The Boy From the Town Below
General Wolfe had a tough time climbing the heights of Quebec; Roger Lemelin rode up easily on the backs of three best-sellers
NOT LONG AGO the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, headed by Vincent Massey, had some sad things to say about the plight of Canadian authors. They found a number of these poor souls “living out shabby lives in privation and obscurity.”
Apparently the commission hadn’t yet encountered Roger Lemelin, the effervescent Quebecer who, at 30, has three Canadien best sellers to his credit. Following up the initial success of “Au Pied de la Pente Douce” with “Les Plouffe” and “Fantaisies sur les Péchés Capitaux,” the dashing M. Lemelin has established himself as a man of property (an apartment, surrtmer cottage and
$3,000 wooded acreage where he is planning a modern home); as a gourmet, chessmaster, quondam baritone, motorcyclist, baseball fan, darling of the autographing soirees and all-round bon vivant. There will never be any tag days in Quebec City for Roger.
All this is a source of delight to Lemelin, who holds a unique position in Canadian belles-lettres. Because he is a free-wheeling iconoclast, and widely recognized as the enfant terrible of Quebec literature, he has created a ready-made audience of 15,000 book buyers in his native province.
He feels he can write a book a year with the solid assurance that it will net in the neighborhood of $6,000. This income he augments with $4,000 from a job as manager of his uncle’s lumber business(wood spools for export); with special correspondence as a “stringer” for Time magazine
in Quebec City; with magazine articles and writing scholarships.
Even his enemies who are legion in the ancienne capitale (and, for that matter, throughout the realm of French literature, as Somerset Maugham has pointed out) concede that the Lemelin Legend is remarkable.
Although he was bom in the working-class St. Sauveur district of Quebec, and left school at 15, Roger has already scaled the heights from the basse ville to the Chateau Frontenac—a trick which General Wolfe found difficult 190 years ago.
“Au Pied” (which was translated into English as “The Town Below”) was launched in France last year by the famed Flammarion publishing house, and “Les Plouffe” will soon be published in English in Toronto.
At 30 Lemelin
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The Boy From the Town Below
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finds himself the youngest member ever elected to the Royal Society of Canada. He emits gusty roars of laughter as he surveys the framed diploma on the wall of his beaten-up Quebec City office where he toils in the interests of South Shore Forest Products, Ltd.
“Isn’t that wonderful?” he enthuses as he displays the Latin inscription of the Royal Society parchment. “Wish I could read it.”
The furore created by his first novel, in which he contrived to have a drunk touch off a firecracker during mass in a Quebec church, proved a wonderful spur to sales.
From his own parish pulpit Lemelin heart, himself denounced as a dangerous radical whose pen “was dipped in the red ink of Communism.” (Actually, his politics are just a wee bit Left of Little Orphan Annie’s.) His mother sighed that when she attended bingo games in St. Sauveur, “Women stared
At a Laval University reception Lemelin was to be presented to the late Cardinal Villeneuve. Momentarily flustered Lemelin lingered outside the door where the cardinal was receiving guests. Somehow he felt that personal dignity would not permit him to supplicate and kiss the archbishop’s ring. When the delay threatened to become embarrassing Lemelin strode in, pumped the Archbishop’s hand, and cried: “Ron jour. Cardinal.”
This sort of action scandalized almost everybody except the good cardinal. “We got along well,” recalls Lemelin. “I admired him very much. He invited me to go for walks with him in the evening so that we could discuss books.”
Torontonians Are so Ilonest
Roger reveled in the dustup he had crtattd. To outraged priests he blandly explained: “I am a good family man
and, in that sense, a good Catholic. I am nol anticlerical. My book is simply a work of art.”
He modestly admits that he is not the best writer in the world; only in Canada. But to intimates he will sometimes confess: “I am like a little hoy. I do not take myself too seriously.”
Nevertheless he is a shrewd observer and his opinions, of which he has a healthy supply, make for entertaining listening. A recent visit to Toronto was his first contact with Englishspeaking Canada: he surprised all his friends by announcing that he preferred Toronto to Montreal. Someone asked him why.
“Because,” he said, “Toronto is the English version of Quebec City, multiplied by 10. I admired the calm family life, the belief in traditions. Montreal is a bastard city, neither English nor French.
“Also, I liked the Toronto people because they looked so honest—and honesty is comprised of so much
At a literary dinner tendered him a woman guest liegen asking him about his Canadien ancestry. Inventing on the spot Lemelin unreeled « fanciful tale of antecedents who died from drink and was delight« d when the woman sighed: “Ah, so you never drink
yourself?” M. Is-melin threw back a straight Scotch and bellowed: “Hell,
The quality that set Is-mclin’s work apart was his basic, honest detachment. Here was a Canadien who could stand off and take a hard, critical look at
his own people. In “Au Pied” he had poked fun at Quebec’s love of panoply with a hilarious description of that sacred rite, the St. Jean Baptiste Day parade. He had loaded his novel wdth a lot of intensely human beings; spinsters of militant virtue, wrestlers, worm salesmen, cops, curés rounding up recruits for the weekly bingo game.
Critics felt that his objectivity was just what Canadien literature needed. Lemelin’s realistic spoofing marked a clean break from the simple, romantic folk narratives which were as much a part of Quebec as the little hand-carved figures which American tourists purchase so doggedly each summer.
Fresh from his triumph with “Au Pied,” and fortified by 5,00Q Guggenheim dollars, Lemelin took two years to produce his second novel, the 470page “Les Plouffe.” Its success was assured when students of Le Séminaire de Québec were warned not to rend it. So far it has sold more than 10,000 copies, bí inging the author about $6,000 on his unique, 60-cents-a-copy deal with a local publisher.
A Slow, Sure Evolution
In “Les Plouffe” Lemelin didn’t set off any firecrackers in cathedrals. He did arrange, however, to have the leading male character quit a monastery and, in defiance, make love to his girl in the shadows of the monastery wall. (He stopped, contritely, when he heard Gregorian chants inside; he was afraid the devil was after him.)
As in his first hook the author used a humble family as a peg on which to hang his peculiarly astringent comments on Quebec's struggle with insurgent American and Anglo-Saxon ideas.
Ovide Plouffe, the leading character, is an opera lover, an enemy of jazz and sports. He has the misfortune to fall in love with a blonde who thinks Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway anti Joe DiMaggioare “dreamy.” Disenchanted by this experience Ovide enters a monastery. This gives Lemelin a cha nee to discuss “les défroqués”—the greatly scorned young Québécois who enter monasteries, find they can’t adjust to the life, and beg out.
Ovide joins the Army to prove that he “didn’t take the frock to escape service.” This puts Lemelin into the conscription issue and the quarrels between Quebec’s high anti low clergy over the proper attitude toward Great
The book closes with a letter from baseball-loving Guillaume Plouffe in Germany describing a tussle in which he wounti up with a hand grenade, fogged it into some Nazis. His mother, completely undone by this intelligence, stumbles about her apartment in a frenzy, finally dashing out on her balcony to scream to the neighborhood: “It’s incredible! Our Guillaume, killing men !”
Says Lemelin: “These are datas
which nobody had even dared to mention. My aim was to picture the slow, but sure, evolution of Quebec toward tolerance.”
Again there were anguished outcries against the tongue-in-cheek tone of the book. But Adrien Pouliot, dean of mathematics at Laval University anil a GBG governor (who started to read “Los Plouffe” at midnight and finished it at 1 o’clock the next afternoon), said unccjuivocally: "The greatest novel in French-Gana«lian literature.” B. K Sand well, a Toronto critic, went even further: “There is a sense in which
(this hook ) is the most important Canadian novel yet written hy anybody.”
Although lemelin has been uccusefl of "losing his culture” and leaning to the mi lodramatic all critics agree that Continued on page 28
Continued from page 26 he has a remarkable appreciation for dialogue and is a born raconteur. He seems almost to write by ear.
And, writing about the milieu he knows best, it is perhaps inevitable that a fair slash of Lemelin should creep into his stories.
Like Denis Boucher, his hero in “Au Pied,” Roger Lemelin grew up with Quebec’s mulots (literally, “the shiftless ones”). He was the eldest of 10 children. His father was a modest foreman in a grain elevator who somehow managed to put aside $5 a month from his $100 salary to buy Roger a typewriter. His mother was, in Roger’s phrase, “very gay, active and spiritual.”
“At the age of five or six,” Lemelin recalls, “I was dreaming of writing stories.” In successive weeks he dreamed of becoming a champion athlete, speed typist, a radio singer, a chess master, a successful businessman and a novelist— all of which, in the fullness of time, he became.
One such ambition altered his entire career. While gamboling on the parallel bars (he was junior tumbling champion of Quebec) he suddenly decided it would be nice to become the best ski jumper in Canada. He was progressing famously, and about ready to try for the Olympics, when one parlous leap carried him clear past the end of snow. Landing planks down on hard ground shattered his left leg and placed him in hospital where he began to brood about the possibility of dying before all his ambitions were realized.
It was there that the idea for “Au Pied” began to take shape. He had already written, at 14, a book called “Méprise.” This was an exotic (and precocious) romance about a mathematics student who fell in love with a housemaid.
Lemelin meanwhile was doing a fine dramatic job of teaching himself. The way he tells it, it was largely happenstance:
“To make some pin money I rounded up a gang from the liasse ville one wintry day to shovel snow for the big houses on Grande Allée. After a while my feet were frozen. To thaw them out I entered a large building.
“I was amazed at what I saw. There were 200,000 books on the shelves, more than I ever knew existed. It was the Government Library.
“I was an ignorant. I knew nothing of philosophy or the classics. But I started to work my way systematically through the card index. I read all of Maurice Barres, the French politician; these were the first serious readings I made. Then I read Balzac, Stendahl, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Léon Bloy, the French pamphlétaire. Soon that library became my second home.”
Yawns for a Time Tycoon
Lemelin taught himself English in two months. He started on irregular verbs, mastered 154 of them, then moved on to vocabulary. He wrote out strange words on little cards, placed them in matchboxes labeled “Know” and “Don’t Know.” Every night he would pore over the cards “promoting” the words as he came to understand
He also learned more than 100 Euclidian tlxorems in three months, then decided that mathematics would be more fun if be utilized it in chess. Three years ago he won a Quebec championship but was not completely happy until he learned how to play six opponi nts while blindfolded.
This eagerness to joust with the unknown is a dominant Ism« lin trait. Two years ago he heard thul a journalist friend, Richard Daignault, was
retiring as Quebec correspondent of Time, the United States news magazine. Although he had never written in English and had no journalistic experience Lemelin applied for the job.
“What makes you think you could do it?” an emissary of the magazine enquired.
Lemelin reared up, indignantly. “After all,” he snapped, “I have intelligence. Is that not enough?”
Somewhat to the surprise of Time (but not the author) Lemelin was hired. At a recent Time convention in New York Lemelin distinguished himself by snoring through a speech of the firm’s president, Roy Larsen. He listened attentively to an address by Henry Luce but bearded him after the meeting to advise him that he disagreed with almost everything he had said.
Roger is the type of writer who could make a three-act melodrama out of the Royal Bank of Canada’s annual report. His meeting with his shy, Quebec-born wife (as he tells it) is a production:
“I met her while I was on crutches,” he sighs. “Like me she was a plain person. She worked in a shoe factory.
“In spite of my bad leg 1 was able to ride a bicycle. One day I saw her standing on a corner. She was so good-looking' I asked her for a bike ride. Her parents tried to dissuade her. They told her that I would die soon. Canadiens are like that. They have little pity for human wreckage —not as husbands, anyway.
“But I told her my ambitions, and she was taken.”
They were married while Roger was working on “Les Plouffe,” now have two youngsters whom Lemelin adores:
“Pierre le magnifique” and “Jacques le fantastique.”
A Tear at the Typewriter
The Guggenheim awards brought Lemelin an invitation to do some high-level thinking at Yaddo, a sylvan retreat in upstate New York where artistic sprigs grapple with the Muse. The Muse took Lemelin in straight falls. The loud silences of the place, and all the global brain-busting, irked him, as did the house rules. Frequent ly the delegate from Quebec played hookey from this culture foundry to attend ball games. He is the type of fan who can tell you the precise batting average, day and date, of his favorite player (Lou Boudreau).
In three weeks at Yaddo he wrote two pages. Thereupon he returned to his lumber office in Quebec City, looked over the wood-spool correspondence, locked the door, and rapped out 15 pages of his book.
In this respect Lemelin must be unique among authors. “I write as fast as I think,” he says. Going fiat out on his type-writer he claims 110 words a minute, pausing only now and then to shed a furtive tear for one of his characters who has become inextricably involved in some dramaticdilemma. “Then I flop down and sleep steadily for 10 hours,” he adds. “I have been unconsciously immersed in my work. I awaken only when my wifepasses a tray of hors-d'oeuvres under my
In December Is-melin published his third book, a series of short stories called “Fantasies on the Se-ven Deadly Sins.” In four days it sold 8,000 copies, netting the author .$5,000. Muses Roger: “It is not an important little-
book, but it exposes a new facet of my chámete r.”
Even bis most severe detractors are coming around to this self-appraisal by the young Quebecer; "By the lime i am 45 I will Is; writing really great hooks. Oh ho yes, I am quitesure of that.” ★