Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Michel Tremblay

While I hardly consider myself an expert on Canadian literature, I still occasionally am surprised when I discover a major author I've never even heard of.  To some extent, this happened to me with the poets Al Purdy and Louis Dudek.  I had been aware of George Bowering and Robert Kroetsch, but not these two.  (Nor was I aware of George Stanley or W.H. New, but these two seem to be secret poets of Vancouver that are not talked about beyond B.C.)

My knowledge is much more limited for authors coming out of Quebec.  Of the Anglophone writers, there is obviously Mordecai Richler and arguably Yann Martel.  I had been aware of Marie-Claire Blais back in the 90s, though only her earlier work like St. Lawrence Blues.  Over the past twenty years, I have become aware of Gabrielle Roy and much more recently the playwright Wajdi Mouawad, who I imagine I'll write about again.  Then in 2012 I learned quite a bit more about Robert Lepage and actually saw him perform his Far Side of the Moon.

However, I had never come across (or don't remember) Michel Tremblay, who is arguably a much more central figure in Francophone theatre.  What is particularly intriguing is that he started off writing essentially fantastic or speculative fiction (Stories for Late Night Drinkers and The City in the Egg), then moved to plays and quickly thereafter experimental theatre, then started writing more traditional novels about the working-class Montrealers that were in some of these plays.  So he's kind of done it all as a writer, which is quite admirable if a bit daunting and overwhelming.

Just a week ago, I saw a production of For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, which is basically a play written to let his mother live again on stage.  She was a loving, but a bit querulous, mother.  Sadly, it appears that she died before Michel had any real triumphs as a writer.  I can certainly relate to that...  I wouldn't say it is a great play by any means, but it is touching.

Of his vast body of work, I just read Late Night Drinkers, which I will review tomorrow.  I think I will work through a few of his early plays, particularly Les Belles-Sœurs (which actually has some interesting echoes (or pre-echoes) of Kieślowski's Decalogue X) and Bonjour, là, bonjour.  Then move to Albertine in Five Times and The Real World.  After the move, I'll certainly keep my eyes open to see if any of his plays are remounted in Toronto.

On the novel side, I guess I will mostly focus on the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal, which is comprised of six novels set in Montreal, beginning with The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant and ending with A Thing of Beauty.  These are basically the stories of his parents and their neighbours and perhaps later his own friends in this Montreal neighbourhood.  I have The Fat Woman checked out and should be able to get through it by the end of the month.  It strikes me as a bit like Ulysses (or even Under Milk Wood) in that there are all these voices overlapping to make one complex portrait of shared life in the city (with Under Milk Wood being more of a village).  I have no idea if the later novels keep up this approach or not.

Tremblay then took a detour and wrote 3 novels (the Black, Red and Blue Notebooks) about the art world of the 60s and its excesses.  It features transvestites, a dwarf, actors of all stripes, and of course various hangers-on and people just slumming.  This sounds a bit interesting, but is not a priority for me.

I am more interested in a trilogy of novels Tremblay wrote after this to provide the back-story of his mother and perhaps a few other characters from the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal.  This explores how a woman with a mixed (i.e. Cree) background came from Saskatchewan to Montreal.  I assume it is explained whether she was an English speaker who learned French later, or if she actually was raised in a Francophone household out on the prairie.  The novels are La Traversée du continent, La Traversée de la ville and La Traversée des sentiments.  As far as I can tell, only the first one (Crossing the Continent) has come out in English translation, though the others are obviously being prepared.

One of the major questions with Tremblay is whether to bite the bullet and attempt to read his novels in French. (I don't think I would ever be able to keep up with French theatre, but have a bit more time and can go over passages when reading a novel.)  However, it might be awfully frustrating, as Tremblay is using a lot of Montrealer slang that probably doesn't show up in any dictionary.  Still, I've found a very good deal on a one-volume edition of the Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal, so I might pick that up.  I guess I can at least wait to see how I respond to the The Fat Woman in English.

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