Saint-Denys Garneau: Cultural Context
by Marcel Olscamp
Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau is often considered one of the originators of modern poetry in Quebec. His work is particularly well represented in the Library and Archives Canada fonds devoted to him. The poet left behind many documents that trace the evolution of his work and the major shifts in his thinking during the intellectual context of the inter-war period. Admirers of Saint-Denys Garneau can leaf through his principal manuscripts, writings that are filled with a sense of history. Readers will feel as though experiencing first-hand the outpouring of Saint-Denys Garneau's poetry, which came to be among the best known in French-speaking North America.
The Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau fonds is particularly extensive, as it contains documents in all of the literary genres explored by the writer during his short life, from his first attempts at writing in school to the great poems of his later years. As with all great artists, Saint-Denys Garneau's early education left its mark and indirectly favoured the direction of his life's work. A number of documents relate to this period, which was clearly not very happy for this great soul so in love with poetry. Although Saint-Denys Garneau did not attend school regularly, mainly due to health reasons, the Library and Archives Canada fonds includes a number of mute testimonies to his hard work as a student. There are exercise books in which he applied himself to translating and analysing, in Latin, excerpts from Homer's Iliad. There is also the manuscript of a speech given by the young man to the "Révérends Pères" of his Jesuit college. Fortunately, versification was also an integral part of the school curriculum at that time and Saint-Denys Garneau learned the first rules of his art along with the more austere subjects. The fonds includes some of his early poems (called "juvenilia"), such as "La vieille roue du moulin" and "Rêve triste," touching looks at the budding poet trying to find his path.
Of course, the most important part of the Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau fonds are the papers relating to the renowned writer's principal works, and in this respect his readers will be especially pleased. Saint-Denys Garneau wrote mostly in different sized notebooks, which he often carried with him when he travelled between Montréal and the family home in Sainte-Catherine-de-Fossambault. These now legendary books have fascinated several generations of researchers in Quebec literature. Today they can be freely consulted at Library and Archives Canada. From the very first page, where the young writer announces his intention to keep a journal, to the charmingly whimsical monologue on words and his notes on comedy and laughter, to the famous pages on nationalism, the entire record of the poet's life is laid out for the reader in its original form. The different "versions" of the journal are also available, including selected parts that were later typed ("Soir dans une église" and "Sur mon chemin j'ai rencontré," for example). The manuscript and typed versions of such famous poems as "Ma maison," "Le diable pour ma damnation," "Un bon coup de guillotine" and "Je marche à côté d'une joie" are available, and readers can follow the exciting day-by-day progress of these works, as Saint-Denys-Garneau urged them towards perfection. At times, readers can almost feel the poet's feverishness as creative inspiration hit him; a few verses jotted down on an old pack of cigarettes illustrate, more clearly than any study ever could, the humble beginnings of an immortal poem.
The Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau fonds also contains an extensive correspondence collection that reveals the poet's range of interests and the extent of his social circle. These letters paint a more accurate picture of the young man, who has often seemed stiff and one-dimensional in the simplified portrait of tradition. Saint-Denys Garneau's letters to his mother and to his parents certainly reflect the internal turmoil of a tormented intellectual, but his correspondence with friends such as Françoise Charest and Jean Le Moyne offers a very different, more nuanced view of the poet.
In addition to making Saint-Denys Garneau's main manuscripts available to read, the fonds provides a record of what happened to his work after his death. This view is represented particularly through the correspondence of the poet's mother. Hermine Prévost had always worried about her son, as is obvious from the many letters she sent him. After Saint-Denys Garneau's death in 1943, his friends and a few academics took an interest in the work that he had left behind and decided to publish his journal and poetry. It is in this context that Jean Le Moyne and Benoît Lacroix, for example, wrote to Saint-Denys Garneau's mother, to apprise her of how to publish her son's poems and other writings. Later, persons of renown such as the French philosopher Étienne Gilson would also write, to tell her of the profound effect that those poems had had on them.
The artistic talents of Saint-Denys Garneau are also showcased in the Library and Archives Canada fonds, with some complementary documents that provide insight into the writer's abiding interest in the fine arts. In particular, there is a wonderful "logbook," a unique piece of work containing drawings and funny anecdotes about the Pingouin, his uncle Denys Prévost's boat. Finally, the importance that the landscapes of Sainte-Catherine had for the author of "Esquisses en plein air" is well-known; a few photographs taken by the poet himself provide a glimpse of the scenic places that may have inspired his most touching poems. In conclusion, it can be said that the Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau fonds contains the greatest part of the writer's known manuscript production.