Le Triomphe de Gabrielle
Meet Gabrielle Roy, who loved privacy and had it-until a best seller brought the world hammering at her door
ONE DAY in the middle of last December a young woman who cherished privacy and quietness sat at work, doing the same job she had done every day for years. She was working in a room where no one could reach her, earning her living in a way that pleased her above everything else she had tried. The living was a good deal less than most people call ample, but what mattered to her was that she loved what she was doing. Propped against pifiows on a bed in a small room in a modest Montreal hotel, her typewriter on her knees, she was revising the first draft of a shortstory she had begun the day before. While she was writing she forgot where she was, forgot that this hotel room was her only home for seven months in the year, forgot that when the seven months were up she would go back to an equally small room in a boardinghouse in aLaurentian village.
Her name was Gabrielle Roy. It was a name known casually to a few thousand French Canadians, fairly well to perhaps a hundred men and women who were interested in her work, and intimately to only a handful of individuals. She was a small little person, a French Canadian with a remarkable face—large eyes, wide generous mouth, prominent cheekbones and a beautifully modelled nose. Her long, lustrous brown hair, pulled severely away from her forehead and ears, was held at the nape of her neck with a wide barrette. She had the kind of face, completely devoid of make-up, that could easily have belonged to an actress. It was not inappropriate; her job, like that of an actress, was communicating with the public. But the words she used were all her own.
For the past seven years she had been writing occasional articles and short stories which were published by French periodicals in Montreal. Her first novel, Bonheur d’Occasion (Accidental Happiness), had been published in Montreal by Pascal in June, 1945. It was still selling well for a novel written in French in Canada; 13,000 people had bought it, and it was being referred to fairly often by other writers and critics who thought more people should know about it. But to the large bulk of the reading public in Canada, and certainly throughout the whole of the United States, she was virtually unknown.
When Fame Knocks
AS SHE sat there on her bed typing a porter knocked on her door and handed her a telegram. It told her that her novel, in English translation, had been chosen by the Literary Guild in New York as its selection for May, 1947.
It would be called The Tin Flute, and the initial printing would be 500,000 copies. In five weeks the choice would be announced to the press.
Gabrielle Roy had approximately five weeks to grow accustomed to the fact that she was now going to be famous, not only as a French Canadian who had made good in Quebec, but all over the United States, from one coast of the Dominion to the other, in England and in France. She thought about the words in the telegram for a while, but they seemed to have no meaning. She had another long novel to finish, so she went back to work and tried to forget about the Literary Guild.
Creative writers are among the loneliest people in the world. They have to work by themselves, at a solitary desk, without help and without interruption. It isn’t a loneliness which means unhap-
piness, as Gabrielle Roy points out emphatically. But it is the kind of working and thinking alone that makes the sudden spotlight of fame seem like the searing hot blast of an explosion.
Once public acclaim has lighted upon an individual writer he is never quite the same again. Much as he would like to be, he can’t be the same, and continue to carry on his profession, for the public moves in.
I have been exceedingly fortunate in knowing Gabrielle Roy before extensive fame overtook her. I can tell you what she is like now, just before her first novel is published in the English-speaking
world. She believes sincerely that she will remain unchanged when the letters and telephone calls and the people begin to arrive, for she loves people ns all successful novelists must. And she may be right. She has a belter chance of l>eing right on this subject than almost any other young writer I have ever known.
The greatest hazard in the face of her determination-aside from her intense sympathy with unfortunate people.....is her beauty. It isn’t the kind
of good looks one finds in movie magazines or in smart restaurants. It has the unique and haunting quality of a shorter Katherine Cornell, unadorned, compelling, unforgettable. No one pays any particular attention to Gabrielle now as she walks the streets of Montreal in order to think through a problem in her work. Yet a year from now that will no longer lie true. The habits of her life will change as a consequence, whether she wants to change them or not. If they don’t, she won’t be able to continue with her work. And her work is more important to her than anything else in life.
“I have an idea that it takes more character to withstand success and what it brings, than it does to face the hardship of a struggle at the beginning,” she says now.
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Hardships at the beginning were certainly not unknown to Gabrielle Roy. She was born in St. Boniface, Man., before the First World War, the youngest of eight children. Her nearest brother was seven years old at the time, so she grew up without playmates at home. Her parents were pioneers in the West, both from Quebec. Her father was 60 when she was born, a man she knew only as morose and silent. For nearly half her life she was obsessed by a belief that he didn’t like her, until she learned from some of his friends, long after he died, that he was once a gay, jolly young man greatly beloved by his comrades. In those days he held a government appointment as an immigration officer in Manitoba, concerned with the movement of French Canadians from Quebec. Two years before he was scheduled to receive a pension, Laurier went out of power, and with the change in government Mr. Roy lost his job. The resultant bitterness stayed with him the rest of his life.
As a small child Gabrielle spent a great deal of time in the warm, pleasant attic of their large old house in St. Boniface. Here were stored the books that had once belonged to her older brothers and sisters, and she read them all avidly. The attic was a fine place to be alone, to work out her own daydreams as a supplement to reality.
After a convent training at St. Joseph’s Academy in St. Boniface and graduation from the Manitoba normal school, she taught for seven or eight years at the Provencher Collegiate Institute, a bilingual boys’ school where her pupils were not only French but also Ukrainians, Poles, Belgians, Dutch and Irish. The school was five minutes from her own home and she enjoyed the work. She was able to join theatrical groups in St. Boniface and in Winnipeg. Twice she took part in the Dominion Drama Festival in Ottawa. During these years she had also begun to write short stories, most of which garnered a collection of rejection slips. They were extensions of her daydreams in the attic.
In 1937 Gabrielle counted up her savings and decided on a trip to Europe, a trip which had lain high among her ambitions for years. Neither family nor friends could understand why she wanted to go so far away. The groove she had made for herself in St. Boniface and Winnipeg was comfortable, warm and hers for life. But neither then, nor at any other time, has Gabrielle Roy been held back by the opinions of others. She has understood the necessity of stretching her abilities to their full capacity, and this awareness of the full use of her powers has given her tremendous strength.
Seeing Montreal on Foot
Like many other French Canadians on their first visit to France, she felt strange and farther from home than she did when she went to London. In London she studied dramatics, returned to France and went back to England again. But her longing to communicate all the ideas churning in her mind couldn’t be assuaged by acting. She had to find a way to put them into words. She wrote an article about Canada, sent it to a large Parisian weekly and it was accepted. She wrote others and they, too, were published. That decided the future course of her life. Writing gave her more satisfaction than anything else she had ever known. It was about
Canada she wanted to write and tell the rest of the world, so she returned to Montreal in the spring of 1939 to learn her self-imposed job.
Her friends and family urged her to go back to teaching. Some of them tried to persuade her to take a government job. When the war came jobs were easy to find anywhere; why stay in Montreal? Why live on practically nothing, alone, in a strange city when she didn’t have to? Gabrielle knew why she was doing it, if nobody else did. Loneliness and sorrow were everywhere in the world during those years, and almost no one who experienced these fundamental emotions could understand why they must. She believed she could find a way to tell them, to tell everyone who wanted to hear. But she had to be alone to do it.
She was not impatient. She knew that the job of learning how to write is at least as hard as learning any other profession. Neither a doctor nor a lawyer nor an engineer expects to practice within a few months after he has begun to study. “People speak of a talent for writing,” Gabrielle says. “Talent is infinite patience coupled with a limitless capacity for sacrifice. Of the two sacrifice is the most important. A writer must be prepared to sacrifice everything on earth that gets in the way of his learning and his work and his thinking and imagination— if he wants to reach other people in order to tell them what he has seen and felt and heard and believed.”
Part of each year she lived in Montreal, walking—walking—walking. “When you’re lonely you walk a lot, and when you walk alone you see and hear a great many things.” The rest of the year she lived simply in a small village in the Laurentians, except once or twice when she spent her summers at Port Daniel on the Gaspé coast. But she always returned to Montreal.
Part of the year she worked on nothing but her first novel; the rest of the time she wrote short stories and articles to bring in some money. A one-act play, adapted from a short story, was produced by the Montreal Repertory Theatre; a radio dramatization of another short story was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting System. And all the time Gabrielle continued to learn.
In June, 1945, nearly four and a half years after she began to write it, Les Editions Pascal of Montreal published her first novel, Bonheur d’Occasion, in French. Nothing quite like it had ever been done in Canada before. It was contemporary; it dealt vividly, honestly, and above all without the slightest trace of self-consciousness, with the unfortunate poor in Montreal, who could step out of their misery only when war brought prosperity to the country; it overflowed with good humor, enormous pity, deep understanding and a fearless will to be truthful. Its narrative moved with a tremendous surge. In it one smelled the mean streets of the slum districts, one saw and heard the trains shunting in the drab quarter of St. Henri, one shivered in the blizzards of a cold winter when the snow swirled high about the arc lamps in poor and solitary streets. The dialogue was the most authentically FrenchCanadian ever put in a novel.
Yet the encouragement of its reception was not measured by financial success. The bar of language guaranteed that. It told Gabrielle that she was on her way, that was all. Before it had reached print she had already begun another novel. And she was happy because she was doing what she wanted to do; she was still learning how to write.
Word came that the French Academy had given Bonheur d’Occasion an award.
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“That is very nice,” said Gabrielle to herself, “But it has nothing whatever to do with my next book. My next book must be better than my last.”
Six months after Bonheur d’Occasion came out a friend called to say that she had sent a copy of the French edition to her brother-in-law in New York; he was a partner in the publishing firm of Reynal & Hitchcock. Gabrielle had no objections; she also had no hopes, not even very much interest, because her thoughts were centred now on the characters in her new book. Besides, she believed that Bonheur d'Occasion was too specifically Canadian to be of much interest in the United States.
It is now more than a year since Reynal & Hitchcock gave her a contract for the publication of a translated version of Bonheur d'Occasion, to be celled in English The Tin Flute. It is several months since she was told that the Literary Guild had chosen The Tin Flute for their May selection. It is no time at all since another telegram informed her that Universal of Hollywood had bought the film rights for a sizeable sum ($75,000, say those who should know). Flammarion will publish an independent French version in Paris. Offers have been received from Switzerland, Germany, Sweden.
Gabrielle is pleased. But she still doesn’t realize that her whole manner of life will have to change because the public is going to move in and try to overwhelm her with affection and criticism and the weight of its own loneliness.
The first time Gabrielle came into our home it happened to be an evening when conversation hit the walls of our living room and bounced back in our faces. There were only seven of us; two she had already met, the others she didn’t know. That evening six of us were vociferous, impassioned about a subject I have now forgotten, all bursting with vitality after a good deal of solitary work.
Gabrielle sat and watched us intently, not moving, saying practically nothing the whole evening because we didn’t give her much of a chance, yet she never seemed to he bored, and when the evening was over the six of us discovered that she had made an indelible impression which we would never forget. She shows an amazing combination of warmth, observation and withdrawal in a roomful of people. I have seen this same combination of qualities many times since that night, even when she is gay and talkative and active. The same characteristics stand out markedly in her writing, where she
combines intuitive understanding of her characters, laughter at them, a detachment from them, and deep sympathy for them. One of her most brilliant achievements is the ability to combine all these characteristics in one scene.
Again and again during the coming months she will be asked questions about The Tin Flute, the same questions all successful writers are asked. How did you happen to write this book? How did it develop in your mind? Did it involve research? Are the characters based on actual persons? What are your methods of writing? Of them all the last question is the one that is asked most often.
She doesn’t enjoy talking about herself, but she is learning how to do it when she must. Because she is Gabrielle Roy she will answer the questions honestly, or say no and stick to it when the question becomes too personal and she has no wish to answer it.
How Gabrielle Writes
Gabrielle says the idea for The Tin Flute came to her suddenly one day in a flash of intuition—theme, characters, plot and ending, all at once. She had previously spent weeks and months thinking along the lines involved in the story. In St. Henri she had watched the kind of people who appear in the book, and reflected on them and sympathized with them and tried to understand them. She walked and walked through St. Henri, visiting factories, cafés, market squares, parks, churches, and homes. She even lived there for a time, and she listened and listened and thought. Her remarkable dialogue is the excellent result. It is a great pity that its pungent flavor is partially, and necessarily, lost in the English translation.
During this hardest of all stages of writing a book Gabrielle says there are times when she can’t meet people at all. Just as there are other times when she feels an insuperable need to see and talk to people. When the ideas that are formulating in her mind are ready —like bread that has risen and is ready to go into the oven—she can begin the work of putting them onto paper. She makes no notes, draws up no formal plan. She simply puts a piece of paper in the typewriter, marks it Chapter One and she’s off. This moment seems to her like taking the first step of a trip to China on foot.
In the first draft she writes without stopping for revision, paying practically no attention to form. Sometimes it turns out to be exactly right as it is first written; sometimes she knows
it is poor and will need lots of revision, but she goes on regardless.
She averages about six to eight pages a day on the days when she writes— probably a total of eight to 10,000 words a week. She types from nine in the morning until one. She never does any writing in the afternoon or evening, but she continues to work it over in her mind, both what she has just written and what she will be ready to do the next day. At least, she says, that is the way she wrote The Tin Flute. Another work may require different writing habits. One summer she wrote from five until ten in the morning during hot spells. But she found it strange. “Dawn is too remote from the world.”
The first draft of a book usually takes her three or four months. All the characters are outlined and the plot is completed, and there are notes on the margins of early pages to remind her of changes necessary to fit later ideas.
The most enjoyable part of all comes in the second and third and subsequent drafts. The rewriting process shows the difference between skill and talent, between a technician and a creative artist. In these revisions, which take considerably longer than the first draft, the characters are finally understood to the core of their being; their dialogue is sharpened and pruned and sharpened again; they take on three dimensions and their background comes into focus in full color.
I asked her one more question of my own: What is her opinion of the future of the Canadian novel?
Her answer was ready and to the point. The Canadian novel of the future must be a North American novel, derivative of neither England nor America, and certainly not ol France. It will tend to resemble the Scandinavian novels more than any others because they are also written in northern countries. “However,” she added, “It is a good thing never to define oneself too clearly.”
Gabrielle Roy comes of pioneer stock, and so she finds it an exhilarating experience to open up new trails of her own, to push ahead into new territory. She is convinced that Canada is the best country in the world for writers, exciting beyond belief in its wealth,of untouched material. If Canadian writers will write without hypocrisy, she says, they will be heard around the world. That is the first and the last thing they still need to learn. The success she has achieved through the Literary Guild means one thing to her —a new chance for Canadian writing to be heard abroad.