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.

20 Classic Novels You’ve Never Heard of

When I ask people about their favorite classic novels, I usually get a similar response from everybody: Jane Austen, A couple Brontës’, A few Dickens’, an odds-and-ends collection of complex modernist tomes, and of course a dystopian novel or two to garnish the collection. Here are a few great novels you have probably not heard of, but were nevertheless significant influences for some of the more common works on your bookshelf:

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Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho was a landmark of the gothic genre, but it favored using rational explanations over the supernatural.  MG Lewis’ horrifying depiction of evil within the Catholic church from the perspective of an outwardly pious but internally evil monk is as brutal today as it was two centuries ago. However, just like Marquis de Sade’s controversial and pornographic novels, The Monk has struggled to maintain its literary prominence because of the inherent subject matter.
Between Jane Austen’s early 19th century work and George Eliot’s peak in the 1870’s, Elizabeth Gaskell chronicled the social conflicts of rural England with a simple but transcendent voice that saw beyond the facades of men and women with an observant and sympathetic eye. Cranford is about a small English town taken over by women when the men must move to nearby Drumble to work, uprooting the long-standing gender dynamics and changing the social landscape indefinitely.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is a standard of Children’s literature, but a similar-yet-completely-different work, Kingsley’s Water Babies, used the concept of fairy-tale parable to explore Darwinian evolution and the issues of social progress. When Tom, a ten-year old chimney-sweep, falls into a mysterious pond, he explores an undiscovered world of water-borne creatures from whom he learns how to understand this complex and industrializing world.
Charles Dickens and Emile Zola took great pains in dissecting the sheer difficulty of succeeding in the cutthroat world of industrializing England and France, but Verga’s story about a poor Sicilian family facing disaster goes beyond the conventional naturalist work to portray the impossibilities of a happy life in a newly-unified Sicily. Some of the most vivid realism of its day, The House by the Medlar Tree presented with stark lucidity what many other authors did in the late 19th century–bridge the gap between the old world and the new by depicting in great detail the impending consequences.
Joris-Karl Huysmans – Against the Grain 
Oscar Wilde was known as the unofficial king of late 19th century decadence, a movement exemplified by excess, debauchery and boundless pleasures. However, Huysmans’ study of a lavish life in response to 19th century materialism and industrialism is an ode to the dying grandeur of aristocratic Europe, as its main character, the Duc Jean de Esseintes, lives and dies by his own rules, away from the boorish “respectability” of the rising bourgeoisie.
Largely overshadowed by the great 19th century novels of adultery (See: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina)Effi Briest has nevertheless survived in large part because of the praise of Thomas Mann and Samuel Beckett. Similar to Bovary for its subtle social critiques of rural life and marriage, Fontane’s tragicomic tale remains notorious for its ability to make the most erudite of readers weep uncontrollably.
A book that famed novelist John Fowles claims has “haunted” him all of his life, this mysterious novel from this even more mysterious novelist has shown up in the oddest of places, appearing in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and even being the supposed influence for F.Scott Fitzgerald’s naming of The Great Gatsby. When a 15 year-old boy arrives at a school in the countryside, his adventures to a lost mansion filled with aristocratic extravagance enamors the narrator to no end, yet it marks the pivotal turning point of his youth, where the mysteries of love and the unknown painfully fade away before his eyes.
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A little over a decade before James Joyce would publish his monstrous, groundbreaking Ulysses, Stephens’ novel about a sixteen-year old girl called Mary depicted the slums of early 20th century Dublin with colorful, imaginative language. The Charwoman’s Daughter contrasts the pains of poverty with simple pleasures,  and it reminds that reader that the language can always transcend the ugliness of daily life by painting a more poetic and beautiful landscape.
The subgenre of working-class literature was, in the early 20th century, largely overshadowed by the works of Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis.  On the other side of the pond, though, Tressell’s jab at the vacuity of capitalism, where everything from daily life to the basic rhythms of work are revealed to be subject to the mechanisms of efficiency, became a cult classic among the working poor. Although it fueled brief socialist movements in England, the book has been largely forgotten for its surprisingly subtle treatment of the system that degraded the working class to destitution.
Panned by critics and largely forgotten during his own lifetime, Roussel’s surrealist novel about a lonely estate owner who creates macabre tableaux out of the dead is more of a poetic labyrinth than a straightforward tale. However, the ambiguity of his storytelling and the playfulness of his prose has helped revived the strange novel, and contemporary thinkers like Michel Foucault and poets like John Ashbery have credited this book as major influences of their work.
Huxley’s first novel has since been overshadowed by his dystopian Brave New World, but Crome Yellow is nevertheless a hilarious satire of British life and culture at a time when art and literature are marred by highfalutin pretension. When a shy poet goes to a country estate with his love interest, he meets a litany of ridiculously-named characters, many of them representing the decaying aspects of an intellectual class Huxley was quickly becoming a part of.
Kraus’ 800-page play has been read much more than performed, and his penchant for using both documents and personal accounts of the First World War to chronicle the fall of the Habsburg Empire has placed it among the great post-war novels of the 1920’s. Both an indictment of political language and an elegy to a lost empire, Kraus uses repetition to reinforce the impending doom awaiting the Austro-Hungarians, who must find whatever silver lining is left amid their impending suffering.
E.E. Cummings is largely remembered today as the grandfather of nonsense poetry, but his autobiographical war novel about being imprisoned in a large cell with several others during the First World War was to introduce many of the themes Cummings would extrapolate for the rest of his literary career. Far from the playful rhythm of his verse, The Enormous Room can be read as an anarchist text, the room symbolic man’s place in relation to the government imprisoning them and the government supposedly helping them.
An acquaintance of James Joyce and Sigmund Freud, Svevo rarely revealed his secret passion of writing, but his hilarious and thought-provoking Confessions of Zeno used Freud’s psychoanalytic studies to create a character as unpredictable as he is miserable, inextricably bound to the desires of his subconscious. When Zeno tries to quit smoking, for example, he shapes his whole life around the act of quitting, and the performance thereof becomes the source of all his happiness and misery.
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Pirandello is continuously featured in World Literature anthologies for his famous Six Characters in Search of an Author, a meta-theatrical play that brought him international attention. One, None and a Hundred Thousand, on the other hand, is on the surface a simple tale about a man alienated by his self-image, but at its heart is an exploration of the limitations of language, and how he are estranged from those around us because of such linguistic barriers.
These days, Henry Green is seen more as a influencer than a great figure himself, but Blindness is a literary masterpiece that displays the sheer breadth of his abilities. Green uses parenthetical statements and an idiosyncratic sentence structure to describe innovative methods of interpretation in a state of blindness. One of the great unsung architects of modernist literature, Green uses the concept of blindness to show that we are inherently blind to the true nature of reality.
Theodore Dreiser and John Dos Passos are still read today for their treatment of gritty urban life at the beginning of the 20th century, but Doblin’s sharp language, playful narration and honest depiction of life in down-and-out Berlin is both thrilling and cinematic. Using several forms of print–such as newspaper, street signs and popular music–Doblin (along with fellow Berliner Bertolt Brecht) would later influence the use of multimedia in late 20th century literature.
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Storm Jameson did what Tressel did with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, chronicling the difficulties of working-class urban life during the depression in England. The narrator travels through London’s West End dreaming of a better life, but ultimately pushed to a state of mental weariness because of the endless pressures of domestic life. Without displaying her message too blatantly, Jameson picks apart the misconceptions of urban life amid the futility of abject poverty.
Of all the great few-thousand page masterpieces that were released in the first half of the twentieth century, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities is most often overlooked. A simple plot told in accessible language, Musil tells the story of Ulrich, an unassuming man who finds many lovers, joins a nationalist planning committee, then ends up in an oddly-spiritual relationship with his sister. Though unfinished, the novel is written with a philosophical elegance reminiscent of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past.
Laxness is now known as the grandfather of Icelandic fiction, but that’s probably the reason you’ve never heard of him. Heavily influenced by the Icelandic SagasIndependent People tells the story of a man who begins growing the claws of Grimur, the demon-monster from the ancient poem. At once a reclamation of his heritage and also a journey through his home country, Laxness details the rise and falls of his beloved homeland with mythic undertones in a style the magic realists would eventually adopt.
A surrealist tale, a puzzle, a game, a metafiction — Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch defies most if not all of the conventions of novel writing in this story about a man trying to come to terms with his place in the world in Bohemian Paris. Unlike the work of Hemingway and Henry Miller, Cortazar does away with the romanticism of Paris and isolates the author-figure from society, and in a novel that proclaims its own insignificance, it becomes very difficult for them to affirm their place in the world.