An Introduction to Québécois Literature By Four Great Quebec Writers

Photo of Lindsay Parnell
9 June 2017

Literature from Quebec is not widely celebrated beyond the borders of this French speaking Canadian province. However, as Lindsay Parnell discovers, four writers have developed an international reputation and have brought Québécois literature to the world.

© Monmar Comunicació/Flickr

Mordecai Richler (1931-2001)

A powerful presence in modern Canadian fiction, Mordecai Richler left a legacy of literary mastery in the arts of fiction, essay and screenwriting. Although a devout student of English and Yiddish as a young man, Richler did not finish his study of English literature at Concordia University (formally St. George Williams College) and instead followed his passionately romantic notions of pursuing a career in arts and letters in Paris. Following his time spent in France, Richler relocated to London where he became a critically acclaimed journalist and celebrated novelist. Richler’s fiction is a celebration of voice and identity—a thematic overlap of his essay and non-fiction work. Richler produced work that both delicately addressed and meticulously interrogated Jewish identity, specifically in his native Canada. Richler’s first helping of literary success came with the publication of his fourth novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Published in 1959, Richler’s Duddy Kravitz tells the story of its title character in his struggle to escape his life of poverty in Montreal and establish himself as a made-man. Perhaps Richler’s most well-known text, Solomon Gursky Was Here was published in 1989 and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Chronicling a series of factual events in Canadian history through the narrative of a fictional family living, Solomon Gursky Was Here is a truly accomplished text navigating the labyrinth of identity across generations whilst establishing a domestic history within the context of a national history. His novel Barney’s Version was made into a film of the same name in 2010.

Émile Nelligan | Wikimedia Commons

Émile Nelligan (1879-1941)

Known for his nationally inspired lyrics, French poet Émile Nelligan is not only a celebrated scribe but also a beloved national treasure of Canada. A dedicated disciple of the European art movement of symbolism, Nelligan was considered a profoundly talented voice from a very young age. His study of symbolism led to his reading of the French poet Charles Baudelaire and Nelligan’s professional career began with his inaugural publication at just 16. Four years later, he fell victim to a tragic psychotic breakdown which he would feel the impact of for the duration of his life. He struggled to complete his previous poetry, but in 1903, saw the publication of his truly accomplished volume of Collected Poems. Over 70 years after his death, Nelligan is still considered the forefather of Canadian verse.

Gabrielle Roy | Wikimedia Commons

Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983)

Inspired by the catastrophic events and internationally felt effects of WWII, French Canadian author Gabrielle Roy’s debut novel Bonheur d’occasion was published in 1945. Relentlessly realistic portrayals of the poor living in a small quarter of Montreal, Bonheur d’occasion was not only a beautiful book of prose but also a stirring manifesto calling its readers to action. The novel was published two years later in English as The Tin Flute. What followed the publication of The Tin Flute was a rousing 40-year career of numerous accolades and critically commended fiction collections. Roy’s critically acclaimed career lasted until her death and is still celebrated today as political fiction that has inspired generations.

Mavis Gallant | © Library and Archives Canada

Mavis Gallant (1922-)

As one of Canada’s greatest living novelists, Mavis Gallant’s prose continues to stir and arouse as much as it did since her fictional debut in 1956. The brevity of her prose is often mentioned in the same breath as Chekov and Henry James. Born in Quebec but a lifelong resident of France, Gallant’s international travel has inevitably been a powerful source of inspiration for her fiction-based interrogations of language and its limits. Known for psychological explorations of the mind and hearts of her characters, Gallant’s masterful prose has earned her admired recognition as a writer’s writer from the beginning of her career. Published in 1956 when she was 34, The Other Paris is a skilled collection of short stories that introduced her powerful voice as a storyteller to audiences worldwide. Gallant is the author of a duo of novels (Green Water, Green Skin 1959 and A Fairly Good Time in 1970), nearly ten collections of short stories, and volumes of non-fiction. As the 2006 recipient of the Prix Athanase-David (prestigious literary award decorated by the government of Quebec), Gallant is the first author of English works to receive the prominent recognition.

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