Frontlines

Roger Lemelin: the Cap Rouge gadfly

David Thomas June 18 1979
Frontlines

Roger Lemelin: the Cap Rouge gadfly

David Thomas June 18 1979

Roger Lemelin: the Cap Rouge gadfly

Frontlines

PORTRAIT

David Thomas

Roger Lemelin is the bête noire of Quebec's intellectual elite. His taunt in Toronto that Quebec is

becoming a new Iran set the city’s highpitched bank towers to quiver last month like timorous tuning forks in the coarse grip of a disco drummer. Back home, the true believers gasped at Roger Lemelin’s impiety and wailed in unison against the infidel. Within hours, Her Majesty’s Mail gagged on the surge of impassioned epistles to La Presse, the Montreal daily that Lemelin publishes flamboyantly. His Toronto speech to fellow newspaper bosses struck a vital nerve—the same nerve Lemelin had tickled and tortured 31 years before in The Plouffe Family, the tragicomic novel which established his reputation as Quebec’s most benevolently brutal critic, and the writer closest to its tormented soul.

It was one month after turning 60 that Lemelin stood before the assembled and approving media mandarins and accused the Parti Québécois government of poisoning the people of Quebec “slowly with little doses of separatist and socialist arsenic.” Instantly, Lemelin was declared unclean by visceral indépendantistes and, like an adulteress of Islam, was publicly stoned by invective for his faithlessness. His

own paper carried letters decrying his “denigration of his people before persons of another culture.”

It is a reproach Lemelin must have recognized. He made it himself in 1948 against The Plouffe Family character Denis Boucher. “Why was Denis trying to ridicule the Plouffes before strangers, to present them as curiosities?” the novelist wonders after Denis had invited an American into the intimacy of the Plouffes’ humble kitchen.

The most obvious explanation, for both Denis Boucher and his creator, Roger Lemelin, is their exhibitionism, their craving for attention, plus their uncontained delight in baiting what Lemelin calls the bien pensants—the right thinkers of the moment. The right thinkers of Lemelin’s youth were the curés and cardinals of the old Catholic Quebec. Now, they are the new clergy of independence whose seigniory, according to Lemelin, is no better than the other.

Heresy has been kind to Roger Lemelin. Issue of the honest poverty of Quebec City’s St. Sauveur neighborhood, the publisher chuckles from the snug seclusion of his clifftop domain—a hedonist’s fantasy compared by its owner to Plato’s Sicilian retreat. In summer, Lemelin commutes by air between his Montreal publisher’s office and this Cap Rouge home, just upstream from Que-

bec City, with its manicured gardens, two swimming pools and a connoisseur’s wine cellar guarded by an armored door and combination lock.

Upstairs in his writer’s loft, Lemelin melts into a patrician’s armchair of supple green leather, bathed in the mellow light reflecting from his eclectic assemblage of paintings, and then excuses it all with the tale of how he came to own the most inspiring view in Quebec. It was in 1942, still partly crippled from the ski-jumping accident that dashed his dreams of Olympic fame, that Lemelin and his sweetheart, Valéda, would come here, pushing through the bushes and raspberry canes, to perch on the promontory where the young author would read aloud the progressing manuscript of his first novel, Au Pied de la Pente Douce. One day their idyll was interrupted by the landowner who waved them off. Humiliated, the neophyte novelist demanded to buy the property, and the owner, exploiting the young man’s prideful challenge, agreed to sell the 1,000 feet of useless clifftop for a gouger’s sum: $400. “I begged a loan from the Caisse Populaire. I said I’d teach English to pay it back. The manager reminded me I didn’t speak English, but I said that was no problem.

I’d learn it.” So Lemelin, before his first book was published, was in debt, burdened by payments of $2 a week for the property he now displays with his curious, apologetic ostentation. He knows that for many of his critics, the biggest sin of this ambitious Lower Town kid is his success.

Lemelin justifies his Toronto speech by saying it was not meant to be a rigorous analysis. “It’s a political pamphlet, with words that go Pow! Pow! Pow! It’s obvious that the reality is not quite like that.” But under their husk of hyperbole, Lemelin’s political assertions contain deliciously crunchy kernels of truth. Sample these Lemelin morsels:

• Claude Morin, PQ intergovernmental affairs minister: “He’s no more separatist than my ass. I know Claude very well—he’s a frustrated functionary who wanted power.”

• René Lévesque: “He’s an improviser, he doesn’t see beyond the end of his nose. He has a problem of physical size and the problem of New Carlisle where he was bullied by les Anglais. Lévesque is Ti-Poil—the poor French Canadian looking beaten. He plays the role magnificently.”

Understandably, “no one has ever asked me to go into politics.” Though a trace of wistfulness shades the statement, the publisher and former meat packer (“I saved the tradition of creton and tourtière in Quebec”) is too much an iconoclast to suffer politics. Or for politics to suffer him.

Anyway, Roger Lemelin did at least as much in awakening and defining Quebec’s self-awareness as the politicians he so loves to bait. Lemelin’s Plouffe Family became, in 1953, a weekly television series never equalled in its appeal nor, in its English version, its capacity to open to English Canada a sympathetic window into French Quebec. Every Wednesday night at 8:30 French Canada crowded the hushed living-room sanctuaries of its first TV to see itself reflected back in the unforgettable images of Théophile, Maman Plouffe, Ovide, Napoléon, Guillaume, Onésime and Rita Toulouse. It was a self-reflection denied English Canada. Remembers Lemelin: “Quebec had to create its own television with a small group of people and they did sensational things. English Canadians didn’t have to push themselves to make their own television. They just dipped into the reservoir of the United States.”

The Plouffes—and the still-passive Quebec they portrayed—died with the 1959 strike by Radio-Canada producers which turned René Lévesque from journalist to firebrand politician.

Radio-Canada, in fact, committed an act of cultural vandalism akin to the destruction of Montreal’s disaffected churches: it destroyed all but a few snippets of The Plouffe Family tapes, a priceless part of the country’s patrimony erased because it took up too much room. In an act of atonement, Radio-Canada is backing a $4-million feature-film version of The Plouffe Family which director Gilles Carle is to begin shooting next winter. Lemelin is collaborating on the screenplay, and making some notable changes: “In reading the book after 35 years I discovered missing elements. Père Plouffe, for example, acts in a way not completely explained in the book. I didn’t know it at the time but it’s obviously because he had a mistress, so in the film he’ll have a mistress.”

That’s Roger Lemelin: sacrilegious even with his own creations. The Plouffe Family, for all the book’s oldfashioned absence of adultery, remains eerily pertinent: “The fundamental phenomenon is still there—Denis Boucher, torn between his nationalism and his universal conception of liberty.” Baring Quebec’s inner tearing before the world is Lemelin’s crime and triumph. To his critics’ fury, he now appears at peace with the part, smiling prankishly as he perches on his Cap Rouge promontory to read with his wife of 35 years, Valéda.