On Not Reading Books From Quebec: Guest Post by JC Sutcliffe

You've Got Mail Bookshop

The bus from the airport, hissing through the rain, stopped across from a large glass-fronted building. Through its giant window, bright, high-ceilinged rooms lit up the dark streets. The people reading and browsing, visible to the outside world, seemed like extras in a film. You’ve Got Mail, perhaps. In the days before online book-buying, this seemed the height of glamour. With just two books in my rucksack—Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong and The Rough Guide to Canada—I was glad to know where to go for more. I assumed, since this was my first visit to Canada, that there would be a fantastic French section. I knew BC was not French-speaking; nonetheless I fondly imagined Canadians spending their leisure time reading literature in the two languages.

What I knew of Canada’s two solitudes came almost entirely from the Rough Guide and discussions of Quebec separatism in university French courses. I had not expected it to translate quite so rigidly into linguistic isolationism that seemed far worse than that in England (as I’ve never lived in the other countries of the UK I won’t speak for them). If you’d ever travelled abroad from England, it was likely you’d been to France and had been forced to dig out at least a few phrases. “Oon chombruh por dur personnez,” or “oon b’gett, seel voo play.” Both the proximity of the country and the famed, um, shyness of the French when it comes to speaking English required it. Neither of these things are true for many parts of Canada: the US is often closer than the next province, never mind a French-speaking one, and the only unilingual province is home to 55% of bilingual Canadians.

Whenever I brought up the subject of French in Vancouver, people were perplexed. Not hostile, but bewildered by my interest in this irrelevant language. I temped in various federal government departments, my language skills making me in demand as someone who could answer the phone with “bonjour” fifty times a day, but not once did a caller speak to me in French. For a fortnight I had a Quebecoise roommate, an older woman bartering cleaning duties for a free bed. Somehow I had convinced her I was a student, and had to start hiding during the daytime to avoid being chided for skipping lectures. Apart from that, the only Canadian I knew who admitted to speaking French was a young woman I’d met at work who’d been to French immersion.

Book Cover The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle

I never visited that Chapters on Broadway I'd glimpsed on my arrival in Vancouver, but I did spend plenty of time in the Robson Street branch. I can’t remember now if the French section was tiny or non-existent, but I didn’t buy a single French book while I was there. I didn’t buy many books at all, in fact, since books were more expensive than in England (and indeed than they are now) and my wage was much lower. That first time in Vancouver Yves Beauchemin was recommended to me several times, but he didn’t take. Later I discovered Monique Proulx, in particular Le Coeur est un muscle involontaire (The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle; translated by David Homel and Fred A. Reed), Nadine Bismuth (Fidelity Doesn’t Make the News; Are You Married to a Psychopath?) and Lise Tremblay (Judith’s Sister).

Book Cover Are You Married to a Psychopath

How strange it seemed, to be a non-Canadian with intellectual access to both official languages, and yet astonishingly little access to the two literatures, to the physical objects of literature. Recently I wanted to buy a new Quebec fiction book. As always, the local bookshop had to check which distributor was involved before being able to confirm they could order it. It’s the same country; the nation’s bilingual capital is just a couple of hours away by car. How can this be difficult?

All this means that I haven’t discovered the same interest in Quebec writers as I have in Anglo Canadian writers, something I attribute in great measure to laziness. With no existing knowledge of Quebecois fiction, reading reviews of books is hard work. The details tend not to stick in the mind without solid contextual pegs to hang them on. The books, of course, are practically invisible in bookshops, so they must always be sought out, never being bought on the spur of the moment by someone walking past.

Book Cover le saboteur d'avenir

Online browsing is as problematic here as it is with anything else you’re not expert in. I try to keep up with reviews in La Presse and Le Devoir (from one of these I recently discovered Marie-Ève Sévigny’s short story collection Intimité et autres objets fragile), and another great books resource is the print and web magazine Le Libraire (whose recommendation of Jonathan Goyette’s Le saboteur d’avenir was spot on). Often, though, the lack of context often makes reviews slip in one eye and out the other, or I get distracted by all the reviews of books in translation, from English and from other languages.

Book Cover For Sure

It seems silly to read in translation, so I don’t. At any one time I have a pile of novels from France waiting to be read, along with a lengthy list in my head of what will come next. It’s slower, reading in another language, which means I use up my foreign reading time on France, and rarely get to my Quebec fiction TBR stack. Writing this article has reminded me I want to read books by Éric Dupont (just announced as winner of the Quebec-novel category of the Prix des Libraires for La fiancée américaine), Éric Plamondon, France Daigle (whose For Sure won the French-language Governor General’s award in 2012, and is forthcoming in translation from Anansi in June), Sophie Jacmin, Marie Hélène Poitras and Wajdi Mouawad.

If you don’t speak French, some recent prizewinners in translation include Nicolas Dickner, Dany Laferrière and Kim Thúy.

So make your way to one of those old-fashioned places that lets you take home books in exchange for cash, and ask the nice folks who work there to order you few books from La Belle Province.

JC Sutcliffe is a writer, editor and translator. She writes about books at slightlybookist.wordpress.com.

June 17, 2013
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