There’s nothing like spending time in Montreal to really get a feel for the city, its culture and its people – add to that the creative, insider perspectives of some of Canada’s bright literary minds and Montreal might just start feeling like home…
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, by Mordecai Richler. Why not start with one of the most famous and award-winning of Montreal-based books? Richler takes us through mid-20th-century Montreal in the satirical yet heartfelt story of a young man, a third-generation Jewish immigrant, who wants nothing more than to succeed in the eyes of his father and grandfather, and thus the world. His schemes, from juggling multiple jobs to conning people, don’t win him much love in the end. With several recognizable landmarks along the way, such as Wilensky’s. Not to be overlooked, however, is Richler’s darkly comedic novel Son of a Smaller Hero, also set in Montreal, this time following the life of a young man working his way out of the Jewish ghetto while remaining emotionally tied to his undeniable roots.
The Fat Woman Next Door Is Pregnant, by Michel Tremblay. This endearing novel is perhaps the best known in the legendary Quebecois author’s series of books set in Montreal’s Plateau neighbourhood and focused on everyday working-class life during the post-WWII era. The prolific Tremblay, also the pen behind one of Quebec’s most successful theatrical productions Les Belles-soeurs, deftly pairs comedy with tragedy, love with fear, interweaving the lives of seven Francophone women as the summer of 1942 begins and thoughts turn to the future of their families and that of newly religiously-rebellious Quebec.
The Favourite Game, by Leonard Cohen. Written partly while living on a Greek Island and published in 1963, Cohen’s first novel delves into the life of a Jewish family in Montreal, particularly the family’s only son, Lawrence Breavman and his struggles with growing up, love woes and the death of his father, interspersed with his fascination for hypnotism and staying out all night with his best friend. The novel takes a New York City turn, following similar themes as Breavman falls in love for real. Cohen also wrote his next novel, Beautiful Losers, while on an island in Greece, yet its emotionally-fraught, sex-filled narrative also harkens back to Montreal via a Quebecois nationalist protest in Parc Lafontaine.
The Tin Flute, by Gabrielle Roy. Montreal’s working-class history comes to the fore in Roy’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel set in the neighbourhood of Saint-Henri – an area much changed since the book was published in 1945. Back then, the area’s residents, many of them recent immigrants, lived a gritty life of long working hours, family members cramped into small apartments, living meagre paycheque to paycheque – Roy tells much of the tale in the common spoken language of that time and place, a mix of French and English slang called “joual.” Today the neighbourhood has seen a boom in new homes and restaurants, a farmers’ market and boasts a pastoral bike path along the once-industrial Lachine Canal.
How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired, by Dany Laferrière. One of Quebec’s best-known contemporary authors, Haitian-Canadian Laferrière wrote his debut novel over 30 years ago while struggling to get by in exile in Montreal. For all its political controversy and erotic nature, the satire-laced book was quickly embraced, adapted into a film, and became part of the landscape of understanding interracial relations in Montreal in the mid-80s. Smart, funny and strange, Laferrière’s unique journey of character and city reads like little else and is thankfully responsible for spawning the career of a unique voice in Quebec literature.
Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill. A story of childhood lost somewhere on the streets of Montreal, O’Neill avoids getting mired in the doldrums of poverty and abandonment, instead captivating with main character, Baby, and her underground life in the city. Winner of the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction in 2007 (on that note, MacLennan’s The Watch That Ends the Night and Two Solitudes are definitely worthy Quebec-based reads as well) and shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in 2007 and the Orange Prize in 2008, the beautifully-written novel explores the city from a previously untold perspective, unafraid of harsh realities. O’Neill’s new book, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, is currently receiving its fair share of deserved critical acclaim too.
Nikolski, by Nicolas Dickner. Winner of the Governor General’s Award for French fiction in 2005, the Prix Anne-Hébert in 2006, the 2008 Governor General’s Award for French-to-English translation, and the victor in CBC’s 2010 Canada Reads contest, Nikolski not only brings together three fictionalized, semi-nomadic 20-somethings living in the Plateau (all mysteriously connected, as we learn), but the symbolic presence of Nikolski, a small village in Alaska. While set in Montreal, Dickner’s novel creates universal appeal out of its deep and entertaining musings on the meaning of home.
Sacré Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec, by Taras Grescoe. If fiction just isn’t your thing, dive into a crash course in Quebec culture and history as told from the point of view of a Montreal travel writer who wrote the book around the turn of the millennium, when rents were just beginning to slowly rise as political referendum news wore off. Grescoe’s penchant for socially-relevant research serves the book well on both controversial topics such as Quebec’s separatist movement and the so-called French-English “language wars,” and in its exploration of the city’s contemporary popular culture.
Bottle Rocket Hearts, by Zoe Whittall. A coming-of-age story set in the mid-1990s, when grunge and riot grrl seized many of the city’s young hearts and minds while the 1995 separatist referendum loomed. Whittall’s novel sees Montreal through the eyes of a gay, sexually-adventurous young woman who tends to get a bit philosophical and self-involved when faced with her own angst, identity issues and general confusion. Yet her point of view comes balanced with the real-world experience and raw emotions of several other well-drawn characters, all providing insight into what it means to grow up in uncertain times.
The Hockey Sweater, by Roch Carrier. And finally, one for the kids and kids-at-heart. Not only a hit in Quebec, but throughout Canada, Carrier’s classic short story – found in numerous anthologies, including Carrier’s English-translated collection The Hockey Sweater and Other Stories – reveals the heart and soul behind common stereotypes of Quebec and Canada as hockey-obsessed and snow-covered. While set in Saint Justine, Quebec, the story is all about the Montreal Canadiens and its star player of the 1940s, Maurice “Rocket” Richard – and his iconic number 9 hockey jersey. The book proved so popular that the National Film Board commissioned Sheldon Cohen to turn it into a short animated film in 1980, which quickly became a classic in itself.
For more on Montreal lit, check out the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in late April, the Salon du Livre de Montréal festival in late November, and Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore.
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