25 August 2014

Jacques Poulin: La Tournée d'automne | Autumn Rounds (1993)

In Tiphaine Samoyault's article 'Référence et post-modernité : Jacques Poulin' (Littérature 113 (March 1999), pp. 15–23), she draws attention to an interesting idea that la Grande Sauterelle has in Volkswagen Blues: that a book is never complete in itself, that it has to be seen in relation to other books, and not only those by the same author. What is generally believed to be a book is frequently in reality merely part of a vast picture that others have worked on without knowing.

And not only books may be involved in the bigger picture. Samoyault is interested in intertextuality, and in Volkswagen Blues finds references to forty-four books, two films, three maps, three paintings, nine songs and six newspapers. And the references continue in Poulin's La Tournée d'automne: forty books, fourteen songs, one film, one newspaper and a radio programme.

Culture is very important in La Tournée d'automne, as it provides the glue that brings together the Québécois mobile library employee le Chauffeur (who is never named) and Marie, who has come to Québec city on a temporary basis with a group of travelling entertainers. Le Chauffeur and Marie are both (to take the cue from the book title) in the autumn of their life, both unattached, in need of a soulmate and – probably most important of all – both are in love with books, for which they share much the same tastes.

Le Chauffeur lives in Vieux-Québec near Château Frontenac, and in fact meets Marie as she stands one evening by a railing near the castle by the funicular entrance. He returns to see her with the troupe and talks and walks with her, becoming quietly obsessed with her, as she is with him. One night when they can't sleep he takes her for a ride in his bibliobus over the bridge to and around l'Île d'Orléans, where, as Marie remarks, Félix Leclerc used to live.

And later, when le Chauffeur has to do his summer round of the Côte-Nord, the entertainers decide to follow his route in an old school bus, stopping off at various points to entertain the inhabitants of villages and small towns, making good takings. It's an opportunity for two (very subtly) budding lovers to meet and talk and discover even very similar they are in cultural tastes, even how they use the same words and expressions. (Although, right up to the end, they continue – like Jack and la Grande Sauterelle – to address each other by the polite, rather distancing form of 'vous'.)

And as with Volkswagen Blues, this is very much a road novel: detailed observations are made about the itinerary, the various stops made along the Côte-Nord, and then – when Marie leaves the entertainers to fly back to France, le Chauffeur taking her to the airport, the novel details the continued journey and considerable detour le Chauffeur takes (during which the relationship is finally consummated) as they drive to Godbout, take the ferry to Matane, and go around the head of the Gaspésie peninsula. For a person unfamiliar with the route taken, I'd advise that this delightful book be read with a map to trace it.

But rather than Montréal airport it's just back to Québec, as that's where the journey and the book end. And not – as some readers might have thought – with le Chauffeur killing himself by using the pipe he carries in his glove compartment to attach to the exhaust pipe – but by him asking Marie if she'll join him on the autumn round. And she asks 'Pour le meilleur et pour le pire?' ('For better and for worse?), which veers a little too close to the sentimental for comfort, but the reader is at least happy that le Chauffeur has re-discovered a reason to live, that he'll be doing his autumn round after all, and that he'll have a companion to help feed all the cats they meet on the way.

I just can't understand why for the English translation the decision was made to pluralise the title, as so much hinges on the existence of the one coming autumn round – there's even a prominent allusion to it on the back cover of the above edition.

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