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La Poussière du temps (#37)

In the post Archambeault and Renaud-Bray, I touched upon literature being held up as one of the vanguards of French language and culture in Québec, and having been on the front-lines of social change during the Quiet Revolution.

The late author Michel David, wrote a fictional four-part novel series titled La Poussière du temps.

For those learning French, this novel may be just the right answer, since it is generally written in international French (Michel David was a linguist and French professor), but David mixed in ample amounts of colloquial French expressions and Joual which can help advance your understanding of Québec-specific French.

But apart from the language reasons for reading this novel series, I highly recommend it for it’s ability to help you understand Québec society, giving you a societal perspective as if having grown up in a Québec family.

Here is my reasoning why this series is above historical events, and gives more a grass-roots perspective of how society in Québec “coped”, on an individual level, with changing historical events around them over a 50 year period.

Education in Canada is provincial responsibility (not Federal).  Although the provinces establish their own respective education curricula the provincial governments generally do a pretty good job in coordinating amongst themselves in order to exchange best-practices and to ensure that their respective curricula are relatively interchangeable with the same standards (especially between Anglophone provinces).   It’s been my personal experience that this constant exchange of ideas and standards make it so history classes throughout Anglophone Canada generally do a good job in covering Québec’s modern history.  Students across Canada spend time learning about Québec’s Grande noirceur, la Revolution tranquille, and subsequent events marking Québec all the way to present day (much more than what Québec’s education department teaches Québec students regarding the modern history of Anglophone provinces).

For lack of a better word, a good number of my Québécois friends have been completely “floored” and “dumbstruck” when I discuss with them how Alberta and Québec share, in many ways, an extremely similar and parallel modern history (some of those same friends feel it’s a bit unjust that Québec’s education system does not teach students that their own modern history is not so different from that of other provinces after all — but that’s a whole other can of worms, which I’m not prepared to get into here).

The histories are similar in the sense that Alberta exited from its own “Grande noirceur” of the 1930’s to 1960’s (at the end of the Social Credit movement, sharing many similar characteristics to Québec’s own Grande noirceur).  Then there was Alberta’s own 1970’s Revolution tranquille (a time of enormous social change in Alberta around the years when the PC’s took power– and like in Québec, was a period of shock secularization, large-scale middle-class enrichment, empowerment of huge sectors of society, large-scale urbanization, regulations for a renewed market liberalization, but along with unionization and nationalization of key state institutions;  state utilities, state investment institutions, etc.).   After Alberta’s own Revolution tranquille, its social welfare networks (in general terms, but of course with some differences), developed many of the same traits as Québec’s and other provinces.  Government finances (both the expansions of budgets and deficits – such as the Lougheed/Getty years in Alberta and Levesque/Bourassa years in Québec, as well as the contractions of budgets & programs – such as the Bouchard years in Québec and the Klein years in Alberta) also share many parallels between the two provinces.  Other provinces went through similar experiences, although there were variations with respect to context (such as Saskatchewan’s own transitions with the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party, and what that meant to Saskatchewan’s own modern transformation).  Bottom line, the development of the modern history of all 10 provinces in Canada, including Québec, very much share the same traits and many of the same experiences – more so than they do with any other jurisdictions elsewhere in the world.  I suppose we could call it a true family transformation, with each member of the family coming into their own, independent of the Federal government.

All-in-all… these are things that can be read in history books.  So my point is this… if we want to know about these historical events, we have ready access to the facts (regardless if we were or were not taught these things in school).  They’re concrete, well researched, and well-documented economic and political events.

But what is more difficult to capture, research, and learn about is the mood on the street within any one province at a given moment during these years.  This is an area where we also find similarities and differences between the provinces.   It’s difficult to know about the day-to-day life of any one family or its individual family members during these transformations — including what transformations their routines and thoughts underwent over the course of 40 or 50 years.

Media-relayed culture is a reflection of current situations.  But current situations are the product of decades of transitions and transformations.   I’d argue that it’s difficult to truly understand and grasp what’s being relayed by the media and pop-culture in the present without first understanding:

(1) major historical events over the past few decades (the history side of things, to which we all have ready access if we wish to research it), and

(2) how families, individuals, their attitudes and values have gradually transformed over this same period.

It’s this latter transformation (family and individual change over the course of 30 to 50 years) which leads me to recommend you to read Michel David’s fictional novel series La Poussière du temps.   La Poussière du temps provides many snapshots of what typical Québécois and Québécois families experienced during the 1940’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s (which of course lead to where we are today), and how they dealt with changing events around them.

Personally, I haven’t come across a fictional novel series of books quite like this before.  The 2000 pages, which constitute the four books, takes us through the life of a fictional Montréal family, les Dionne, during these 50 years.   Through them, we vicariously experience the economic changes, family transformations, changes in values, and overall societal changes that the average Québécois dealt with during these 50 years.   It’s loosely based on the authors own observations of what was happening where he grew up and lived until retirement – a true perspective of the modernization of Québécois society over five decades.  We’re faced with issues of urbanization, secularization, salary expansion, Québec politics, family budget issues, unwanted pregnancies, illness & deaths, empty nesters, career issues, changing job markets, families getting smaller, different phases of child rearing, etc. etc.

I admit the series of four books are rather long, and it’s not a sensational or adventurous novel leaving you on the edge of your seat – but real life rarely is.   The value of this novel series is that it captures real life.   What struck me is that the challenges and transformations the Dionne family went through is not unlike what many families went through across Canada, as their respective provinces went through similar momentous changes.   But along with so many similarities that all Canadian families can identify with, it also brings to light interesting aspects of society unique to Québec, and which influenced the formation of the psyche of today’s Québec.

In the end, I’m quite surprised this novel series has not won more awards or notable mentions (it has actually won very few).   In my opinion, the novel has uniquely captured an otherwise difficult-to-capture perspective of societal changes over time.   If you’d like to experience a bit more of where Québec has been, without the advantage of actually having grown up in a Québécois family, then this novel series might just be right for you.  When reading, you’ll feel you’ve actually been adopted into the Dionne family.

Renaud-Bray, Archambeault and other online venues sell this series of four books.   Google would be a good place to start your search.

Bonne Lecture!

“Archambeault”, “Renaud-Bray”, and Québec books (#35)

Wait a second… Archambeault and Renaud-Bray, are they not two well-known book store chains in Québec?   So why would I be featuring bookstore chains in a pop-culture-related blog?  Well, the reason is simple.  Literature in Québec and Francophone Canada takes on a very different role than in Anglophone Canada.   I get a feel that modern and popular literature is considered by much of the Québec public as being a cultural outlet equal to television, radio, and other arts.  Even if the public is not necessarily reading a different book every week, you’ll see Québécois with a book in hand far more often than you will Anglophones.

Book stores have been on the forefront of promoting Francophone literature.  The Salon du livre de Montréal is a giant French book fair held in Montréal once a year (this year 19-24 November) giving exposure through the media and directly to the public regarding what’s new in literature and authors (it’s attended by over 130,000 people each year… I’m not sure that could happen in Vancouver).   Francophone authors and new books regularly are discussed (even debated) on television and radio, and they are also promoted by the big book stores (likely as much to gain sales, as it is a cultural habit).

It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg story, being tough to say which came first;  are the literary arts in Québec popular out of desire to protect and promote the French language?  Or is it popular because there’s much more respect for the literary arts in the Francophone world in general?  (it’s even strong in France, where support for the literary arts are not necessarily attributed to a need to protect the language).   Québec receives television programs from France which are dedicated to discussing books.

I personally tend to think it’s a bit of both.  Because French is a minority language in North America, Québécois view Francophone literature as a protective vanguard of Francophone culture, and they have traditionally thrown media and government financial support behind it in a way that’s a bit different than in Anglophone Canada (although that might change now with recently introduced austerity measures).   Canada, in general, has a strong literary history, with its citizens able to rattle off well-known its respective Anglophone and Francophone authors.  However, Québécois authors are considered by the public in Québec as the protectors and developers of the language (that’s how the Québec public is frankly taught to view it by many teachers in school – a very different view than how Anglophones view their authors elsewhere in Canada).   Québec authors have also played a major historical role in creating a modern Québécois identity, and instilling a sense of pride in how Québécois speak French, notably Joual (with the likes of Michel Tremblay leading the charge during the Révolution tranquille).

I think this all can translate into a special “soft-spot” for book stores in the hearts of Québécois. However, economic reality makes it so books in French tend to be much more expensive than in English (even translated versions of English books).  As such, a lot of the smaller independent book stores have gone bankrupt, leaving the big chains in their place (as well as discounted books at Costco, just like elsewhere in Canada).   Archambault (owned by Québecor) and Renaud-Bray (Canada’s second largest book chain after Chapters/Indigo) are the two larger and better known chains.   They’re viewed more as cultural icons, rather than just a book store.  Their concepts are similar to Chapters & Indigo in English Canada, but dedicated solely to French literature (with a variety mix of music and trinket sales), with a strong emphasis on Québec literature.  They’ll often feature book signings and book events, and they maintain a “best-seller” lists of what books are hot.

My personal reading tends to wander between English and French books (either from France or Québec).   But I’ve consulted the best-seller lists from Archambault and Renaud-Bray on more than one occasion to find out what might be worth buying (hey… I figure books are expensive, so better to be sure in advance that what you’re buying has already gone over well).

If you’re in an area of Canada where it might be difficult to purchase French books, you’re not sure what might be good, and you think you’ll have to order books online, I’d strongly recommend you go with the Palmères livres (top book countdown) put out by the big book chains:

  • Archambeault’s book count-down can be viewed on their website by clicking HERE.
  • Renaud-Bray’s book count-down can be viewed on their website by clicking HERE
  • You can also order books online through Amazon Canada’s French website HERE , and Chapters’ / Indigo’s French website HERE.

Bonne Lecture !!