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Jacques Brault: Cultural Context

by Marcel Olscamp

Library and Archives Canada's Jacques Brault fonds is extremely interesting in every respect. It accurately reflects the thought and work of a great writer who has successfully inhabited several literary genres and whose work spans close to half a century. Jacques Brault's many professional occupations as a Montréal intellectual are also very well represented in the fonds. The general public and researchers alike will certainly find that this is one of the richest and most complete documentary collections ever.

Fans of Jacques Brault will be particularly moved as they leaf through the manuscripts of his major poetry collections -- such as La poésie ce matin and Poèmes des quatre côtés -- that in large part earned this writer his reputation. The many readers who have enjoyed Brault's novel Agonie will be pleased to learn that the manuscript of this important piece of Quebec literature is also among the documents available to the public. There is, as well, a collection of essays and related material. This includes some valuable documents used to write Miron le magnifique -- the legendary 1966 work in which Jacques Brault honoured his friend Gaston Miron -- as well as the manuscript of his wonderful study of Gabrielle Roy, "Tonalités lointaines."

Program for Ubu-Roi, a comedy presented at Collège Sainte-Marie in honour of Révérend Père Recteur, May 4 and 5, 1953

Invitation to "Nuit de la poésie", held at the Gesù theatre, Montréal, March 27, 1970, where Brault and several other eminent French-language poets and artists presented their work

Anyone interested in Jacques Brault's earlier literary work will be pleased to find irreplaceable and important archival records in the fonds. For example, there is a program for the play Ubu-Roi, staged at Collège Sainte-Marie in 1953, when Brault was still pursuing his classical studies. There is also a manuscript of his talk on Arthur Rimbaud, given at the Salle du Gesù in 1954, along with the complete program for this evening. Historians will be interested in a rare copy of the program for the famous Nuit de la poésie of March 27, 1970, which Jean-Claude Labrecque immortalized in film and which marked a turning point in the evolution of Quebec literature.

The fonds also has an extensive collection of notebooks, loose papers and handwritten notes of all kinds that leave the reader with a feeling of having snuck into Jacques Brault's private study. The hundreds of loose-leaf sheets, many of which are covered with the writer's hasty scrawl and organized by him into broad themes, are amongst the most exciting parts of this collection. They provide a privileged glimpse of a great mind constantly at work, always seeking to keep a record of anything that might inspire him: ideas, aphorisms, reading notes, etc.

Letter to Jacques Brault from Alain Grandbois, July 21, 1959  

The central role played by Jacques Brault in intellectual circles both in Canada and abroad is highlighted by the writer's abundant correspondence over the years. Among Library and Archives Canada's holdings are many letters written to the poet by prominent figures in the literary and cultural world. There are letters from the great Alain Grandbois, whose work as a poet was the subject, in 1958, of his young fan's very first published critical work. Letters from Margaret Atwood discussing translation stand as testimony to the fact that Jacques Brault's friendships have transcended the silence of Canada's "two solitudes." His correspondence with French writers Alain Bosquet and Robert Marteau illustrate how the poet's fame gradually extended into Europe.

  Letter to Jacques Brault from Liza Frulla-Hébert, ministère des Affaires culturelles, Gouvernement du Quebec, June 20, 1991

With the years also came public recognition: Gaston Bellemare, organizer of the Festival international de la poésie de Trois-Rivières, asked the author of Moments fragiles for permission to reproduce a passage from one of his poems on a wall plaque; Antoine Del Busso, of Éditions Fides, approached him about publishing one of his books in the prestigious Nénuphar collection; and Liza Frulla, then Quebec's minister of culture, wrote to congratulate him on winning the Alain-Grandbois award, in 1991. These are but a few significant examples. The correspondence in Library and Archives Canada's Jacques Brault fonds is extensive, as is the evidence of the poet's fame. When Jacques Brault received the prestigious Athanase-David award from the Government of Quebec in 1986, the writer and his work were featured in the brochure produced for the award ceremony.

Throughout his career as a writer, Jacques Brault has always been eager to contribute to literary periodicals in Quebec and Canada. Library and Archives Canada's holdings include a number of periodicals that have run articles or poems by Jacques Brault over the years, including Liberté, Écrits du Canada français, Les herbes rouges and Le livre canadien. They demonstrate this exceptional writer's involvement in the cultural life of his time.

On the Road No More, [Toronto]: Exile Editions, 1993  

One of the surest gauges of the international popularity of literary work is, without question, the number of its foreign language translations and releases abroad. The Jacques Brault fonds shows beyond a doubt that the talent of this writer is appreciated around the world, regardless of his original target readership. Readers will consult with interest numerous foreign periodicals that would otherwise be difficult to find, including Cuadernos de Literatura (Mexico), Plural (Nicaragua), The American Hungarian Review and L'VII (Belgium), all of which have published Jacques Brault's work. There are also translations of some of Jacques Brault's books, including Within the Mystery (translation by Gertrude Sanderson of L'En dessous l'admirable) and On the Road No More (translation by David Sobelman of Il n'y a plus de chemin).

Of course, Jacques Brault's literary work, however prominent, has not been his only occupation. Focusing solely on his poems, novels and essays would mean losing sight of the fact that Brault was also a top-notch educator who had a brilliant career as a professor and a researcher at the Université de Montréal. It was in this capacity that he wrote the first critical edition of poems by Saint-Denys Garneau, published in 1971 (in cooperation with Benoît Lacroix). Among the holdings that illustrate this side of Jacques Brault's life is a moving collection of notes that he used to prepare a course on aesthetics.

Jacques Brault was also very active in radio, collaborating for many years on several literary broadcasts on Radio-Canada FM. Library and Archives Canada's Jacques Brault fonds contains a range of material relating to the many cultural programs created by Jacques Brault that looked at the work of such well-known writers as Anne Hébert and Alain Grandbois and explored other interesting literary themes. In 1978, in a fitting reversal of roles, the author of Suite fraternelle was himself honoured in a series of radio programs, as seen in an Ici Radio FM bulletin, also available in the fonds.

Audio of Jacques Brault reading his poem entitled COMMENCEMENT. Running time: 45 seconds, in French  

One last note: Jacques Brault fans interested in hearing the voice of this great writer can listen to him on a cassette tape of selected poems put together by Éditions du Noroît, also available in the fonds.

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