*Canadian Essay (French)




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Canadian Essay (French)

Until the 1930s, when genuine novels and poems began to be published in Quebec, the largest and most interesting part of French literature in Canada was to be found in all kinds of essays, from “relations de voyages” (travel narratives) to public-speaking and journalism.
Discoverers, pioneers, missionaries, and administrators of New France (1534–1760) left rich narratives describing their explorations, as well as private and public letters, annals, and reports. Jesuit Relations (1632–73) is the best known and most varied collection of journals, documents, moral reflections, and mystical meditations on dayto- day and major events. Mémoires and Dialogues (1703) with a “bon sauvage” (noble savage), by the secular, liberal, republican—perhaps even anarchist—Baron de Lahontan (1666–1716), are the first steps on the road to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Father Joseph François Lafitau (1681–1746), comparing Amerindian customs with primitive Christian culture (1724), provides systematic methods which are seen as forerunners to modern ethnology and anthropology. Another Jesuit humanist, Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix (1682–1761), is a precursor of modern history. In the 19th century, he was read by François-Xavier Garneau (1809–66), author of the first extensive Histoire du Canada (1845–52; History of Canadd). This romantic, nationalist, yet sober and realistic History is considered the keystone of French Canadian literature, thought, and ideology.
With the British regime and the importation of printing presses (1764), newspapermen and journalists came to be the most active thinkers, writers, and publishers. La Gazette de Montréal (1778–; The Montreal gazette)—first French, later bilingual, and today an English newspaper—was founded by two French immigrants, both disciples of Voltaire and friends of Benjamin Franklin. Le Canadien (1806–93; The Canadian), run by liberal professionals and members of the new Parliament in Quebec City, was not a neutral observer of events, but rather a fighter for the nationalist cause. Its writers were the forebears of the 1837–38 Patriots; it was they who gave the French Canadian essay its main themes for decades to come. They were the first to give form and utterance to resistance, survival, and hopes of autonomy.
Étienne Parent (1802–74), editor of Le Canadien, was a moderate who became a respected high official in the civil service and the best lecturer of the 19th century on subjects like industry, economy, education, labor, priesthood, and society. He was a political philosopher, a kind of sociologist, but at the same time a writer. His papers are true texts, serious, free, and open.


The letters that the poet Octave Crémazie (1827–79) wrote to the Abbé Henri Raymond Casgrain (1831–1904), leader of the folklorist Mouvement Littéraire et Patriotique de Québec (Literary and patriotic movement of Quebec), are interpreted by today’s readers as essays of a sort. Crémazie, a good prose writer, critic, and theoretician, dealt in his letters with literature and translation, languages and peoples, cultural institutions and the writer—whom he defined as a desperate prophet in a society of philistine “grocers.”
Arthur Buies (1840–1901) returned to Montreal from his formative years in France with revolutionary ideas and a literary style to match. His Lettres sur le Canada (1864– 67; Letters on Canada) are pamphlets in the form of letters against what he termed the contemporary dark ages, characterized by sluggishness, cowardice, and intellectual lethargy. His collected newspaper articles are more tense and passionate than Hector Fabre’s (1834–1910) Chroniques (1877; Columns). The latter are descriptions of promenades and streets, pieces of diplomatic irony, glances and twinklings of a sympathetic eyewitness. Edmond de Nevers (i.e. Edmond Boisvert, 1862–1906), a cultivated polyglot, lived and worked in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris, where he published L’Avenir du peuple canadien-français (1896; The future of the French Canadian people).
The utopia he defines in this essay is, in reality, the European past interpreted as a museum of progress in the arts and sciences.
Since almost all schools, colleges, and universities were under the complete control of the clergy until World War II, French Canadian lay intellectuals turned to politics, civil service, newspapers, radio, and later television to express themselves. Among the best journalists and essayists of the first years of the 20th century were two friends: Olivar Asselin (1874–1937) (Pensée française [1937; French thought]) and Jules Fournier (1884–1918) (Mon encrier [1922; My inkpot]), both francophile purists and polemicists.
Another bright young nationalist was André Laurendeau (1912–68), editor of Le Devoir (The duty) and disciple of Lionel Groulx (1878–1967): he used his daily to oppose Quebec’s conservative Premier Maurice Duplessis. He was later named royal commissioner on bilinguism and biculturalism.
Fournier and Laurendeau were occasional literary critics, whereas professor Victor Barbeau (1896–1994) and novelist Claude-Henri Grignon (1894–1976) were lonely pamphleteers. The first professional critics in newspapers, magazines, journals, or reviews were a diplomat (René Garneau [1907–83]), a notary (Albert Pelletier [1895– 1971]), a neorealist poet enamored of the United States (Alfred DesRochers [1901–78]), and a printer (Louis Dantin [i.e. Eugène Seers, 1865–1945], at Harvard University Press).
Dantin’s Gloses critiques (1931; Critical glosses) are often about theories, ideologies, or general questions such as regionalism, subjectivity, art, and morals.
A moralist in the French classical tradition, Pierre Baillargeon (1916–67) is concise, confidential, pessimistic, and rightist. His classmates Jacques Ferron (1921–85) and Pierre Vadeboncoeur (1920–) are more artful in mixing wisdom and freedom, French wit and political insight, ethics and aesthetics. So is Jacques Brault (1933–), who, like Ferron and Vadeboncoeur, contributed regularly to the left-wing, secessionist Parti pris (1965–68; We affirm) as well as to the more moderate Liberté (1959–). More than philosophers or historians, sociologists were the kings and the king-makers of the 1960s and 1970s in universities, mass media, and sometimes in literature. Marcel Rioux’s (1919–92) Les Québécois (1974) is a colorful portrait of Quebec society. Fernand Dumont (1927–) goes from a theoretical Lieu de l’homme (1968; Man’s locus) to a more timely La Vigile du Quebec (1971; Quebec’s vigil), about terrorism during the October Crisis of 1970.
What came to be known as the Quiet Revolution—the period of intense social rupture and radical reforms in politics, economy, and lifestyles that started in 1960—was preceded by many cultural movements: manifestos (Refus global [1948; Global refusal] by Paul-Émile Borduas [1905–60]), journals (Cité Libre [1950–66; Free city]), cooperatives of poets (L’Hexagone [1953–]), collections of essays like La Grève de l’amiante (1956; The Asbestos Strike) edited by future Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1919–). Another forerunner of this revolution is the personal essay, for example L’Homme d’ici (1952; The man from here) by the Jesuit Ernest Gagnon (1905– 78), in which modern Catholicism meets psychoanalysis, existentialism, and African and Oriental myths.
The Quiet Revolution was accelerated by a bestselling essay, Les Insolences du Frère Untel (1960; The Impertinences of Brother Anonymous) by Jean-Paul Desbiens (1927–).
The author of this anonymously published book, who was a friar and a teacher, attacked bishops and popularized the word joual to designate the sloppy French spoken mostly in Montreal’s East End. Another angry young man of the period was Gilles Leclerc (1928–), whose Journal d’un inquisiteur (1960; An inquisitor’s diary) is a dense pamphlet directed at all establishments. Jean Le Moyne’s (1913–96) Convergences (1961) concentrated its fire not only on the traditional family, as well as the Jansenism or puritanism of Quebec’s society, but also attacked nationalism and separatism—Le Moyne being one of the few essayists to do so.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Memmi, and Frantz Fanon were read by the young founders of Parti pris, Paul Chamberland (1939–) and Pierre Maheu (1939–79). Their collaborators included former terrorist Pierre Vallières (1938–)—his Nègres blancs d’Amérique (1968; White Niggers of America) is an explosive mix of autobiography and ideology—and the journalist Jean Bouthillette (1929–), author of Le Canadien français et son double (1972; The French Canadian and his double), an attempt at political psychoanalysis. For the latter, “French Canadian”—neither French from France nor Canadian in Canada—is a word and concept to be replaced by “Québécois.” This is also the point of view of Hubert Aquin (1929–77), a novelist, political scientist, and philosopher, who wrote about “cultural fatigue,” or Prime Minister Trudeau’s constitutional obsessions. His collection Blocs erratiques (1977; Erratic blocks) was published after his suicide.
Less tragic and impatient than the revolutionary Aquin is the novelist and filmmaker Jacques Godbout (1933–), who has a nose for fads, slogans, and day-to-day images in Montreal, Paris, New York, or California. Before Le Murmure marchand (1984; The rumor of merchandise), on media, commerce, and publicity, he published Le Réformiste: Textes tranquilles (1975; The reformist: quiet texts). Playwright and novelist Jacques Ferron mixed political and literary essays with many genres: open letters, autobiography, portraits, satire, history (as in Historiettes [1969; Anecdotes]), and book reviews (as in Escarmouches [1975; Skirmishes]).
A few other novelists, journalists, and poets—for example, Fernand Ouellette (1930–)—are also occasional essayists. Naïm Kattan (1928–), born in Baghdad, educated in Paris, and now living in Montreal, plays on his “triple existence” and on twofold titles to contrast and blend the East and the West, Judaism and Christianity, Le Désir et le pouvoir (1983; The desire and the power). Diplomat Pierre Trottier (1925–) explores similar themes, but expresses them in other ways.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the so-called “national question”—the vexed issue of the identity of the Québécois people as a nation, as well as the debate on the status of the Province of Quebec within the Canadian Confederation—was one of the principal obsessions of essayists. This issue permeated many domains of thought; it flowed over into discussions of language, individualism and collectivity, fear, action, and freedom.
But other subjects—literature and silence, for example—were not neglected. Links between reading, thinking, and writing are the main issues in Le jeu en étoile (1978; The star-shaped game) and Entre l’écriture et la parole (1984; Between writing and speech) by Jean-Louis Major (1937–). The most influential French Canadian literary critic since the 1950s is Gilles Marcotte (1925–), who wrote Une littérature qui se fait (1962; A literature that builds itself), Littérature et circonstances (1989; Literature and circumstances), and La Littérature et le reste (1980; Literature and what remains), which contains correspondence and dialogue with Marcotte’s colleague André Brochu (1942–), himself a scholar, critic, and essayist. Jean Éthier-Blais (1925–95) was more conservative and subjective than Marcotte in his reviews (Signets [1967; Bookmarks]) and in his clever Dictionnaire de moi-même (1976; Dictionary of myself). Georges-André Vachon’s (1926–94) Esthétique pour Patricia (1980; Aesthetics for Patricia) subverted all
distinctions between reality and fiction, reading and writing, science and art.
The rise of the essay in Quebec since the Quiet Revolution has depended greatly on two publishers. HMH—later Hurtubise HMH—created the longest lasting series of essays in 1961 with the publication of Le Moyne’s Convergences. The “Constantes” series includes texts by Pierre Baillargeon, Maurice Blain (1925–96) (Approximations, 1967), Fernand Dumont, Ernest Gagnon, Naïm Kattan, Jean-Louis Major, Gilles Marcotte, Fernand Ouellette, Jean Simard (1916–) (Nouveau répertoire [1965; New repository]), Pierre Trottier, and Pierre Vadeboncoeur. Many series were created in the wake of “Constantes”—most notably “Prose exacte” by the Éditions Quinze, and “Essais littéraires” by L’Hexagone—but the most important editor of essays after Hurtubise HMH is clearly Boréal. Created in 1984, the “Papiers collés” series publishes collections of essays, “books of scattered texts, whose assemblage underlines their eclecticism as well as the continuity of thought and style of their authors.” Surprendre les voix (1986; To catch the voices) by André Belleau (1930–86), La Poussière du chemin (1989; The dirt of the road) by Jacques Brault, and La Petite Noirceur (1987; The small darkness) by Jean Larose (1948–), the most important collections of the 1980s, were published in this series, alongside books by Gilles Archambault (1933–), André Brochu, Jacques Godbout, Yvon Rivard (1945–), and François Ricard (1947–), who is the director of the series. It is also in this series that Bernard Arcand (1945–) and Serge Bouchard (1947–) like to pin down the “lieux communs” (commonplaces) of modern life. With the journal Liberté, these two series have been crucial in the field of the Québécois essay. It is still too early to assess the importance of the most recent series of essays in Quebec. “Pour en finir avec” (To be done with, also published by Boréal) attempts to maintain the polemical tradition that dates back to Louis-Antoine Dessaulles (1819–95) or Louis Fréchette (1839–1908) in the 19th century.
Few women writers have seen their books included in series such as “Constantes” or “Papiers collés,” a fact that may partially explain why critics and anthologists seem to be so ill at ease with these books and their place within the genre of the essay in Quebec.
Besides journalists whose articles are frequently collected—Rolande Allard-Lacerte, Lise Bissonnette, Ariane Émond, Lysiane Gagnon, Judith Jasmin (1916–72), Catherine Lord, Hélène Pedneault (1952–), Nathalie Petrowski (1954–)—many women writers use genres that are difficult to categorize, for they often refuse the boundaries imposed upon them by the genres themselves. Nicole Brossard (1943–), Madeleine Gagnon (1938–), and France Théoret (1942–) write about their private lives as well as their theories and ideas in their texts. Michèle Lalonde (1937–) is concerned with matters of language and politics.
Louky Bersianik (i.e. Lucile Durand [1930–]) is a novelist and a utopian. Marcelle Brisson (1929–) and Madeleine Ouellette-Michalska (1935–) mix philosophy, anthropology, and feminist theory. Fernande Saint-Martin (1927–) is a historian of both art and literature, and also a semiotician. Simonne Monet-Chartrand (1919–93) used all forms of autobiographical expression in her series of books. Suzanne Lamy (1929–87) wrote literary criticism that was wellinformed, firmly rooted theoretically, ideologically oriented, and personal in the strongest possible sense of the word: she constantly stressed the intimate pleasures of reading and writing. One has to wonder if women writers’ choices of publishing houses, coupled with their fondness for personal narratives and political prose, as well as with the literary institution’s tendency to treat them as a separate corpus, have not led critics to overlook their role in the Québécois essay.
With the exception of Janusz Przychodzen (1962–) and Lise Gauvin (1940), who herself published a book of essays in 1984, critics of the genre have not advanced coherent ideas on the matter of essays written by women, a curious oversight given how eagerly Quebec’s essayists theorize their own writing. Fernand Ouellette, André Belleau, Jean-Louis Major, Jean-Marcel Paquette (1941–), and François Ricard, all essayists themselves, have written at length on the nature of the essay, its relationship with other genres, its stylistic devices (including the use of paradox), and its peculiar efficiency: “Anybody who has used the essay,” Belleau wrote, “knows that it allows him to discover.” Critics such as Laurent Mailhot (1931–), Robert Vigneault (1927–), Marc Angenot (1941–), François Dumont (1956–), Janusz Przychodzen, and Jean Terrasse (1940–) have also been concerned with the genre’s characteristics and history—in Quebec as elsewhere.
Studies written by these critics are similar to the thoughts of contemporary essayists who deal with the powers of literature. Be it Modernism (Philippe Haeck [1946–]), great literary figures of the past (Victor-Lévy Beaulieu [1945–]), the teaching of literature (Jean Larose), or every author’s fight with language (Thomas Pavel [1941–]), Quebec essayists are constantly reassessing questions that confront today’s literary theorists and readers alike. What are the “ends” of literature (Chutes: La Littérature et ses fins [1990] by Pierre Ouellet [1950–])? What can it do “against itself” (La Littérature contre elle même [1985] by François Ricard)? Does it promote a particular “ecology” (L’Écologie du réel [1988] by Pierre Nepveu [1946–])? The spatial metaphors that abound in the texts of the 1990s—the road (Le Bout cassé de tous les chemins [1993] by Yvon Rivard), narrowness (Les Littératures de l’exiguïté [1992] by François Paré), distance (Le Proche et le lointain [1994] by Claude Lévesque [1927–])—remind its reader that the genre of the essay is especially helpful for those who wish to travel along the road of literature.


Écrivains contemporains du Québec depuis 1950, edited by Lise Gauvin and Gaston Miron, Paris: Seghers, 1989
Essais québécois, 1837–1983: Anthologie littéraire, edited by Laurent Mailhot and Benoît Melançon, Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1984
Further Reading
Andrès, Bernard, “Essai de typologie du discours pamphlétaire québécois,” Voix et Images 1, no. 3 (April 1976):417–31
Angenot, Marc, La Parole pamphlétaire: Contribution a la typologie des discourse modernes, Paris: Payot, 1982
Belleau, André, “Approches et situation de l’essai québécois,” in his Y a-t-il un intellectuel dans la salle?, Montreal: Primeur, 1984: 148–53
Bonenfant, Joseph, “Divergences de l’essai québécois,” in Culture populaire et littératures au Québec, edited by René Bouchard, Saratoga, California: Anma Libri, 1980:243–56
Brisson, Marcelle, “L’Écriture réflexive au Québec,” La Nouvelle Barre du Jour 60 (November 1977):53–63
Dorais, Fernand, L’Essai au Canada français de 1930 à 1970: Lieu d’appropriation d’une conscience ethnique, Sudbury: Prise de Parole, 1984
Dumont, François, “L’Essai littéraire québécois des années quatrevingt: La Collection ‘Papiers collés,’” Recherches Sociographiques 33, no. 2 (1992):323–35
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
L’Essai et la prose d’idées au Québec, Montreal: Fides, 1985
Études Littéraires issue on the essay, 5, no. 1 (April 1972)
Études Littéraires issue on the pamphlet, 11, no. 2 (August 1978)
Gauvin, Lise, “Petit Essai sur l’essai au féminin,” in L’Autre Lecture: La Critique au féminin et les textes québécois, vol. 2, edited by Lori Saint-Martin, Montreal: XYZ, 1992:117–27
Mailhot, Laurent, Ouvrir le livre, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1992
Marcel, Jean, Pensées, passions et proses, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1992
Przychodzen, Janusz, Un projet de liberté: L’Essai littéraire au Québec (1970–1990), Quebec City: Institut Québécois de Recherche sur la Culture, 1993
Québec Français issue on the essay, 53 (March 1984)
Ricard, François, “La Littérature québécoise contemporaine 1960–1977; IV. L’Essai,” Études Françaises 13, no. 3–4 (October 1977):365–81
Simard, Sylvain, “L’Essai québécois au XIXe siècle,” Voix et Images 6, no. 2 (Winter 1981):365–81
Terrasse, Jean, Rhétorique de l’essai littéraire, Montreal: University of Quebec Press, 1977
Vachon, Stéphane, “Problématique d’une nouvelle forme: L’Essaipamphlet au Québec,” Itinéraires et Contacts de Culture 6 (1985):47–57
Vidricaire, André, “Pour une politique de l’essai en littérature,” Livres et Auteurs Québécois 1979 (1980):275–82
Vidricaire, André, “Les Genres en littérature, en histoire, en art, etc.: Un Conflit de disciplines,” Livres et Auteurs Québécois 1980 (1981):241–46
Vigneault, Robert, L’Écriture de l’essai, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1994
Vincenthier, Georges, Une idéologie québécoise de Louis-Joseph Papineau a Pierre Vallières, Montreal: Hurtubise HMH, 1979
Voix et Images issue on the age of criticism, 1920–1940, 17, no. 2 (Winter 1992)

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