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Roger Lemelin: Cultural Context
by Marcel Olscamp
Roger Lemelin is a genuinely popular writer whose works have always had an immediate success with the Canadian public. Along with Gabrielle Roy, Lemelin was among the first "urban" novelists in Quebec and French Canada. Library and Archives Canada's Roger Lemelin archival fonds is extremely rich and is of great literary and historic importance. It faithfully reflects the exuberant and multi-faceted activity of a novelist who was closely involved, in many capacities, with the intellectual, social and political life of his time.
The fonds offers an abundance of information on the development of Roger Lemelin's literary craft; all the phases of his career are represented, from the tentative first steps of the self-taught novelist to the author's autobiographical accounts at the height of his career. Library and Archives Canada also has a collection of valuable pieces of writing from the author's youth, including, among others, a series of tiny handwritten notebooks from the late 1930s, in which the writer-in-training exercised his observation skills. Another interesting piece is a notebook with daily entries, written immediately after the war, where, in anecdotes drawn from everyday life, the reader finds signs of the little world of the Plouffes that was beginning to take shape. Library and Archives Canada was even able to collect, in addition to the first-rate archives, the old Underwood typewriter that followed Lemelin throughout his life and on which he wrote most of his works.
Although known mainly as a novelist, Roger Lemelin also practiced other types of writing and Library and Archives Canada's fonds is a testament to the scope and diversity of the writer's experience. Among the very first attempts by the future author of Les Plouffe [The Plouffe family] -- which included articles, short stories and tales of every kind -- a manuscript featuring two characters named Hitler and Mussolini is particularly noteworthy. It is a humorous piece, most likely written in the first years of the Second World War and which, in a way, reveals the young man's worries. Lemelin also tried his hand at writing children's stories, as witnessed by the amusing tale entitled Abraki, abraka, abrakam.
Of course, Lemelin became famous for his novels and the archival fonds he left to Library and Archives Canada is particularly rich in documents associated with those masterpieces. Researchers can consult the typescript of Au pied de la pente douce [The Town Below], as well as the novel's first abandoned drafts. They can even admire a few engravings and sketches, likely intended to illustrate the first edition of the novel (1944), and a touching collection of all the commentaries that appeared in newspapers when the book was published.
Lemelin's best-known work, however, is undoubtedly the novel Les Plouffe [The Plouffe family]. Quebecers quickly became fond of the likeable family created by the novelist and the characters took on a life outside of the pages of the book, which was first published in 1948. The fonds documents the many variants of the work and follows, from beginning to end, its phenomenal development over the years.
In this respect, the documentation in the fonds is remarkably complete. Not only does it include the manuscript of Les Plouffe, but also various preliminary drafts from before the novel was written, like an astonishing synopsis for the Guggenheim Foundation that earned the author a prestigious fellowship. Researchers can also consult the text for most episodes of the radio drama La Famille Plouffe, the texts of the televised version and the detailed script for Gilles Carle's 1981 film. Moreover, an extensive file of press clippings follows critical reaction to the film. The archives also document several spinoffs from the well-known family, like the radio drama Le Petit Monde du père Gédéon, which centres on a colourful supporting character in La Famille Plouffe. Finally, Roger Lemelin's readers can consult his numerous manuscripts of memoirs and draft versions of articles where he recalls with emotion the neighbourhood of Saint-Sauveur and Québec City, which served as the backdrop to his stories. This writing provides clues to the autobiographical origins of his works.
In addition to being a prolific writer, Lemelin participated in many ways in the literary life of Quebec and Canada, collecting awards and honours throughout his career. He was a regular in Canadian and European intellectual circles. Library and Archives holds numerous traces of these writing-related activities, which are now part of Canadian literary history. Readers are often unaware, for example, that Lemelin was responsible for the publication of Le Tombeau des rois [The Tomb of the Kings], Anne Hébert's magnificent collection of poems. The author's touching dedication to her friend Roger is moving, as is the typed text that relates the circumstances surrounding the collection's publication (which would later appear in Lemelin's memoir, La Culotte en or). Along the same lines, Roger Lemelin's relationship with the Académie Goncourt -- of which he was particularly proud -- is illustrated in an abundance of documents, including a series of photographs that show the novelist surrounded by his "colleagues" from the illustrious Académie.
Roger Lemelin worked as a journalist at various times in his life and traces of this activity are particularly visible in his fonds. Countless articles allow researchers to follow, almost from day to day, the evolving political, social and cultural thinking of the author as he defended his strong opinions. During General de Gaulles' visit to Montréal in 1967, for example, Lemelin defended the French statesman's now infamous speech. His article, "De Gaulle et la tartufferie canadienne", the text of which has been conserved, is of great interest. Of course, as an editorial writer, Lemelin was no stranger to controversy and the fonds also reflects other public debates in which Lemelin enthusiastically participated. It contains, for example, a voluminous file on the 1971 controversy sparked by the unveiling of sculptor Jordi Bonet's mural at the Grand Théâtre de Québec. From a purely sociological standpoint, Library and Archives Canada's papers on the issue are particularly significant and relevant.
Roger Lemelin's management position at the head of La Presse gave him a privileged vantage point from which to observe political life in Quebec and Canada. He never hesitated to enter the fray of the especially turbulent debates that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. Many documents in the fonds show how, as an avowed and earnest federalist, he regularly criticized the Parti Québécois government (first elected in 1976). The novelist appears to have kept copies of his own letters, as well as the many of those that he received over the years. As such, there are several pieces of interesting correspondence, notably the draft of a rather ironic letter to Minister Camille Laurin regarding the "francization" 1 of La Presse, and a letter from René Lévesque, in which the Quebec premier congratulates the writer on the publication of one of his books while being discreetly ironical about their opposing political views. Thanks to his numerous activities, Lemelin quickly became a respected public figure in Canada, as illustrated by two amusing cartoons of him by Lou Seligson and Girerd, the cartoonist for La Presse.
1. In 1977, Bill 101 was introduced and all companies operating in Quebec with fifty or more employees were required to function in French.