Birth of a Bookworm

by Michel Tremblay Translated by Sheila Fischman
192 pages,
ISBN: 0889224765

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Young Reader Defies the Vatican Index
by Jack Illingworth

Birth of a Bookworm, Michel Tremblay's recently translated memoir of his childhood (which originally appeared in 1994 as Un ange cornu aux ailes de t(le), is a brief and charming account of the literary growth of an unusual Montreal boy. Beginning with the first book the young Tremblay ever owned (the Comtesse de STgur's L'Auberge de L'Ange-Gardien) and concluding with his first published book (Stories for Late Night Drinkers, a collection of hallucinatory Poe and Lovecraft-inspired fantasies), Birth of a Bookworm moves episodically through the more significant milestones the author's early reading list.
Tremblay appears to have spent most of his waking hours with his eyes glued to the page, but, fortunately, he was alert enough to observe at least a little of the activity that surrounded him. Birth of a Bookworm mingles Tremblay's youthful literary adventures with short vignettes of his family and friends¨especially their responses to this strange child who values books above all else.
The Montreal of Tremblay's childhood, dozing restlessly in the lull between the Second World War and the Quiet Revolution, offered young francophone readers a rather eccentric selection of books. The Vatican Index of prohibited books was still taken seriously¨at least by the city's educators¨and a number of poorly translated staples of the British Empire found their way into local libraries. Tremblay read whatever he could, whenever he could get his hands on it, sometimes with singularly entertaining consequences. Entering his adolescence, he briefly falls in love with Captain W.E. Johns' novels, a now-forgotten series of potboilers in which intrepid aviators with names like Biggles wage a series of ever-successful campaigns against the Nazis.
Not all of Tremblay's weakness for Johns' novels arises from a love of martial bravado, however. The men-with-men camaraderie of Johns' RAF squadrons stimulate a part of Tremblay's imagination that the books were probably not intended to touch. He falls profoundly in love with Captain Lorrington King, one of Johns' heroes, and discovers the joys of masturbation while reading King's Kitten and its sequels. His imaginary affair with King is described in rakish detail¨as is its eventual dissolution. After closely reading dozens of Johns' books, Tremblay catches a reference to King's moustache, a detail which Johns had never bothered to mention in any of his other books, and which had not become a part of Tremblay's elaborate fantasies. Tremblay is, of course, devastated. Losing a lover¨even an imaginary one¨is one thing, but losing faith in an author because of a single sloppy detail can be intensely frustrating.
While not all of the young Tremblay's brushes with literature are so unorthodox, all of his anecdotes are rather introverted and individualistic. We don't hear much about the books Tremblay read; we get his response to a select few of them, and, to a lesser extent, the response that these books elicited from the women in his family. One gets the feeling that Tremblay constantly tried to make the books he read into the books he wanted to read (an almost universal habit). He nearly rejects L'Auberge de L'Ange-Gardien because its dialogue is written in the manner of a play, and enchants his young friends (and a listening neighbour) with his summer-long revised ending to Snow White. Sometimes, the books become social icons in a way that makes their content inconsequential: Tremblay stubbornly avoids reading AndrT BTland's Orage sur mon corps because of his inability to obtain it at the Municipal Library (the librarians refuse to give it to their teenaged patron because of its homosexual content), and dares to bring Victor Hugo's Bug-Jargal (the only novel of Hugo's that was not honoured by inclusion on the Vatican Index) to class in an elaborate joke on his grade ten French teacher. On the rare occasions that he passively surrenders to the charm of a book, the results take their toll on his family: he is so absorbed in The Tin Flute that he notices next to nothing on a family trip to the GaspT, and nearly dismisses his father in favour of Jules Vern's romantic, chimerical, Captain Grant.
Tremblay's real talent is vested in the theatre, and the liveliest sections of Birth of a Bookworm are the dialogue-driven sketches of the Tremblay women, which often rival his famous Les Belles Soeurs in their gently raucous comedy. He writes about women more sympathetically than almost any man alive, and the circumstances which superficially seem to have contributed to this¨a gay writer, raised in a matriarchal QuTbecois home, with a deaf father and a mother who appears to have possessed her son's linguistic gifts but used them primarily for invective¨still don't quite explain just how he comes to do this so well. In any case, his exchanges with his mother and grandmother (and their own bouts of bickering) are the real highlights of the book. Sadly, these flights of argumentative love are too lengthy and convoluted to be quoted effectively.
Reading Tremblay in English means, of course, missing most of the fun. His use of joual (the QuTbecois vernacular, which is frequently incomprehensible to Anglophones with substantial educations in formal French) lends his books much of their richness but makes them impossible to translate adequately. Sheila Fischman, a translator who seldom falters, has produced a brisk and enjoyable version of Birth of a Bookworm, but her version is necessarily a compromise¨in her capable hands, Tremblay's prose is always a quiet but clear echo of the French. Some of the roughness of the dialogue remains¨especially because of the erratic conversational structure that Tremblay favours¨and the young Tremblay's interpretive whimsy is intact, but the texture of the original is necessarily lost.
Birth of a Bookworm is an unabashedly sentimental memoir, but, as is the case with the best of Tremblay's Montreal novels, its sentimentality is unusually graceful. Tremblay's love for his family and friends is abundantly evident, but he seems to be squeamish about the prospect of redemption, and he makes no attempt to whitewash the poverty of his origins, the social status of pre-Quiet Revolution QuTbecois, or the intellectual stranglehold of the Catholic Church. He does not foreground this issues either, however. They're simply parts of his milieu, thrown on the page for his readers to assess.
Tremblay's volumes of memoirs (Birth of a Bookworm was preceded by two other books about Tremblay's childhood and adolescence, which have been translated as Bambi and Me and Twelve Opening Acts) are not major works, but they are among his most readable and entertaining books. While Birth of a Bookworm is primarily a complement to Tremblay's novels, stories, and plays, it is a strong enough book to please curious readers who are unacquainted with its author's prolific history. Best of all, it is an unpretentious, unscholarly book, one that is consistently entertaining and (almost) devoid of self-congratulation: in short, it is the sort of memoir that one does not expect an author of Tremblay's significance to write. ˛

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