Thursday, 3 April 2014

GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)

Boréal Compact, 2009

Depuis quelque temps, elle épiait sa mère, elle croyait la voir s'alourdir de jour en jour, mais Rose-Anna, déformée par de nombreuses maternités, semblait toujours porter un fardeau sous sa robe gonflée.  Elle se doutait bien de la vérité à certains moments, mais à d'autres elle se disait: 'Ça doit pas être ça.  Sa mère a quarante ans passés.' 
  C'est pour le mois de mai, vers la fin, dit Rose-Anna. 
  L'aveu lui semblait pénible.  Mais aussitôt, elle se reprit et demanda: 'Tu seras pas fâchée, hein, Florentine, d'avoir une autre petite soeur?'
   Vinguienne, sa mère, vous trouvez pas qu'on est assez? 
  La phrase mauvaise lui avait échappé.  Florentine la regrettait déjà, elle aurait voulu la reprendre, mais dans le silence tiède de la pièce, dans le vent qui geignait aux carreaux, il n'y avait plus que l'souvenir de cette phrase qui persistait.  L'ombre semblait la répéter, la répéter à l'infini. 
  Rose-Anne se retourna sur l'oreiller trempé de sueurs.  'Pas si fort, les enfants!' supplia-t-elle.  Puis après un long silence, elle chuchota dans l'obscurité: 'Qu'est-ce que tu veux, Florentine, on fait pas comme on veut dans la vie; on fait comme on peut.'

For a long time, spying on her mother, she thought she had seen her grow heavier day by day, but Rose-Anna, deformed by her numerous pregnancies, always seemed to be carrying some kind of burden beneath her well filled housedress.  She hardly doubted the truth of it at certain moments, but at others she told herself: 'It mustn't be that.  Mum's over forty.'
  'It's due in May, towards the end,' said Rose-Anna.

 The confession seemed painful to her.  But immediately, she composed herself and asked: 'You won't be upset, eh Florentine, to have another little sister?'
  'The twentieth, mum, don't you think that's enough?'
  The cruel phrase had just tumbled out.  Florentine already regretted it, would have liked to take it back, but in the warm silence of the room, in the breeze which blew round the floor tiles, it was no more than the memory of the phrase that lingered now.  The shadows seemed to repeat it, repeat it to infinity.
  Rose-Anna rolled over to face her on her sweat-soaked pillow.  'Not so loud, the kids!' she pleaded.  Then after a long silence, she whispered in the obscurity:  'What do you want, Florentine, we don't do as we want in this life; we do what we can.' 
Excerpts translated by BR

The Novel:  In an age where we're continually bombarded with images designed to beguile, deceive and emotionally manipulate us it can be difficult, if not impossible, to imagine anything as humble as words printed on paper serving as the catalyst for lasting social change.  Yet this was precisely the feat that Gabrielle Roy's debut novel Bonheur d'occasion achieved when it was originally published in her native Canada in 1945.  (Two years passed before the bestselling English translation, The Tin Flute, appeared in US bookstores.)  Roy's poignant, compassionate but scrupulously honest examination of the lives of a poor French Canadian family living in what was, in the early 1940s, the Montréal slum of Saint-Henri opened the eyes of her fellow Canadians to the plight of Québéc and the need for drastic change to occur in the way the province was organized, funded and governed.  While these reforms would be slow to arrive and would not take full effect until the 'Quiet Revolution' of the 1960s, it's been argued that they may not have happened at all had it not been for Roy's ability to awaken the national conscience by depicting the struggles of the Lacasse family in such vivid, emotionally affecting detail.

Bonheur d'occasion –– the literal translation is 'Secondhand Happiness' but it could also be interpreted as 'Happiness on Demand' –– tells the seemingly commonplace tale of Azarius Lacasse and his wife Rose-Anna, who live in a tiny two room apartment in Saint-Henri with their twelve children where conditions are, to say the least, cramped.  Azarius, a carpenter by trade, has been out of work for several years, a victim of the Depression and his seemingly indefatigable inability to stick at any job he manages to scrounge up for himself for more than a week or two.  This makes life a constant battle for himself and Rose-Anna who, being poor, uneducated, female and Catholic, does nothing to prevent herself falling pregnant every year with clockwork regularity.  With her younger children to care for –– one of whom, Daniel, is suffering from leukaemia – the task of providing a steady income for the family falls to Rose-Anna's eldest daughter Florentine, who works as a waitress in a downtown diner and uncomplainingly hands over the bulk of her weekly paycheck to her mother every Friday night, secretly holding back a small portion of it to be spent on frivolous but, in her mind, necessary luxuries like silk stockings and make-up.  

While working at the diner Florentine meets and falls in love with a cynical would-be engineer named Jean Lévesque, a studious factory worker torn between his undeniable physical attraction to her and his revulsion at the thought of being trapped into marrying a Saint-Henri girl whose lack of charm and social graces will never permit him to fulfill his dream of making something of himself.  Florentine is neither smart nor sophisticated, but she's pretty and determined to get more out of life than her socially disenfranchised parents have managed to acquire by utilizing whatever charms, physical or otherwise, nature has seen fit to bestow on her.  Fascinated by Jean's acerbic personality and the strange love/hate attitude he displays towards her, she tries to win his affection by making him jealous and acting the coquette with his best friend Emmanuel Létourneau, her desire fueled by the beautiful memory of how Jean kissed her on the eyelids after bringing her home from their first unsuccessful date at a fashionable city restaurant.  

Meanwhile, the war has begun and is going badly for the Allies, prompting many local boys –– like Florentine's unemployed brother Eugene and the well-to-do Emmanuel, whose father makes a good living selling rosary beads, sacramental wine and other religious paraphernalia to his devout neighbors –– to do what they feel is their patriotic duty by enlisting in the army.  For most of these men, joining up also represents their only chance of helping their impoverished families and perhaps creating some kind of better life for themselves after the war.  Not only will the army feed and clothe him, Eugene enthusiastically informs his mother on the day he impulsively enlists, it will also send her $20 a month –– $20 a month just for herself! – for as long as he's a soldier.

New Canadian Library, 2009
The story develops slowly from this point, revealing each member of the Lacasse family as a victim of his or her illusions as much as the victim of the grinding poverty which obliges them to move house each spring and makes the mere act of putting food on the table an unrelenting daily struggle.  Life is tough and seldom kind to those without the money or influence required to shield them from its harshest economic, political and sexual realities.  Florentine cannot make Jean love her even after she loses her virginity to him and finds herself pregnant with his child.  Rose-Anna cannot help her daughter or save her sick little boy Daniel, who's sent to a sanitarium on the other side of Montréal where his affection for her is gradually eroded by his disease and his love for a pretty young English-speaking nurse who, with spirit-crushing predictability, is not there to comfort him when he eventually dies.  (The person who is there is his older sister Yvonne, a pious child whose dream it is to one day become a nun.)  

Meanwhile Azarius, his plans to make money by buying maple syrup from his wife's country relatives and re-selling it at a profit in the city, loses yet another job when the truck he 'borrowed' from his new boss without asking his permission breaks down miles from anywhere, stranding him, Rose-Anna and their inadequately-clothed younger children in a freezing winter snowstorm for several miserable hours.  Even Jean finds a way to renounce his no longer burning desire for Florentine, finding a high-paying war job in another city to distance himself from her and the threat her sexual allure poses to his plans.  His abrupt and unexplained departure, just a few days after he sleeps with her, leaves the field wide open for Emmanuel, who decides to marry Florentine while he's at home on embarkation leave, completely unaware that she's pregnant with his best friend's bastard child.  

Despite the grimness of their lives, a kind of happiness –– 'secondhand' though it may be –– does await the Lacasses following Florentine's hastily arranged marriage and the birth of Rose-Anna's latest child.  Azarius, outraged by what's being done to his beloved France (a country he reveres without ever having visited it) by the invading Germans and tired of being viewed as a good-for-nothing loafer by everyone he knows, joins his son and new son-in-law in the army, entitling his wife to an unheard of $97 a month –– more money than she and their children have ever seen in their lives, money that will allow them to find the permanent home that Rose-Anna has dreamed of having since she was a lovesick and not yet disillusioned bride.  

Florentine, respectable and now quite well-off thanks to the generosity of Emmanuel and his comparatively rich family, becomes the petite-bourgeoise she's always longed to be, able to pass Jean when she spots him in the street without surrendering to her former compulsion to throw herself at his feet or, for that matter, to speak to him at all.  'Une satisfaction qu'elle n'avait jamais éprouvée, l'estime de soi-même l'étonna.  Elle reconnut qu'elle commençait vraiment une autre vie.'  ['She felt a satisfaction she had never before experienced, a level of self-esteem that astonished her.  She understood that she was truly beginning a new life.']  Although she doesn't love Emmanuel, having married him only to give her unborn child a father and a name, she promises herself that she'll try to be a good wife to him if and when he returns from the war.  Nothing, she reminds herself, is perfect in this world.  But having someone and something to at least try to love, she is gradually coming to realize, is better than being stuck with no one and nothing to fill the void that Jean's abandonment of her has left inside her.  

Summarizing the plot of a book like Bonheur d'occasion is, in a way, to do an injustice to both it and its author.  No point by point listing of its plot details can really do justice to the literary genius of Gabrielle Roy, who possessed a rare ability to make the reader see and feel the full unstinting truth about her characters without sentimentalizing, trivializing or patronizing them in the process.  Describing the Lacasse family and those who move in their orbit as 'characters' seems slightly unfair in their case.  The term 'character' implies that a certain amount of poetic licence, even outright fabrication, was involved in their creation but Florentine, Jean, Rose-Anna and Azarius strike the reader as being anything but fabricated people.  They seem as real, and as human, as ourselves, subject to the same self-deceptions, the same fears and anxieties, and the same fiercely resisted but often inescapable compromises that define life for everybody, aristocrat and pauper alike.  There's also warmth and a kind of hard-won understanding to be found in their tough prosaic world, bonds of family and tradition which, while tested and often found wanting, nevertheless prove to be more resilient than might be expected, given the depth of their poverty and the limited number of opportunities they're granted to escape it.  The happiness found by Florentine and Rose-Anna might be little more than a shabby substitute for what most of us would consider to be the so-called 'real thing,' but it remains happiness of a kind that, for them, represents a definite improvement in their drab and otherwise bleak and colorless lives.

The Writer Marie Rose Emma Gabrielle Roy was born in the predominantly French-speaking Winnipeg suburb of Saint-Boniface on 22 March 1909, the youngest of eleven children.  Only eight of her siblings survived infancy and her childhood was spent in a state of extreme poverty, with her mother Mélina forced to take in lodgers after her father Léon was laid off from his job as a resettlement agent in 1913, just six months before he was due to retire and start receiving the pension that would have provided some measure of financial security for him and his family for the remainder of their lives.

Roy excelled at languages and won many prizes in both French and English during her school years, allowing her to enter the Winnipeg Normal Institute in 1928 where she trained as a teacher.  She graduated in 1929 and, following the death of her father, spent the next two years teaching in the small Manitoba villages of Marchand and Cardinal, experiences she would use to great and touching effect in what would become her final novel Ces enfants de ma vie [The Children of My Heart].  

In 1930 Roy was offered a teaching job as the headmistress of a boys' school in Saint-Boniface, making her the only one of her eight surviving siblings to hold down a permanent job during the toughest years of the Depression.  During this period she also joined two amateur acting companies and performed on-stage in many of their productions, earning herself a well-deserved reputation as a gifted and talented actress.  Her family – and especially her mother, to whom she was extraordinarily close – were dismayed, however, when she announced in 1937 that she would be using her meager savings to take a trip to France and England where, she informed them, she intended to study drama full-time in the hope of pursuing a professional acting career.  She worked through the summer, teaching in a regional northern area of Winnipeg known as La-Petite-Poule-d'Eau [The Water-Hen District], and set sail for England in the fall.

Roy spent the next two years in England and Europe –– traveling, studying and writing various articles about her experiences, some of which were published in the Paris magazine Je suis partout and several Manitoba newspapers.  During this time she also began taking extensive notes for what would become her first novel, Bonheur d'occasion.  She returned to Canada in the spring of 1939 and installed herself in Montréal where, contrary to her mother's wishes and advice, she set out to establish herself as a professional writer.  She soon found a job writing a 'woman's column' for the daily newspaper Le Jour and, within a few years, was regularly publishing short stories in the literary magazine La Revue owned by her lover and mentor Henri Girard.  

Although she loved teaching and described her years as a teacher as the happiest of her life, Roy never returned to the teaching profession or –– with the exception of brief semi-annual pilgrimmages to visit her family –– to her childhood home.  Montréal would more or less remain her home until 1947, when the success and furor created by the publication of The Tin Flute, the English translation of Bonheur d'occasion, obliged her to return to Europe with her new husband, the gynecologist Marcel Carbotte.  The newlyweds remained in Europe until 1950, living in Paris while Carbotte completed his medical studies and Roy worked on the novel Alexandre Chevenert, a book she eventually laid aside to write what would become her second published novel, and her personal favorite among her own works, La Petite Poule d'Eau [Where Nests The Water Hen]. 

After returning to Canada, the couple bought a house in Québéc City and, in 1957, a small cottage in the nearby village of Petite-Rivière-Saint-François which they would visit  every summer for the rest of their lives.  La Petite Poule d'Eau was followed by the postponed Alexandre Chevenert [known in English as The Cashier] –– a penetrating psychological study of the life of an emotionally and socially isolated Montréal bank teller that's generally considered to be the most 'modern' of her novels –– and Rue Deschambault [Street of Riches] –– an autobiographical work concerning a young girl's struggle to become a writer –– which would go on to win her the second of her three Canadian Governor General's Awards for Literature.  (Her third would be won in 1978 for Ces enfants de ma vie.)  Private to the point of being considered reclusive and anti-social, Roy was content to spend her time writing, taking occasional overseas trips with her husband and maintaining an intense correspondence with her sister Bernadette, known as Dedette, who was a cloistered Catholic nun.  

Her sister's death in 1970 prompted Roy to revisit Saint-Boniface for the first time in many years and led to the writing of La Route d'Altamont [The Road Past Altamont], another autobiographical novel inspired by her decision to leave Canada in 1937.  Like her previous novels, it was well received by the critics and quickly translated into English, helping to consolidate her reputation as Canada's best known and most frequently honored author.  In addition to her Governor General's award, Roy was also the recipient of France's Prix Femina, the Prix Duvernay, the Canada Arts Council Award and the New York Literary Guild Award.  She was made a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1967 and was the first woman to be inducted as a fellow of that country's Royal Society. 

Gabrielle Roy died, of heart failure, on 13 July 1983.  The first volume of her autobiography, La detresse et l'enchantement [Sorrow and Enchantment] appeared a year later and was followed by a second volume, prepared by her literary executors and titled La Temps qui m'a manqué [Time Has Escaped Me], in 1997.  In addition to these memoirs and her eight novels, Roy also published three children's stories and several volumes of journalism and other miscellaneous writings during the course of her long and distinguished career. 

Click HERE to visit THE GABRIELLE ROY HOUSE, a museum devoted to her life and work which opened in June 2003 in her original (and now fully restored) childhood home at 375 Rue Deschambault in Saint-Boniface, Manitoba.  Most of her work is still available in both its original French and in English translation and can be obtained via your local library, bookseller or favorite online retailer.  

A film adaptation of Bonheur d'occasion, directed by CLAUDE FOURNIER and starring MIREILLE DEYGLUN as Florentine, MARILYN LIGHTSTONE as Rose-Anna and MICHEL FORGET as Azarius, was released in 1983.  Click HERE to read some (unkind) reviews of it.

You might also enjoy:
WRITERS ON WRITING #37: Gabrielle Roy
BRIAN MOORE The Feast of Lupercal (1958) 
LEONARD MERRICK The Actor-Manager (1898) 

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