31 August 2015

Langevin's Masterpiece; McClelland's Disappointment

Orphan Street [Une Chaîne dans le parc]
André Langevin [trans., Alan Brown]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1976

Jack McClelland thought Orphan Street was the most important novel to have come out of French Canada since The Tin Flute. I can't agree, but I will say that it's just about the greatest thing I've read this year. And it's been a very good year.

Orphan Street didn't exactly set McClelland's house on fire; not only was it a commercial failure, the critics couldn't get it up. The publisher himself kept pushing it in the press long after sales had proven limp. Ever the optimist, five months after publication he wrote Langevin:
There are a lot of people around the country now who have read it, are talking about it and who are recommending it, and it would not entirely surprise me if it turned out to be a slow starter that will eventually gain momentum and do extremely well.
     Unquestionably one of the difficulties with the book in English is that it starts more slowly than the English-reading public have come to expect. They found the opening chapter slow, somewhat baffling….
Orphan Street isn't such a difficult a novel, but the first chapter is a real challenge, immersing the reader in the elaborate phantasies of young protagonist Pierrot. A nine-year-old veteran of a Catholic orphanage, Pierrot has been removed – with sudden jerk – from his uncomfortable confines by the bachelor brother and three spinster sisters of his deceased mother. Their motivation, such as it is, probably has something to do with familial duty. The thinking is that maybe, just maybe, the boy doesn't take after his cheating drunk of a father. In truth, they passed judgement before he arrived.

It sounds awful, I know, but you can't feel too bad about Pierrot. With their disinterest comes freedom.

Pierrot's new home with Uncle Nap and aunts lies in the shadow of the Jacques Cartier Bridge; the Molson brewery squats at one end like a big brown brick. Consumptive Gaston, known to all as "the Rat", rummages through the refuse and deals in black-market goods. I spoil nothing in writing that he'll be dead before the novel's end. Before he goes, the Rat serves as a guide to the boy's little corner of Second World War Montreal. Pierrot quickly makes friends with Jane, the very pretty red-haired anglaise in the adjacent apartment, with whom he spends a summer roaming city streets, parks and wharves, sharing adventures the likes of which I daren't have dreamt at his age.

There is joy in life lived outside walls. Where the past was one of routine populated by abusive older boys and the same grey nuns, each new day brings new experiences and people he had no idea existed.   Pierrot's exuberance, his passion for the new and his interest in other people are all that his aunts cannot abide.

No, Orphan Street is not so difficult a novel, though later scenes will disturb. It's not so difficult until one remembers that the author spent much of his own childhood in a Quebec orphanage. Langevin's experience may not have resembled precisely that of Pierrot – the author would've been ten or so years older – but there is discomfort in the recognition. The best one can say is that Langevin was spared the unique horrors suffered by the Duplessis Orphans.


Orphan Street came and went in less than a season; there was no second printing and no paperback edition. The novel was considered for New Canadian Library – McClelland's recommendation, I expect – but this went nowhere.

The time is overdue for Orphan Street to be properly recognized. It's too much to expect the translation to do as Jack McClelland hoped – "extremely well" – but it does deserve a return to print.

Sheila Fischman considers it a masterpiece.

Trivia: In the same letter to Langevin, McClelland writes that a translation of L'Élan d'Amérique is "being considered by our editors at the present time." Thirty-eight years later, Orphan Street remains the second and last of the author's titles to have appeared in English.

Object: Two hundred and eighty-seven pages in rose-coloured cloth with silver stamping. Where it not for the brilliant cover painting by Jean Paul Lemieux, I'd have considered it a prime example of McClelland & Stewart's bland 'seventies designs. The image fits the novel so perfectly – Pierrot is blonde, this is his neighbourhood, the Jacques Cartier Bridge is in the background – that I can't help but wonder whether it was commissioned for the book. But how can that be? Lemieux's work hangs in the National Gallery and fetches millions. And where is the painting today? I can't find a trace.

I bought my copy of Orphan Street thirty years ago at the Book Market in Dollard des Ormeaux. Price: $1.95. The book has survived thirteen moves, including two to the West Coast. It was terrible shape when I bought it. Honest.

Access: Lippincott brought the novel out in the United States. Very Good copies of it and the McClelland & Stewart edition can be bought online for eight dollars.

Orphan Street is easily found in our colleges and universities, though no more than a handful of our public libraries have held on to their copies. Interestingly, Alan Brown's translation is more easily found south of the border.

Une Chaîne dans le parc has never been out of print. It's currently published by Boréal (above). Used copies of past editions are listed online for as little as three American dollars.

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  1. I remember when the movie Devil in the Blue Dress was released and flopped. Denzel Washington said maybe releasing a movie with a black hero the same weekend as the OJ riots in the LA was bad timing. Likewise maybe 1976 was bad timing to get English Canada to read even more about Montreal.

    Besides everyone was probably too caught up in Alex Haley's Roots...

    1. I think you're on to something, John.This may have not been the time for an ambitious bildungsroman set in Second World War Montreal. Political thrillers on the other hand… I'm thinking of Richard Rohmer's Separation, Leo Heaps The Quebec Plot and, of course, Don Pendleton's Canadian Crisis (The executioner #24), in which the mafia mafia decide to make Quebec the crime capital of the world.

      Me? I was caught up in James at 15.