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The Blue Circus

by Jacques Savoie; Sheila Fischman; trans.

A Provisional Life

by André Major, Sheila Fischman, trans.

Was it just me, or were there some other citizens with books on the brain who took it personally when, in August, the Quebec government marked the 20th birthday of Bill 101 by naming 101 northern islands after the works of Quebec authors?

The archipelago in question, you may remember, is a collection of former hilltops geographically redefined in the course of the flooding that came with the James Bay hydroelectric development. Quebec’s Cree weren’t pleased by the government’s christening plans; they claim the land as theirs and say it’s an insult. They may be right, but setting those politics aside, I have to say that my reaction to the announcement came as something between a twinge and a pang of guilt.

Reading as an anglophone about this project they’re calling, with a respectful nod to Gabrielle Roy, “Le Jardin au Bout du Monde” (The Garden at the End of the Earth), I was reminded of nothing so much as the depth of my ignorance of French-Canadian literature. Yes, I’ve browsed some Roy, read a little Yves Beauchemin, some Roch Carrier and Anne Dandurand, and I can recite names beyond that – Yves Thériault, Réjean Ducharme, Nicole Brossard, Anne Hébert: how’s that? – but mostly I might as well be mapless in a canoe north of 60°: loose me in the landscape of French-Canadian literature and I’m lost.

There, I’ve confessed. Now the question is, can I find anyone to share some blame? Maybe those by whom I was allegedly educated would take some – they didn’t exactly push French-Canadian literature into my path. But then outside some predictables – Atwood, Laurence, Richler, Callaghan – neither did they see fit to call my attention to much in the way of English-Canadian fiction.

So what about publishers? Will they bear some blame? They ought to, because there remains, undeniably, a gulf in Canadian literature across which the exchange of novels is scandalously sparse. Here in English Canada, the few translations of French-language fiction that do trickle across to us each publishing season might as well be fugitives arriving under cover of darkness: they’re inevitably published by small houses who, praise their spirit all you want, often don’t have the budgets and/or the will to get the word out.

If you’re a reader who has kept a watch of the shore for arrivals, you’ll know Sheila Fischman’s name. Sometimes it seems as if the Montreal translator is the only channel open for fiction travelling from French to English, and while that’s not the case, she has translated close to 70 books in her time. This fall, she’s as prolific as ever, helping four more books into English: the novels A Provisional Life by André Major; Jacques Savoie’s The Blue Circus; and These Festive Nights by Marie-Claire Blais; as well as Bambi and Me, a mosaic of autobiographical pieces from Michel Tremblay.

I can’t claim to have been quite so productive: I’ve only read the first two novels. Nor can I, with my accident-prone French, really judge her work by comparing English version with French. The best I can do is offer clumsy praise to Fischman for her absence: reading A Provisional Life and The Blue Circus, there’s never any delay on the line, no sense of removal, nothing to suggest that I wasn’t in direct contact with the text as it was originally intended.

At first pass, these two novels would seem to share more than Fischman’s attention: in each of them, the central character is a man in the act of escaping his past. But that’s about as close as they come to likeness. André Major, a Montrealer who’s won a Governor General’s Award for fiction, tells the absorbing story of a middle-aged journalist whose marriage and career have both come to an end. After a brief stint in the Dominican Republic, he takes to the countryside outside Montreal. There he does – well, a whole lot of not very much.

“Remember to forget” is the mantra governing his new life; other than that, he navigates his days by reassuring himself that, until further notice, everything – up to and including love and morality – is tentative. It’s a novel of great realistic grit: Major is absolutely precise in his prose so that, although this isn’t a quick-plotted novel, I found my reaction was anything but provisional. It’s also a remarkably sensuous novel, full of emotions and physical contacts as well as some intensely realized descriptions of earth and woods and weather. At times the language is as vibrant as a passage out of Gabriel García Márquez and that’s where A Provisional Life is one of those novels that can be said to almost pulse.

Jacques Savoie’s The Blue Circus is a lesser achievement, which is a courteous way of addressing the novel’s flaws. It has its moments: a spry sense of whimsy often animates this story of Hugo Daguerre, a circus clown on the run from a vengeful knife-thrower. Hugo finds shelter with his half-sister, a librarian, and together they begin to confront their common past.

In its comic accents the novel is a delight: there’s a second-hand elephant dealer, a kid who builds meticulous models of American cities out of piles of books, and a Baudelaire-spouting giantess. But The Blue Circus is also cliché-ridden (shadows of former selves wait out pregnant pauses to throw in the towel), over-exclamatory!, and, more seriously, wanders so haphazardly from one narrative voice to the next that none ever takes hold.

Let’s just say, less politely, that if I were in charge, this is a novel after which I wouldn’t name an island.


Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Cormorant Books


Price: $16.95

Page Count: 160 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-8969-51-04-X

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1997-10

Categories: History

Reviewer: Stephen Smith

Publisher: Oberon


Price: $15.95

Page Count: 148 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7780-1067-8

Released: Oct.

Issue Date: October 1, 1997

Categories: History