land”) and encouraged by the critic Camille Roy, complemented the French Canadian nationalism then being promulgated by Henri Bourassa and Lionel-Adolphe Groulx. Paradoxically, the regionalists were proposing rural and agricultural themes when Quebec society was becoming urban and industrial. The French authorLouis Hémon’s novel Maria Chapdelaine (1914; Eng. trans. Maria Chapdelaine), set in the rural Lac Saint-Jean region of Quebec, though grudgingly accepted by the Québécois at first, quickly became an important classic very much in tune with the predominant agriculturalist ideology. However, Quebec authors such as Rodolphe Girard (Marie Calumet [1904; Eng. trans. Marie Calumet]) and Albert Laberge (La Scouine [1918; Bitter Bread]), who portrayed country life too realistically, were censured and ostracized. The one poet who anticipated future trends, Jean-Aubert Loranger (Les Atmosphères [1920; "Atmospheres"]), was ignored.
World War II and the postwar period, 1935–60
By the mid-1930s Canada’s economic depression, Quebec’s socioeconomic development, and European political events were making Quebec’s regionalist literature obsolete.
In fictionJean-Charles Harvey attacked bourgeois ideology in Les Demi-Civilisés (1934; “The Half-Civilized”; Eng. trans. Sackcloth for Banner and Fear’s Folly), which was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, resulting in Harvey’s being fired from his job at the journal Le Soleil. Three years later Félix-Antoine Savard’s Menaud, maître-draveur (Master of the River) deplored in lyrical language Anglo-American takeovers of Quebec’s natural resources, and in 1938 Ringuet (Philippe Panneton) traced the decline of Quebec’s rural economy in Trente arpents (Thirty Acres). After the interruption of the war years (1939–45), French Canadian fiction became increasingly urban. Having moved to Quebec in 1939 after a stay in Europe, the Franco-Manitoban Gabrielle Roy drew a convincing portrait of working-class Montreal in Bonheur d’occasion (1945; The Tin Flute), for which she received the Prix Fémina. She also wrote much autobiographical fiction set in rural Manitoba. Roger Lemelin’s Les Plouffe (1948; The Plouffe Family), a family chronicle set in the poorer quarters of Quebec city, spawned a popular television serial.
Not all novelists were attracted to the social realism embodied by Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion, however. Some, such as Robert Charbonneau, André Giroux, and Robert Élie, wrote first-person introspective fiction influenced by Georges Bernanos, François Mauriac, and other Roman Catholic novelists of France. Others, such as Germaine Guèvremont in Le Survenant and Marie-Didace (1945 and 1947; translated and published together as The Outlander), continued to examine rural society, though with greater detachment. One of the most prolific novelists, Yves Thériault, found new subjects among Quebec’s native peoples in Agaguk (1958; Eng. trans. Agaguk) and Ashini (1960; Eng. trans. Ashini).
In poetry Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau’s unrhymed metaphysical poems (Regards et jeux dans l’espace ; “Glances and Games in Space”) introduced a new era. Four poets subsequently dominated the 1940s and ’50s: Garneau, Alain Grandbois, Anne Hébert, and Rina Lasnier. Although each employed distinctive techniques and images, all expressed their sense of solitude, alienation, frustration, or despair. Each, especially Grandbois, influenced younger writers; for the first time, poets of Quebec, rather than poets of France, served as models for the next generation—the Hexagone poets.
A literary group and publishing house, L’Hexagone (founded 1953) became a major force in Quebec poetry. It published dozens of elegantly printed volumes of verse, launched literary magazines such as Liberté (1959; “Liberty”), and organized annual conferences of Quebec and international writers. Its leading figures—Gaston Miron, Jacques Brault, Gilles Hénault, Fernand Ouellette, Jean-Guy Pilon, and Michel Van Schendel—were both theoreticians and practicing poets, writing interpretive essays as well as polished poems.
Simultaneously, Quebec theatre assumed its modern form. A Montreal company, Les Compagnons de Saint-Laurent (1937–52), created a taste for professional performances of contemporary French plays. Two playwrights, Gratien Gélinas and Marcel Dubé, began writing in colloquial language about the problems of living in a society controlled by the Roman Catholic Church and by a paternalistic Union Nationale government. Permanent theatres and professional companies sprang up, their personnel often supported by part-time work with Radio-Canada or with the National Film Board of Canada.
In 1948 the painter Paul-Émile Borduas, one of the group of artists known as Les Automatistes, repudiated Quebec’s Jansenist past in the revolutionary manifestoRefus global (1948; Total Refusal). Poet and playwright Claude Gauvreau, one of the signatories of the manifesto, transposed the group’s principles to the written word, while poet and engraver Roland Giguère began writing poetry inspired by both Surrealism and Quebec nationalism. On the political front, in 1950 Pierre Elliott Trudeau and others founded Cité libre (“Free City”), a journal of social and political criticism. The “quiet revolution” was not far away.
The "Quiet Revolution"
During the 1960s Quebec society underwent the greatest upheaval of its history. A new Liberal government set about modernizing the province, revamping the educational system, and creating a powerful Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Campaigns for the independence of Quebec were launched by separatist organizations that coalesced in the Parti Québécois (founded 1968), which became the provincial government in 1976. Intellectuals became vocal, and literary production more than tripled during the decade. A group of writers, including André Brochu, Paul Chamberland, and André Major, founded the magazine Parti pris (1963–68; “Position Taken”) and a publishing house of the same name to press their demands for a secular, socialist, and independent Quebec. The Parti pris writers politicized joual, the Quebec working-class dialect, by using it to express their alienation in works such as Major’s short-story collection La Chair de poule (1965; “Goose Bumps”) and Jacques Renaud’s novel Le Cassé (1964; Broke City, or Flat Broke and Beat). In 1968 the young playwright Michel Tremblay revolutionized Quebec theatre with Les Belles-Soeurs (“The Sisters-in-Law”; Eng. trans. Les Belles-Soeurs), which was first read at the Centre d’Essai des Auteurs Dramatiques (Centre for Dramatic Authors), established in 1965 to give a forum to Quebec playwrights. The “new Quebec theatre” ushered in by Tremblay was characterized by experimental approaches, including improvisation and collective creation; by proletarian language (Tremblay, Jean-Claude Germain, and Jean Barbeau); by parody (Robert Gurik, Hamlet, prince du Québec [1968; Hamlet, Prince of Quebec]); and by audience participation (Françoise Loranger, Double jeu [1969; “Double Game”]).
In poetry the territory of Quebec (referred to as le pays) was rediscovered in Paul-Marie Lapointe’s Choix de poèmes: arbres (1960; “Selection of Poems: Trees”) and Gatien Lapointe’s Ode au Saint-Laurent (1963; “Ode to the St. Lawrence”). Nationalism adopted revolutionary language in Chamberland’s Terre Québec (1964), and personal rebellion triumphed in the avant-garde magazines La Barre du jour (founded 1965) and Les Herbes rouges (founded 1968). A preoccupation with freedom of expression (la parole) revealed itself in titles such as Giguère’s L’Âge de la parole (1965; “The Age of Speech”) and Yves Préfontaine’s Pays sans parole (1967; “Speechless Country”). Perhaps the most influential collection was Miron’s L’Homme rapaillé (1970; Embers and Earth: Selected Poems), a poetic record of the search for a Quebec identity. Michèle Lalonde’s ironic “Speak White” condemned the Anglo-American economic exploitation embedded in the racist jeer “Speak white,” often hurled at Québécois who chose not to speak English; the poem was first recited at a 1968 show and again at the Montreal cultural event Nuit de la Poésie ("Night of Poetry") in 1970 and was published in 1974. With chansonniers (singer-songwriters) such as Gilles Vigneault, the “Quebec song” became the poetry of the people. Fusing elements of traditional Quebec folk music with politically charged lyrics, the Quebec song gained new importance at this time for its role in sustaining political fervour and national pride. Vigneault’s music incorporated many elements of traditional Quebec folk music but was also influenced by contemporary French music.
During the 1970s poetry was less political and more experimental: the concerns of American counterculture were adopted in the works of Lucien Francoeur and Raoul Duguay. Committed to the notion that there exists an essential harmony between music and poetry, Duguay founded the Infonie group and dedicated himself to the performance of his poetry (Or le cycle du sang dure donc [1967; “So the Cycle of the Blood Endures”]). Pierre Morency’s poetry embraced a holistic vision of life that found its expression in a celebration of nature (Le Temps des oiseaux [1975; “The Time of the Birds”], Quand nous serons [1988; “When We Will Be”]). Michel Beaulieu (Pulsions [1973; “Urges”]) created a poetry of intimacy and desire rooted in everyday life. But as published poetry became more esoteric, the general public turned to chansonniers such as Robert Charlebois, whose American-influenced rock was just as concerned with Quebec identity as Vigneault’s music.
Since the 1970s, feminism has been a potent force in French Canadian literature. In contrast to their Anglophone peers, who took much of their inspiration from the social criticism of American feminists, Francophone feminists primarily turned to the literary theory of French critics. Important in the realm of theoretical explorations was the work of Nicole Brossard (L’Amer; ou, le chapitre effrité [1977; These Our Mothers; or, The Disintegrating Chapter] and Picture Theory [1982; Eng. trans. Picture Theory], both works of theory and fiction). With Le Désert mauve (1987; Mauve Desert), her feminist fiction was made more accessible to the general public. The gender assumptions embedded in the semantic and syntactic conventions of language as well as in the conventions of literary form were exposed in quite a number of works; of note in this endeavour was the work of Madeleine Gagnon (Lueur [1979; "Glimmer"]), France Théoret (Une Voix pour Odile [1978; "A Voice for Odile"]), and Yolande Villemaire (La Vie en prose [1980; “Life in Prose”]). In her utopian novel L’Euguélionne (1976; The Euguelion), Louky Bersianik (pseudonym of Lucile Durand) used the conventions of the fantastic to conjure up alternatives to the existing social structure and verbal discourse, and in Tryptique lesbien (1980; Lesbian Triptych), a mix of poetry, essays, and dramatic writing, Jovette Marchessault envisioned a society of women free from male domination.
An important part of this polemical movement was the emergence of women’s theatre, performed by groups such as the Théâtre Expérimental des Femmes and featuring controversial plays such as Denise Boucher’s Les Fées ont soif (1978; The Fairies Are Thirsty) and Marchessault’s La Saga des poules mouillées (1981; Saga of Wet Hens). Dramatist and novelist Marie Laberge continued the tradition of feminist theatre with, for example, C’était avant la guerre à l’Anse à Gilles (1981; "Before the War, Down at l’Anse à Gilles"), a historical drama centring on women’s rights in the 1930s, and L’Homme gris (1986; "The Gray Man"; Eng. trans. Night), which explores the issues of spousal abuse, eating disorders, and incest.
The Quiet Revolution of French Canadian minorities
Influenced in part by Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, Francophone minorities outside Quebec began to experience a surge in literary production in the 1970s. This surge was aided by the 1969 federal policy that made French and English Canada’s official languages, which fostered the development of publishing houses such as Les Editions d’Acadie in Moncton, N.B., Prise de Parole in Sudbury, Ont., and Les Editions du Blé in Saint Boniface, Man. New Brunswick novelist and playwright Antonine Maillet played an important role in the evolution of modern Acadian literature. Creator of the immortal Acadian charwoman La Sagouine in the play by the same name (1971; Eng. trans. La Sagouine; “The Slattern”) and recipient of the Prix Goncourt for Pélagie-la-charrette (1979; Pélagie: The Return to a Homeland), an epic novel about the fate of Acadians after the deportation of 1755, she created an awareness of Acadia and its history. Her novel Les Confessions de Jeanne de Valois (1992; “The Confessions of Jeanne de Valois”) reviews the 20th-century history of Francophone New Brunswick through the fictional autobiography of a teaching nun. Inclined to reject the more folkloric aspects of Maillet’s writing, the new generation of Acadian writers includes poet and playwright Herménégilde Chiasson (Mourir à Scoudouc [1974; “To Die at Scoudouc”], Conversations [1998; Eng. trans. Conversations]) and postmodern novelist France Daigle. Acadian literature excels in lyric poetry, represented by authors who include Raymond Leblanc, Dyane Léger, and Serge Patrice Thibodeau.
Franco-Ontarian culture underwent tremendous revitalization in the 1970s, particularly in northern Ontario with the development of regional theatre in French. André Paiement, one of the founders of the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario in the early 1970s, achieved popular success with his musical comedyLavalléville (1975). Continuing the theatrical tradition into the 1980s and 1990s, both Jean Marc Dalpé (Le Chien [1987; “The Dog”]) and Michel Ouellette (French Town ) won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for drama in French. Poet Patrice Desbiens explored the alienation of the Francophone minority in his bilingual poetry collection L’Homme invisible/The Invisible Man (1981). Novelist and short-story writer Daniel Poliquin has taken a more playful, satiric tone, most notably in his novel L’Ecureuil noir (1994; Black Squirrel) as well as his polemical essayLe Roman colonial (2000; In the Name of the Father: An Essay on Quebec Nationalism). Contemporary writers of western Canada include novelist Marguerite A. Primeau (Sauvage Sauvageon [1984; Savage Rose]), editor, poet, and novelist J.R. Léveillé (Une si simple passion [1997; “Such a Simple Passion”]), and poet Paul Savoie (A la façon d’un charpentier [1984; “In the Manner of a Carpenter”]). In 1993 Alberta-born author Nancy Huston, who has lived much of her adult life in France, caused a considerable stir when her novel Cantique des plaines (1993), written first in English as Plainsong and then re-created in French, was awarded the Governor General’s Award for fiction in French, raising questions about the very definition of French Canadian literature.
The dominant genre in Quebec and French Canadian literature since the latter part of the 20th century has been the novel. In the 1960s, works of fiction reflected the turmoil of the Quiet Revolution in their radical, often sexual, themes and in their unconventional structures, derived in part from the French nouveau roman of the previous decade. The Quebec “new novel” began with Jacques Godbout’s L’Aquarium (1962) and reached its high point in the brilliantly convoluted novels of Hubert Aquin that followed his Prochain épisode (1965; “Next Episode”; Eng. trans. Prochain Episode). Marie-Claire Blais’s Une Saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel (1965; A Season in the Life of Emmanuel), which won the Prix Médicis, presented a scathing denunciation of Quebec rural life, and Godbout’s Salut, Galarneau! (1967; Hail, Galarneau!) described the Americanization of Quebec. Blais went on to receive critical acclaim for Soifs (1995; These Festive Nights), while, 26 years and several novels after Salut, Galarneau!, Godbout produced the sequel Le Temps des Galarneau (1993; The Golden Galarneaus). Constantly renewing himself, Gérard Bessette moved from ironic realism in Le Libraire (1960; “The Bookseller”; Eng. trans. Not for Every Eye) through stream of consciousness in L’Incubation (1965; Incubation) to symbolic narrative in Les Anthropoïdes (1977; “The Anthropoids”) and semiautobiographical diary fiction in Les Dires d’Omer Marin (1985; “The Sayings of Omer Marin”). The poet Anne Hébert achieved success with her novel Kamouraska (1970; Eng. trans. Kamouraska), won the Prix Fémina for Les Fous de Bassan (1982; In the Shadow of the Wind), and won a Governor General’s Award for L’Enfant chargé de songes (1992; Burden of Dreams), although the latter was less successful than her Le Premier jardin (1988; The First Garden). Louise Maheux-Forcier scandalized certain readers in 1963 with Amadou (Eng. trans. Amadou), a poetic novel about lesbian love. Réjean Ducharme in L’Avalée des avalés (1966; The Swallower Swallowed) and other novels presented the disenchantment of young people in the nuclear age. Other popular novelists of the later 20th century include Jacques Ferron, who poked fun at Quebec institutions, particularly in Le Ciel de Québec (1969; The Penniless Redeemer); the author and publisher Victor-Lévy Beaulieu, with his continuing saga of the Beauchemin family; Roch Carrier, who mocked biculturalism in La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968; Eng. trans. La Guerre, Yes Sir!); and Jacques Poulin, whose early novels, set in the old city of Quebec, are comic visions of life (Mon cheval pour un royaume , Jimmy , and Le Coeur de la baleine bleue ; translated into English under the title The Jimmy Trilogy). His novel Volkswagen Blues (1984; Eng. trans. Volkswagen Blues), although set mostly in the United States, is ultimately a quest for Quebec identity. In the 1980s the success of Yves Beauchemin’s Le Matou (1981; The Alley Cat) and Arlette Cousture’s historical novelLes Filles de Caleb (3 vol., 1985–2003; Emilie) suggested a return in favour of plot-driven narrative.
The political tone of the novel had greatly diminished by the end of the 20th century. In contrast to the hard-edged contestation of the 1960s novel, Jacques Godbout’s Une Histoire américaine (1986; An American Story) testifies to the discouragement of many Quebec intellectuals after the defeat in 1980 of the referendum on separation. The failure of various attempts to negotiate an understanding between Quebec and Canada after Quebec was the sole province not to ratify the Canadian constitution in 1982, as well as the narrow defeat in 1995 of a second referendum on sovereignty, took their toll. The relationship between personal and national identity is often explored through the irony of the postmodern novel, such as Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska’s La Maison Trestler; ou, le 8e jour d’Amérique (1984; “The Trestler House; or, The Eighth Day of America”) and Acadian novelist France Daigle’s 1953: Chronique d’une naissance annoncée (1995; 1953: Chronicle of a Birth Foretold), both of which combine fiction, biography, and metahistorical commentary. Contemporary fiction tends to favour the personal, hence the prominence of fictional autobiographies, autobiographical novels, and diary and epistolary fiction. Madeleine Monette’s Le Double suspect (1980; Doubly Suspect), Anne Dandurand’s Un Coeur qui craque (1990; The Cracks), and Jacques Brault’s Agonie (1984; Death-Watch) all have elements of fictional diaries. Reworking Montesquieu’s Persian Letters (1721), Lise Gauvin used in Lettres d’une autre (1984; Letters from an Other) a Persian narrator who comments naively and honestly on Quebec society. Michel Tremblay’s early novels, such as La Grosse Femme d’à côté est enceinte (1978; The Fat Lady Next Door Is Pregnant), are set in the working-class neighbourhood of his youth. With La Nuit des Princes Charmants (1995; “The Night of the Princes Charming”; Eng. trans. Some Night My Prince Will Come), he gives a very candid account of the coming-of-age of a young homosexual. Sometimes referred to as Generation X writers, Louis Hamelin (La Rage [1989; “Rabies”]) and Christian Mistral (Vamp ) began in the late 1980s to focus literary attention on the social concerns of their age.
Another development in fiction has been the increasing prominence of the short story and novella, particularly with the establishment of the literary review XYZ and publishing house XYZ Éditeur in the 1980s. The short story lends itself to many literary themes: science fiction and the fantastic, with works such as Gaétan Brulotte’s Kafkaesque Le Surveillant (1982; The Secret Voice), Jean-Pierre April’s Chocs baroques (1991; “Baroque Shocks”), and Esther Rochon’s Le Piège à souvenirs (1991; “The Memory Trap”); the erotic, with works such as Claire Dé’s Le Désir comme catastrophe naturelle (1989; Desire as Natural Disaster) and Anne Dandurand’s L’Assassin de l’intérieur/Diables d’espoir (1988; Deathly Delights); and the quirky realism of Monique Proulx’s Les Aurores montréales (1996; Aurora Montrealis).
Contemporary poetry has been marked by a return to lyricism with poets such as François Charron (Le Monde comme obstacle [1988; “The World as Obstacle”), whose themes range from politics to sexuality and spirituality. The emphasis on the personal is particularly poignant in the posthumous collection Autoportraits (1982; “Self-Portraits”) by Marie Uguay, stricken at a young age by cancer. Surrealism remains an important influence in Quebec poetry, particularly in the expression of eroticism, as, for example, in the poetry of Roger Des Roches (Le Coeur complet: poésie et prose, 1974–1982 [2000; “The Complete Heart: Poetry and Prose, 1974–1982”). Homosexual eroticism and the impact of AIDS are important themes in André Roy’s poetry (L’Accélérateur d’intensité [1987; “Accelerator of Intensity”]). Other poets have tended to integrate poetry and narrative—for example, Denise Desautels in La Promeneuse et l’oiseau suivi de Journal de la Promeneuse (1980; “The Wanderer and the Bird Followed by Journal of the Wanderer”). Elise Turcotte published her poetry collection La Terre est ici (1989; “The Earth Is Here”) before creating the brief poetic novel Le Bruit des choses vivantes (1991; The Sound of Living Things). Similarly, Louise Dupré established her reputation as a poet before writing the well-received novel La Mémoria (1996; Memoria). Suzanne Jacob has excelled in poetry with La Part de feu (1997; “The Fire’s Share”) and in fiction with the novel Laura Laur (1983). Although poetry no longer enjoys the influence it once did as a vehicle for the expression of collective identity, events such as the annual International Festival of Poetry in Trois-Rivières, Quebec, launched in 1985, attest to its vitality.
The second half of the 20th century saw an impressive growth in Quebec theatre and dramatic writing, with several dozen original plays being performed each year. In Le Vrai Monde? (1987; The Real World?), perhaps his best play, Michel Tremblay explored the ambiguous relationship between life and its representation in art. His libretto for the opera Nelligan (1990) was a departure from his previous work: it studies Quebec through its most tragic voice, that of poet Émile Nelligan. Jean-Pierre Ronfard, one of the founders of the Nouveau Théâtre Expérimental, created a defining moment in Quebec theatre with La Vie et mort du roi boiteux (1981; “The Life and Death of the Lame King”), a six-play cycle whose performance in 1982 lasted more than 10 hours and treated its spectators to a parodic look at the works of Shakespeare and other great authors of the Western world. Since the 1990s, a younger generation of playwrights has often concerned itself with exploring marginalization, sexuality, and violence in society. Such writers include Normand Chaurette with Provincetown Playhouse, juillet 1919, j’avais 19 ans (1981; “Provincetown Playhouse, July 1919, I Was 19 Years Old”), René-Daniel Dubois with Being at Home with Claude (1986), and Michel Marc Bouchard with Les Feluettes; ou, la répétition d’un drame romantique (1987; Lilies; or, The Revival of a Romantic Drama). One of the most prominent members of this generation is playwright and filmmaker Robert Lepage, whose performance-based plays are influenced as much by modern technology as by Shakespeare and Japanese theatre: his productions include Les Plaques tectoniques (first performed 1988; “Tectonic Plates”), Elseneur (1995; “Elsinore”), and Les Sept Branches de la rivière Ota (first performed 1995; The Seven Streams of the River Ota), written with Eric Bernier.
In the prologue to his now-iconic “Two Solitudes,” Hugh MacLennan professed to have written “a novel of Canada.” The book was published in 1945, and one can imagine the patriotic enthusiasm that the comment may have sparked among readers hungry for tales of the triumphant homeland. Today, on the other hand, such a claim would sound not only ostentatious but redundant: CanLit, as we often call it, having flailed in the nineteen-seventies through an adolescent phase full of anxious self-definition, is now generally thought to include any work by a Canadian citizen. All our novels are “of Canada,” whether they’re about Kamloops, or Cambodia, or no place at all.
MacLennan, in that same prologue, claimed that “Two Solitudes_”__ _spoke to the experience of “both races … of the country,” meaning the linguistic “races” of English and French. The novel, about a half-Anglo, half-Franco character whose crisis of identity mirrored the nation’s, won the first of MacLennan’s five Governor General’s Literary Awards, and its title became shorthand for what was thought of as Canada’s primary social divide. (Never mind the one between settlers and indigenous people.)
In MacLennan’s day, Ontario was consolidating its position as the nation’s economic and cultural heartland. That it shared a border with Quebec heightened a mythos of disconnection: separatism, many feared, would physically disrupt the entire country, severing the Maritimes and Newfoundland into distant satellites of the Great Dominion. As Canada’s industrial center has shifted west and multiculturalism has thrown dichotomous equations of nationhood for a loop, the drama of Quebec separatism has abated. Twenty years ago, a referendum on Quebec sovereignty failed; last year, the Parti Québécois was soundly defeated by the federalist Liberal Party in the provincial election. In between those two events, in 2006, Governor General Michaëlle Jean declared, “The time of ‘two solitudes’ has passed. Now is the time to focus on promoting national solidarity.”
Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Dialogue between Quebec and the rest of North America, to which English Canada might provide a conduit, is practically nonexistent. This is partly a language issue, as few Canadians outside Quebec—save some enclaves in New Brunswick, Ontario, and Manitoba—are fluent in French. But it also has to do with the particular codes of Québécois society. Quebec’s cultural insularity protects its language and culture from outside influence—and so, for instance, the province has its own TV, film, and pop-music celebrities, completely distinct from those of Hollywood, while the pop culture of Ontario is almost entirely American.
The “inward-looking, even parochial” literature of the province provides “a window on the Quebec psyche,” according to Peter McCambridge, a translator in Quebec City who runs an English-language Web site called Quebec Reads. But French-Canadian literature rarely crosses over to English-language readers—and McCambridge has a theory as to why. “Quebec finds itself too exotic to be easily digested by the Canadian and U.S. market,” he told me via e-mail, “but not exotic enough to compete with the appeal of something new from Indonesia or Iceland. To North American readers, especially, I think it’s at once too different and too familiar.”
There are, of course, Québécois writers who have enjoyed success in translation. Nicole Brossard, shortlisted for the 2007 Griffin Prize, is widely regarded as one of Canada’s best poets; Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles Soeurs_”_ was rendered in Scots dialect for a production in Edinburgh; and Roch Carrier’s “The Hockey Sweater_”__ _is a foundational text in almost every Canadian classroom. Still, their global reputations are nothing compared to those of Anglophone Quebec writers such as Mordecai Richler and Mavis Gallant. Tellingly, Yann Martel writes in English rather than his native French.
Raymond Bock’s “Atavismes: Histoires,” the winner of Quebec’s Prix Adrienne-Choquette in 2012, and now available in English thanks to Dalkey Archive’s Applied Literary Translation Program, is the latest work of fiction that could help improve the situation. But readers will need to break through its decidedly specific references: the book, a collection of thirteen short stories, makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with the particulars of Quebec culture—a helpful appendix explains joual cursing (in which equivalents of “chalice” and “host” are two of the most vile expletives) and French Canadian touchstones such as the Quiet Revolution, les filles du roi, and the folksinger Paul Piché. These are stories from a place with its own unique codes—and by embracing this unapologetically French-Canadian spirit, they might, per McCambridge’s paradox, be just “exotic enough” to appeal to a broader North American readership.
In Pablo Strauss’s commendable English adaptation, Bock’s language crackles with the energy of a Québécois folk song, impassioned and celebratory but also melancholy and cheekily ironic. The first story, “Wolverine,” opens things with a statement of purpose: “It’s always been about the words for me,” an unnamed narrator declares, before detailing his gang’s abduction and torture of a Liberal cabinet minister. The echoes are historical—the October Crisis of 1970, which culminated in Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau instituting the War Measures Act to contain separatist hostilities, was hastened, in part, by similar kidnappings. Yet, transposed to the new century, the episode becomes less an act of revolution than a purging of personal impotence and its attendant anger. In a time of political indifference and “tired FLQ graffiti that didn’t scare people anymore” (the Front de Libération du Québec, a separatist paramilitary group, fell into decline after 1971), the young men must remind their captive why they’re beating him:
He needed his memory jogged to grasp the full extent of the excellent work done by him and his brothers in arms, that gang of scumbags who voted in whatever laws they felt like on the backs of us Quebecers, poor suckers who’ve been ceding ground since time immemorial…
The final act of brutality in “Wolverine” is as shocking and gratuitous as it is deflating; the young radicals flee the scene without vindication but, instead, with a sense of irrevocable loss. The group splinters and all that remains is this story, a document that the narrator claims, with a tone of faintly pathetic defiance, is “the truest account and the one that reads best.”
A sense of inevitable failure recurs throughout the book. In “Dauphin, Manitoba,” a young misanthrope wades through the detritus of a ruined relationship, likening himself to “the trapper who falls in a covered foxhole and twists his ankle.” The stresses of fatherhood appear in multiple stories; “Worm” and “The Still Traveller” both feature a contemporary protagonist inheriting his family home. Quebec’s legacy of defeat—going back, really, to the French and Indian War—bears down on all of the book’s characters, and the act of writing becomes an assertion of selfhood against the backdrop of an inescapable past.
“Atavismes”_ _does not deal exclusively in modern-day blunderings. “The Other World” and “Eldorado” venture back to the early days of settlement, while the slyly named “A Canadian Story” is structured around a graduate student’s research on an ancestral habitant. Even that project seems inherently flawed: in an opening letter to his academic supervisor, the young man questions “the very purpose of our enterprise.”
The record is littered with lacunae. No matter how much headway we make, there will always be a gaping hole in our knowledge. It often seems as though our role were to fill this hole in with whatever vague impressions are currently in vogue. How can we attain the objectivity meant to guide our observations when we discuss not facts but lives…?
“I must find ways to do my ancestors’ memory justice,” the student writes. It’s an articulation, perhaps, of Bock’s own attempts to link soldiers on the losing side of the battle for New France with struggling young Francophones in contemporary Montreal. Now thirty-four, Bock has just published his third book, “Des Lames de Pierre_”__ (“Stone Blades”),about a student who longs to break free from a mentor concerned with his own _posterity. This novel, too, examines themes of paternalism and escape, and the ways in which Quebec is torn between honoring and liberating itself from its own past.
It’s an idea reinforced in the collection’s French subtitle, “Histoires,” for which, unfortunately, English lacks a precise translation. While nouvelles is more commonly used to denote short fiction, histoires means both “stories” and “histories”; paired with atavismes it suggests not only reversions to past ways but a sort of anthropological document. The characters here aren’t so much haunted by the past as imprisoned within its cycles and patterns, and often the only agency they find is in revisionism. The narrator of “Room 103,” recounting to his catatonic father the story of his life, says, “There may not be much left of the smart, friendly man you used to be [but] that’s the picture of your old age I’ll take away, the best, the prettiest. The one in front of me now will be erased. I’ll erase it.”
What saves the book from turning maudlin or dour is the youthful vigor of its language and the narrative propulsion of its storytelling. Peter McCambridge suggests that the reason “it’s hard to sell the translation rights to Québec books is that there are so few points of reference,” but the writer whom Bock most recalls for me is neither Francophone or Anglophone—it’s the Chilean Roberto Bolaño. As in Bolaño’s work, narrative itself is often the subject; stories are folded within other stories and narrators are constantly asserting their presence. “For months now I’ve been wondering whether to write my story down or take the whole thing with me into the void,” the collection’s final entry, “Still Traveller,” begins. Like Bolaño, Bock alternates between rage, sorrow, protest, and dark comedy, and the two writers share a sense of urgency—of writing against_ _time as much as about it.
Whether Bock is poised for a Bolaño-like breakthrough is impossible to say, but there are other signs that Franco-Canadian writing might finally reach more North American readers. The Canada Council for the Arts has begun to more actively foster a translation program between Canada’s two national languages, and bolstered funding has yielded, for instance, an English version of Jocelyne Saucier’s “And the Birds Rained Down,” a finalist for CBC Radio’s Canada Reads contest (the Canadian equivalent of an Oprah stamp of approval). This year’s winner of that contest was Kim Thúy’s “Ru,” another Quebec novel in French-to-English translation.
“Things started changing after the first translation fair in 2011,” Alana Wilcox, the publisher at Toronto’s Coach House Books, which put out the Saucier translation, said. “English and French presses started really talking to one another and getting a sense of what everyone’s publishing.” Since then, Coach House, along with other independent publishers such as Biblioasis and BookThug, has been regularly considering work from Quebec. Two translations are scheduled for Fall 2015, including Louis Carmain’s "Guano," which Wilcox likens to “ ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ meets ‘Catch-22.’ ”
Meanwhile, the Anglophone Montreal publisher Véhicule Press recently dedicated half of its Esplanade Books imprint to translations from French. The editor Dimitri Nasrallah, who spearheaded the project, believes that Quebec writing is developing an international sensibility, and that a Quebec-based publishing house is in an ideal position to bring that work to a broader audience. The series includes Geneviève Pettersen's bestseller “The Goddess of Fireflies” and a novel by Jacques Poulin, whose “English is Not a Magic Language_”_ has earned comparisons to Paul Auster. Esplanade has also purchased the North American rights to the works of Eric Plamondon, whose “1984” trilogy has been compared to Richard Brautigan; Nasrallah describes “Apple S,” its final installment, as “an experimental, fragmentary, fictionalized biography of Steve Jobs.”*
“Quebecers have a completely distinct and unique take on life in North America,” Nasrallah says, though that perspective has long been absent from a broader conversation, literary or otherwise. Perhaps this flurry of new initiatives aimed at disseminating the work of French Canadian writers—from the fiercely Québécois Raymond Bock to the globally minded Jacques Poulin—will finally bring the isolation of those writers to an end.
* An earlier version of this post misidentified the author of "Apple S."