Foreign Writers on Canada in French | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Foreign Writers on Canada in French

Until the arrival of Haitians fleeing the Duvalier regime, the majority of francophones writing about Canada were from France. Even in the 17th century, there were occasional references to New France in literature by authors acquainted with travellers or their writings.

Foreign Writers on Canada in French

Until the arrival of Haitians fleeing the Duvalier regime, the majority of francophones writing about Canada were from France. Even in the 17th century, there were occasional references to New France in literature by authors acquainted with travellers or their writings. The greatest French fable writer, Jean de La Fontaine, praises the building skills of beavers "in a country not far from the North pole" ("Discours à Madame de la Sablière," 1678). Voltaire's dismissal of Canada as "a few acres of snow" is only too well-known from Candide (1759).

After 1760, communications between France and her former colony were restricted and for the next 50 years there is little mention of Canada in French works. However, the hero of Voltaire's L'Ingénu (1767) is a Breton who has been raised by Hurons and looks with bewilderment at the corruption and lack of common sense of "civilized" society. The first French writer to come to Canada was Louis-Joseph-Marie QUESNEL, who arrived by chance in 1779, married and settled in Montréal. His comic opera Colas et Colinette (published 1808) was the first to be performed in North America, and he also wrote poetry and plays.

Travellers Recording Impressions

There were, of course, travellers who recorded their impressions, most of them combining a visit to Canada with a trip to the US. Chateaubriand had referred to Canada in his Voyage en Amérique (1827) and masterfully described the Niagara Falls in Atala (1801), though he probably saw little of what he depicted. Théodore Pavie, who spent a year in the New World (1829-30), was one of the first bona fide travellers to speak of his experiences in his Souvenirs atlantiques. Voyage aux États-Unis et au Canada (1851). Xavier Marmier, an erudite globe-trotter, came to Canada in 1849 and commented on what he saw in Lettres sur l'Amérique, Canada, États-Unis, Rio de la Plata (1851). He also wrote a novel, Gazida (1860), interesting mainly as a repertory of native legends and customs.

As contacts between France and its former colony grew easier, travellers became more numerous, but usually spent more time in the US than in Canada. Among the most famous who recounted their voyages was Maurice Sand, the son of the famous novelist George Sand. He accompanied Prince Napoleon (later Emperor Napoleon III), and on his return to Paris wrote Six mille lieues à toute vapeur (1863), prefaced by his illustrious mother. Other noteworthy travellers are Henri de Lamothe, who wrote Cinq mois chez les Français d'Amérique. Voyage au Canada (1879), and Gustave de Molinari, who contributed numerous letters about the US and Canada to the Journal des débats. These letters were later published in 3 volumes (1876, 1881, 1886).

Both East and West were to be a source of inspiration to novelists. In 1841, only 4 years after the publication of the first French Canadian novel, Le Courrier des États-Unis published La Rebelle, a brief work by the Baron Philippe-Régis de Trobriand. The author had spent a few weeks in Canada at a time when the wounds of the 1837 rebellion, which inspired the novel, were still fresh. The most prolific French writer connected with Canada was Henri-Émile Chevalier. Forced into exile by Napoleon III, he came to Montréal in 1852, and during the 8 years he spent there founded La Ruche littéraire, was a regular contributor to several papers and wrote lengthy adventure novels published mainly in La Ruche and Le Moniteur canadien. Back in France by 1860, he continued to write novels, some 30 of which have Canada as a background. With their insipid characters and preposterous plots, they have little literary merit, but they do contain many social and political comments and a wealth of information about native customs.

Jules Verne

Jules Verne, the greatest French writer of science fiction, spent "192 hours" on the North American continent in 1867, but apart from Niagara Falls saw nothing of Canada. For Le Pays des fourrures (1873; tr The Fur Country: Twenty Degrees Latitude North), he found his information in books. In Famille-sans-nom (1889; tr Family without a Name, 1892), which is his only political novel and has as a background the events of the 1837 rebellion, Verne's sympathy lies with the Patriotes.

At the turn of the century, many novelists who came to Canada as travellers, lecturers or immigrants found material for one or more books in what they saw. Louis HÉMON wrote the most famous of all Québec land novels, MARIA CHAPDELAINE (1916). Marie Le Franc came to Montréal in 1906 and remained there some 20 years before returning to France. For the rest of her life, she divided her time between her native Brittany and her adopted land, being equally fond of both. Several of her works were inspired by her beloved Laurentians and by Montréal, which she calls "my city." Her novel Grand-Louis l'innocent (1925; tr The Whisper of a Name, 1928) won the Prix Femina. La Rivière solitaire (1934), which depicts the suffering of city workers sent to clear land in Temiskaming, and Pêcheurs de Gaspésie (1936), which draws attention to the plight of Gaspé fishermen, are 2 of the more successful of the dozen or so works inspired by Canada.

None of the French authors lured to the West by the promise of rapid wealth became rich, but they have left us with a vivid picture of life on the prairies. One of the first, Georges Forestier (pseudonym of Georges Schaeffer), spent 7 years in Manitoba. His novel La Pointe-aux-Rats (1907) aims at discouraging immigration, at least from the urban middle classes, and Dans l'Ouest canadien (1915), a posthumous volume of short stories, is both touching and humorous. Maurice Constantin-Weyer spent 10 years in the West before he left to fight in WWI. Back in France, he produced an imposing body of work (articles, short stories, novels, biographies, essays), the best of which was inspired by his Canadian experience. Fifteen of his books have the West as a background. Un homme se penche sur son passé (1928; tr A Man Scans His Past, 1929) won the prestigious Prix Goncourt. The critics praised Constantin-Weyer's gifts as a landscape painter and his masterful depiction of the North in this partly autobiographical novel. In Manitoba (1924), Cinq éclats de silex (1927) and Clairière (1929; tr Forest Wild, 1932), he eloquently describes the fauna of the West and what he calls the "rhythm of Life and Death."

Georges BUGNET came to the West in 1905 and lived the rest of his 101 years in Alberta. Whatever leisure time farming left him, he spent writing, his most successful novels being Nipsya (1924), the story of a young Métis torn between the Cree and European ways of life, and La Forêt (1935; tr The Forest, 1976), about a young French couple's useless efforts to farm in Alberta.

Inspirations of the Gold Rush

The best book inspired by the Klondike gold rush is La Bête errante, roman vécu du Grand Nord Canadien (1923) by Louis-Frédéric Rouquette, a jack-of-all-trades who travelled the world. His experiences in the Northwest also inspired Le Grand Silence blanc, roman vécu d'Alaska (1921), partly set in Canada, and L'Epopée blanche (1926), a moving essay about the work of the Oblate missionaries. Rouquette excels at depicting man's fight against nature and his fellow man. Maurice Genevoix, a member of the French Academy, crossed Canada from East to West in 1939 and vividly described his experiences in Canada (1944). Laframboise et Bellehumeur (1944) was inspired by 2 trappers he met in eastern Canada, while the subject of Eva Charlebois (1944) is the painful adaptation of a young Québecoise in the West.

Other less well-known novelists who wrote about Canada are Joseph-Émile Poirier, whose Les Arpents de neige (1909) is a novel about the Métis rebellion in Saskatchewan, though the author never set foot in Canada; Victor Forbin, who travelled to Canada several times, once crossing it from coast to coast, and who wrote both novels and essays about the country; and Pierre Hamp, whose subject was manual workers and whose Hormisdas le Canadien (1952) was the product of a year spent in Saint-Paul-l'Ermite.

Alexis de Tocqueville made passing references to Canada in his works. Another economist, André Siegfried, spent a year in Canada in 1904 to become acquainted with the political situation. In 1906 he published Le Canada, les deux races: problèmes politiques contemporains (tr The Race Question in Canada, 1907). After a second trip in 1935, he wrote Le Canada, puissance internationale (1937; tr Canada, 1939).

In more recent times, no doubt because of the numerous cultural exchanges between Québec and France, Canada has been a source of inspiration to many francophone writers. Chief among them is Bernard Clavel, who won the Prix Goncourt in 1968. This popular and talented novelist has visited Québec many times, spending 2 years there from 1977-79. Les Compagnons du Nouveau Monde (1981) takes place in New France in the 17th century, and under the title "Le Royaume du Nord" Clavel has now completed a series of 6 novels which take place in Abitibi. In these, fromHarricana (1983) to L'Angelus du soir (1988), he describes the hardships and occasional joys of settlers in Saint-Georges d'Harricana, a new village. In the last of the series, Maudits sauvages (1989), he turns to the plight of the James Bay natives whose way of life is being destroyed by technology. The success of Clavel's books is due mainly to his style, eminently suited to his epic subject.

Alain Gerbver's mythical novel Le Lapin de lune (1982) probably takes place in Québec, though the exact location of events is not mentioned by name. Other contemporaries who have written about Canada are Michel Desgranges, who never visited the country, but whose novel Manitoba (1981) was inspired by Riel's life; Anne and Serge Golon, whose popular 17th century heroine, Angélique, spends time in New France, especially in Angélique à Québec (1982); and Roger Buliard, a priest, whose has written fascinating essays about the Inuit and the work of missionaries.

In the last 3 or 4 decades, a large number of educated immigrants have sought refuge in Canada from tyrannical regimes. Over 100 authors are listed in Denise Helley and Anne Vassal's Romanciers immigrés: biographies et oeuvres publiées au Québec entre 1970 et 1990 (1993), which does not include works published in Ontario by Prise de parole or in the West by Éditions des Plaines or Éditions du Blé. Many authors of foreign origin, such as novelists Jacques Folch Ribas, Monique Bosco and playwright Robert GURIK, have been writing in Montréal for so long that they are now considered as Québecois writers.


Among more recent arrivals, the Haitians are probably the most prominent group. Gérard Étienne, a poet and novelist, chooses Montréal as a background to his satirical novels (Un ambassadeur macoute à Montréal, 1979; Une femme muette, 1983), while Émile Ollivier's works are usually remininscences of a tortured Haiti (Mère Solitude, 1983; La Discorde aux cent voix, 1986).

The youngest and most popular of these writers is Dany Laferrière, who achieved instant fame with his first novel Comment faire l'amour avec une nègre sans se fatiguer (1985; tr How to make love to a negro, 1987) and made into a film in France. Éroshima (1988; tr Eroshima, 1991) also takes place in Montréal, while L'Odeur du café(1991) and its sequel Le Goût des jeunes filles (1992; tr Dining with a Dictator, 1994) evoke memories of Haiti. The humour and eroticism which pervade the underlying seriousness of these works explain their popularity.

Italian Writing

Among writers of Italian origin, the most noteworthy is the dramatist Marco Micone. Les Gens du silence (1982), Addolorata (1984; tr as Voiceless People and Addolorata,1988) and Déjà l'agonie (1982) which depict the difficulties and identity problems of Italian immigrants attempting to integrate into Québec society. Identity is also the main theme of La Québécoise (1983) by Régine Robin, born in Paris, the daughter of Russian Jews. The novel is a long stream of conciousness in which collective and individual memory prevents the heroine from adapting to her new country.

The creation of 2 periodicals illustrates the importance of immigrant writing in Québec: Vice Versa, founded in 1989, is described as a "Transcultural Magazine." La Parole métègue, founded in 1987, publishes the writings of women "living in a land where they were not born."

Further Reading