Ten Incredible French-Canadian Texts you should read right now

by Elizabeth DiEmanuele

Similarly rich and full of complex insight into Canada’s cultural memory, French-Canadian texts have a very different perspective with regards to history, politics, and language. These texts tell stories of identity, history, struggle, and loss, all unique and separate from Canada’s dominant, English-speaking society. Contributing to Canada’s diverse literary canon, here is a list of 10 compelling French-Canadian texts.

  1. Marie Chapdelaine (1913) – Louis Hémon

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Though written by a French writer who resided in Quebec for many years, Marie Chapdelaine is a French Canadian classic. As a love story that also addresses the struggles of settling within Canada, including climate, working the land, politics of language and the complexities of religious doctrine, Marie Chapdelaine offers insight  into the workings of the Quebec province.

2. The Tin Flute (1945) – Gabrielle Roy

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The Tin Flute takes place during the Second World War at a time when Quebec was still experiencing consequences of the Great Depression. The characters suffer from extreme poverty and sacrifice for each other amidst poor conditions. Hailed as a novel that captures the struggle of the working-class during the time while also capturing very real moments of tenderness and love, The Tin Flute is a must read, Canadian classic.

3. The Second Scroll (1951) – A.M. Klein

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“Wonderful is the engrafting of skin, but more wonderful the million busy hushed cells, in secret planning, stitching, stretching, until — the wound is vanished, the blood courses normal, the cicatrice falls off.”

Tracing his Uncle Melech’s history as a Holocaust survivor with goals to help Jewish peoples return to Israel, the unnamed narrator follows his uncle to Italy, Morocco, and Israel; but, he is always a step behind in the journey. Constructed as a modern Torah and told through a variety of narrative forms, this complex novel seeks to come to terms with a post-Holocaust world.

4. Mad Shadows (1959) – Marie Claire Blais

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Marie Claire Blais’ short debut novel is anything but a simple read. Written at a time when Jansenism dominated much of Quebec, Mad Shadows was a taboo novel that transgressed doctrine and its restrictions. Many have read it as a deconstruction of the Jansenism myth. Focusing on the family dynamics of Patrice, Isabelle-Marie, and Louise, Mad Shadows troubles the body, familial relationships, and the human consciousness through each character’s obsession for beauty and perfection. With no happy end, this novel explores the unsettling capacities of the human.

5. Next Episode (1965) – Hubert Aquin

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“I am the fragmented symbol of Quebec’s revolution, its fractured reflection and its suicidal incarnation.”

Next Episode tells the story of an imprisoned revolutionary who decides to write a thriller as he awaits his execution. Significantly, his story becomes an allegory for the Quebec separatist movement of the 1960s, deeply connected to issues of loss, politics, rights of peoples, and sacrifice.

6. Beautiful Losers (1966) – Leonard Cohen

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Strange, uninhibited, and taboo, Beautiful Losers does not hold anything back. This experimental narrative develops a love story between the Mohawk saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an unnamed Canadian, a native woman named Edith, and F, a member of the Quebec separatist movement. With sexually explicit and taboo scenes, Cohen’s novel experienced mixed reception; but, its humorous depiction of complex power structures and identity politics has been acclaimed by many.

7. Kamouraska (1970) – Anne Hébert

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Switching between the past and the present in a stream of consciousness style, this novel tells the story of the well-respected Elisabeth Rolland. As Elisabeth sits at her second husband’s death bed, she recalls a tragic secret, that of a passionate love triangle and its murderous consequences. Based on the true story and murder of Seigneur of Kamouraska in 1838, the novel explores love, passion, and the repercussions of an uncontainable past.

8. La Sagouine (1971) – Antonine Maillet

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“Your happiness in life, the only way you’ll ever get any is to keep on asking for it, you can’t just sit back waiting for it to come along. So you got to take care, because one day, without saying nothing to nobody, it’ll just pop back to where it came from. Life’s funny that way.”

This play written by Antonine Maillet is the true story of an Acadian cleaning woman and former prostitute. As Maillet writes, “That is where I found her, between her mop and her rags, bending over that pail of dirty water that has been collecting for half a century all the dirt of the country. Muddy water perhaps, but still capable of reflecting the face of a woman who can only see herself through other people’s dirt.” As a story of struggle, poverty, strength, and humour, this play tells story of this woman’s life and of Acadia.

9. Volkswagon Blues (1984) – Jacques Poulin

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The novel’s protagonist, Jack, is a writer who seeks to find the brother he has not seen in 20 years. With the help of his hitchhiker friend, a Métis girl who goes by the name, “La Grande Sauterelle,” the two road trip through Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and the Oregon Trail. In their search for Jack’s brother, Jack and La Grande Sauterelle uncover histories of the French and First Nations peoples in Canada, complicating the simplicity of the Canadian myth. Following the tradition of Jack Kerouac’s The Road, Poulin’s Volkswagon Blues is a story of adventure, disillusion, and self-discovery.

10. Frog Moon (1994) – Tostevin Lola Lemire

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Using a variety of narrative mediums, including oral tradition, myth, folk tales, and past experiences, Lemire’s debut novel, Frog Moon, tells the story of a French Canadian woman’s attempts to confront her complex history. Kaki, also known as Laura, recalls her childhood experiences in Northern Ontario, her strict Christian schooling, and the loss of the French language from moving to Toronto. Moving between Kaki’s past and present, Frog Moon is a rich narrative that addresses the intangible effects of loss (of people, of language, of home) and the ways in which these losses come to shape one’s identity.

18 thoughts on “Ten Incredible French-Canadian Texts you should read right now

  1. A very good list.

    However, most of these recommendations are about authors that would not qualify themselves as being French Canadian. Cohen is from Montreal, is considered a true Québécois, but never wrote in French. Same for Klein, who would be better included in an English Canadian list.

    The last on the list, Tostevin, is the most recent in the list. The book you recommend was written in English, and translated in French by a university professor, of English-speaking origin. This translator, Robert Dickson, was also a poet, who wrote most if not all of his books in French.

    I remember reading « Une saison dans la vie d’Emmanuel » (1965, Prix Médicis), by Marie-Claire Blais. This book really made a mark when it was published, not only here in Québec, but also in France.

    I’m also happy to see Jacques Poulin’s « Volkswagen Blues » in the list. I consider this book to be a metaphor of the evolution the Québec people. The narrator starts on a road trip from Gaspé, where Jacques Cartier, the « discoverer » of Canada took possession of the land for the King of France. Jack Waterman (as in the pen) is on a quest : following the traces of his brother, throughout the continent, he ends his trip in San Francisco. The get to meat Ferlinghetti at the City Lights library, who gives him a lead to find his brother. He does find his brother (Jack Kerouac), who doesn’t speak French any more, and barely recognizes him.

    The list lacks more recent publications, by authors, such as Victor Lévy-Beaulieu, Robert Lalonde, Yves Beauchemin, Michel Tremblay, Marie Laberge, and Dany Laferrière, to name a few. The last has been made a member of l’Académie française. Other people, specialists, would probably recommend other names. Such additions would complete the list of 10, and provide much more insight into the evolution of French-Canadian / Québécois literature in the last quarter century, even extending to the last half century.

    • Thanks for the comment, Fernan. We made the list with bilingualism in mind but we know that Quebec is a trove of good literature (I’m actually a descendant of Germaine Guevremont, author of Le Survenant). We know these lists only scratch the surface, but we do urge our readers to look deeper.

    • Elizabeth DiEmanuele says:

      Thank you so much for sharing this comment. You make some very important distinctions. As we mentioned as a collective, our lists only scratch the surface of incredibly wonderful literature and authors; but, I wanted you to personally know that I appreciate you taking the time to outline this history for our readership.

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