18 April 2016

Small-town Boy Makes Good, Founds Small Town



Jean Rivard
Antoine Gérin-Lajoie [Vida Bruce, trans]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977

"The classic novel whose themes have influenced French-Canadian literature for more than a hundred years."

So why is the translation out of print?

Jean Rivard is everything that was good and bad about our moribund, once important New Canadian Library. The thing is just about as ugly as can be, complete with clumsy cover pitch. NCL's Jean Rivard is no "classic novel," but a translation of two novels: Jean Rivard, le défricheur and Jean Rivard, économiste. Both have been bowdlerized.

A "great man," Jean Rivard is a student of nineteen when his father's death calls him back to the family home in Grandpré. He is at a loss as to what to do next. Jean Rivard's education had set him on the path to becoming a lawyer or doctor, but those professions are so overcrowded that its members scramble to feed themselves. Fearful of being a burden to his widowed mother – of twelve – Jean Rivard turns to the curé of Grandpré, M l'abbé Leblanc, who advises the young man to take up farming. Pursuit of a professional career will only lead to debt and hardship, he is warned. "Even supposing that you are one of the privileged few in your profession," sayeth the curé, "you will be thirty, perhaps older, before you can marry."

Thirty! Before lying with a woman!

The way is clear. He takes the modest inheritance left by his father and leaves fictional Grandpré "in the valley of Lake St. Pierre on the north 
shore of the St. Lawrence" for the very real Eastern Townships. There Jean Rivard buys one hundred acres of land, which he begins to clear with the aid of his jovial hired man Pierre Gagnon. All proceeds extremely well "thanks to a Providence that seemed to take our hero under its special care." Sadness comes only in the form of letters from Gustave Charmenil. Jean Rivard's old schoolmate, poor Gustave has followed the very path M l'abbé Leblanc had advised against, and is wasting money in pursuit of a career as a lawyer. What's worse, the young man is also caught up in city life, which involves significant expenditures on dress and things cultural.

Meanwhile, Jean Rivard stays the course. Three years after arriving in the Townships, one year ahead of schedule, he marries pious Grandpré girl Louise Routier, bringing Jean Rivard, le défricheurJean Rivard, Settler in the translation – to a close.

I lie.

In fact, the novel does not end with a wedding, but with prolonged discourse delivered the following day by M l'abbé Leblanc. His message:
  • of all professions, farming is most suited to bring happiness;
  • recognize and appreciate your heritage;
  • live modestly; 
  • don't get too big for your britches.
The sequel, Jean Rivard, économiste, goes along at a good clip. We all know that time passes more rapidly with age – and this is exactly what happens here. Other farmers follow Jean Rivard in clearing neighbouring woodland and become successful in turn. The great man is held in such esteem that the settlers name the new community Rivardville. The community grows. Jean Rivard becomes head to the militia, justice of the peace, and after becoming mayor founds a lyséeJean Rivard, économiste Jean Rivard, Economist – ends with a tour of Rivardville, an idyllic community in which the air is clean and the people pure.

I can see I've been a bit unfair in criticizing the NCL bowdlerization. In her Introduction, translator Vida Bruce writes that she removed much of the repetition; she also spared me from spending time on pages like these from the 1877 J.B. Rolland & Fils edition:

(cliquez pour agrandir)
In the bulk maintained, we find passages such as this:
Canada owes part of its prosperity to the manufacture of these alkalis [potash and pearlash]. In the course of these last three years alone our country exported more than fifteen million francs worth of potash and pearlash. In European markets potash from America is held in the highest esteem as long as our forests remain, this product will continue to be one of our principle sources of wealth.
What follows relates directly to Jean's ability to generate wealth:
On his return to Louisville Jean Rivard had to stop for a day or two at Lacasseville. There, while looking after various affairs he made the acquaintance of an American merchant named Arnold who had been established for some years in the same village. He knew that Jean Rivard was clearing land and asked him if he didn't intend to get some profit from the ashes produced by the wood he would be obliged to burn in the course of his operation. Jean Rivard replied that his intention had at first been to convert the ash into potash or pearlash but that the lack of roads and hence the difficulties of transportation obliged him to abandon the project.
     After a lengthy conversation, in the course of which the perspicacious American was convinced of the strict honesty, intelligence, and industry of our young settler, he proposed entering into a mutual agreement. He, Arnold, would undertake procure on credit the kettle, basins, and the rest of the things necessary for the manufacture of potash and transport them at his own expense to Jean Rivard's cabin, on the condition that Jean Rivard would commit himself to deliver to the said Arnold, in the course of the next three years at least twenty-five bushels of potash at twenty shillings a hundredweight. The ordinary price for potash was thirty to forty shillings, but Arnold in this case, paid the costs of transportation, a consideration of prime importance to Jean Rivard. 
Nothing is lost in the translation.

These arid passages speak to purpose. Gérin-Lajoie's Jean Rivard novels aren't meant to entertain or enlighten but inspire readers to follow the nonexistent great man's path – a course the author regretted not having chosen himself. Facts and figures are there to validate the author's  overly romantic depiction of rural life. 


If anything, the Jean Rivard novels proved even more influential than Patrice Lacombe's La terre paternelle (1846) in establishing the roman de la terre. It is truly remarkable that they hadn't been translated earlier. The New Canadian Library cover pitch may be clumsy but its claim is true. These two novels had an influence on French Canadian literature lasting more than a hundred years.

I'm not so sure that was a good thing.

About the author: A journalist, lawyer and civil servant, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie is best known for "Un Canadien errant." Foreigners may know it from the rather unconventional rendition found on Leonard Cohen's Recent Songs. In the clip below, from Harry Rasky's 1980 documentary The Song of Leonard Cohen, the poet translates.


His great-grandfather, Jean Jarin (Jarrin or Gérin), who originally came from the diocese of Grenoble, France, arrived in Canada around 1750 as a sergeant in the colonial regulars and took part in the Seven Years’ War. He subsequently settled in the region of Yamachiche. His high spirits and good humour earned him the nickname of “Lajoie,” which was added to his family name.
Object and Access: A 280-page mass market paperback. The last page lists the first 53 volumes in the New Canadian Library (Jean Rivard is number 134). As far as I've been able to determine, the Bruce translation enjoyed nothing more than one printing. Six copies are currently listed for sale online, ranging in price from US$1.25 to US$12.50. Condition is not a factor. I purchased my copy late last year at Attic Books in London. Price: 85¢.

Library patrons will have to rely on Library and Archives Canada, Bibliothèque et Archives nationals du Québec and our universities.

Jean Rivard, le défricheur first appeared serialized during 1862 in Les Soirées canadiennes. Jean Rivard, économiste appeared in Le Foyer canadien two years later. Editions in the original French are common, stretching back nearly fifteen decades. The two novels are currently available in a single Bibliothèque québécoise volume: Jean Rivard, le défricheur suivi de Jean Rivard, économiste.

Related post:

No comments:

Post a Comment