About the Author

Yves Beauchemin

YVES BEAUCHEMIN is a mordant social satirist and one of the most pre-eminent Québecois writers of his generation. His novels include Charles the Bold, The Waitress of the Café Cherrier, and The Alley Cat, which was the bestselling French-Canadian novel of all time. He is also a children’s book writer and a member of the Académie des lettres du Québec. In 2011, he was awarded the Ludger-Duvernay Prize, which recognizes the outstanding contribution and societal influence of Quebec writers.

Books by this Author
A Very Bold Leap
Excerpt

1
 
 
The fist came down hard on the tabletop. A cup bounced out of its saucer and landed upside down, sending a ribbon of coffee almost to the fist, which seemed easily capable of splitting a log of firewood in half.
 
Lucie moved towards Fernand with her hands up as though to ward off a blow. Red in the face and trembling, the hardware-store owner was staring at Parfait Michaud, who was sitting across the table from him. Fernand looked as though he wanted to quarter the notary like a side of beef.
 
"So it was you and you alone who put this stupid idea into his head!" he bellowed. "Don't you realize that a seventeen-year-old can't make good decisions yet, you nitwit!"
 
"Fernand, calm down," Lucie begged her husband, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. "You're going to give yourself a heart attack."
 
"Not him," said the notary. "He's far too tough for that. I'm the one who's at risk of a heart attack." He stood up. "And so, to avoid anything irreparable happening and to remove myself from harm's way, please allow me to get a breath of fresh air."
 
"Sit down!" thundered Fernand. "I'm not finished talking to you!"
 
And he berated the notary without let or interruption for the next eighteen minutes, a time that to the notary, sitting quietly with his hands folded on his lap, seemed an eternity. When Michaud left, Fernand waited for Charles, whom he had called home from Blonblon's, then took him into the living room, closed the door, and demanded that the young man recant his decision. As might have been expected, Charles dug in his heels, insisting that it was his life and he didn't have to account for his actions to anyone. At which the hardware-store owner gathered his brows into a fearsome scowl, raised his voice to thunderstorm pitch, and brought his massive clenched fist down again, this time on the television set, which gave a sudden flash of alarm and went forever blank. Charles walked out of the room without saying another word.
 
But that was hardly the end of it.
 
That night, as they were getting into bed, Fernand said to Lucie, "If I ever run into that goddamned Balzac, I'm going to wring his neck for him . . . like this!"
 
He made a primitive and brutal twisting motion with his hands.
 
"In the meantime, that's exactly what I should do to that bloody Michaud. This is all his fault. I hope his legs snap in two and he chokes on his teaspoon! It's clear to me now, but it's too late: that man is a bad influence on the young."
 
Lucie had long ago learned that it was no good arguing with her husband when he was in such a state. It usually took a few hours for him to return to his normal, affable self. This time, however, the anger seemed to run deeper than usual. Five days later, he was still fuming. He no longer flared up in wild rages; his anger hardened like a block of concrete, grey, crushing, and immutable. He passed Charles in the house without seeing him and never replied to his questions, which soon became fewer and fewer. He occasionally let on that he would be willing to speak to the young man, by the odd gloomy, unhopeful glance, but as a matter of principle and also from spite, he would not allow himself to actually speak.
 
It was already well into September, and Charles still refused to register at the Cegep. He had decided to give up his studies . . . to become a writer! Instead of going on to junior college, he was looking for a job that would give him enough time to write – and an apartment where he could work in the solitude that, as everyone knew, was essential to an artist.
 
It was reading Balzac's The Human Comedy that had unleashed this earthquake within him and changed his life. After finishing the epic he had devoured two or three biographies of the author and realized that, in many ways, he and Balzac shared similar childhoods, that their temperaments were very much alike, and that their tastes were almost identical. The same passion for literature burned within them. Like his illustrious predecessor, Charles therefore had chosen a career in letters; Balzac had masterfully depicted French society as it had existed in his day; Charles's mission, then, would be to immortalize contemporary Quebec. Fernand, Lucie, Blonblon, Steve, and even Céline all voiced their concerns, their fears, and their objections to his plan. But a voice whispered to Charles that they were all wrong.
 
 
On the 7th of October 1984, at ten o'clock in the morning, after three days of intense reflection, Charles presented himself at the Post Office on Peel Street to apply for the position of mailman. It was the one job above all others that perfectly married his need to make a living with the demands of literary creativity: he would start delivering mail at the crack of dawn and be free by two o'clock in the afternoon to devote the rest of the day and his entire evening to writing. He was directed to a tall, thin, ancient-looking man with shiny black sleeves and a nose as sharp as a knife, who spoke softly and slowly and smiled at the slightest provocation.
 
"And you are completely bilingual, my young friend?" he asked with fatherly concern after reading over Charles's application.
 
"Um, I get by pretty well," Charles replied, feeling slightly ill at ease.
 
Régis Royal switched to English, and after a few minutes of exploring the depths of his interlocutor's knowledge of the language, seemed satisfied. He scribbled something into a notebook.
 
"You see," he said apologetically, "I have to satisfy myself as to your abilities in English because of the new law that has just passed, the Official Languages Act. All employees of the federal government must be bilingual, especially in Quebec."
 
Although a number of responses occurred to Charles, some of them caustic, he voiced none of them. He desperately wanted the job. Régis Royal asked him a few more innocuous questions, then rose to his feet, indicating that the interview was over.
 
"Do you think I have any chance of being accepted?" Charles asked as they shook hands.
 
"If it was up to me you'd start tomorrow, my boy. But your application has to be sent to the Evaluation Board, and from there to the Security Assessment Office, and then on to the Regional Employment Subcommittee. But if I were you I'd be hopeful."
 
Charles shook the man's hand again, nodded his head once, and left the office, vaguely unhappy with himself despite the clerk's encouraging words.
 
Fernand greeted the news with a sneer.
 
"Delivering mail for the Queen of England," he said. "I'd blush right down to my ass, if it was me, doing that kind of work. When I think that it's hardly been two years since that bastard Trudeau repatriated the Constitution, shitting in the face of every Québécois in the process and proud of it, too . . . and now here you are wanting to work for that lot!"
 
Lucie tried to tell Fernand that a mailman's job was an honourable and useful one, and that Fernand himself was happy enough to get his mail every day, but the hardware-store owner remained steadfast in his condemnation.
 
While continuing with his search for employment, Charles decided to imitate the young Balzac by trying his hand at writing adventure novels. He bought two used dictionaries, borrowed a book on grammar from Céline, and began spending hours on end in his room, revising his "preparatory notes" (he had become methodical as he'd grown older) and drinking vast quantities of coffee, à la Balzac. But the combination of Fernand's continued resentful silence, Henri's ridicule, and above all the humiliation of living at the expense of a man who disapproved so profoundly of his decision pushed Charles into leaving the Fafard household even before he heard whether or not he had succeeded in landing a job.
 
If he was careful with every penny, he might be able to make his savings last three or four months. Without a word to anyone, he began looking for an apartment, and soon found a suitable one on rue Rachel, not a dozen doors from the apartment once inhabited by the Blond Angel, in a quaint but somewhat rundown building whose wooden roof moulding seemed poised to end its long career on the sidewalk. Three and a half rooms, not in great condition but huge, situated above a grocery store that had recently closed down. Another apartment of similar dimensions on the same floor was already rented. The bathtub was streaked with rust stains, the kitchen door didn't close all the way because of a curious hump in the floor, and all the window-sills were rotten, but the rent – eighty dollars a month – was low enough to make him overlook such inconveniences. The bedroom window looked out onto a small, quiet yard in which a large, skeletal dog slept beside a rusted-out fifty-gallon drum.
 
"This is where I'll put my work table," he said to himself, rubbing his hands with satisfaction.
 
Boff, who'd been brought along for a visit, sniffed everything warily, suspicious of this and that. Age had rendered him resistant to any change in his daily routine. Céline thought the apartment was wonderful, and proved it by inviting Charles to make love on a piece of old carpet in one of the rooms.
 
That night, at dinner, Charles announced that he was moving out in two days. Lucie turned red and had to leave the table to fetch a handkerchief. Fernand, on the other hand, confined himself to a deep sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, whereas Henri, acting as though the news were no big deal, questioned Charles about his new digs.
 
The next day Charles scoured rue Ontario for any articles of furniture he could afford; the street was lined with pawnshops and second-hand furniture stores, and three hours and three hundred dollars later he had bought everything he needed. Towards the end of the afternoon, a friend of Steve's pulled up in a pickup truck with a refrigerator that his wife wanted to get rid of because it was turning yellow; he wanted twenty-five dollars for it, including delivery, but, charmed by Charles's obvious delight and good manners, knocked five dollars off the price. Blonblon, taking on the role of organizing Charles's cultural agenda, turned up with a reading lamp on a stand and a cassette tape player that his father was getting rid of because he had acquired the newest miracle of the digital age: a compact disc player. The fact that the grocery store beneath Charles was empty bothered Blonblon. Had Charles seen any cockroaches in the apartment?
 
"Not a one! And if I do see any, I'll make short work of them."
 
Henri also arrived, drawn by curiosity, and found his sister cleaning the kitchen cupboards, the bottoms of which had been protected from all contact with the air for many years by shelf liners that also resisted stains from deepfryer fat. The apartment pleased him: he envied Charles and told him so, then gallantly set to work helping Céline scrub the cupboards, while Isabel filled a bucket with hot water and began washing the bedroom floor, on which a large variety of strange happenings seemed to have taken place. While all this was going on, Charles, Steve, and Blonblon carried out armloads of debris and useless junk left behind by the former tenant, then swept the rooms and arranged Charles's furniture, hanging a sheet over the window as a curtain until Charles was able to buy a real one. All the activity sharpened their appetites.
 
"Isn't it about time for a housewarming party?" Henri asked.
 
"Damn right!" Steve put in. "My stomach's rumbling."
 
Charles hadn't yet sprung for a telephone, and so the four young men went out in search of beer and pizzas. While they were gone, Céline discovered an old electric coffee maker in the back of a closet under a pile of cushions. After dusting it off and washing it, she found it worked perfectly.
 
"I'll have my own coffee maker, just like Balzac!" exclaimed Charles when he returned.
 
By eight o'clock, nothing remained of the two giant pizzas carried triumphantly back to the apartment but a few crumbs, and on the counter a dozen empty beer bottles were lined up.
 
"I would have invited your parents," Charles whispered into Céline's ear, "but I know what kind of answer your father would have given me."
 
"Give him a few weeks, Charles," she said. "You know Papa has too big a heart to stay mad at you for long. This morning he could hardly stop himself from coming over to see your apartment."
 
At ten the group decided to walk downtown to shake off the fogginess that now affected them. Their legs were rubbery, but they laughed a lot among themselves and said whatever came into their heads. Steve nearly frightened an old woman out of her wits by hopping along the sidewalk like a frog. Overtaken by a sudden fit of charity and sentimentality, Blonblon tried to drag Charles right then and there to confront Fernand Fafard and reconcile their differences in one great, emotional scene; Charles scoffed at the idea, and then suddenly became furious. Céline and Steve had to hold him back, as he was threatening to kick his friend's ass around the block. Peace was restored. Ashamed of himself, Charles apologized to Blonblon, blaming his outburst on the beer, which always had a bad effect on him and which, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, he swore he would never touch again. It was late. Time to go home. Céline put her arms around the repentant drunkard.
 
"See you tomorrow, tough guy," she murmured tenderly, kissing him on the cheek in front of the dusty window of the abandoned grocery store. Weakly lit by a nearby streetlamp, the store's emptiness made the night seem all the more desolate.

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The Alley Cat

The Alley Cat

edition:Paperback
also available: Paperback
tagged : literary
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The Years of Fire

The Years of Fire

Charles the Bold, Volume 2
edition:Paperback
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