FRENCH CANADIANS IN PARIS
There are 2,500 of them—artists, students, lawyers, comedians, businessmen and bums. In Paris they’re all characters with quaint accents and “frighteningly Catholic” morals
LESLIE F. HANNON
THE AMERICAN IN PARIS has been a legend, a romantic well-heeled kind of legend, since the Twenties, when Hemingway sat largely in the Café Select. Now, in the early Sixties, it's possible to discern the beginnings of a new kind of legend, created by another group of exiles from the New World. I hey are the Trench Canadians, drawn across an ocean and across two centuries by ties of blood and language, and by a mystique that could perhaps be called a search for identity.
Today there are probably 2,500 Trench Canadians living temporarily, indefinitely or permanently around Paris. This is the informed guess of the Canadian ambassador, Pierre Dupuy — there are no special statistics.
What kind of people are they? How do they live? They are painters, sculptors, writers, singers, lawyers, doctors, diplomats, and businessmen. Some are rich men’s sons and daughters; some are on the bum. Students make up the biggest single group — using “student” in the broadest sense. In bulging Paris, they five where they can find space. Those enjoying Canadian salaries can, if they’re lucky and persevering, find a villa in one of the small suburban towns or even a roomy Etoile apartment with high gilt-edged ceilings. Most, however, must bid for beds in the tenement hotels, in the smaller pensions, or find a walk-up room in the tangle of streets around Boulevard St. Germain. A fortunate minority of students find rooms in the subsidized hostels where a double room costs only $16 a month, but as 75.000 students are registered at the many diverse colleges and schools that make up the Université de Paris, the competition is fierce. Wherever they live, though, the Canadiens seem to love Paris in the spring, and in all other seasons, and many of them are wondering uneasily what it's going to be like when they return to Montreal, or TroisRivières, or Lac Beauport — that is, assuming they do return.
The legend of the Canadien in Paris is markedly different from its American counterpart, even forgetting the lack of a language problem. For a start, it’s
still new and growing, despite its ancient family inspirations and associations; but, most of all. it's a story of work, often very hard w'ork, for very little money.
It’s impossible to budge the Parisian from his conception of every American, however fluent his French, as a walking Fort Knox; the average Quebecker doesn't labor under this handicap. He is a cousin, from the provinces perhaps, but cousin enough to pay French prices, to jostle into the Metro, to carry bread under his arm, to scuffle for rush seats at the opera, and count out his tips by strict percentage.
Scholarships and education grants from home provide bread and butter and beer for many Canadiens — a Canada Council $3,000 a year doesn't go far in Paris. Others live on what their paintings will bring back home, on what they can write and sell to RadioCanada or the Canadian dailies, on civil-service pay. on $5 a night for singing in tiny nightspots, on savings from the Quebec bush. A few. very few', are in the American mode of discreet cheques from home, cashed guiltily or gleefully. The handful who head tourist agencies, airline offices, Canadian bank branches are rolling in money, comparatively. They play a prominent part in official affairs that centre on the embassy at 35 Avenue Montaigne, but seldom pound out their philosophies in the bull sessions in the hostels or argue the evening away in the pavement parliament of the Left Bank cafés, like Deux Magots. And it is mostly over those tables, across bottles of fifteen-cent French beer, that the brightest colors are added to the fabric of the Canadien legend.
Since the days of James Wilson Morrice, Paris has dangled a special lure before Quebec painters. And today, any habitant’s gifted son taking lessons from Arthur Lismer at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts can stargaze across the Atlantic at the towering figure of Jean-Paul Riopelle. The success story of Riopelle is well known, but the success story of Marcelle Terrón is not, as yet.
Mme Terrón, a diminutive and dynamic person, was born in Louiseville, sixty miles from Montreal. In 1953 she had three children,
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a houseful of furniture, and the feeling that she was “being strangled” as an artist in Canada. She was a member of the group of abstractionists known as l es Automatistes. With colossal nerve, she sold her fridge and her carpets and any paintings she could place, and brought her children to Paris. She intended, simply, to make a living painting in a city that has more painters per square mile than Toronto hits stockbrokers' clerks. And she has done just that.
She sells every canvas she completes — some to t rench collectors like the Baron de Sariac. a lawyer well known on the Continent for his collection of modern art. but mostly back home to people like Guy Gagnon, of I a Réforme, and exPrentier Antonio Barrette, to the National Gallery and the Museum of l ine Aits. She now returns to Montreal briefly each spring for her own one-woman show, then hurries back to her home at Clamait, a Paris suburb.
"Why," she asks in genuine puzzlement, "do Canadians stay as little children in the world?" She feels there are perhaps half a dozen French-Canadian painters — presumably languishing in Quebec today — who could become much greater artists if they could get enough financial support to stage even a modest exhibition. "To be able to show your work is everything.” she says. "If it’s any good" . . . hands and eyebrows fly upward . . . "you've got a fighting chance." She feels Canada desperately needs more art and more artists to counterbalance the mounting material development of base-metal mines and paper mills.
Every Canadien in Paris is delighted by the international rush that's getting under way for the paintings of Paul Borduas. Since his death early last year some Canadian galleries have been seeking representative canvases, only to find that his price is soaring above cautious budgets. One reason: at year-end Amsterdam’s
Stedelijk Museum — perhaps the most famous in Europe for modern art — gave Borduas a six-week show. Sixty-five canvases have been collected. Later they'll tour several major galleries in Europe, including the Louvre, before being seen in his home town. Montreal.
About 25 French-Canadian painters can be said to live permanently in Paris, and about another 25 get to Paris when they can. Some of the latter group go back home, work for six months in a photo-engraving house or do advertising art to build a fresh stake, then come back steerage to try again. Among the permanents, some lake routine jobs. Jean Lefebure runs a bookshop while he hopes for his big break. He has had a show in Madrid, but — after ten years in Paris —is still plugging. Jean Fortin paints calendar art for Publicis, one of the biggest Parisian advertising agencies. Bernard Vanier, son of the governor-general, has made Paris his headquarters since the end of the war and he sells some of his abstractions in Canada. Pierre Boubreau and André Champeau are "permanents” and are lucky enough to have well-to-do and sympathetic families at home. Alan Cilass, the Quebec-born painter who now enjoys international status, is among the small Canadien group — dominated by Riopelle and recently joined by Marcelle Herron — who receive invitations to show in the French salons. There's seldom any big money in il — Mme Herron will still accept around $200 for a painting and has cheerfully accepted two Canada Council grants.
I hat same rich bilingual uncle, the Canada Council, is allowing Roland I atoche to gorge himself on theatre in Haris. Raised in Cap de la Madeleine, l atoche was lately stage manager and assistant to, the director of l e Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. In a disused TV studio on Ste. Catherine West in Montreal he maintains his own occasional theatre. 1 'Hgrégore. where the actors are unpaid and the public is unpaying. Jean Ciourd, a Quebec mining millionaire with footlights in his eyes, helps with the bills.
After six months in Haris, I atoche summed up his early thoughts: “Canada must make her own plays — develop them right from the idea, through writing, the producing, the acting. Hverything. Certainly a start has been made — particularly in Montreal with Gélinas and others
but as a nation we’ve got a long way to go. Hook what other small nations can achieve. ..." He was referring to the spring and summer season at Haris’ I heâtre des Nations where, each year, twenty to twenty-five countries are represented by two shows apiece, each running for two nights only. Laroche w as still dazzled by the Bertolt Brecht entry from Hast Germany.
Needing no financial assistance from anyone. Felix Leclerc probably rates as the best-known Canadien theatrical personality in France. He is probably the best-known Canadian, period. His most famous song. Moi. mes Souliers, is a perennial hit-parade favorite. His L.H records are best-sellers. When he appeared as a musical-comedy star in Les Trois Baudets last year, thousands (as they say) were turned away. He was offered another starring role this year, but turned it down. Friends say he just didn’t need the money. Leclerc spends about one year in four in Haris: the rest of the time he’s in Canada trying to realize his secret ambition of winning fame as a novelist and dashing off with his great flair his catchy , meaningful and sentimental songs. When he makes a rare appearance on French Canada IV he’s reported to get the biggest fee in the network's pocket. Bv the way, Leclerc makes no attempt to disguise his Canadian accent, or to translate unique Canadien expressions in songs aimed at the Haris market.
I he singers of Quebec are. in fact, weaving some of the most significant strands into the ( anadien-in-Paris legend. From Jean-Haul Hurteau, the Montreal bass at L’Opéra de Paris, to chansonnier Jacques Normand, to Pauline Julien who runs her ballads by taxi to four or five small clubs a night, they are unconsciously stitching the lost fragment of France back on to the mainland.
There’s something in French-Canadian songs that appeals to the sophisticated audiences of Paris
Leclerc’s nearest rival in renown is probably Guylaine Gui, who has broken through where the competition is toughest — in the lavish and fabulously expensive nightclubs on the Right Bank. Shortly after the war she began to appear in Montreal clubs and was heard there by Charles Trenet, France’s Perry Como. He encouraged her to bring her repertoire to Paris, she cut a few records, and bookings at spots like the Villa d’Est followed.
Raymond Lévesque, featured at Chez Moineau, also picked up a ride from a famous Frenchman. Lévesque went broke writing songs in Paris and returned to Quebec. Georges Guétary then heard some of his tunes, sang half a dozen of them into popularity and Lévesque came back to Mecca with royalties in his pocket. He’s since been successful on French TV. There’s something especially appealing to sophisticated Parisians in Lévesque’s songs—they describe them as being “in the romantic French-Canadian manner.” The songs might be rated corny in North America, but they are moneyspinners here. With his top hits, La Seine and Les Trottoirs, Lévesque has proved that his “manner” emigrates successfully. Chanteuse Lucienne Létondal has also jumped the Atlantic, barely missing a beat.
French-Canadian writers, too, are finding a growing acceptance of their work here. At the bookstalls, familiar names delight the Canadien eye at once. Librairie Hachette, the nation’s biggest bookstore chain, carried a special “maple leaf” display this year of fifty French-Canadian titles ranging from poetry to philosophy. A stream of Canadien novels is coming from the Paris publishing house of Robert Laffont — books by André Langevin, Jean-Marie Poirier, Maurice Gagnon, Claire Martin, that originate in Pierre Tisseyre’s Montreal firm, Le Cercle du Livre de France. Simultaneous publication of a new novel in Montreal and Paris is no longer rare.
Some of the most promising of Quebec’s younger writers flew to France on their first royalty cheques, and have stayed. They dream of matching the success of Gabrielle Roy, who won the Prix Femina with her Montreal novel, The Tin Flute. One Canadienne who does not want to go home is Claire France, whose touching novel, Children in Love, was a minor success in England. She has two novels out from the Paris house of Flammarion now, and a third awaiting publication. She says she writes better in France, far from family influences.
Anne Hébert’s novel, Les Chambres de Bois, and her collection of poems, Le Tombeau des Rois, have been published in Paris by Le Seuil. Her stay was cut short last year by her father's death.
Paris has won Roland Giguère, still in his twenties yet well known as a poet in Quebec. From a small apartment in Montmartre he directs his Montreal-based publishing venture, Les Editions Erta. He specializes in “luxueuses” editions of French-Canadian poets.
Although his novels aren't published in France as yet, Montreal’s Eugène Cloutier tries to live in Paris one year out of two. He writes scripts for a weekly TV program back in Quebec, and always has another book on the go. “I can produce more living here,” he says, “because I am freed of the social life I have to live in Montreal.”
Important visiting firemen from Canada sooner or later find themselves under the lambent smile of André Gauthier. For eight years now he has been Trans-Canada Air Lines’ representative in Paris and is recognized as the dean of the expatriate executives. A runner-up is René Léveillé, assistant manager of the Royal Bank branch, with three years’ Paris time. Joseph Lamoreux (Bank of Montreal) and Olivier Goyer (Banque Canadienne Nationale) are also leading members of the surprisingly small group of French-Canadian businessmen resident in Paris. The bankers would certainly be outnumbered even by the beatniks. André Payette, of the CBC's Paris headquarters staff, suggests this adds up to a fairly accurate comment on French Canada: more taste for writing and the arts than for business.
The best-known Canadian institution in Paris is La Maison des Etudiants Canadiens—La Maison, as it’s generally called by the expatriates. Here, under the direction of Charles Lussier, brother of Rector Irénée Lussier of the Université de Montréal, Canadian students — two thirds of them from Quebec—live, study, muse and rub shoulders with students from France and fifty other countries. La Maison was opened in 1926, the first foreign students’ hostel to be erected in La Cité Universitaire, on land given by the city of Paris. (In mid-January, it was apparent that Lussier would not be at La Maison much longer; his appointment as Quebec’s agentgeneral in Paris was widely forecast.)
The handsome, ruddy Lussier, a Canadian law graduate, and his petite Frenchborn wife, herself a former professor of social studies at the U of M, look more like postgraduate students than hostel executives. A bunch of newly arrived students went bounding up the main staircase recently and encountered Mme Lussier, whom they hadn’t met, on her way down. With a whoop, they made a chair of their hands and carried her down. She submitted prettily but was evasive when they pressed for dates.
Lussier, trimly athletic at forty, is ready with a sympathetic and practical ear when his charges have any problems: academic, financial or romantic. Yes, he may tell a smitten student, he can shelter a small number of married couples if both parties are students—but no babies.
Without clearing his throat Lussier can switch from a French-Canadian to a Parisian accent. He explains that the Parisian accent is more staccato and places marked emphasis on the vowel “i” and the consonant “r.” “A Montreal accent straight off the plane is as noticeable to sophisticated Parisians,” he says, “as a Brooklyn accent is to Torontonians visiting New York. Most Canadiens over here for any length of time find their accent changing, but if they went back home with a Parisian accent they’d be accused of—what’s the English phrase?— putting on the dog.” But he classes as nonsense the belief, widely held in English-speaking Canada, that a French Canadian can barely understand Parisian French. He’s supported by the Canadian ambassador, Pierre Dupuy, who points out that La Comédie Française can play in Quebec and Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in France without either audience missing a nuance. In earlier years Dupuy took a degree at the Sorbonne without his professors realizing he was a Quebecker.
Lussier reports ruefully that La Maison is hard up. to the point where Canada is making a pretty poor showing in Paris compared with some other countries supporting hostels in La Cité Universitaire. He can house only 125 of the estimated 600 Canadians believed to be studying in Paris. Apart from gifts by private benefactors in Montreal, La Maison gets $15,000 a year from the Quebee treasury and last year got $4,000 from the Canada Council. In an average of five recent years, 22 percent of all students came from Ontario, but a direct appeal to Premier Leslie Frost for $5,000 a year was fruitless. In effect, Quebec is carrying the rest of the country.
The Canadian student often takes months to settle into the French college system. Fxcept for students in Arts courses. La Maison won't accept anyone under postgraduate status. “The average Canadian college hoy or girl is lost in the higher cultural atmosphere here,” says Lussier.
Pierre and Micheline Mathieu, a husband-and-wife team of postgrad students from U of M. state one major difference in one word: freedom. "The first thing one notices here." Pierre comments, “is the complete freedom. Fverything is up to the individual. It can be a bit overwhelming. but. when you get used to it, it's as though all of your mind and time can be devoted to your problems, to the knowledge you have to absorb. You know, it can be absolutely right at times to cut lectures and just think or read, or just laze and watch life flowing by. T hat can be education, too.”
The Mathieus. nearing the end of their three-year studies in psychoanalysis, arc beginning to wonder how they’ll fit in hack home. Other students—in economics, engineering, law — express the same thought. They won’t be quoted as saying so. but many of them state flatly that there is entrenched opposition at home to degrees earned in France, it centres in the church, they say.
How do the French Canadians here react to the complete separation of religion and state education? 'T feel I’m a better Catholic now after two years in Paris.” a girl from Sorel states, "than I ever was when I was having religion stuffed down my throat. I mean. I’ve got the freedom here to think about it for myself, to make my own choice.”
On the Paris scene, the French Canadian is generally regarded as a religious person. “Frighteningly Catholic." was one young boulevardier’s comment on the Quebec girls he had met. When the Canadian government posts a French-Canadian family to Paris it adds an extra sum to salary to allow parents to send their children to private schools where religion is part of the curriculum. It’s enough to pay fees for the early grades, but the employee must dig into his own pocket when his children enter their teens.
Perhaps, on review, the most fascinating Canadien in Paris is a galvanic birdlike middle-aged man who doesn’t study, sing or dance and is seldom seen without a nondescript sports coat over a check shirt. He has had two names, half a dozen careers, and has even more moods. Over a couple of bottles of pils he talks so volubly, darting at his topic — generally himself—like an excited terrier, that the listener feels he is with two men, if not more.
In Paris, where he has lived for twelve years, he is François Hertel, publisher and exporter. In Montreal, before the war, he was the Jesuit priest Dube, a potent influence on young French-Canadian intellectuals. His family is well known — his brother. J. Raymond Dubé. is editor-inchief of Le Soleil, Quebec City's most popidar newspaper. His own writings, often in socialist vein, made him a controversial figure in the French Canada of Maurice Duplessis.
Habit dies hard and even the most free of the freethinkers among the Canadien colony here seem to feel uneasy in Hcrtel’s presence, or even when talking about him. “You know he’s an unfrocked priest.” they’ll say, with troubled hesitation. Hertel himself says cheerfully, "1 thought myself out of the priesthood.” Then, after a quick sip of beer, “Games. I was very keen. Played all the time. Hockey with Johnny Gagnon, baseball with Pepper Martin.” He was also elected to the Académie Canadienne-Française.
Poetry, essays and short stories poured out of him when he was teaching philosophy in Quebec, and he was published in France by La Diaspora Française. Now he owns that publishing house and. in Les Editions de la Diaspora, he issues books written in French by authors who are not French nationals. A young schoolteacher of Beaumont, Que., Suzanne Parariis. will soon join his list of authors with her first novel. Les Hauts Cris. That is Hertel, book publisher.
Hertel, magazine publisher, issues an occult monthly called Radiesthésie et Psychic. With tongue bulging his cheek, he says it operates "in the field of the sixth sense." It also sells I().()()() copies and makes good money. Some, if not all. of this profit he uses to nourish a literary magazine. Rythmes et Couleurs, which appears six times a year. Recent issues included work by Roger Duhamel, the new Queen's Printer, and Marie-France O’Leary, daughter of Dostaler O’Leary who. with Douglas Lachance, makes up the regular team of CBC correspondents in Paris.
Hertel, businessman, is half a partnership that exports French hotel equipment anti specialties to Canada. He also imports some French-Canadian books.
Hertel, country squire, has a fourteenthcentury chalet fifty miles out of the metropolis where he reports he entertains actors from La Comédie Française and other companies at gay weekend parties. “There, they arc free to do as they please,” he says. "Beautiful dancing, instinctive dancing, sometimes for hours on end. Fating. Plenty of good wine." He likes to be secretive about the location of his retreat.
Hertel has a small reputation as a tightwad. One man who spent the weekend at his chalet went shopping with his host on the Saturday. In the boucherie. Hertel ordered imperiously and copiously, then cheerfully confessed to being short of ready cash. His guest had just enough money to settle the hill for a basketful of meat. He also thought he detected a tins smile on the lips of the butcher.
The story could he true because DiíbéHertel is truly Gallic in his frankness about money. "Everybody thinks I make a lot of money in my businesses." he chuckles. "Actually, when I came to France I brought $10,000 with me. It was just after the war. and good French stocks were at rock bottom. I invested the lot. and everything multiplied five times. Ha. a killing! Living’s cheaper here, you know, as long as you’re not gawping with a guidebook and camera. Better, too."