Michel Tremblay’s first published work was a bizarre science-fiction encounter involving an innocent Québécois abroad, his inherited West African village and an omnipotent glass egg. Then came the cycle of plays—Les Belles-Sœurs, Hosanna, St. Carmen of the Main—that made him a celebrity.
Not content with his bilingually acclaimed status as Canada’s foremost playwright, Tremblay has now returned to fiction. Along with Victor-Lévy Beaulieu’s Monsieur Melville (part of an ambitious larger work that threatens to become the Québécois Moby Dick), La Grosse Femme has been the highlight of the Quebec publishing season, with over 40,000 copies in print. Canada’s translator-laureate Sheila Fischman is currently working on Tremblay’s novel and is expected to take on Monsieur Melville soon.
Overeating is just one of many obsessions Tremblay explores in La Grosse Femme (the full title means “the fat lady next door is pregnant”). The book is a day (May 2,1942) in the lives of 20 or so working-class Montrealers ranging in age from two to 72 and in species from cat to Fate. That’s right, the novel features the inner dialogue of Duplessis the cat (all political allusions intended) as he patrols his garbage cans and valiantly defends them against scavenging mongrels. On a more classical level, three immortal sisters and their mother sit on a walk-up balcony knitting booties for the fat lady’s future child, invisible to all the characters except Duplessis and the occasional madman.
A writer who plays games like these has grandiose schemes in mind, and this is apparently only the first of an extended cycle of novels. The themes introduced here are familiar from Tremblay’s plays; foremost among them is the corruption of human relationships by political and cultural oppression. The Second World War is on, same as the First, and the Québécois are again rebelling against conscription despite the blandishments of official billboards (“Give me your husband and I’ll give you 20 bucks”) and the golden opportunity of dying for les maudits anglais. But hope springs eternal in the female womb—fathers of large families are exempt from military service, hence the proliferation of babies in the novel and the fat lady’s condition. Rather than an expression of love, creating life becomes a necessary means of evading death.
Michel Tremblay could never be accused of subtlety, and his latest work includes blatant diatribes against the church and its sordid dialectic of angels vs. whores. But the novels and the plays are redeemed by an emotional power that arises from convincing situations in which real characters are revealed as if they themselves, not the Fates or Michel Tremblay, were in control of their own destinies.
Although Tremblay’s reputation is secure from coast to coast, even the Québécois don’t quite know what to make of Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. At the age of 33 he has published 11 novels (Don Quixote in Nighttown won the 1974 Governor-General’s Award), six plays, two book-length critical essays on Victor Hugo and Jack Kerouac and innumerable articles. He runs his own publishing house (VLB éditeur) and his list of authors includes Jacques Ferron, Quebec’s most acclaimed novelist, a title to which Beaulieu obviously aspires. His strong Quebec nationalist views have been aired everywhere, along with
his larger-than-life ego,and it is the rare well-read Québécois who does not hold an opinion about him, usually unflattering (“Quebec’s greatest 19th-century man of letters, the Dale Carnegie of Quebec literature”).
Monsieur Melville comes in three abundantly illustrated and simultaneously released volumes. Beaulieu calls them “lecture-fictions,” which roughly translates as “lecture-fictions.” Together they form part of the cycle Les Voyageries, all of which draw their inspiration from the 19th-century American author Herman Melville and his masterpiece Moby Dick, in particular.
“My writing is the sum of my experience,” says Beaulieu in Les Voyageries, and he resolutely recreates every facet of his life in his work. The product is not always as fascinating to the reader as the process must be to Beaulieu. His best novel, Les Grands-pères, a brilliantly detailed cameo of an aging couple, is significantly one in which his presence is least felt. Undaunted, he moves in and out of Monsieur Melville as if its covers were revolving doors, but his intrusions can be overlooked given the power of his special effects. Melville’s life is enriched with extensive scenes of Beaulieu’s own imagining; characters from other volumes in Les Voyageries drop by to comment on the proceedings and Beaulieu’s identification with Melville becomes so obsessive that at times Melville himself unceremoniously takes charge of the narrative.
A carved whale’s tooth found in the St. Lawrence near the wreck of a ship Melville once sailed upon prompts Beaulieu to mythologize the Quebec unconscious in ways its inhabitants never
dreamed of, by linking together obscure facts with fresh interpretations of socalled common knowledge. Like Melville’s New England, Quebec had a flourishing whaling industry; like the South Sea Islanders whose disastrous contact with white men Melville witnessed and recorded at length, Quebec was the home of “savages” exploited by rapacious Europeans; the 18th-century South Sea explorers Cook, Bougainville and La Pérouse all saw action in New France during the Seven Years War, which ended on the Plains of Abraham; and the quest for an earthly paradise that lies at the heart of Melville’s work also motivated La Pérouse’s attempt to found an island utopia at the tip of South America with shiploads of French-Canadian colonists.
These unlikely correspondences are mentioned briefly in Monsieur Melville, but they are significant in Les Voyageries as a whole, which is, in effect, Beaulieu’s attempt to rewrite Moby Dick. To a surprising extent he is succeeding. More than any other Quebec writer he has the potential to populate an epic vision with finely perceived characters of heroic stature. This is precisely what he has done to Melville: the “real” Melville of a normal biography remains only human, but Beaulieu, for all his indulgences and long-winded soulbaring, has created in Monsieur Melville a fascinating character who makes questions about the “real” Melville irrelevant. If only Beaulieu would do himself the same favor. Mark Czarnecki
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