Autobiographical Writing in French

The golden age of personal literature (littérature intime) in the Western world occurred in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Examples of the genre are not found in Québec before the mid-19th century. Québec writers, timid about self-revelation, were extremely discreet about their personal lives. Their characteristic reserve, which led writers to speak more comfortably of others than of themselves, was typical of the literature until the late 1950s.

Those diaries which were not straightforwardly external in orientation revolved around the dominant theme that had provoked their existence in the first place. The subject was war for Octave Crémazie's Journal du siège de Paris (1870-71) and for Simone Routier's Adieu, Paris! (1940). It was the stifling effect of prison life, 1948-51, for Marcel Lavallé's Journal d'un prisonnier (published posthumously, 1978). Clear-eyed introspection marked this book, as it did the typical adolescent diary, Fadette's Journal d'Henriette Dessaulles, 1874-80 (published posthumously, 1971). Poet Saint-Denys Garneau offered an analysis tinged with mysticism in his Journal of the period 1935-39 (published posthumously, 1954; trans The Journal of Saint-Denys Garneau, 1962), and the analysis in Notes pour une autre fois (1983) by Jean-Ernest Racine was coloured by the imminence of death.

Memoirs are an older genre in French Canada, though their intimacy is sometimes debatable. They concentrate on career development and are often avowedly didactic. There are numerous political memoirs, though not one of a really prominent person. Most such memoirs are partisan pleadings that completely ignore the subject's private life. The truly autobiographical and literary qualities of the Mémoires (3 vols, 1969-73) by Georges-Émile Lapalme are in striking contrast to the banality prevalent in the field. These disillusioned memoirs of the unfortunate adversary of the all-powerful Maurice Duplessis help to illuminate the Chronique des années perdues (1976) of Lapalme's close collaborator, Guy Frégault.

The actor Palmieri (J. Sergius Archambault) used pleasant little anecdotes to evoke theatrical life in Mes souvenirs de théâtre (1944); sculptor Alfred Laliberté (1878-1953) illuminated the plastic arts with his more revealing Mes souvenirs (published posthumously, 1978). Intellectual life was represented in the Souvenirs (1944-55) of Édouard Montpetit and the impressive Mes mémoires (4 vols, 1970-74) of Lionel Groulx, who described almost a century of evolution in Québec society. Finally, the aristocratic style of life evoked in the 19th-century Mémoires (1866) of Philippe Aubert de Gaspé, Sr, found its 20th-century echo in the Testament de mon enfance (1952; tr Testament of My Childhood, 1964) and Quartier Saint-Louis (1966) by Robert de Roquebrune.

Like memoirs, volumes of remembrances were intended to keep the national heritage alive and to instruct future generations. They developed themes already familiar in journals: war, whether through civilian eyes (Marcel Dugas, Pots de fer, 1941) or military ones (Joseph-Damase Chartrand, Expéditions autour de ma tente, 1887); a humorous account of prison life by Jules Fournier (Souvenirs de prison, 1910); the profession of writing discussed in the singularly unconfiding Confidences (1959) of Olivier Maurault and of Ringuet (Philippe Panneton, 1965). Authors also described their traditional Québec childhoods. These "collective" remembrances painted an idyllic picture of the past and of rural family life: best known were Les rapaillages (1916) by Lionel Groulx and Chez nous, chez nos gens (1924) by Adjutor Rivard. Though there were happy exceptions to the rule, eg, Louis-Honoré Fréchette's Mémoires intimes (treating the period 1839-1903 and published posthumously, 1961), the earlier of these childhood remembrances usually followed this model, whereas later ones built new stereotypes around city life.

Since true autobiography requires the author to centre his account on his own evolution, the genre was practically nonexistent in Québec until 1960. The celebrated trilogy by Claude Jasmin, La petite patrie (1972), Pointe-Calumet, Boogie-Woogie (1973) and Sainte-Adèle, la vaisselle (1974), combined autobiography with collective remembrances. The various writings of Paul Toupin gathered together in De face et de profil (1977) dealt strictly with his personal life and his writing career; both the Souvenirs en lignes brisées (1969) by J.E. Racine and the Journal dénoué (1974) by Fernand Ouellette dug into the author's personality in a painful search for a deeper level of the self. This kind of search can veer from its original intent to produce an activist work such as Nègres blancs d'Amérique (1968; tr White Niggers of America, 1971) by Pierre Vallières or an awakening to the feminine condition, such as La vie défigurée (1979) by Paule Saint-Onge. In more popular autobiographies, self-revelation is a pretext for denunciation of social injustice.

An overview of Québec personal literature would be incomplete without examples of private correspondence. Three poets are included among those whose letters were posthumously accorded the honour of publication: Octave Crémazie, Nérée Beauchemin and Saint-Denys Garneau. If to this list is added Lettres d'un artiste canadien Napoléon Bourassa (1929), one has the only virtually complete published editions of private correspondence, the most personal writing of all.

Québec society was long turned in on itself. It gave its writers no privileged status and demanded that they exercise the greatest possible discretion about their private lives. However, writers of the 1980s, now at the height of their powers, seem determined to live more openly and so to join the international literary mainstream.