For week three of ALU Summer Book Club, we share some words from Eric Dupont about Quebec literature, along with excerpts from Life in the Court of Matane and a foreword by Heather O’Neill.
What is your relationship to Quebec writing?Eric Dupont: I’m a writer, but above all a reader, of Quebec literature. I’ve been reading Quebec books since I learned how to read. The first book I was given was a children’s book by Gabrielle Roy that told the story of a little girl who got a cow as a gift for her eighth birthday. I still remember how everything seemed perfectly familiar to me as I read that book, despite the fact that everything took place in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba, thousands of kilometres from where I grew up. It was otherness in its most basic form. Sometimes Quebec literature charms me with its originality and its ability to thumb its nose at propriety. Sometimes it gets on my nerves. Just like Quebec. But it’s my home. Sometimes I get on my own nerves, too.What, if anything, would you say defines Quebec literature?ED: I used to think I knew, but now I think I know less and less. I know there was, for a time, a desire to be authentic, to show things the way we see them, to say we’re here now. Then we wanted to speak to the world as we dressed up in the clothes we’d burned in the 1970s. But for a number of years now I’ve been remarking in the style of some novels a preoccupation with authenticity that reminds me of my childhood, a time of affirmation by staking a claim to a form of language that belongs to Quebec authors alone. I don’t know if the authors who belong to this wave of neo-authenticists are aware of what they’re reminding older generations of. Perhaps they’d say they’ve got nothing at all to do with all that. I’m hope they’re right, because otherwise it means we’re turning in circles.And, well, I’ll just come out and say it. I think that Quebec literature often revolves around men. Men with very important things to proclaim urbi et orbi! Sometimes these men talk about their mothers. Sometimes they have wives or girlfriends who don’t understand them. But most of the time they’re just amazed to be alive.When women take the place that’s currently not theirs in Quebec literature, perhaps we’ll have a better idea of our literary possibilities. But I could be wrong.What excites you most in the books you read?ED: Leaving reality behind.
“My daughter once attended a professional ballet school. They had recently hired a new director from France. There was a sense among parents that now the children would have a proper instruction in dance. There was an unjustified notion the director was inherently good because he was from France. He would show them all the miraculous ways of the Europeans. There was a rumour among parents that he said you couldn’t have any dancers from Quebec as everyone was descended from lumberjacks.What is so beautiful about Dupont’s writing is that he embraces the lumberjack side of being from Quebec but translates it into something of unique folkloresque beauty. There is nothing about the popular tastes and desires of Quebec people that Dupont edits out in order to create a literary persona that would be more acceptable to an idea of European or upper middle class WASPish sensibilities. His books are filled with cheap breakfast restaurants, trailer parks, hens in the backyard. There are tiny towns filled with squalor and retrograde ideas and a shocking lack of opportunity. Infinite hours spent in front of the television, as though it were a shrine. There are people on welfare and people who hate people on welfare. There are strong men whose claim to fame is dragging buses around.But Dupont is also so worldly and erudite. His reactions and observations are exquisite. He uses literary and historical allusions to convey the dynamics of familiar life in the province. He compares moods to operatic scores. He dissects the temperaments of the province into epic stories. He proves that in Quebec culture you can indeed make a ballet dancer out of a lumberjack.Life in the Court of Matane takes as its starting point the Montreal Olympics of 1976, which the narrator observes from his perspective of a child. He falls under the spell of the Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci who was awarded the first ever perfect 10 in gymnastics that summer. He sees her acrobatics as a metaphor for his own attempts to navigate the hoops of his family life. The 1970s meant something different in Quebec than it did in other places in North America. It was a time of mass intellectual rising. It was a time when the population became political. When a new identity was forming. A new generation was being born. The narrator’s adolescence is also the province’s coming of age.”Read the full foreword by here
Excerpts we love from the book
“And she said unto all of them, ‘I will return like a thief in the night.’ Much time will pass, but I will come back for you. You will live apart from me for a long time, but one day, like the whale that returns to the St. Lawrence every summer, you will recognize me among them all. And one of her disciples said unto her, ‘Teach us to laugh like you laugh.’ And she did say: ‘Laughter will come in its own time. No one will have to teach it to you. The fledgling separated from its parents grows up and learns to sing by itself. Song comes to it instinctively.’”“The king drank only on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Labour Day, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, for the entirety of the local shrimp festival, on Workers’ Day, Thanksgiving, the Immaculate Conception, the feast of St. Blaise, at baptisms, weddings, funerals, while nodding off, filing his tax return, watching television on a Sunday evening, talking on the telephone with his brothers, learning to navigate a boat, at sunset, when visitors came, when visitors left, on election night in front of the television, on winter days when he stayed home because he wasn’t working, during construction work, at family suppers, at police get-togethers, and during the summer holidays. Otherwise, Henry VIII never touched a drop.”“Even today, every time I drive along Route 132 east of Rivière-du-Loup, I fall into a kind of trance. Something about it upsets me. Despite the picture-postcard scenery, despite the lovely people and the smell of the sea, something presses down on my lungs, reminding me that I’m moving away from where I belong. I watch in the rear-view mirror as Rivière-du-Loup slowly recedes into the distance. It’s usually at times like this that I feel my little earthquakes.”
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Download a passage from Life in the Court of Matane here, or buy your own copy here on All Lit Up. And don’t forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for further, impromptu discussion. Hop on the hashtag #ALUbookclub to send us comments and questions!If you missed it, check out highlights from last week’s ALU staff discussion on Life in the Court of Matane and download our questions for your own book club here.