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."
F.R. Scott, Aug. 1st, 1899 - Jan. 31st, 1985
The son of Frederick George Scott, Francis (Frank) Reginald Scott was born [on August 1st, 1899] in the Rectory of St. Matthew's Church, Quebec City. He was educated at Bishop's College, Lennoxville, Quebec, and at Oxford University, where he held a Rhodes scholarship, receiving a B.A. (1922) and a B.Litt. (1923) for a thesis on 'The annexation of Savoy and Nice by Napoleon III, 1860'. On his return to Canada he taught briefly at Lower Canada College and in 1924 began studying law at McGill University, graduating in 1926. In 1927 he was called to the bar and in 1928 returned to McGill to teach; he was dean of law from 1961 to 1964 and retired from McGill in 1968. In 1952 he was technical-aid representative for the United Nations in Burma and from 1963 to 1971 a member of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism.
Scott—who has contributed equally to Canadian law, literature, and politics in both official languages [of Canada]—was elected to the Royal Society of Canada in 1947, awarded the Lorne Pierce Medal for distinguished service to Canadian literature in 1962, and received a Molson Prize for outstanding achievements in the arts, the humanities, and the social sciences in 1967. His career as an interpreter of Quebec poetry culminated with a Canada Council Translation Prize for Poems of French Canada (1977), his work as a social philosopher with a Governor General's Award for Essays on the constitution: aspects of Canadian law and politics (1977), and his life as a poet with a Governor General's Award for The collected poems of F. R. Scott (1981). [F. R. Scott died on January 31st, 1985.]
Scott is one of the most important catalysts of modern Canadian poetry, partly because of the influence of his own poetry and partly through his personality and his association with several literary groups and 'little magazines'. As a satirist in the late twenties and early thirties, he helped battle an outworn Canadian Romanticism in order to introduce the 'new poetry'; and in landscape poems such as 'Old song,' 'Lakeshore,' and 'Laurentian Shield' he established a northern evolutionary view of Canadian nature that later influenced such poets as Al Purdy and Margaret Atwood. While achieving distinction as a poet, political activist, and leading authority on constitutional law, Scott also became a figure of extraordinary importance as a commentator on both Canadian society and Canadian literature. All these activities found expression in his poetry, and all stemmed from the nationalistic concerns of Canadian intellectuals in the twenties.
Taken from the entry by Sandra Djwa in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Second edition. Eds. Eugene Benson and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1997. Reprinted with permission of the editor.
F. R. Scott's works copyright © to The Estate of the Author.