French Canadian, 1930–1986
In a seminal essay entitled “Petite essayistique” (1983; Little essayistic piece), André Belleau claims that “At 18, one can be Rimbaud, but not an essayist”—since an essayist needs time to learn and master the languages of culture. This remark aptly describes Belleau’s own career, for he came late to essay writing. During his many years as a civil servant he often wrote short stories and book or film reviews for various literary journals, most notably for the influential Liberté (Liberty), which he cofounded in 1959. Despite these publications, he did not begin to consider himself as a writer until the end of the 1960s. He then completely changed his professional activities: he left the government, went back to school, and subsequently (in 1969) became a literature professor at the newly born University of Quebec in Montreal. This Renaissance scholar was influenced by different theoreticians, but some of Belleau’s more technical readings also changed his relationship to his own writing. Mikhail Bakhtin, for example, not only helped him grasp more firmly the nature of the Québécois novel, he also provided him with the means of creating a personal style.
What distinguishes Belleau’s writing before and after the end of the 1960s is the fact that he finally came to terms with a problem he had faced for almost 15 years: how a writer is to incorporate in his work the many “voices” that inhabit him and, more importantly, that make him what he is. The title of Belleau’s second collection of essays, Surprendre les voix (To catch the voices), shows the reader what the writer had discovered about both the nature of literature and the essayist’s work. Belleau asserts that a writer is someone who listens to the words and phrases traded around him before turning them into something personal, and is thus engaged in what Belleau would later call the polemics of language (“polémique des langages”). From this point on, Belleau paid a tremendous amount of attention to his society’s discourses, whether in literature, journalism, mass media, or everyday life. Some of his best-known essays deal with a French television broadcaster’s English pronunciation (“L’Effet Derome, ou, Comment Radio-Canada colonise et aliène son public” [1980; The Derome effect; or, how Radio- Canada colonizes and alienates its public]), Montreal streets and their idioms, and his political opponents’ use of language (Belleau was a fervent supporter of Quebec’s independence while maintaining a skeptical distance from any form of nationalist thought). Belleau’s interests went far beyond the confines of Quebec, however. He was fond of German philosophy, literature, and music; he wrote essays about Morocco and Guadeloupe; he loved French culture both high and low (Fauré as well as popular singers
from his youth); he was well read in cybernetics and linguistics; he was an avid reader of European and North American mystery and gothic novels (as revealed in his reviews and his unpublished Cahiers de lecture [Reader’s notebooks]). Belleau’s openness and curiosity were also evident when in 1972 he cofounded the Rencontre Québécoise Internationale des Écrivains (International Québécois meeting of writers): this annual gathering continues to bring together writers from all over the world.
Belleau published only four books, but they are milestones in Quebec’s literary culture, especially for those interested in sociocriticism. In Le Romancier fictif (1980; The fictional novelist) the critic uses the Quebec novel from 1940 to 1980 as a basis for contrasting the narrative techniques of novelists of the parole (for whom literature is perceived as pure interiority) with those of the code (here, the literary institution takes precedence). Notre Rabelais (1990; Our Rabelais), edited by Belleau’s colleagues after his untimely death, contains radio interviews and scholarly essays on an author to whom Belleau had devoted many years of work, and who fascinated him because of the relationship between his oeuvre and contemporary popular or carnavalesque culture.
While these two books are more critical studies than essays per se, such is not the case with Y a-t-il un intellectuel dans la salle? (1984; Is there an intellectual in the house?) and Surprendre les voix (1986). These are collections of short pieces originally published between 1959 and 1985, although over half of the 51 pieces date from 1976. (Many texts appear in both the collections, for Belleau was dissatisfied with the 1984 publication, and reorganized it two years later.) Here, the voice of Belleau the essayist is heard loud and clear—in his theory of the essay as a “récit idéel” (narrative of ideas), his defense of the intellectual’s role, his conception of language and politics, his ground-breaking reflections on the nature of Quebec’s literary institutions, his love for his city and its culture. Particularly remarkable is Belleau’s personal style of writing, which blends Quebec slang and so-called universal French, his attention to detail, and his fiery comments mixed with self-restraint (in matters of faith and spirituality, for example). Belleau’s use of irony and paradox as well as his need to reach his reader are among the elements that structure his essays. At the same time, the essays are self-reflexive and consistently question the writer’s own identity. Belleau’s lessons are still heard in Quebec’s culture. To measure his importance, one needs only look at the magazine issues published in his honor by friends and colleagues (Liberté, 1987), and by younger scholars who wished to follow in his footsteps (Études Françaises [1988; French studies]). His passion—for knowledge, literature, and the essay as a genre—did not go unnoticed.
Born 18 April 1930 in Montreal. Studied literature at the Collège Marie-Médiatrice; philosophy at Collège Sainte-Marie, B.A., 1952; psychology and literature at the University of Montreal, from 1953, licence, 1968, M.A., 1970, Ph.D., 1979. Federal civil servant, 1954–67, working for the Ministry of Public Health, the Public Service Commission, and the National Film Board. Cofounder, Liberté, 1959. Professor, University of Quebec, Montreal, 1969–86. Cofounder, Rencontre Québécoise Internationale des Écrivains, 1972. Married Jacqueline Belleau: two children.
Prize of Excellence in Canadian Studies, 1984. Died in Montreal, 13 September 1986.
Essays and Related Prose
Le Romancier fictif: Essai sur la représentation de l’écrivain dans le roman québécois, 1980
Y a-t-il un intellectuel dans la salle?, 1984
Surprendre les voix, 1986
Notre Rabelais, 1990
Other writings: short stories and numerous texts for radio programs (some were published in Notre Rabelais).
Cantin, Serge, “André Belleau, ou, Le Malheur d’être touriste,” Liberté (December 1995):27–69
Cousineau, Gerald, André Belleau, essayiste, Montreal: University of Montreal Department of French Studies, 1989
Dumont, François, “L’Essai littéraire québécois des années quatrevingt: La Collection ‘Papiers collés’,” Recherches Sociographiques 33, no. 2 (1991):323–35
Dumont, François, “La Littérature comme point de vue: Trois essayistes québécois contemporains: André Belleau, Jean Larose et François Ricard,” Itinéraires et Contacts de Culture 18–19 (1995):89–96
Dumont, François, “La Théorisation de l’essai au Québec,” in Le Discours de l’université sur la littérature québécoise, edited by Joseph Melançon, Quebec City: Nuit Blanche, 1996:331–56
Études Françaises issue on Belleau, 23, no. 3 (Winter 1988)
Liberté issue on Belleau, 169 (February 1987)
Melançon, Benoît, “Le Statut de la langue populaire dans l’oeuvre d’André Belleau, ou, La Reine et la guidoune,” Études Françaises 27, no. 1 (Spring 1991):111–32
Montreuil, Sophie, Le Travail du recueil, Montreal: University of Montreal Department of French Studies, 1996
Schendel, Michel van, “Cher André (portrait intellectuel d’un chercheur),” in his Rebonds critiques: Questions de littérature: Essais, vol. 1, Montreal: l’Hexagone, 1992:29–186 Schnierle, Martina, “André Belleau: Indépendance du discours et discours de l’indépendance,” Französisch Heute 22, no. 1 (March 1991):41–42, 51 55
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