Pacific Rim Review of Books

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Gabrielle Roy

review by Linda Rogers

Gabrielle Roy: a passion for writing. Andre Vanasse. XYZ Publishing, 2007.

Tracking the photos in Gabrielle Roy, a passion for writing, is like watching a sunset. The sun shivers on the horizon and disappears. Sometimes there is afterglow. That is the interesting phenomenon. Roy is one of the unusual writers. She has huge afterglow.

Whenever I am about to be subjected to an interview I wonder, why would anyone care? With a few notable exceptions, people who put more of their creative energy into creating a persona than in writing, writers are pretty dull creatures. Who would want to read about us? Isn’t it enough that we pour our hearts and minds into our work?

Writers are observers. We are the people on the sidelines, watching and listening while others make fools of themselves and mess up their lives. In his new book, God is Not Great, the not always great but frequently amusing Christopher Hitchens asserts that there is more morality to be found in one great piece of literature than all the religions in the world.

That proverb was written for artists like Roy. Her fiction is a window to the soul of a culture that died with the political influence of the Catholic Church in Canada in the last half of the Twentieth Century. The woman her settlement administrator father called “Petite Misère” was all nerve endings; every one of them absorbing the early Twentieth Century francophone reality in Canada. Her life and art are relevant to the history of our nation.

The title of this volume in a series about notable Canadians, which includes a chronology of her life and concurrent world events, a bibliography and index, is appropriate. Roy’s passion for writing exceeded any other biological or social urge. The daughter of a woman who had dedicated her life to child raising, not the least to her charming and clever youngest daughter, she eschewed motherhood. She eventually rejected the married man who had guided her to literary greatness and she barely tolerated the lavender husband who alternately supported her grand passion and indulged his own. Roy lived like a man, or a male artist, prioritizing her writing once she had made her name. Perhaps that is what it took to accomplish greatness in the days before Gloria Steinem. In the world of art and literature, women like author Georges Sand, who supported a huge brood and extended family with the proceeds of her writing, were a rare exception.

Roy, the youngest child in a large, blue collar St. Boniface Manitoba family, enjoyed whatever privileges were available to girls in her situation. She knew she was valued and she valued herself and her ability to create a world with words. She was a precursor to the next generation of francophone Canadian women, particularly in Quebec, who rejected the feminine stereotype of Roman Catholic women, giving up the black dresses, large families and endless bowls of pea soup for political and social freedom represented by an androgynous dress code, homo-erotic relationships and real jobs. The first Canadian woman writer to achieve international success, Roy set the standard.

Passionately devoted to writing, she used all her energy and charm to create a niche for herself that enabled the next generation of Canadian women of letters. Jack McClelland took notice and the world followed. This has become a pattern. Now Canadian writers, many of them women, command world wide attention. Just as Roy’s imaginary world, the private lives of an oppressed minority, spoke for their time, our particular social fabric fits itself to the great social and spiritual debates of contemporary civilization.

Like the Eighteenth century Romantics, Roy drew attention to the desperate lives of ordinary people and the small moments of grace that made their existence endurable. Her first novel, Bonheur d’occasion, The Tin Flute in English, stands up beside any great book.

The grace that is evident in her writing is not made available to readers of this slim biography, written for high school audiences. Early success may have arrested her development as a person and a writer. The empathy she had for children, which she developed in her years as a much loved schoolteacher, had been transformed into self-absorbed, arguably immature behaviour by the time she met the author. André Vanasse bases his thesis on an interview with a distracted and miserable writer past her prime.

Apart possibly from The Road Past Altamount, she had never inspired a critical response equal to her first book. The gap between the two books was almost twenty years, time enough to raise a child or many doubts in the mind of a childless woman writer, especially one whose family had been torn apart by bickering over her alleged exposure of their reality and lack of generosity in returning their favours.

By the time, Vanasse came knocking at her door, the passionate writer had been more or less extinguished by expectation, ambition, disappointment in love and estrangement from the family that had, at the outset, nurtured her gift. She had gambled private happiness for worldly success and she was miserable with the outcome.

So, vicariously, was her biographer, who stains his notebook with tears that obscure the clarity with which we might feel entitled to see the author under scrutiny. More memoir than biography, the book gives us a few snapshots, but no in depth study of the relationship between his subject and her fascinating miniature portraits of a culture. The photographer gets to frame the picture and Vanasse frames his with a lot of himself. He has reflected in his reaction to meeting Roy her own emotional vulnerability, the very empathy that made her finest writing so illuminating. At best, his response replicates her energy, and at worst it is intrusive.

The febrile tone of this long essay, reflects the emotional tone of Roy’s final years. Agony and ecstasy are the companions of those who choose fame at the crossroads where choice is offered. As uncomfortable with notoriety as she was with intimacy, Roy ended up more or less alone. The writer came close to the flame of her despair, opening floodgates she may have closed, and when they flooded he chose to save himself by escaping from her grief, a probably wise, but selfish decision. Unhappy people are energy vampires. Still, the biographer’s guilt is in the ink of this unhappy essay.

Greatness is a strange companion. Roy may have looked down and discovered she had feet of cheese. Just like the mother she didn’t want to become, she stirred the pot with her foot, which may have prevented her from moving beyond the small world of her childhood. However, her soup spiced with sentiment is delicious, and it speaks for itself.

Linda Rogers is working on The Third Day Book, the second novel in a trilogy begun with The Empress Letters, and a book about a Canadian in Turkey.