Books, by Jack Ruttan

The Tapestry of Michel Tremblay

A Thing of Beauty, by Michel Tremblay, translated by Sheila Fischman, Talonbooks, 1998, 223 pages.
Bambi and Me, by Michel Tremblay, translated by Sheila Fischman, Talonbooks, 1998, 157 pages.

Reviewed by Jack Ruttan (Originally published in the Montreal Review of Books)

The fall of 1998 could well have been called "The Season of Michel Tremblay," because work from this Québecois master was as plentiful as autumn leaves on the ground. Two plays opened: in French, and translated into English, in the fall [October]. Two new books in English translation are the subject of this present review: a novel, A Thing of Beauty, and Bambi and Me, a collection of autobiographical essays.

Like the leaves, these works, while complete in themselves, also form part of a larger picture. Tremblay's lifetime of writing has been a tapestry of cycles which overlap and intertwine with each other. Characters move between the stories and the plays, with every new appearance of a person adding to this individual's history. L'Universe de Michel Tremblay (in French by Jean Marc Barette, University of Montreal Press, 1996) lists 1,270 separate characters appearing in over 44 works.

A Thing of Beauty is the sixth novel in a cycle called "Les Chroniques de Plateau Montréal."  It continues the story of matriarch Albertine, her son Marcel and daughter Thérèse, and all the layers of kinship and friendship around them. The last name of the family is never given, granting them a kind of double-sided status. In one way they are iconic symbols of the average low-income Quebecer, and at the same time, they might be members of the reader's family themselves. We are brought so close inside these characters, their thoughts, feelings, and bodily complaints, that they become part of us, and last names are unneccessary.

Twenty-year-old Marcel is the focus of the present story. Overweight, a "slow learner," perpetually sunglassed because of sensitivity to light, he has deeply imaginative visions that are the high points of the book. These are the works of art alluded to in the title. However, rather than being "joys forever," they are constructed in all their wondrous detail soley in Marcel's mind, as he teeters on the edge of one of his dangerous epileptic fits. Preserved for us by the author, these become sly comments on the nature of art and creation, since who knows how many equally worthy works are sparked to life and then instantly obliterated in the minds of even the slowest-seeming people around us?

Albertine represents the other extreme, a woman too deeply involved in the world around her, ignoring her own needs and feelings. She fusses over the coffee at breakfast, and worries about Thérèse's indiscretions. She is burdened also by memories, and thinks she can bring her family back to an earlier, nostalgically happy state by moving back to an apartment they once occupied, in Fabre Street. This, of course, only leads to further trouble as the story unfolds.

Covering similar territory, only this time telling a story autobiographical in nature, Bambi and Me traces the development of an artistic imagination through the medium of the Saturday Matineé. What it really consists of is a series of film reviews, recounted from the viewpoint of young Tremblay, involved in being a child in 1950s Montreal. The deeper story deals with these films, how the embryonic author's expectations of them and his reactions to them as he watches, give exercise to a creative imagination, and lead him to create stories of his own. The final section of the book is one of these stories, written by Tremblay when he was 16. The concerns of his later work are all there: the extremity of emotion, the love of description and switching between many viewpoints. It's an especially skilful job of translation by Sheila Fischman in this section, capturing perfectly the overheated quality of this adolescent work.

 The work of Michel Tremblay, or indeed of any other French Quebec writer would not reach the English-reading sector at all if it were not for the skill of translators. Sheila Fischman is the predominant name in literary translation in Quebec, having over sixty books to her credit. Along with the above two Tremblay works, she also has coming out this year a novel by François Gravel called Miss September, and Cruelties by Lise Bissonette.

"Translation is always a challenge," Fischman said in a telephone interview. "You have two goals that are sometimes difficult to reconcile: first, to produce a text in good English, a text that does not read like a translation, and second, to attempt to reproduce the author's style or voice in a different language. Always, there are choices to be made."

"Even writers who profess to know very little English," she goes on, "usually know enough to be able to spot errors of interpretation or even, sometimes, plain old mistranslations. I find too that writers enjoy feeling they are part of the translation process. An important point to make though is that translation is not a collaboration: the author, an artist, creates his or her own text, while the translator, a craftsman if you want, recreates that text in another language."

Unlike as little as five years ago, now it is almost automatic that books by major names in English Canadian literature are translated for the French shelves. Translations from both sides have picked up, and the gap between the two literatures is beginning to be bridged. On the English side, the record is more spotty, but still, numbers are increasing -- a fact which can only enrich the culture of this city.

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