An Encounter with the Literary Scene of Quebec

Posted on May 26, 2009 by Thomas Lang

In 2003, I was invited by the State of Bavaria and the Canadian Province of Quebec to go to Montreal for half-a-year with my family, a part of the world I more or less knew nothing about up till then. Yes, somewhere in Canada there must be people who speak French instead of English, somewhere in the far West, I thought… Luckily the airline company knew better. We landed not even 600 kilometres north of New York City and, with that, clearly in the East of the continent on an enormous island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River-after Paris, Kinshasa and Abidjan the fourth biggest French-speaking city in the world.

However it turned out that almost half-a-million of the more than 3.5 million citizens of Montreal spoke English and, in addition to that, that many of the “French people” we met could speak English “fairly well” to “well” and were most willing to do so out of politeness to guests.

The maison des écrivains (writers’ house), situated in a beautiful old villa in the centre of the town, had invited me to a reading together with other-Canadian-authors. Here, however, almost everything was in French. It began with someone talking on our answer-phone, and me, with my rudimentary knowledge of French, not understanding much more than Trois Rivières, the name of a Quebec town, pronounced with a terrifying rolled R-I had never heard French spoken like that before. By listening to the message with perseverance, I deciphered a telephone number and finally reached a man who told me that I was to come to the maison des écrivains on a certain day to rehearse the reading. However, the outcome of our conversation made me doubt my foreign language abilities even more: rehearsing a reading?

Yes, indeed. All those involved, authors and musicians, did come along and the planned event was choreographed very professionally and in great detail. It was my first experience of that type of Quebec artists (? probably not only of the artists) who take their work very seriously, where in Germany such events are often conducted off-the-cuff. It was a type of pleasant seriousness that in my opinion had nothing to do with tenseness but rather with a sense of responsibility vis-à-vis the public and an awareness of what one owes oneself. The extreme professionalism of the preparation was to find its pleasant equivalent on the evening of the event.

If one wants to understand what the special effect was that the behaviour of the Quebec writers had on me, one has only to look at their situation carefully. Not even as many as six million Francophone people live here on an area that is three times as large as that of France. They are surrounded by an Anglophone majority; they can choose between dozens of English-language TV channels every day and consume English-language cinema and books. They have before them the deep assimilation of the Francophone population in the USA in its cultural ideal of the melting pot. On the other hand, their French is viewed by the Motherland as not “correct”; as I was told, it is similar to the French of the Norman, Flaubert. In this way the Québecois are doubly isolated and marginalised. A cultural change in the 1960s meant that the Catholic population stopped going to the churches, families became smaller and, with that, the distinct delineation towards the English-speaking Protestants became weaker. Canadian French might well have disappeared altogether. At the end of the 1960s, however, strong nationalist countermovements arose that went as far as attempts at sovereignty and armed struggles, the so-called “quiet revolution”. Since 2006 theQuébecois have been recognised as a “nation within Canada”. The official language is French. As an expression of this self-awareness a large-scale national library was set up among other things and this collected Quebec literature and organised conferences, exhibitions and readings.

This striving against the cultural pressure of the Anglophone world led to a lively culture of subvention. Literary matters in Quebec are strongly supported by the Government of the Province, and the same applies to French-language radio. As here, however, broadcasting stations have to fight against dwindling broadcasting time for cultural matters; in Canada as well, public funding is on the retreat. What seems to me to remain, on the other hand, is for example that pleasant “matter of course-ness” with which literature is accepted as a part of the Quebec identity and is taken seriously.

When the day of our reading came and I noted nervously that almost one hundred people wanted to hear what we had to offer, I experienced something else that was astonishing. During the total of twenty minutes that I was reading-in German-the audience was completely silent. I can’t prove it, but I presume that a large part of the listeners couldn’t understand a word of German. Despite that, no one began to whisper or rummage around in his/her bag; no, the audience listened. From the very beginning to the end of the event there was a pleasant atmosphere of respect for that which others, we authors and musicians, were doing.

It could be that these two characteristics that I noticed most in the literary scene of Montreal, self-respect and respect for others, are not genuine Quebec characteristics; they are surely not restricted to the authors of that Province. And I experienced the same thing again when I was lucky enough to return to Montreal for a reading in 2006 on an invitation from the Goethe-Institut, that was kind enough to arrange the selection of and contact to the moderator, and the representative office of Bavaria in Quebec, that among other things had part of my text translated into French. It is in particular in view of this marginalisation that the Québecois encounter-both as a part of enormous Canada as well as vis-à-vis France-that I see this attitude as admirable.