A Chest of Drawers – II

By Bruce Serafin | May 5, 2004

As with all the best storytellers, Tremblay’s universe in Les Chroniques du plateau Mont-Royal bridges the less-than-human (the cat Duplessis, whose mind we are allowed to enter) and the more-than-human (the Fates, Rose, Mauve and Violet, whose presence allows us to have a sense that life endures even beyond death). And the whole of this storyteller’s world which extends from the mind of a cat into the depths of heaven is suffused with an image of goodness – Tremblay’s mother, the fat woman, who almost never leaves her room but to whom the books continually return. Her semi-magical presence bestows a kind of benediction on everyone around her and allows us to see all the characters in a redemptive light.

In fact, it’s remarkable how well the realistic and fairy tale elements mingle in these books. Toward the end of The Fat Woman a passage appears that involves Josaphat-le-Violon telling Marcel the story of how the moon got lighted. At the same time Laura, Josaphat’s skeptical and somewhat cynical daughter, has been talking to the fat woman, trying to tell her about her problems. It’s evening. Now, through the open window of the fat woman’s room, they have just finished listening to Josaphat’s story:

The fat woman wept uncontrollably. Gabriel [her husband] had often told her that he’d grown up under the spell of his uncle Josaphat’s legends and every time she heard the old man tell one of his stories, with their mixture of the true and false, of humdrum country life and her own astonishing need for illusions and the marvellous, her heart began to beat faster, and she would be carried away with joy in the chasse-galerie or to the land of nun’s farts where you got the giggles and lost your memory. As for Laura, she envied Marcel; she envied his innocence, his great naivete, and his touching credulity. “I believed it too, just like him! I wanted so badly for it to be true! If it were true it would give us all a reason for going on!” After Josaphat-le-Violon’s story, the fat woman put her plate on the bed, beside Laura. “Do you ever talk to your father? He knows a lot about things, you know…” “My father? He’s a poet, my father….He never has his feet on the ground. He says that he can light up the moon, but he walks down the street with his fly undone! How can you talk to a man like that? He makes up legends for himself; I make up problems.” And suddenly, so easily it seemed almost ridiculous, Laura began to talk. Everything came out at once, the way that she’d felt it was beginning earlier; and as she spoke, she could see her problems flying away from her like birds escaping from a cage. “It feels good to talk, ma tante! It really helps!” “I can imagine.”

For sheer delicacy of perception this is hard to match. In the Chroniques Tremblay has managed to produce characters who have something of the magical amplitude of the figures in the stories of our childhood – characters, that is, who are as much like Cinderella and Tom Thumb as they are like Doug and Jean Williams inhabiting a novel set in Langley in 1991. And because of this mixed quality, because they ultimately come both from reality and from that fairy tale world where the dragon in the picture is no bigger than the hand that turns the pages, even the most debased and malicious characters have a vibration, a tender blur to them, which suggests the immensely deep atmosphere of nostalgia through which their author views his creations.

In the Chroniques Tremblay is writing about his childhood; and he is doing so, he has said, to express his love for Montreal and its people. Obviously there are risks in such a project. You need to be able to express the tenderest and most vulnerable of emotions; and you need to be truthful as well to the inner nature of reminiscence.

On both counts Tremblay succeeds. Throughout the Chroniques, he manages to be both frankly sentimental and completely adult. Consider the following passage from Therese and Pierrette and the Little Hanging Angel. The story has started with Therese and Pierrette hanging around outside their friend Simone’s house; they are ready to go to school (all three are in grade six), and they’re excited and a little worried because this is the first time they’ll have seen Simone since she had her operation for her hare lip. It’s spring. They babble in quick voices about the flowers that are coming in. All of a sudden Simone comes out the door. She’s nervous, unsure of what her friends will say about her now that her harelip is gone. And the two girls are silent, their faces blank. A long moment passes:

But suddenly the childish sense of propriety that had held back Therese and Pierrette flew away and they literally threw themselves on their friend, squealing with delight, pinning Simone to the staircase, tickling her, kissing her, rumpling her hair and communicating to her the portion of their joy she was entitled to: their happiness at being together again. Therese, Pierrette and Simone, the inseparables, welcomed back their amputated centre: at last they were whole again, and they set off for school together, arm in arm, singing Mes jeunes annees or J’irai la voir un jour, unconcerned about floppy garters or split lips and, most of all, savouring one another’s presence, full, complete and enveloping, filled with promise and the certainty that solitude had been banished from their lives together. “It looks terrific, Simone!” “It hardly shows!” “After the red fades you won’t see a thing!” “I can hardly recognize you! You’re really pretty now!” “You’re beautiful, Simone!” Yes, it was the first time. And Simone sobbed with joy.

Such precision; and such tenderness. Is there any other writer as open to the fountaining of emotion in his characters as Tremblay? Everywhere in the Chroniques it’s as if you can see the author’s eyes as you read, amused and touched by his figures, concerned for them, and quite naturally making comments of his own. Instead of “taking turns” in the way of all those books that relentlessly advance the plot while their humanity leaks away, Tremblay’s characters engage in crosstalk of every kind, with the result that living speech, with all its vivid, tumbling, accidental qualities, pours from the pages, everything from the sleepy phrase to the sermon saved up and rehearsed for years and finally delivered with a passion that nothing can stop.

But why does this matter so much? Why, when you read Therese and Pierrette or The Fat Woman, do the charm of the books, their flavour, seem to hinge so entirely on their intimacy, as if the entire series of books was nothing but the unfolding of a night of recollection?

To answer, think of Walter Benjamin’s wonderful essay "The Storyteller," in which he distinguishes between the storyteller and the novelist. Everyone knows that English Canada has produced a number of excellent writers of “short” fiction – Alice Munro, say. Yet with a few exceptions – I think of Jim Christy – we have practically no storytellers. And we have no storytellers because our writers lack a sense of a community or a milieu which they strongly feel is theirs. To a greater or lesser degree, they see themselves as isolated individuals. Yet what matters in stories isn’t the isolated individual. What matters is the milieu from which the stories arise.

Think of the great storytellers – Kipling, Mark Twain, Isaac Bashevis Singer, even James Ellroy. You immediately think of a place, a milieu. The writers know this milieu inside out, and they often put themselves in it in the most matter-of-fact way. You couldn’t imagine John Updike, for instance, presenting himself in his writing as just one character among the rest (Updike in fact does the opposite: only he exists in his fiction, though under a variety of names). But placing themselves in their stories as one character among the rest is exactly what true storytellers do. So Kipling appears as a young journalist in India in “The Man Who Would be King,” Mark Twain works as a river pilot in Life on the Mississippi, and both Ellroy and Singer show up as writers in any number of their stories. In all true storytelling you feel that no matter how fantastic the stories are, they come from actual life. You feel, for instance, that Singer’s ghost stories might be heard in any cafeteria in New York where old Jewish writers hang out, just as Ellroy’s operatic crime tales seem to rise out of the actual cop talk and smut sheet jive of Los Angeles.

Now look at Tremblay. Not only does he appear in the Chroniques as the baby the fat woman is pregnant with (and in the fifth installment, Le Premier quartier de la lune, as one of the main characters), but right from the start – right from Les belles soeurs – his work has had that air of being grounded in an absolutely familiar world which you associate with the great storytellers.

Here Tremblay’s sensitivity to childhood finds an explanation. To understand the child’s point of view, you need to retain the child in yourself; and you can’t do this, I am convinced, unless the space or world you are talking about is one you have been familiar with since childhood. “Familiar” has the word “family” in it; and just as when you belong to a family its sights and sounds and smells are as deeply yours as the smell of your own skin, so the storyteller’s world must be his, a place where childhood and adulthood mingle and can’t be separated. So it was with Dicken’s London streets, with Kipling’s bazaars and Ellroy’s Los Angeles; and so it is with Tremblay’s la rue Fabre, the Montreal street where he grew up in a house shared by 13 people in three families. (Note, by the way, that when Tremblay won a scholarship as the top student in Quebec, he rejected his privileged education after three months and rejoined his old eighth-grade classmates. He has continued to live in Montreal ever since.)

As For Me and my House was probably English Canada’s first good book. Consider its atmosphere. Ross’s heroine writes her diary – and it means something that it’s a diary, that most inward of forms – with a combination of romantic emotion and precise, sarcastic intelligence; and she writes about a world that has achieved rock-bottom ugliness. Respectability reigns supreme, the sort of respectability you associate with heavily curtained windows and wallpapered rooms with trays of candy in them. Censoriousness, hateful gossip, sex starvation and a kind of stomach-biting loneliness all combine to produce an atmosphere of insecurity, in which impulses are held back as if a whip would lash you for making a move, and the more sensitive individuals tunnel into themselves from sheer misery.

Here you find anglophone wretchedness in all its force. And Ross expresses it with a passion and truthfulness which still thrill me on rereading the book.

This passion and insistence on the truth give English-Canadian fiction at its best a remarkable power. For the advantage of burrowing into yourself as a writer is that you can say things you’d never be able to say in the company of other people. You can be analytical; your writing can be far more precise – precise to the point of seeming to evoke the buried and unspeakable – than it would be if you had to rely on “phatic” communication for your effects. You can express in your work the enormous force of disillusionment.

With this in mind, think of Tremblay. Many of his themes bring Sinclair Ross to mind. And like Ross he writes powerfully. But the mimicry which is so central to Tremblay’s work largely forces him to give up the special solitude of the novelist – that reflective position in which one is outside – and hence give up the ability to represent the solitude of others.

You can’t help but notice the lack of inwardness in Tremblay’s figures; they resemble Dickens’ characters, or the characters of Ellroy or Singer, in that even when they’re alone they can’t really reflect, can’t plumb their loneliness, but instead must speak in arias, stretches of unselfconscious speech that by their very nature lend themselves freely to mimicry. Josaphat-le-Violon, Gabriel, Ti-Lou, the cat Duplessis, Marcel, Edouard, the fat woman, Mastai Jodoin, Richard, Philippe, Albertine – all these characters have the supercharged liveliness of miniatures. You can imagine them in a comic book. But you can’t imagine arguing with them, any more than you can imagine arguing with the characters in The Simpsons.

So does all this contradict what I’ve said so far about Tremblay’s books? No. Here I am saying only that Tremblay is a popular artist. The nature of his work is determined by the fact that he has a relationship with his audience unlike anything I can think of in English Canada. When you read a story by Alice Munro, or Mavis Gallant, you read it alone; in a certain very real sense you don’t share the experience with others. Brilliant as they are, these are inward writers, and they address the inwardness of their readers. Tremblay, however, is nourished by the popular imagination. He “belongs” to Quebec in the same way that Dickens “belonged” to nineteenth century England. He speaks for it; he tells its stories. So much is this so that the story he has been telling in the Chroniques and his plays has for many Quebeckers now supplanted the official records; it has become the actual history of Montreal.

This matters for a number of reasons. Just to start with, the emphasis that has been placed on the moral issues in Tremblay’s work such as sexual repression, religious servitude, etc., tends to obscure the fact that the way these moral issues are raised is completely bound up with the pact Tremblay has with his readers.

To put it bluntly, because of his direct connection to his audience Tremblay has the freedom to preach. He can be a moralist in the same way Dickens could be. As with Dickens and his English readers, both Tremblay and his audience see his characters in front of them; they are shared creatures, if you like; Tremblay can, so to speak, stand side-by-side with his Quebec readers and voice an outrage that he knows a significant number of those readers share. More simply, because of his sentimentality, his tenderness, his rebel’s appeal to innocence and the essence of being, Tremblay has managed to create a world about which he and his audience care.

Hence the wonderful, grand, vehement indignation which is one of the noblest notes in Tremblay’s work. Of many examples, I offer just one:

If a woman who was “a little too pregnant” walked down la rue Mont-Royal, people looked away, as if she were some obscene, shameful object; and there was always some nervous Nelly or sanctimonious mealymouth to point out: “In the last month, woman usually stay at home.” And it was true. Rather than submit to the silent reproaches that they could discern in every glance they met, women stayed home for the last weeks of their pregnancy. Crushed by a monstrous religion that forbade any means of contraception, a religion founded on men’s selfishness to serve selfish men, men who held women in contempt and were so afraid of them that they had created the image of the Mother, the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, a virgin who one day discovered that she was pregnant without having wished it, through the workings of the Holy Spirit (whom they dared to represent in the form of a bird! The Mother of God impregnated by a bird!), and who delivered without having to give birth, the ultimate insult to women’s bodies; crammed by priests with sentences as hollow as they were cruel, in which high-flown, insulting, condescending words like “duty” and “obligation” and “obedience” predominated, French-Canadian women, particularly those who lived in cities, felt an unhealthy shame at being pregnant, they who were not worthy (unlike that Other Woman) of bringing a child into the world without a man, their owner and master, who would have his way with them; women, most of all, who didn’t have the right to shirk their “duty,” their “obligation,” because they owed obedience to the marvellous instrument of fate that had been directly provided to them by the Will of God: their husbands.

So passionate and above all so much more than merely personal are these lines that when I read them all of East Montreal, its doorways, streets, sidewalks and the generations of women who have walked on those sidewalks, appears before me.

And Tremblay stands with the women. “The novelist has isolated himself,” Benjamin wrote in “The Storyteller.” “The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounselled, and cannot counsel others.” Tremblay is the opposite. By giving himself up to his public, by joining himself with the people of Quebec, Tremblay has managed to develop a communal, mimetic art in which the possibility of giving counsel still exists.

What distinguishes mimicry? It isn’t just attentiveness to the person being mimicked, though the mimic needs to be attentive. Even more, great mimicry requires on the part of the mimic a complicity with his community that extends to his fingertips. Without a shared linguistic and gestural repertoire, mimicry wouldn’t be possible.

Community. When you have moved as often as I did when I was young and have spent much of your time feeling adrift in the world, even the sensation of community means a lot. I felt that sensation during the years I worked in the post office; and I was grateful for it. Perhaps I respond so strongly to Tremblay because I feel that a similar gratitude led him to his prodigious reenactment of the voices of Montreal. You sense the mimic’s affection and enthusiasm in even the least of his characters, and if we can say that the novel as a form tends to be an expose of existence, a product of solitude, then the Chroniques are less a series of novels than they are a mimetic reproduction of a world. Time stands still in these books, just as it does in a fairy tale or a story told in a bar, and for the same reason: to prolong the happiness.

This is the second of two parts.

3130 words, May 5, 2004


  • 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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