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A Chest of Drawers – I

During my first two years back in Vancouver from Texas I went almost every week to the old library down on Robson. That library is long gone now. But in those days it became my second home. I was very young, younger than my years, and for me the library was a complicated place, gloomy, atmospheric, redolent of my Houston girlfriend Cate. Before we broke up, she had often gone there with me, so that if I saw a girl with narrow shoulders and long blonde hair between the rows of books my heart would pound. And it was erotic in another way with its mezzanine washroom that stank of piss and the mixed sweat and shit smell of the old men who stood beside you jerking their wattled cocks as you peed.

After Cate moved out of the basement suite we’d shared for a year I got a second-storey room in an old house on Broadway near the BOWMAC sign. You reached it up a steep flight of unpainted plywood stairs that had no bannister and really wasn’t much more than a ladder. A twenty-watt bulb hung in the hallway’s murk (I can still smell the cat piss impregnated in the hallway carpet when I think of that murk), and the door to my room was painted the same chocolate brown as the doors to the other three rooms. It was from that room that I’d emerge to go to the library. And one day, sitting at one of the long tables on the third floor, I started reading Michel Tremblay’s play Les belles soeurs.

I was stunned by it. Never before had I encountered characters who wanted so much to touch those they were speaking to. Hand-gestures accompanied their talk, arm-grabbings. It was as if the world from which I had only recently emerged – a pulpmill town world of screaming kids and kitchen floors dirty with Cheerios and gobs of sticky jam, a world in which my Polish dad and French-Canadian mom shouted ethnic insults at each other (they had an intense sexual love, my parents, but they were desperate, up against the wall, bitterly unhappy) – it was as if this world had been presented with all of its atmosphere intact. Just as in my family, the changes of fortune that again and again overcame Tremblay’s people went hand in hand with a tendency toward unabashed display, theatricality for the sake of theatricality. They cried, screamed, tore each other apart in arias of language that at times rose to the pitch of violence. Each of the characters was sharply presented. But since they were constantly interacting with each other, the strongest impression I got wasn’t of any one individual, but of the loud, intense domesticity of a Catholic milieu.

Oh, that domestic Catholicism! I grew up with it, and like the incense at midnight mass that when I get a headache I can still smell, I would recognize it anywhere. When I read Tremblay’s play (and after Les belles soeurs I read all his plays, one after the other) I was still close to the street, only recently off welfare, ravaged by anxiety, half-drowning in my family and trying desperately to reach dry ground. And sometimes, reading one or another play – En pieces detachees, for instance: “And you think you weren’t cheap, you of all people! When you’d come in at four in the morning and wake all the neighbours up yelling and singing and swearing, and you think that wasn’t being cheap?! And then you go and have the gall to talk to me about Claude! To blame me for making him the way he is today when you know very well he came into the world like that and the doctor told us he’d never have the mind of any more than a four-year-old boy. Do you remember what he looked like when he was first born, Helene? Do you remember? Tell me you remember how he looked! Tell me, Helene! Tell me!”- sometimes, reading one of these plays, I had to get up from the table.

Because I recognized everything. The coarseness, the anger, the self-pity, and especially the violent, unabashed, almost childlike speech – all this I knew. I was immersed in familiarity. I could hear the screaming fights, sickening with self-hatred (“Polish pig!” “French cow!”), and I could smell the baloney cupping up in the frying pan and see the black cracks in the linoleum floor. It was the first time that the language I thought of as Canadian had appeared before me in print. As I read I heard my mom’s and aunts’ jokes, and also a quality in their voices, in their way of making words: a vehemence that was lyrical and “confused” and had the full weight of their bodies behind it. Presented with genius, it was a vehemence that summed up my childhood.

Many years later, in the early eighties, while I was still working in the downtown postal plant, I started reading Michel Tremblay’s The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant, the opening volume of his great sequence of books Les Chroniques du plateau Mont-Royal.

Almost from the first page I was amazed. Like the stories us postal clerks would tell as we sat side by side sorting on the forward primary, The Fat Woman was about a place, first of all – the area around la rue Fabre in East Montreal – and the dozens of people associated with that place, especially little Marcel and his sister Therese and the other members of three families who lived on top of each other in an old house on la rue Fabre

But it wasn’t this huge crowd of characters – all of them vivid – that amazed me. What amazed me was this. Though Tremblay was writing about a city thousands of miles away, so closely did his storytelling methods resemble those that entranced me during our nights sorting, so homely and familiar was the book’s feeling, that as I read it I seemed to see section after section of the old Vancouver that for me the postal plant had long since come to represent. And like those folded paper cities that pop up when you open the pages of certain children’s books, as I read there appeared before me the projects near the Hastings Viaduct where Ann Jack lived with the son who had punched her in the face, the old stucco houses on Glen Drive that I passed when I went to visit Toni Leigh, George Vincent’s gloomy hole on Lakewood full of copies of Vogue magazine, Jen’s apartment up on Graveley where her one-armed mom made her pancakes when she came home from work and finally, connecting all these places, the city I saw when I pedalled home from the plant down Hastings and Powell: the Woodbine Hotel, the bus wires overhead, the wet skies and the North Shore mountains.

A magical effect. It was due in part to the fact that The Fat Woman was the first of the Chroniques. It introduced everyone, set the stage for what was to come. And so just as in the post office when we would be getting started with our stories, it ended up being an extended and loving act of naming. Everything in it took place on one day – May 2, 1942, the “first day of spring” in Montreal – and as I read, the book soon came to resemble the chest of drawers in Marcel’s house that so fascinates him:

Like the other children he had been told that they had all been found in various drawers the day that they were born: at the very top were the twin drawers of Therese and Richard, bigger than the others and blacker too; then came those of Phillipe and Marcel, wedged into the interlacings of carved wood; and finally, a little lower still, the one for the baby to come. It was tiny, a glove drawer in fact, plain, somewhat lost. Marcel would often be seen gazing at this secret drawer. He didn’t dare to touch it and if anyone asked what he was doing there, he said: “I’m waiting for the mail!”

The Fat Woman resembled this chest of drawers especially in its structure. The book contained approximately 75 chapters; and though in reading I of course went from one to the next in the order dictated by the pagination, I felt strongly that they all had a simultaneous existence, a sense which was due to the fact that Tremblay wandered from house to house – proceeded digressively, that is, just as we’d do in the post office – instead of going from day to day.

The contents of each chapter were presented in scenes that were two to five pages long, and each of these sharply drawn scenes was quite palpably a container. Indeed the contrast between the self-sufficient nature of the book’s units and the passionate, rhapsodic, unabashed life which these units enclosed so impressed me that something of the magic felt by Marcel I experienced as well: a miniaturized world, a whole heap of human beings, seemed to pop out at me as one drawer after another was opened.

The first of the Chroniques, The Fat Woman is maybe also the most dense; it gives you an entire world. And so it allows Tremblay in the second book, Therese and Pierrette and The Little Hanging Angel, to go on to tell a story as simple as any I might have heard in the post office – one about the time in which eleven-year-old Therese and her two pals Pierrette and Simone were chosen to take part in the annual Corpus Christi ceremony put on by the Ecole des Saints-Anges where they go to school.

The story takes place a month after the events in The Fat Woman, in the first week of June. And again Tremblay spills out a cornucopia that irresistably reminded me of old places and times – in this case a stretch of Victoria Drive in East Vancouver where a Bingo hall used to stand just across from the playground of a Catholic school. Radio shows, escapist novels, people lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon, the ghost of a dead cat named Duplessis, screaming mothers, three Fates who sit on a porch knitting, a farting nun, a monstrous Mother Superior, love affairs, sex jokes, a little girl who hangs in the air in a Catholic pageant, a transvestite, and a young man who gets a hardon every time he looks at Therese – this was just some of what I found in the book.

So much there! And all of it has a specific atmosphere – an atmosphere that made me think of junior high dances, with their balloons and patent leather shoes, their red faces and sweaty hands. When I read The Fat Woman and Therese and Pierrette, in fact, and absorbed their painful and ecstatic atmosphere, it so impressed me that I concluded that nothing like these books existed in English-Canadian fiction. But what was it that so fundamentally distinguished them? It took me awhile; then I realized the books were vulgar – a more radical and more complicated fact than it might seem.

“Vulgar” comes from a latin word meaning “of the people.” But Anglophone writing is almost never “of the people,” even linguistically. And one of the most important consequences of this fact is that with few exceptions it describes a sober world that emphasizes what is final in people’s lives. It is concerned with fates. It is therefore basically tragic.

Tremblay’s books, on the other hand – precisely because they are vulgar – inhabited a comic universe, revealing on almost every page that delight in the childish, the outrageous, the suddenly-occurring (Kramer pops through the door!) which you see every night on sitcoms and which is at the heart of popular culture.

Don’t misunderstand me: the Montreal working-class parish Tremblay writes about is a rough place. But just as in the post office I would hear stories about miscarriages and husband troubles mixed in with the most chatty reminiscence, so in Tremblay’s books even terrible events seemed to be part of the old slow course of the world. When Albertine, for instance, screamed out her hatred of sex to her sister, or Marie-Louise became paralyzed with fear about the baby growing in her, I didn’t feel (as I would have with most Anglophone fiction) that I was witnessing someone’s fate. Instead I felt that these miseries were just one part of life, which the next moment might include a sequence of contentment and even joy.

But this only partly explains what makes Tremblay’s novels so unlike most Canadian texts. Along with this, along with the delight found in the lurid and the fantastic, along with the homely knowledge that life goes on no matter what, Tremblay adds the intoxication of colloquial speech at its most unbuttoned. The tender utterance, the exclamation, the cry of abandon that completes itself not with a period but with a slap, or a kiss – all this I found everywhere in the Chroniques. Instead of the cool repartee of Anglophone fiction (so good at expressing and establishing distance), Tremblay wrote sentences in which I heard people touching each other, sentences that existed only to ensure communion between individuals.

His women in particular intoxicated me: in the least inflection of their voices I caught a trace of the tight girdles and moitse Chriss vehemence I had known as a boy. Listen to them talk in the following great passage, for instance, with its compassionate yet unflinching look at Quebec antisemitism:

But when the streetcar turned down Saint-Laurent, heading south, suddenly they’d calm down and sink back into the straw seats: all of them, without exception, owed money to the Jews on Saint-Laurent, especially to the merchants who sold furniture and clothes; and for them, the long street separating rue Mont-Royal from rue Sainte-Catherine was a very sensitive one to cross. “Hope Sam doesn’t see me! I’m two months behind!” When the streetcar passed certain stores, certain heads would turn away abruptly or dive into shopping bags….They didn’t even dare to look outside; they told themselves it was harder to recognize a face seen in profile than straight on. Some, but really just a few, even took out their rosaries. They’d scarcely pretend to hold their noses when an old Jewish woman got on the streetcar, laden down with bags of groceries with carrot stems or leeks sticking out of them. “She’s gonna make herself a dandelion salad,” they would snicker. “What do you think stinks so bad, the garlic she ate yesterday or the clothes she’s going to wash next month?” They pursed their lips. “I hear they keep their transfers for toilet paper!” Madame Jodoin, the biggest giggler of the lot, was moaning like a cat in heat, on the verge of laughter. But as soon as they turned the corner of Saint-Laurent and Sainte-Catherine and headed west, they were more jubilant, filling the streetcar with loud shouts and heartfelt laughter. “You nearly killed me, you nut!” “You were as red as a banana – I mean, a poppy, Madame Jodoin!” “All of a sudden, the Jew understands French!”

The gift for mimicry stuns. The bigotry and communicative warmth of these women are perfectly expressed; they talk as if they had never spent more than three minutes without companions, as if at every moment they wanted to reach over and kiss someone’s cheek.

But something else also characterizes these women – something especially noticable in their screaming, embarrassed delight in “the dirty.” And that is that all of them (and this is something they share with the characters of other great popular artists, from Dickens to Richard Pryor) have something of the child in them. In the mental atmosphere of their speech and the way they react with each other, you get the same sense of impressions crowding in that you get with children, and also the sudden shifts in mood – the casual malice, for instance, that can all at once turn to tenderness, or that sudden moral vehemence that children, who feel things so strongly, are sometimes able to command. Listen for instance to Charlotte Cote, the mother of the “little hanging angel” Simone in Therese and Pierrette, finally turning all her childhood pain and fear at the hands of sadistic nuns into a “ribbon of endless phrases” directed at the monstrous Mother Benoite, who has been about to treat Simone exactly as Charlotte herself was treated:

Aren’t you ashamed! Doesn’t it ever get to you, being so mean! When you go to bed at night and think over what you’ve done that day, the way you nuns always taught us to do, don’t you blush with shame? Don’t you turn blue with shame? All the punishments you’ve handed out and all the times you humiliated us, don’t they choke you? Nothing’s changed here. You still take out your frustrations on poor defenceless kids who trust you to show them how to live their lives! You’ve always got a crucifix in one hand and a wooden ruler in the other! As long as we’re on that subject, why don’t you just light out at the kids with the crucifix in both hands – it’d hurt them more! Is it because you just haven’t got that far yet, or is your hypocrisy holding you back? I spent seven years here, not all that long ago, and what I remember about it isn’t very happy. Childhood ought to be a happy time, but my memories of the time I spent here are rotten and dirty and twisted because of crazy women like you who don’t know the first thing about children.

It goes on and on, for two and a half pages. Tremblay can’t resist this kind of thing. But then neither can his audience; shocking and even hurtful though this attack on the church might be to them (and part of Tremblay’s allure has always been his power to shock), it is theirs, this vehemence, the exact tone of voice that they would use in similar circumstances. Even in translation it isn’t a voice you ever hear in English-Canadian fiction. How could it be? It comes from a different world – a world of husbands on pokey and ignorant and vehement wives, where screaming frustration is mixed up with a sickly-sweet Catholicism and you can smell the frying baloney in the kitchen six days a week. In this world crosses hang on the walls and sticky bottles of ketchup sit out on the kitchen table; here people don’t talk in polished sentences but have a heated urgency to their speech that when I’d leave the post office after eight hours on the culling belts would still be ringing in my ears.

This is the first of two parts.

3137 words April 28, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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