25 July 2016

Bad News for Modern Man

The Cashier [Alexandre Chenevert]
Gabrielle Roy [trans. Harry Binsse]
Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1955

I wonder how much sleep Gabrielle Roy lost over this novel. It was conceived as the follow-up to Bonheur d'occassion, her bestselling debut, but ended up being published third. The author struggled with it for years, only to be awarded with weak sales. Criticism tended to be positive, save in Quebec where she received some of the most merciless reviews of her career.

How appropriate then that Alexandre ChenevertThe Cashier, in translation – opens on the title character suffering a bout of insomnia. He worries about recent acts of terrorism, tensions in the Middle East, the Chinese, the Russians, weapons of mass destruction, and the flood of cheap Asian imports. Just the other day, Alexandre read an alarming article that warned the planet is warming.

Roy's novel was completed in 1953 and is set six years earlier.

The author loved Alexandre Chenevert, even if readers did not. Truth be told, he's not the most attractive figure. Sour, dour, short, balding and skeletal, he stands slightly stooped at his wicket in Branch J of the Savings Bank of the City and Island of Montreal. The suits he wears have seen better days.

Alexandre's fight for sleep has been going on for years. The medicine cabinet he shares with his wife Eugénie holds something that might help. Alexandre bought it, but can't bring himself to take it: "But were he to at last savor sleep, how could he do without it afterward? The drug that conferred this boon he would long for, no matter what the price, and he would lack the will to give it up." Besides, the medication will only muddle his mind; it would only be a matter of time before he would make a mistake.

Alexandre forgoes the pills, and yet makes an error in doling out an extra hundred dollars to a client the very next workday. Lack of sleep, you understand. This, not the deaths of two infant daughters, is the crise that disrupts his life. He consults his branch manager's doctor, a fine fellow named Hudon, who advises Alexandre to not think so much. "You let things weigh too much on your mind. For heaven's sake... you carry the whole world on your shoulders!"

And yet, even when giving his diagnosis, Hudon recognizes something of himself in Alexandre. Exhausted by the steady stream of patients required to maintain his lifestyle, the doctor considers letting some go. But which to cast off? They've come to rely on him. A good man, Hudon can't help but worry about their wellbeing, as his patient is subsumed on a streetcar by calls for his help from Friendless Youth, the Salvation Army and the Jewish Federation of Charities:

Are you, Alexandre? Are you?.

Roy's bank teller is a man of modest means who must deal with a terrible inheritance:
Modern man was the heir to such a mountain of knowledge. Even had he limited his curiosity to that which was published in his own day, he could never have succeeded in absorbing it all. And where did truth lie in all this mass of writing? Alexandre lived in the age of propaganda.
The Cashier was never suppressed, nor is it forgotten, but it was ignored by me. I found my copy, a first edition, in the summer of 1985 at a bookstore on St-Laurent, a street on which Alexandre Chenevert walks. I'd been meaning to read it for three decades, taking care to ship the book in moves from Montreal to Vancouver, Vancouver to Toronto, Toronto to Vancouver, Vancouver to Ottawa and Ottawa to St Marys. I was twenty-two when I bought it. I'm fifty-three today, one year older than Alexandre Chenevert.

At twenty-two, under Mulroney, Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev, the world weighed heavy.

It's weighing heavier this summer.

I'll never be able to absorb it all.

A Bonus:

The Gazette, 15 October 1955
Object: An attractive hardcover in green boards. Sadly, the jacket illustration is uncredited. My copy set me back $5.00... but remember, those are 1985 dollars.

Access: Binsse's translation was commissioned by Harcourt, Brace, its American publisher. The Cashier was also published in the United Kingdom by Heinemann (above). In 1963, the novel followed Brian Moore's Judith Hearne as the fortieth title in the New Canadian Library. Miraculously, it survives as part of the series today.

The original French was first published in 1954 by Beauchemin. That same year, it appeared from Parisian publisher Flammarion as Alexandre Chenevert, cassier. It remains in print to this day. The current edition, published by Boreal, follows the 'nineties NCL design in using Adrien Hébert's Rue St-Denis, 1927 on its cover. A bit off for a novel that takes place two decades later, but I like the painting so much that I don't care.

Nearly all of our university libraries hold French or English-language, often both, while our public libraries generally fail. editions are common in our university

The novel was published in German as Gott geht weiter als wir Menschen (Munich: List, 1956), which Google translates as God Goes Further Than We Humans.

I've never seen a copy.

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  1. This one looks interesting.

    1. Recommended, of course. That said, the Roy to read is The Tin Flute, the closest thing to the Great Canadian Novel.

  2. Oh gosh, this guy sounds too much like me, I'm afraid.

    I believe about a million years ago I did make a start on the French version, but didn't keep going very long.

    1. I understand, Susan; it's not exactly the feel good book of the year.

  3. I've not read this one yet either - but glad to read your thoughts on it. I think it will likely be the last one I get to of all of Roy's works, since it is a bit more of a downer, let's say. But it sounds very on trend with the social ills you highlighted - always interesting to see that happen (though slightly depressing, over 50 years)