29 August 2014

Gabrielle Roy: Bonheur d'occasion | The Tin Flute (1945)

Gabrielle Roy's Bonheur d'occasion is an important work in the history of the literature of Québec, although the cover of this Stanké edition makes it look like a Mills & Boon type of read. Which it certainly isn't anything like.

The novel is set in the working-class suburb of Saint-Henri in Montréal during the war, where for most men the choice is to sign up for World War II – and fight for countries many can't even place on a map – or stay at home where the depression means they'll probably be unemployed and live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Central to the story is the Lacasse family: the mother is pregnant and has had eleven previous pregnancies, eight children having survived; the father Azarius is full of grand plans for making money, but these plans don't prove successful; and Florentine, who works in a working-class restaurant, provides much of the family's financial support.

Then Jean Lévesque, whose parents died in an accident when he was very young and who spent some time in an orphanage, comes along. He works as a mechanic and intends to become an engineer: for him, there is a third way beyond the starve-or-fight dilemma. Initially Jean shows an attraction to Florentine – who is a mixture of social naivety and natural survival techniques – although this turns to pity. And when she invites him to her home – the rest of her family being away on another of Azarius's moneymaking schemes – he is traumatised: here, he sees the poverty he has escaped from, but he also feels sexual temptation. Although the language is extremely coy and although Florentine is strongly attracted to him, it would be difficult not to interpret what follows as an act of rape.

Shortly afterwards Jean leaves to work in a munitions factory. He had previously introduced Florentine to Emmanuel, a soldier from a wealthier background to Florentine's who has enlisted to break free from the mental and physical prison his unemployed former schoolfriends are in in Saint-Henri and, he feels, become a man(!). He is strongly attracted to Florentine but can only see her during the brief periods when he is on leave. Although Florentine doesn't love him, a hasty marriage will prevent the opprobrium an out-of-wedlock pregnancy will bring, and the change of circumstances will provide Florentine with an escape from poverty.

But as Emmanuel takes the train back to fight with the other soldiers, he refuses to accept simplistic jingoistic ideologies, and can no longer understand the reason for going, for leaving his wife.

Bonheur d'occasion was Gabrielle Roy's first novel, for which she was awarded the prix Femina in 1947. And I still find the English translation of the title – The Tin Flute – an awful one: I repeat, whatever is wrong with the literal 'Second-hand Happiness'?

Below is my link to the Saint-Henri métro station sculpture:

Julien Hébert's Bonheur d'occasion

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