26 July 2009

Ignoble Pornographie - Translated!

Bitter Bread [La Scouine]
Albert Laberge [Conrad Dion, trans.]
[Montreal]: Harvest House, 1977

A portrait of the artist as a glum man. And why not? Here we have one of the country's first Naturalist writers, a member of the École littéraire de Montréal, yet during his lifetime Albert Laberge's sales were measured not in thousands or hundreds, but in dozens.

La Scouine was nearly two decades in the making. Its title, which has 'no particular meaning, except that it was a vague phrase dating back to the first origins of the language itself', is the nickname of smelly Paulima Deschamps, the youngest member of a farming family. She's a dislikable character, but then so are her siblings... and their parents... and their neighbours... and the local clergy. All live in a rural landscape entirely at odds with the idealized roman de la terre that had for so long dominated French Canadian literature:
The harvest had been underway for a month, but hardly any work had been accomplished due to the continuous rain. The storms recurred every few hours, after brief appearances of a ghostly sun. The sky would suddenly become dark and threatening, and huge, hearse-like clouds would pursue one another on the horizon, explode over the flat, green country, to spill a flood of water that drowned the land.
These words – translated here by Conrad Dion – form the beginning of the novel's twentieth chapter. First published in the 24 July 1909 issue of la Semaine, it attracted the attention of Mgr Paul Bruchési, Archbishop of Montreal, who condemned the excerpt as 'ignoble pornographie'. This wasn't the first time Laberge had displeased the Church. As a student he'd been expelled from Montreal's Collège Sainte-Marie after confessing that he'd been reading the works of Zola, Balzac and de Maupassant.

The offending excerpt relates an episode in which Charlot, la Scouine's crippled brother, is seduced by a gin-loving, Irish farmworker:
His thirty-five years of chaste life, his solitary nights on the yellow sofa, lit up his insides at this moment with lustful, urgent desire. This man who had never known a woman felt an imperative, crying hunger that had to be appeased. The whole concantenation of bad dreams, of libidinous visions besieged him, invaded him.


Charlot then threw himself on her.
And they made love.
This was his only love experience.
'Il faut couper le mal dans sa racine', wrote the archbishop.

Seven years passed before the reading public was again treated to excerpts. Not until 1918 did La Scouine appear in its entirety – and then only in an edition numbering sixty copies.

Laberge published all fourteen of his books himself: collections of short stories, essays, literary criticism and this, his only novel. Signed editions, not one had a print-run of more than 140 copies. They sell today in the US$200 range, though patient purchasers should be able to grab the less desirable titles for under US$100. Sadly, nearly half a century after his death, most of those currently on offer are uncut, unread.

Object (and a mystery): Issued in both cloth and paper as part of the Harvest House French Writers of Canada series, Bitter Bread is cursed with a horrible cover illustration (first used on the 1972 L'actuelle edition of La Scouine). Dated, yes, and like the 1970 Feast Of Stephen and the 1974 Four Jameses it references the wrong decade. The inside back cover lists as forthcoming Growing Up Barefoot, 'a novel by Félix LecLerc'. To date, no such title has materialized. I'm guessing that the 'novel' was a planned translation of Pieds nus dans l'aube (1946), the chansonnier's memoir of his La Tuque childhood.

Access: Typical. Bitter Bread can be found in academic universities across the country, but public library users are limited to Toronto and Vancouver. Library and Archives Canada holds no copy, nor do the public libraries of Montreal, the city in which it was published. The paper edition shouldn't cost more than C$10 – double that for the cloth. Those interested in the original French are advised to cast aside all dreams of purchasing the sixty copy first edition. Collectors may be drawn to the 1968 facsimile or the 1970 pirated edition; at US$40, I prefer the 1986 critical edition published by the Université de Montréal.

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