French Canadian, 1930–
Fernand Ouellette is that young man who, in the 1960s, without any technical knowledge of music, simply because he profoundly loved the works of Edgard Varèse, wrote to him, talked with him in New York, and wrote a biography that is still one of the mainstays of the Varèse bibliography (Edgard Varèse, 1966). This is how Ouellette has always worked, in all the literary genres he has practiced—poetry, novel, essay—with a kind of calculated temerity, forging ahead without any regard for the commonplace or the strictures of narrow professionalism. “Stuck between rapture and darkness,” he wrote in his second book of essays, Journal dénoué (1974; Untied journal), “I have learned not to care about the fear of ridicule. I have accustomed my intelligence to make jumps, to take risks, like a tight-rope walker.” “How does he dare?” a Paris critic wrote in response.
What he dared, in Journal dénoué, was to reveal how he managed to escape a traditional fear of life and love, while at the same time immensely enlarging his grasp of modern thought by reading such writers as Rainer Maria Rilke, Friedrich Hölderlin, T.S.Eliot, PierreJean Jouve, and Søren Kierkegaard. What he asked from the authors he read was not simply culture, but a kind of salvation.
Ouellette is a passionate writer, sometimes to the point of candor. In his essays he remains true to the poetic nature he revealed in Les Heures (1987; The hours), one of his most celebrated books of poems; yet his essays are not purely impressionistic. His book on the German poet Novalis, for instance, entitled Depuis Novalis (1973; Since Novalis), sprang from a course he taught with his friend André Belleau at the University of Quebec in Montreal. His numerous essays on painters, a subject that increasingly preoccupies him, bear the mark of serious documentation. Ouellette’s essays are all more or less autobiographical, sometimes directly, as in Journal dénoué, but more often, as the years go by, as part of a spiritual quest. It would not be excessive to say that the light he discovers (or rather pursues) in the paintings of Vermeer or Matisse is the same mystical light he talks about in his more explicitly religious essays.
Ouellette’s spiritual quest informs his consideration of the world in which he lives, the larger world with its tragedies of war, torture, hunger, and lack of freedom, as well as his own small world of Quebec, which concerns him deeply. His contributions to public debate, though not numerous, have been important. An ardent nationalist, he has written against bilingualism, arguing that it would lead to the victory of English over French in Quebec. When terrorism broke out in the 19605, taking a number of innocent victims, he lashed out against all forms of violence. Those essays were published first in the magazine Liberté, of which he was one of the founders, and were reprinted in a book entitled, significantly, Ècrire en notre temps (1979; Writing in our time). Poetry itself, a frequent subject in Ouellette’s essays, is deeply rooted in “our time.” Poetry is not a refuge from the issues of the contemporary world, nor should it necessarily be concerned with these issues. Poetry signifies hope and the survival of hope, giving humans, speaking beings, a possible future.
Ouellette’s voice is grave, noble, and earnest, and speaks about the essential themes of human thought: love, death, language, and God. His essays do not read like treatises.
They are, as he has said, “flashes of lightning, fragments of a foreign time, desperate leaps out of form.” Ouellette has often used the word “fulgurance” (fulguration) to describe the inner movement of his poetry. The same term can be applied to his essays.
Born 24 September 1930 in Montreal. Studied at the Collège Séraphique, Ottawa, 1943– 47; social sciences at the University of Montreal, licence, 1952. Book sales representative, 1953–60; scriptwriter for the National Film Board of Canada, 1955–59.
Married Lisette Corbeil, 1955. Director for the radio network of Société Radio-Canada, 1960–91. Cofounder, Liberté, 1959, and of the International Quebecois Meeting of Writers, 1972.
Awards: France-Quebec Prize, for biography, 1966; Governor-General’s Award, for nonfiction (refused), 1970, for fiction, 1985, and for poetry, 1987; France- Canada Prize, for poetry, 1972.; Ètudes Françaises Prize, for nonfiction, 1974; David Prize.
Essays and Related Prose
Les Actes retrouvés, 1970
Depuis Novalis: Errance et gloses, 1973
Journal dénoué, 1974
Ècrire en notre temps, 1979
En forme de trajet, 1996
Other writings: three novels (Tu regardais intensement Genevieve, 1978; La Mort vive, 1980; Lucie ou un midi en novembre, 1985), poetry, and a biography of Edgard Varèse (1966).
Bilodeau, François, Action et errance: Les Essais de Fernand Ouellette, Montreal: McGill University, 1984
Mailhot, Laurent, “Récit-Essai: Le Journal dénoué de Fernand Ouellette,” in his Ouvrir le livre, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1992: 205–12 (article originally published, 1975)
Nepveu, Pierre, “Fernand Ouellette: La Lumiere hors d’elle-même,” in L’Essai et la prose d’idees au Québec, Montreal: Fides, 1985: 711–22
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