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Michel Tremblay: Cultural Context
by Dominique Lafon
Tremblay's works, though numerous and diverse in both content and form, are in perfect harmony, like a constellation where each new title, novel, play or autobiographical narrative is part of a larger system ruled by the laws of gravity. This image of a heavenly body is echoed not only in the title of Premier Quartier de la lune [The First Quarter of the Moon], but also in the theme of the salutation to the moon that links all five Albertines in Albertine en cinq temps [Albertine, in Five Times], the women of Plateau Mont-Royal in the final pages of La Grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte [The Fat Woman Next Door is Pregnant], and all of the characters in Messe solennelle pour une pleine lune d'été [Solemn Mass for a Full Summer Moon].
This recurring theme sheds light on the workings of Michel Tremblay's world. The moon is a feminine body associated with natural cycles and the author's works, like the emblematic moon, are similarly governed by concentric phases, or cycles, as in Les Belles-sœurs or Chroniques du Plateau-Mont-Royal [The Chronicles of the Plateau Mont-Royal]. Each of Tremblay's works recounts the genealogy of its characters, and each builds upon previous publications in a symbiotic cycle. As his body of work evolves, readers observe the phases of certain characters who evolve further each time they appear and represent the successive gravitational centres of Tremblay's body of work. Édouard, Albertine and Marcel are the nerve centres of Victoire's family and it is their lives that are chronicled in Tremblay's novels.
All three characters come together in La Maison suspendue (1990). This play marks a crucial phase in the author's body of work, in which three eras and the two branches of his work collide. The return of Jean-Marc in Le Cœur découvert [The Heart Laid Bare] (1986), a character who first appeared in Les Anciennes Odeurs [Remember Me] (1981), seems to mark the birth of both a new cycle and a new approach to homosexuality. After the flamboyant drag queens in Hosanna and La Duchesse de Langeais, the college professor embodies a softer, more lyrical view of the homosexual couple, a couple capable of raising a child. Homosexuality is no longer taboo, but a form of love.
In La Maison suspendue, Jean-Marc makes a return of sorts to the work's original family. He is the fat lady's son, the one that she carried in the first novel of Chroniques. He is also the unnamed son who appeared at the end of Le Premier Quartier de la lune (1989), as the future chronicler of Plateau Mont-Royal. The "maison suspendue" is the family home in Duhamel, which Victoire and her brother Josaphat were forced to leave in order to conceal their incestuous relationship. The play focuses on the child born of their union and concludes by revealing that Victoire is pregnant with Albertine. The incestuous origins of the family symbolically seals the fate of Tremblay's main characters, which now include Jean-Marc, a product of the incestuous relationship of the two branches of Tremblay's work. The play, in which the house is suspended in the starry sky over Duhamel, is not only a lunar image transfigured by a poetic and fantastic vision, but also the inevitable outcome of two worlds that were artificially divided but are reunited forever on the home's veranda, which has become a cradle for all of Tremblay's characters.
Jean-Marc becomes the centre of gravity of Tremblay's literary universe. He represents the meeting point of the two Montréals -- Outremont and Plateau Mont-Royal. Similarly, when he appears in the latest novel, L'Homme qui entendait siffler une bouilloire (2001), he represents a link between Tremblay's past and present work. Jean-Marc is also Édouard's polar opposite. Both characters leave Quebec, in a kind of voluntary exile that leads one to France (Des Nouvelles d'Édouard [News From Édouard], 1984) and the other to the United States (Le Cœur éclaté, 1993; Hôtel Bristol, New York, N.Y., 1999). While Jean-Marc's journey, first to Key West, then to New York, is a symbolic step toward building a new life, Édouard's short visit to Paris ends in failure and a quick return to his place of origin. One cannot help but interpret this contrast as a statement by the author, who appears to be settling accounts with French culture, and demonstrating a preference for a certain "Americanness".
In La Maison suspendue Tremblay also inaugurates another cycle, that of the autobiographical narrative -- a trilogy that brings together Les Vues animées [Bambi and Me] (1990), Douze coups de théâtre [Twelve Opening Acts] (1992) and Un Ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle (1994). To this one could add Encore une fois si vous le permettez [For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again] (1998), the theatrical version of Un Ange cornu avec des ailes de tôle from which it borrows many passages practically word for word. It is as though the fiction has become transparent and the author has locked up La Maison suspendue. The metaphor of incestuous beginnings allows him, now, to speak in his own voice; to be, in a way, the child of his own body of work -- one of his own characters. It is in Marcel poursuivi par les chiens [Marcel Pursued by the Hounds] (1992), that the fat lady carries "the author's" name, or more accurately, the name of Tremblay's mother, Nana. From then on, the autobiographical pact between author and reader is sealed. Like the author who constructs his work as a quest for the genesis of his characters, the reader is invited to re-evaluate past works, which allows him or her to recognize within actual persons the very models for the fictional characters.
Despite Tremblay's inversion of the rules of the roman à clé (a novel in which actual persons are introduced under fictitious names), there is no need to list the possible relationships between the autobiographical stories and the novels. Tremblay himself alludes to the connections and even goes so far as to describe the reactions of those close to him, who are sometimes hurt when they recognize themselves in his fictional characters. In a way, through the autobiographical narratives the author puts to rest anxieties explored in Le vrai monde? [The Real World?] (1987), a play that explores the vampirism of a playwright who finds inspiration in his own family. When Tremblay paints his own likeness into the picture, his universe assumes the coherence of a personal mythology. This reading prohibits a sociological interpretation of the work, though it may have been initially perceived as representative of a specific milieu and even considered folkloric. Does this make the work narcissistic, a strictly personal quest? Its success abroad alone has proven that is not the case. In fact, Tremblay's writing concretely solves the creative mystery of making the "particular", "universal".
While it is true that Michel Tremblay's world is indeed deeply rooted in a Quebecois reality, he also evokes the open spaces of the great Canadian plains through his maternal lineage. The fat lady's mother was born in Saskatchewan and raised by the Cree. In Un Objet de beauté [A Thing of Beauty] (1997) -- the sixth instalment of the Chroniques series which was originally meant to be completed in four -- the insert entitled "Cette plaine remplie de mon coeur" ["This Plain So Full of My Heart"], written by Marcel, the madman of the saga, in a style reminiscent of Gabrielle Roy, tells of how Nana and her sister Béa cheated death when a raging fire swept across the plain and threatened their home. The fantastical vision of the Canadian expanse is a product of the author's spatial and cultural imagination, like the magical Key West sunsets that console Jean-Marc after he is disappointed in love -- a vision that assigns to Jean-Marc a certain "Americanness". But the fictional horizon is broadened far beyond the characters' Montréal neighbourhood, the country and the continent. The universality of Tremblay's characters transcends cultural borders, as does his personal quest. This alone explains why Les Belles-sœurs, with its characters so typical of his world, has touched people the world over. It is as though the derisive voices of this chorus of angry women have allowed those who are marginalized from the great world stage to be heard.
That these characters are sacrosanct has not prevented Tremblay from revisiting and reinventing their stories. He recently announced that in 2003 he will create a new play, Le Passé antérieur, on Albertine's love affair at age 20, explaining why she went on to become so monstrous. He also recently penned a radio drama called "Autour de Nana." Often described by critics as a resifting, this return to known territory, this return to the past, is instead a pressing imperative: that of the imagination. The imagination alone can defy time and silence the doubt that a recognized artist must continually confront.
Tremblay explores this doubt in L'État des lieux [Impromptu on Nuns' Island] (2002), and describes it in these terms: "Quand un artiste cesse-t-il d'être pertinent? Comment s'en rend-il compte? Et qui peut le lui dire?" ["When does an artist cease to be relevant? How does he realize he has become irrelevant? And who can tell him so?"]1. L'État des lieux can be read as an ironic, vicarious exorcism, played out on Tremblay's behalf by a diva from the province of Quebec who denies her roots to build her international career after singing her first false note. In this derisive image Tremblay gives us the key to the works that bear his voice -- that it is a voice that he fears losing. This involuntary disclosure, barely masked by satire, speaks of a life devoted to writing, a commitment that is the hallmark of all great bodies of work, those that confirm Marcel Proust's affirmation that "Life, real life, the only life worth living, is literature."
1. Michel Bélair, "La Cantatrice fauve", Le Devoir, April 20 and 21, 2002, Cahier C.