Short Fiction in French

Tales (contes) and POETRY lie at the origin of Québec literature, perhaps by chance, perhaps as a necessary stage in the evolution of literary genres.
Tales (contes) and POETRY lie at the origin of Québec literature, perhaps by chance, perhaps as a necessary stage in the evolution of literary genres.

Michel Tremblay, writer
Michel Tremblay's diverse writings include novels, plays, musical comedies and translations (photo by Andrew Danson).

Short Fiction in French

Tales (contes) and POETRY lie at the origin of Québec literature, perhaps by chance, perhaps as a necessary stage in the evolution of literary genres. Whatever the reason, the specific context of the beginnings of Canadian LITERATURE IN FRENCH seems in itself to justify the preponderance of short texts. Institutional theory has it that in the 19th century, books were rare and publishers essentially operated printing houses involved in everything but literature. Authors could often publish only in journals and LITERARY PERIODICALS, and this encouraged the production of short texts. Another possible explanation is aesthetic: the influence of romanticism made a fashion of FOLKLORE, popular traditions and local colour. The third possible explanation is ideological: at a time when the novel was viewed as pernicious because of the passions it revealed (17th-century THEATRE fell into similar disrepute), the short story seemed morally less offensive.

The short story proliferated, and appeared in the form of narratives embedded in the first NOVEL published in Québec, INFLUENCE D'UN LIVRE by Philippe AUBERT DE GASPÉ, JR. It became a permanent feature of literary journals and daily newspapers and emerged as an important genre in James Huston's Répertoire national (1848-50). The genre encompasses various types of short narratives, including summaries, novellae, exempla, short stories, anecdotes, portraits and various types of picturesque descriptions. These texts were both naive and detailed, often containing pompous rhetoric or a heavily didactic message. Of some 1100 works published in 19th-century periodicals, roughly 200, identified as tales and legends, have been published in collections. From a literary viewpoint, these tales and legends constitute the period's most interesting production of short narrative texts.

Many imaginative tales were drawn from legends. Major recurring themes included stories about the devil in which a character who has defied or ignored religious teaching is guided back to righteousness by some exemplary punishment. But this triadic organization (prohibition, transgression, punishment) is an oversimplification of the scope of these texts throughout which the transgression described has the glamour of a voluntary action. Of the devil's various acts (seduction, pact, possession), the first 2 appear most frequently. The character coming into contact with Satan is usually not a victim but a person in search of his own destiny. Rose LATULIPPE deliberately dances on Ash Wednesday with her "handsome devil dancer," despite the alarmed looks of those close to her. In La CHASSE-GALERIE, 8 lumberjacks risk their lives and souls to see their girlfriends on New Year's Eve. Werewolves, rough and ready characters who ignore the priest's orders, are somewhat aware of having caused their own possession. The devil himself, the unmistakable protagonist, is cowardly and impotent, his powers limited by those of the priest and of sacred objects: he flees at the sight of a few drops of holy water.

To consider these texts an attempt by triumphant 19th-century ULTRAMONTANISM to reassert its influence on literature would be to ignore the internal tensions and contradictions contained in the many levels of meaning. The content of the written tale cannot be divorced from the form it usually took in early Québec literature. A substitute for oral communication, it frequently reproduces the signs of the ORAL LITERATURE by including the festive character of the story in a 2-level narrative. The tale's introductions (prologue, preface or first narrative) proceed from a masterly description of the setting in which the relationship between storyteller and story is defined and the nature of the narrative pact established according to the form of dialogue chosen. This pact varies from one author to the next. Louis-Honoré FRÉCHETTE (Contes I and II) is more ironic, playful and freethinking than his fellow writers, taking pleasure in demystifying the supernatural and presenting as his main character Jos Violon, an unrepentant storyteller of a popular culture with which he maintains a tacit complicity. Honoré Beaugrand (La Chasse-galerie, 1900) is closer to myth and to the archetypal figures of the imagination, whereas Pamphile Lemay (Contes vrais, 1899) is at the same time more literary (craftily playing with oral/written ambiguity, truth and falsehood), digressive and moralizing. His texts cover a variety of significant themes, historical, legendary and commonplace. Others, such as Joseph-Charles Taché or N.H.É. Faucher de St-Maurice wrote documentary or moral texts. Despite these differences, the 19th-century literary tale had a certain uniformity that displayed basic characteristics: the predominance of a set exemplary narrative, explicit references to oral expression, presentation of a narrator who is also a character in the story, and a view consistent with the Christian idea of the supernatural, which in many cases precludes the possibility of the fantastic.

The short texts of the 20th century are fewer and more diverse. The relative importance of the tale has diminished. A number of writers have tried their hand at short stories before writing novels; others, such as Jean-Aubert LORANGER, Jacques FERRON and Roch CARRIER, periodically return to this genre, choosing to make it the leitmotif of their literary production.

 This gives rise to various types of texts. Lionel GROULX and Brother MARIE-VICTORIN wrote tales of the land, whereas Michel TREMBLAY writes fantasy; Loranger's and Ferron's tales are philosophical and ironic, and those of Félix LECLERC, Carrier, Gilles VIGNEAULT, Yves THÉRIAULT and Réal Benoît are poetic, tragic and playful.

The works of Marius BARBEAU, Luc Lacourcière, Félix-Antoine SAVARD, Jean-Claude Dupont and other specialists in folklore and ethnology present transcriptions of oral narratives. Social scientists have now taken upon themselves the task of preserving this literature, something formerly the preserve of writers of the romantic generation.

The novella is more discreet than the tale. It appeared mainly as a collective expression in the 1960s when writers such as Jacques RENAUD and André MAJOR used it as a vehicle for literary and social ideas. It made a vigorous comeback in the 1980s among authors who, following Gabrielle ROY, Madeleine Ferron, Louise MAHEUX-FORCIER and Claire Martin, sought to reveal the immediacy and harmonies of a situation. Suzanne Jacob, Marilu Mallet and Gaétan Brulotte represent this "post-modernist" generation of writers. The tale, although it may seem to have disappeared, has nevertheless found its way into the 20th-century novel (Yves BEAUCHEMIN's Le Matou, 1981, and Louis Caron's narratives), in which techniques and themes are very similar to those used by 19th-century storytellers.

A study of Québec literature through the history of its forms shows that the tale - paradoxically because of its fixed or permanent elements - lends itself to a broader range of modulations and reveals the literary profile of a period perhaps even more than the novel or the short story. If every tale is a "chasse-galerie," the adventure is made all the more fascinating by the fact that it transports the reader to another world full of reminders of the past, of everyday existence and, inevitably, of culture.