French Canadian, 1920–
In 1960, the first year of what has been called the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, Pierre Vadeboncoeur published an epoch-making essay entitled “La Ligne du risque” (The path of risk) in Écrits du Canada Français (Writings from French Canada). In it Vadeboncoeur pleaded for a renewal, or rather a transformation of the spiritual tradition of French Canada, following in the footsteps of the painter Paul-Émile Borduas. The latter had published in 1948 a manifesto called Refus global (Global refusal). Influenced by surrealism, this seminal document raged against the religious and nationalist narrowness of Quebec thought. “Borduas,” wrote Vadeboncoeur, “was the first to break radically. He broke totally. He did not break in order to break; he did it to be alone and without witness before truth. Our spiritual history begins with him.”
In the 1960s, Vadeboncoeur worked for the Confédération des Syndicats Nationaux (Confederation of National Trade Unions), and in the collection La Ligne du risqué (1963) launched a vigorous attack against American unionism, which had become a part of the capitalist system instead of a revolutionary force. Thus, in this first book, we find two major aspects of the author’s thought: an emphasis on spiritual values, and a dedication to social reform. A third aspect was to emerge a few years later, in 1970, with the publication of an autobiographical narrative, Un amour libre (A free love), in which Vadeboncoeur describes the relationship between father and son and reflects on love and private life. Running through these two books is the common theme of freedom. Spiritual life, social combat, art, and love are all paths to freedom, and one can not be separated from the others.
In the years that followed, Vadeboncoeur’s main preoccupation became political, that of promoting the independence of Quebec. At the beginning of the 1950s, he had been one of the founders of the magazine Cité Libre (Free city), along with his friends Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Gérard Pelletier, who were later to become, respectively, Prime Minister and Minister in the federal government. As the years passed by, Vadeboncoeur became more and more estranged from them, and found that his ideal of freedom could not be attained if the people of Quebec remained in the Canadian Confederation. He became a polemicist, lashing out at the federal system, the domination of the English language, and the subservience of so many French Canadians—including some of his former friends—to what he considered a certain form of colonialism perpetrated by the Anglophone power structure.
Then, in 1978, a major change occurred in Vadeboncoeur’s career. With the publication of a long essay entitled Les Deux Royaumes (The two realms), he broke with his polemical brochures, and went back, beyond the magazine La Ligne du Risque, to the very first essays he had published in the 1940s in La Nouvelle Relève (The new awakening). He took leave from his union duties, deciding to devote all his time and efforts to writing. “There are two realms,” he wrote, “the one irreducible to the other; and the first human truth consists in knowing that fact… I have always known that, more or less consciously. That knowledge had been obscured by the occupations of life, until I came to suffer more and more from our epoch’s raw existentialism.” Recognizing the coexistence of these two realms—the social and the spiritual—Vadeboncoeur opted decisively for the second, at about the same time as did, in France, the “nouveaux philosophes,” Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philippe Nemo, and others. This meeting of minds is not, of course, without historical significance.
Vadeboncoeur has not changed his intense, terse style, reminiscent sometimes of the best prose works of Charles Péguy. If anything, his style has become purer in the books that followed, in which he wrote mainly, if not exclusively, about art—whether his own daughter’s drawings or the Centre Pompidou in Paris (a splendid essay)—and love, that kind of human but almost mystical love that is strengthened by absence. Vadeboncoeur was a powerful essayist; he has become a prosateur: a prose writer in the strongest sense of the word, an artist of prose writing, one among very few.
Born 28 July 1920 in Strathmore, near Montreal. Studied at the Collèges Jean-de-Brébeuf and Sainte-Marie, 1938–40; law at the University of Montreal, licence, 1943. Civil servant, journalist, and translator, 1943–50; legal adviser to the Confederation of National Trade Unions, 1950–75. Full-time writer, from 1975; contributor ovarious journals, including Cité Libre, Liberté, Situation, Maintenant (Now), and Parti Pris (We affirm).
Awards: Liberté Prize, 1970; Duvernay Prize, 1971; David Prize, 1976; City of Montreal Grand Prize for Literature, for Les Deux Royaumes, 1978; France-Quebec Prize, for Trois Essais sur l’insignifiance, 1984; Canada-Suisse Prize, for L’Absence, 1987; Canada- Communauté Frangaise de Belgique Prize, 1994.
Essays and Related Prose
La Ligne du risque, 1963
L’Autorité du peuple, 1965
Lettres et colères, 1969
La Dernière Heure et la première, 1970
Un amour libre, 1970
Un génocide en douce: Écrits polémiques, 1976
Chaque jour, l’indépendance, 1978
Les Deux Royaumes, 1978
To Be or Not to Be, That Is the Question (text in French), 1980
Trois essais sur l’insignifiance, 1983
L’Absence: Essai à la deuxième personne, 1985
Essais inactuels, 1987
Essai sur une pensée heureuse, 1989
Le Bonheur excessif, 1992.
Gouverner ou disparaître, 1993
Dix-sept tableaux d’enfant: Étude d’une métamorphose, 1994
Arbour, Rose Marie, “Vadeboncoeur et le féminisme,” Possibles 8, no. 1 (1983):181–89
Beaudoin, Réjean, editor, Un homme libre: Pierre Vadeboncoeur, Montreal: Leméac, 1974
Beaulieu, Victor-Lévy, “Pour saluer Pierre Vadeboncoeur,” Liberté 12, no. 4 (July– August 1970):3–11
Dumont, François, “L’Essai littéraire québécois des années quatrevingt: La Collection ‘Papiers collés’,” Recherches Sociographiques 33, no. 2. (1991):323–35
Leloup, Béatrice, Les Images dominantes dans les essais de P. Vadeboncoeur, Montreal: McGill University, 1981
Liberté issue on Vadeboncoeur, 21, no. 6 (November–December 1979)
Mailhot, Laurent, “D’un amour libre à un pays libéré, ou de l’autorité de l’enfant à celle du peuple,” in his Ouvrir le livre, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1992:195–204 (article originally published 1972.)
Melançon, Benoît, “La Fiction de l’Amérique dans l’essai contemporain: Pierre Vadeboncoeur et Jean Larose,” Études Françaises 26, no. 2. (Autumn 1990):31–39
Przychodzen, Janusz, “L’Essai québécois contemporain: L’Être spéculaire,” La Licorne 27 (1993):205–18
Roy, Paul-Émile, Pierre Vadeboncoeur: Un homme attentif, Montreal: Méridien, 1995
Vachon, Stephane, “Problématique d’une nouvelle forme: L’EssaiPamphlet au Quebec,” Itinéraires et Contacts de Culture 6 (1985):47–57
Vigneault, Robert, “Pierre Vadeboncoeur: L’Énonciation dans le discours de l’essai,” in L’Écriture de l’essai, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1994:133–59 (article originally published 1982)
Vigneault, Robert, “Pierre Vadeboncoeur: La Promotion littéraire du dualisme,” in L’Éccriture de l’essai, Montreal: L’Hexagone, 1994: 110–33 (article originally published 1985)
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