BOOKS

Will La Guerre survive fashionability? With a little luck, oui

A highly informal and kindly intentioned memorandum to Professors of Literature everywhere:

PHILIP SYKES June 1 1970
BOOKS

Will La Guerre survive fashionability? With a little luck, oui

A highly informal and kindly intentioned memorandum to Professors of Literature everywhere:

PHILIP SYKES June 1 1970

Will La Guerre survive fashionability? With a little luck, oui

A highly informal and kindly intentioned memorandum to Professors of Literature everywhere:

BOOKS

PHILIP SYKES

No, I really don’t think you should make La Guerre, Yes Sir! the subject of your forthcoming seminar. It’s tempting, I know. This separatist thing is intriguing the students and you’re sitting there with a new translation of a singular French-Canadian novel. And it would fit easily — too easily — into your interesting thesis on cultural alienation. The other fellows? Yes, I know. W. found a political moral; L. found litmus traces of Stendahl, Gide, Faulkner, Joyce, Cervantes, Kafka and Lorca — all in one short novel! Newly launched — and already it’s awash in profundities!

If you’d leave it — just postpone the seminar — this translation by Sheila Fischman of the 1968 novel by Roch Carrier could be the one to survive fashionability. It could be the one thousands of Canadians will read. Don’t interpret it.. Don’t cage it in the lecture hall. It’s alive. Nothing you will say about it is as good as the thing itself:

“Joseph spread the five fingers of his left hand on the log.

He heard breathing behind him. He turned around. It was his own.

His other fingers, his other hand, seized the axe. It crashed down between the wrist and the hand, which leapt into the snow and was slowly drowned in blood.”

“. . . Continuing tradition

of the literature of protest ...” I was afraid you’d mention that. But not quite. Joseph is a Quebecker cutting off his hand to avoid the “Christly shells” of World War II. Two paragraphs after the axeblow:

“Joseph burst into a great laugh, which he could hear going up very high, up above the snow. He hadn’t had so much fun since the beginning of the war. The villagers heard his voice. He was calling for help.”

You could say — perhaps you have already — that La Guerre, Yes Sir! is a study of people at a particular time in the survivance of Quebec, the time when the world of modern wars lurched boorishly into the 18th-century village, the last moment, perhaps, of medieval life. Carrier defines it best. It is the time when the war dirtied the snow.

You could say that this is a novel about “the pattern of misunderstandings” between a color party of faceless English-speaking soldiers and the French - speaking villagers. Remember that scene where the half-drunken peasants, united by an affront to their deep, old sense of possession, hurl themselves against les Anglais. Your lecturers, I’m afraid, will relate that passion to the roar of the separatist youth last month, Le Québec-aux-Qué-bé-cois.

But how will you categorize Carrier’s people? Joseph, whose severed hand becomes a hockey puck? Virile Arthur and jealous Henri who take turns in the hot bosom and the fecund bed of

Amélie? The soldier Bérubé, who “passes” from French to English? The Corriveaus, mère and père, distinctly shaped like village carvings, yet live from the earth with tastes and senses:

“Anthyme . . . was holding a glass filled with foaming cider. For years he had been making his cider in the fall when, as he said, ‘The wind is ready to scratch the apples.’ Then he buried his bottles in the cellar where they remained hidden in the ground for a very long time. His children became men and the bottles were still in the ground . . . On great occasions, Anthyme would parsimoniously draw out a bottle and quickly fill in the hole so that, as he said, ‘The light of the cider won’t get out.’ Over the years Anthyme’s cider became charged with marvelous forces of the earth.”

How will you categorize characters? By symbolism, if I know you.

Oh, the symbols are there. Young Corriveau is the central man and he is in his coffin — I know you relish that. The village lecher who went to war. Blown up while defecating on the field of battle. Decorated, too. Borne home by seven of the uncomprehending Anglais. Mourned piously in the cottage, prayed over, talked over, laughed over, drunk over and — the night lengthening — fought over at the riotous wake. Finally, by Corriveau, mère and père, wept over:

“The old people wept.

What was the use of having been a child with blue eyes, of having learned about life, its names, its colors, its laws, painfully as though it were against nature? What was the use of having been a child so unlucky in life? What was the use of the prayers of that pious child, who had been as pale as the pictures of the Saints? What was the use of the blasphemies of the child become a man?

Everything was as useless as tears.”

The man a corpse, the central woman a shining harlot in a bridal gown (I see you have noted her partial bilingualism and categorized her “the one flash of light in the comedy’s darkness”). Well, yes. Molly from Newfoundland, Bérubé’s purchased bride, is a follower, perhaps, with a foot in both camps. But would you make her a symbol of national reconciliation? No. with “those breasts firm as hot rolls,” those “buttocks that could make a man lose his head,” that whiteness, she is a carnal incitement to life. When Bérubé rolled on to Molly in Corriveau’s bed above the mourners, “It was death that they stabbed at, violently.”

Corriveau and Molly. Curses and prayers. The violent young and the hospitable old. Cosmic farce and human sorrow, intimately felt.

It is a black comedy, true, layered in contrasts. There are depths in its spare lines. For you, professor, it is a whole harvest festival of a fruitcake — you can nibble in its meanings for years.

Most of all, it is joyous reading. You should not, cannot, define in your lecture notes precisely why this is so. Say nothing. Tell them all to read it. Call off the seminar. That’s an order.

La Guerre, Yes Sir!; Roch Carrier; translated by Sheila Fishman; House of Anansi; cloth cover, $5; paperback, $2.50. □