24 February 2017

Michel Tremblay: Des nouvelles d'Édouard (1984)

Des nouvelles d'Édouard is the fourth volume of Chroniques du Plateau Mont-Royal by the gay Québéquois writer Michel Tremblay, and for me it was a surprisingly fascinating, often hilarious, read. I say surprising because the initial pages about the ageing Édouard, a shoe saleman-cum-drag queen and the world of the drag queens weren't too interesting for me, until Édouard meets his death by a knife blade in a Montréal street. That's when both he and the book come alive.

Because we go back to 1947, when Édouard came into a little inheritance and went to Paris for the first and only time, when he wrote a diary about his journey and his findings, but intended it to be read after his death, a diary from the dead to be read by his sister-in-law the 'Grosse Femme'.

This is a tale of lies, masquerades, outsiders (whoever they are: aren't we all in some way outsiders?), and culture conflict. A common language links Québec and France, or maybe divides it: after all, French Canadian talk is different, often difficult to understand, laced with English therefore bastardised, but then so are all forms of speech, and who's to say which is better than another?

On the voyage across he meets Antoinette Beauregard – the name of course is an indication of the pedigree, or at least the pretension towards the pedigree – but in any case don't we all pretend to be someone we aren't, as for instance Édouard was pretending to be the Duchesse de Langeais when a drag queen? Why shouldn't Édouard lie and pretend to have read all of the books by (the incidentally gay and sort of mid-way between American and French) Julien Green, the author she's reading? Or pretending to read? And then along comes the Princess Clavet-Daudun, by which time Édouard's had just a gram of bullshit too many, and confesses – in broad French Canadian dialect, really laying it on thick – that he's really just a shoe seller and she may well not be a member of the aristocracy, etc. But she doesn't realise that he's speaking the truth, she just sees him as a brilliant actor. It's a bit like an Eliza Dolittle 'Luvaduck me beads!' moment, but Édouard really doesn't give a shit.

Until, that is, he has to have one in the (unmentioned by the same name) chiottes à la Turque in France, has no toilet paper and is forced to use his underpants. See what I mean about culture shock? That is before more dirt greets him in Paris, before he discovers the minuterie and has to scrabble in the dark, before he discovers there's a rez-de-chaussée before he reaches the first floor, and oh the smells, the lack of en suite accommodation, the crap food.

The Deux Magots café near the Café Flore isn't specifically mentioned, but that's where Édouard ends up late at night with a street map spread out before him, pretty pissed, very pissed off, but a certain Simone (who's with a certain Jean-Paul) is very obliging and tells him which métro to take home. But home is Montréal, not Paris, so after a ten-day journey and a mere thirty-six hours in Paris he's off home. And so a final lie is discovered posthumously: Édouard didn't spend all that time in Paris that he said he did.

A book to read before you die.

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