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Engaged with Success
by David Homel

ON A PREMATURE spring day in Longueuil, a suburb of Montreal across the Jacques Cartier Bridge, Yves Beauchemin is pointing out the sites where heritage houses have been torn down. Old Longueuil, he says, once a harmonious townscape, is now a jumble of sheet-metal storefronts and new constructions mixed in with vestiges of the past. In particular, Beauchemin rails against the telephone company installations a half-block from his house. On the way to a restaurant called Le 195 7, for coffee and conversation with David Homel, Beauchemin is greeted by many of the passers-by. Known in Quebec as the popular author of Le Matou (The Alley Cat), certainly the most commercially successful novel ever written there, in his neighbourhood he's most famous as the organizer of the fight to preserve the old village of Longueuil, He's active on a broader scale too, as one of the most outspoken proponents (and virtually the only one in the literary field) of an independent, unilingual French Quebec.

BiC: You've just returned from the book fair in Hull, Quebec. What's the lure of this kind of public event for a writer?

Yves Beauchemin: I went there for my latest kids' book, and in children's literature, public reaction is important. Children's reactions to your work are sincere, uncensored.

BiC: What made you turn to the juvenile novel?

Beauchemin: It's my 11-year-old son's fault. He's been nagging me for years to write a novel for his age group. At first I was hesitant to take the plunge. I thought it was going to be an entirely new artistic experience - I was wrong. The juvenile novel is not all that different. Kids want the same thing out of books as adults: they don't want the action to drag, they want living characters, they're looking for originality, even if they wouldn't put it in exactly those terms. The books I read when I was younger were my models: Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll. Good novels for kids are the same as good novels for adults, except that the main characters are kids. I didn't make any special effort to "write down" to any particular level; I wasn't afraid to use the word "biopsy," for example. Context dictated my language.

BiC: You're a writer for whom character is everything.

Beauchemin: For me, character is the foundation of the novel. A novel is the demonstration of a character, the character in action. Plot must be the natural extension of the character. My novels have nothing to do with formal experimentation. When you don't have the excuse of playing with form, you can't allow yourself platitudes or clichés. The tone, the voice has to be new; voice is primary. Plot is certainly not going to supply anything new, since everything's been said before anyway.

BiC: In your next book to appear in English, Juliette Pomerleau (translated by Sheila Fischman), the main character is a woman. That must have been a challenge.

Beauchemin: My first two novels, L'Enfirouape and Le Matou, both told the story of young men in their 20s. With Juliette Pomerleau I changed sex and age. I wanted to enlarge my world.

BiC: What inspired you to make that move?

Beauchemin: I wrote L'Enfirouape at Radio-Quebec, where 1 worked at the time, after business hours. After five o'clock in any office is the time when the cleaning ladies take over. I got friendly with one member of the cleaning staff, an enormous woman from Brittany. After a while, I admitted I was writing a novel on my government typewriter. She began telling me about her life. I listened, casually, without ulterior motives, but I was absorbing it all. Some of her story, entirely transformed, shows up in Juliette Pomerleau.

BiC: You changed her into an urban preservationist like yourself.

Beauchemin: It's one of her concerns. But she wants to save her building for sentimental, not ideological reasons. She's trying to preserve the house where she spent her childhood, which belonged to a woman for whom she has great affection.

BiC: What motivates your activism in Vieux-Longueuil?

Beauchemin: I'm the Don Quixote type. It's an instinct of mine. And one of the advantages of being a well-known writer: you can use your fame as a platform from which to make statements. Though it's a double-edged sword: my activism over the years has probably cost me a novel.

BiC: Music is one of your sources of inspiration. What does music bring to the novelist?

Beauchemin: I always listened to classical music around the house when I was young, mostly my mother's old 78s. I have a recurring dream that I'm a great concert pianist playing Liszt's Sonata in C-flat Major. Music is important to me. I'm a perfectionist, an obsessive-compulsive, meticulous type, impossible to live with. Music gives me the impression of being inside perfection. Inside the ideal, inside ecstasy. It's a source of spiritual joy for me, strength and joy ... something inexplicable. I'm an agnostic, but music could be the proof that we have a soul. Besides, it takes my mind off writing. After writing all day, I don't feel much like reading - music is my escape.

BiC: Is this perfection possible with words? I often feel it's not.

Beauchemin: Composers probably aren't happy with what they're able to do, either. No one is.

BiC: You're most at home with 19th-century music.

Beauchemin: I started with it, but moved outward. I must admit that I can't follow experimental modem music, and the rejection of melody by some composers. Melody is the equivalent of discourse; it's the production of meaning.

BiC: Do you play an instrument?

Beauchemin: I can tap out a few notes on the piano that's, about it. I love music, but I'm a collector, not a musician. I get ideas for characters while listening. I don't know how it works and I'd rather not know.

BiC: You wrote Le Matou on the government typewriter after five p. m., too. That book relieved you from having to work at another job.

Beauchemin: Le Matou gave me the most precious gift literature can give to a writer: freedom. The freedom to speak, to speak in public. If we were in the former Soviet Union, that would be catastrophic. But in our society - capitalist, imperfect, and often barbarous - there is a certain freedom. Not as far-reaching as we think, but still very precious.

BiC: Le Matou was what every writer would wish for: a commercial and literary success. But sudden fame can be hard on a practitioner of the craft.

Beauchemin: Didn't Tennessee Williams write something called "The Catastrophe of Success"? Success keeps you from writing like right now, for example! Success dehumanises you, especially in a capitalist society in which the most important words in literature are "best seller." I detest that. I never know how to react when I'm introduced as the author of Le Matou, which sold over a million copies. What do figures mean? That my book is mediocre, but since there are a lot of mediocre people on this earth, it sold well? Or that my book really was good and it touched that good part in many different people? Maybe in 50 years we'll know.

BiC: The book was an international success. Did you travel with it?

Beauchemin: The obstacle of language kept me from going everywhere, but I did travel in French-speaking countries and the United States and English Canada. Juliette Pomerleau will be published in English next spring.

BiC: Both Juliette Pomerleau and Le Matou are giant books at a time when there are fewer of that type. They hark back to your 19th-century influences.

Beauchemin: I don't know that there are fewer long books! Plenty of American best sellers are hefty volumes. They're books for people who love to read. It's a chance I take. The same was true for my juvenile novel Une Histoire a faire japper. 222 pages for a children's book. But it seems to have worked. As for influences, the 19th-centuty Russian novel made me what 1 am. Dickens, too, of course, for his social concerns, his giant plot constructions, his parallel plots, and establishment of character. BaIzac as well; he's a dramatic concentration of Dickens. Less goody-goody, more cynical than Dickens.

BiC: Being known, you said, has provided you with a platform from which to speak. You shared this platform with Judge Andree Ruffo in a co-authored book.

Beauchemin: I wrote a short story based on something I experienced. The story doesn't put my wife and me in a very good light. It shows that we couldn't face the situation we were in.

BiC: First, who is Judge Ruffo?

Beauchemin: Someone I admire very much who, as a juvenile-court judge, has worked for the welfare and happiness of children. Aram Kermoyan wanted us to write a book for his company Art Global, as a way of combining our voices for Ruffo's cause, which is also my own. Kermoyan suggested I write a piece of fiction to go with her text. I worked with an incident that occurred when I returned to my childhood village in the Abitibi region in Northwest Quebec. I decided to talk about it, despite the horror. The story concerns young Native people. When I arrived there, I discovered that the quaint little village I had known had disappeared. People had lost their dignity because there was no more work. The forest had been clear-cut; no more trees, no more work, dignity, or respect. People were living on welfare, living on drugs and booze and violence, and there was segregation too, between Natives and whites. Of course there was segregation when I was there, but it was hidden. Now that the village's social structure had been blown apart, everything was out in the open. The story is called "Une Nuit A I'hotel." My wife and I stayed at the village hotel that a friend of my father's had once owned. When we went into the bar to rent our room, we saw it was evenly divided between whites and Natives, and that everyone was dead drunk. What occurred next was horrible. We got out of there in one piece, but from our room upstairs we heard a young Native girl getting raped on a pool table by a group of whites. The hotel manager let on that my wife was just his style. The rooms had all been torn apart the doors knocked down, the sinks ripped out, the police nowhere to be seen. When we left the next morning, around six thirty, there were four or five little Native kids, no more than five years old, and they all had a bottle of beer in their hands. I was never so ashamed to be white.

BiC: Standing on the platform of notoriety, you've talked a lot about defending the French language. We have to defend our language because it is the tool of our trade, but does that necessarily mean joining a particular political party or movement?

Beauchemin: I'm a member of the Parti Quebecois, but that doesn't mean I have to toe the party line. I've never been tempted by a career in politics because that would force me to give up writing. I have friends in politics, and I know politics can't be reconciled with any other career - maybe not even with normal family life. But when you've attained a certain public profile, you want to speak out for the causes dear to you. The Quebecois people have reached a critical, decisive moment in their history. Things are going to be decided over the next decade. Our adversaries know this too. Demographics will be the major factor. Our adversaries are waiting for us to lose control of the island of Montreal. When that happens, all that will remain is a folkloric French society in the countryside. English Canada will have reached its goal: a homogeneous country. Because you cannot have social harmony with cultural heterogeneity.

BiC: What is social harmony anyway, this paix sociale we hear about? After all, there's a certain degree of creative social conflict that gives a society its energy, its spice. That's one of the attractive things about Montreal.

Beauchemin: Let's talk about the minorities, about foreigners who have settled here. Someone who comes to live here makes a cultural as well as geographic choice. He has to identify with the country that takes him in. That doesn't mean denying his own culture. But he can't expect to live the same way he did in his native country.

BiC: No one is claiming M. But what about social harmony; do we have it in Montreal or not?

Beauchemin: It's very fragile. There's latent conflict in Montreal.

BiC: I'd say conflicts. But there's no country without conflict.

Beauchemin: There's no violence here. But we don't have social harmony, not with the constitutional debates. There's no consensus. A country's like a house; you can have only one plan.

BiC: I don't know as I'd like to live in a country of perfect calm, perfect homogeneity.

Beauchemin: Ethnic roots have nothing to do with it. Look at the Robert dictionary of the French language. All kinds of different names from different backgrounds are on the title page. But they all participated by consensus in a project, which is a French dictionary. That doesn't exist in Quebec. The debate has been skewed by the Trudeauist idea of multiculturalism. The Ukrainians of the Prairies aren't going to live the way they did in Kiev. Or the German farmers as they did in Bavaria. Have you ever heard Ukrainians in this country complain about having lost their mother tongue? I never have. Only the French protest, because they cling to the idea of a bilingual, bicultural country. That's created false expectations. We don't want to impose French on the rest of the country, but let us live in French. To bilingualize Quebec is to anglicize it. Culture is a way of seeing the world and making personal identifications. A culture tends to form perceptions for individuals. A culture wants to find ways to express itself. It needs instruments to do this: social, political, and other kinds. If a culture doesn't have its own tools, it will disappear. That's the case in the United States: we see the resentment toward the Japanese economically and the Chicanos because of language. It's a normal reaction.

BiC: For you, then, defending French, the tool of your trade, is a political decision.

Beauchemin: Language and independence are practically equivalent. If we don't have all the tools at our disposal, we'll disappear, like the French of Louisiana, like the Franco-Americans. Or the French speakers outside Quebec - the francophones hors Quebec.

BiC: You travelled in Eastern Europe recently. Did you see anything there influenced you?

Beauchemin: What astounded me was that the Slovaks and the Quebecois are in almost the same situation. The Slovaks are the poorer people, less industrialised, 33 per cent of the population, a different culture, with Prague leading everything, like Ontario does. It's an artificial country. No constitution can change that.

BiC: Lately, writers and other artists haven't been particularly interested in Quebec independence.

Beauchemin: It's not up to writers to be political people. We're contemplative, reflective. We mirror society and provide aesthetic enjoyment - that's our job. Just because they're quiet doesn't mean they haven't made up their minds. True, there is a lack of confidence on the part of Quebec writers towards the successive provincial governments. Quebec writers are torn between their heart and their pocketbook. The Quebec government has never been faithful to its cultural mission. Wherever you look, you see total contempt for the arts from all politicians, whatever their jurisdiction. The federal government's involvement in culture isn't innocent. It's part of an overall invasive strategy that aims at control of ideas. Once the federal government has solved the Quebec problem once and for all, by neutralising, or hypnotising, or buying off Quebec literature, the federal side will pull out. They won't be any better than the province. All these budgets for Telefilm or the NFB, or the Canada Council are part of a strategy of invasion and domination that isn't concerned with the good of culture, but with maintaining the status quo. At the same time, the Quebec government is hardly in a position to take over the cultural jurisdiction.

BiC: Some English-Canadian writers feel that Quebec is dictating the cultural agenda, not the other way around. The argument becomes circular.... Listening to you, I can't imagine you writing or setting a novel outside Quebec.

Beauchemin: Novels are based on your experience, and my experience is that of a Quebecois. At the same time, I flee political themes like the plague. They make your work appear dated in a hurry. These themes shrink your vision of the world. All characters in a novel must be free. L'Enfirouape, my first novel, had an overtly political theme. There are some openly political passages in the novel that Bill Johnson pointed out in his book L'Anglophobie Made in Quebec. For example, there is a scene when some October Crisis revolutionaries kidnap a Montreal English businessman. The kidnappers burst into his office with their guns in hand, and the businessman harangues them and treats them like dirt. That's unrealistic; my political convictions compromised the realism of the scene. An author may have his prejudices, his loves and hates, but he has to give equal opportunity to all his characters.


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