French Canadian, 1933–
If one were to choose a single essay as most representative of Jacques Brault’s work, “Petite suite émilienne” (1986; A suite of Emilys) would probably come to mind. After meandering about Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the author goes on to discover “other Emilys” all over the world, in England (Emily Brontë), in Germany (Annette von Droste- Hülshoff), in France (Danielle Collobert), in Scotland (Margaret Tait), and finally in his native Quebec, for his last Emily—or more precisely Émilienne—is the essayist’s own mother. His “rêverie textuelle” (textual reverie) has led him from literature to autobiography, thus stressing the fact that reading is a double gesture: reaching out is always reaching in.
A medievalist by trade, Brault is a professor, poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, translator, critic, publisher, and essayist—a complete homme de lettres. His works of criticism concern mostly Quebec poets (Émile Nelligan, Alain Grandbois, SaintDenys Garneau, Gaston Miron, Juan Garcia), but, whatever the nature of his writing, it is nurtured by texts from all countries and periods, be it Japanese haiku or Diderot’s Neveu de Rameau, E.M.Cioran’s aphorisms, or modern French poetry (Baudelaire, Laforgue, Verlaine, Apollinaire, Char, Michaux). Among the many topics he addresses, melancholy, friendship, solidarity, time, and silence are especially frequent. In the visual arts (painting, engraving, collage, drawing), he describes himself as an amateur and apprentice, eager to master yet anotber language (he illustrates his own books as well as those of others).
It is tempting to explain this hunger for learning new modes of expression by referring to one of Brault’s most frequent metaphors, that of the road. His first book of essays was called Chemin faisant (1975; On the way), and his second, La Poussière du chemin (1989; The dirt of the road). Many of his books of poetry convey similar images: Migration (1979), Trois fois passera (1981; It will come around three times), Il n’y a plus de chemin (1990; On the Road No More). The street and the neighborhood are the poet’s favorite loci. For the essayist, everything is always evolving: people, works of art, knowledge and the ways to achieve it. A writer worthy of the name never ceases to learn how to read and to follow new paths.
Humility and humor are needed if one is to be a good student and a good reader. The first quality is most visible in Brault’s attention to the texts or works of art he comments on; far from submitting them to any preconceived method of analysis, he instead reveals where he believes their meaning lies by means of comparisons and parallels. He makes no apologies for his subjectivity or for using the present time and his own person as the basis for his analysis. There is a humility in this method that is underlined by the recurrent use of the adjective “petit” (small), as if Brault’s investigations must be limited in scope to be effective. As for Brault’s humor, often overlooked by critics, this is evidenced by his many tongue-incheek remarks, as in Ô saisons, ô châteaux (1991; Oh seasons, oh castles; the title is borrowed from Rimbaud), as well as by the word games he plays and his propensity for mocking intellectual fashions.
Brault’s style is striking, as a close reading of “Petite Suite émilienne” reveals. His background in philosophy and medieval literature is often visible in his choice of vocabulary. Since he refuses to see the world dualistically, he needs words that will deal with its complexity—hence the many neologisms created with negative prefixes: “désenferme,” “inévidence,” “non-savoir,” and the importance of oxymora, as in “éternité d’un instant” (eternity of an instant). Paradoxes abound in his texts: “She is young and old. Provider and sterile.” Brault also likes words seldom used in modern French— “inconnaissance,” “trembleuse”—and is fond of Québécois colloquialisms. He likes to quote at length, for he refuses to lose sight of the object of his divagations. This is not to say that his essays read like affected prose; his language adapts well to the contours of his subject matter.
Brault’s humility leads him to provide his readers, whom he often addresses directly, as in a dialogue or a letter, with his personal recollections of his contacts with the world of art. He depicts himself as a reader (“I have only one craft: reading”), as an amateur, and as an apprentice constantly refining his tools—words and images. Central to his work is the “I” who proceeds cautiously to approach the world from his particular point of view. That is the “I” perceived in the marginalia of Chemin faisant, and heard in the last lines of “Petite Suite émilienne”: “Émilienne loved me so much—in spite of herself, in spite of me.” These closing lines are not a conclusion; they do not summarize a literary analysis. They leave open the essayist’s relation to his subject matter, as well as his personal history. This openness, this surrender to the power of the literary and artistic journey, characterizes Jacques Brault as an essayist.
Born 29 March 1933 in Montreal. Studied at the Collège SainteMarie, Montreal, graduated 1954; philosophy at the University of Montreal, M.A., 1958; the Sorbonne, Paris, and at Poitiers, 1958–60. Married Madeleine Breton, 1955: one daughter. Professor of medieval studies (and later of French literature), University of Montreal, 1960–96.
Contributor to various magazines and journals, including Parti Pris (We affirm) and Liberté (Liberty); literary critic and producer of literary radio programming for Radio- Canada.
Awards: France-Canada Prize, for poetry, 1969; Duvernay Prize, 1978;
Governor-General’s Award, for drama, 1970, and for fiction, 1984; David Prize, 1986.
Essays and Related Prose
Chemin faisant, 1975
La Poussière du chemin, 1989
Ô saisons, ô châteaux, 1991
Other writings: poetry, short plays, work for television and radio, short stories, a novel (Agonie [Death-Watch], 1984), and a study on Alain Grandbois (1968). Also coedited the work of Saint-Denys Garneau (1971).
Dumont, François, “L’Essai littéraire québécois des années quatrevingt: La Collection ‘Papiers collés’,” Recherches Sociographiques 33, no. 2 (1992.):323–35
Lemaire, Michel, “Jacques Brault essayiste,” Voix et Images 35 (Winter 1987):222–38
Lévesque, Claude, Le Proche et le lointain, Montreal: VLB, 1994
Paquin, Jacques, “Écriture et interlocution chez Jacques Brault,” Voix et Images 57 (Spring 1994):568–84
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