BORN: 1937, Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, Québec
La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968)
Floralie, Where Are You? (1969)
Is It the Sun, Philibert? (1971)
The Hockey Sweater, and Other Stories (1979)
Heartbreaks Along the Road (1984)
With almost fifty books to his credit, Roch Carrier is one of the most prolific and original of contemporary Québec writers. He is best known for his writing of le conte—the very short story—but he insists that his interest in form is secondary to the more pressing need he feels to invent stories that reveal Québec to itself. A lifelong resident of Montreal, Carrier thinks of himself as a popular writer and maintains that his style and way of seeing things do not come from literature but from life in general and from the life of his native village in particular.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
French Canadian Roots Roch Carrier was born to Georges and Marie-Anna Tanguay Carrier on May 13, 1937. His birthplace, the village of Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester, southeast of Québec City near the Maine border, would become the setting for much of his fiction. Canada has a history with roots in both British and French culture. Explorers from both countries established territories there during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though France ultimately gave up claims to its territories during the eighteenth century. Despite officially becoming a dominion of the United Kingdom in the nineteenth century, parts of Canada retained their French roots and culture, particularly in the province of Québec where Carrier lived. This remains the only part of Canada where French is the sole official language. Cultural differences between French-speaking and English-speaking Canadians have inspired much of Carrier's work.
Carrier came from a family of stonecutters and church builders, and his father, from whom he says he gets his gift of humor, was a salesman. After several years of local schooling (described in The Hockey Sweater, and Other Stories, 1979), and later having married Diane Gosselin in 1959, Carrier studied at Collège Saint-Louis in New Brunswick, then at l'Université de Montréal. There he received a bachelor of arts in French literature and wrote a master of arts thesis on Guillaume Apollinaire in 1961.
The Writing Evolution It was at the university that he began to write and have his first poems and short stories published. His stories grew from his poems, which tended to become more and more anecdotal; and his short, dense, episodically structured novels appeared to be built from interconnected stories. Carrier's first full-length book, Jolis deuils: Petites tragedies pour adultes (1964), won the Prix Litteraire de la Province de Québec in 1964. A year later the work was awarded the province of Québec award, Les Concours littéraires du Québec. During the late 1960s and the 1970s, he devoted most of his time to the novel, but he continued to write short fiction, including “Contes for a Million Ears,” published in Ecrits du Canada Français in 1969. It was not until fifteen years after Jolis deuils, however, that he produced another full story collection.
The Trilogy From 1961 to 1964, Carrier studied at the University of Paris as he prepared a doctoral thesis on the French poet Blaise Cendrars. On his return to Québec he taught at Collège Militaire Royal de Saint-Jean and at l'Université de Montréal. He began work on his first three novels—La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968), Floralie, Where Are You? (1969), and Is It the Sun, Philibert? (1971)—intending to chronicle three of the “dark ages of Québec.” The trilogy established Carrier's reputation in Québec and abroad with its presentation of a search for meaning in life and death, a search, according to Canadian Encyclopedia Historica, that permeates Carrier's work.
Commencing with La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968), his first and best-known novel, he began publishing his work at the rate of almost a book a year. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was published in English in 1970.
The Theater Years In 1970 Carrier left teaching to become secretary-general of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. La Guerre, Yes Sir! was adapted for the stage that year and after a successful European tour was performed in an English translation at the Stratford Festival in 1972. The work has since been made into a film as well. Another film afforded by the 1972 National Film Board verifies Carrier's claim to make story form second to his subject, Québec. In the movie The Ungrateful Land, for which he wrote the scenario, Carrier returns to Sainte-Justine-de-Dorchester and explains the village for the camera. Images of an enormous team of Percherons, or draft horses, failing to move a huge boulder in a weight-pulling contest express strength and frustration. Scenes of a proud local industry manufacturing thousands of baseball bats portray progress and humiliation as the camera pulls back, revealing them to be three-inch
miniatures. Many other comic but touching cameos tie in perfectly with what would later be known as classic Carrier paradoxical vision.
Carrier adapted his next novel, Floralie, Where Are You? (1969) for Théâtre du Nouveau Monde in 1974. Soon after, this loose trilogy consisting of Carrier's first three novels began selling better in English than in the original French. In 1975 Carrier left his job as theater administrator to return to teaching at Collège Militaire Royal and to continue writing. In 1980 he was awarded the prestigious Grand Prix LittérairedelaVille de Montréal.
The Arts and Library Advocacy In 1999, Carrier was named National Librarian of Canada. As Canadian Encyclopedia Historica reports, Carrier was instrumental in addressing and even solving several problems experienced by Canada's contemporary libraries. To remedy the problem of inadequate housing for the miles of print material and the issue of costs associated with accessing digital media, Carrier initiated the launch of the Digital Library of Canada, “an online database that contains digitized copies of some of the most significant national treasures.” He was also instrumental in the removal of the barrier fees first required for using AMICUS, Canada's national bibliographic database. Carrier's combined efforts were successful in increasing access to all Canadians. Carrier's hometown of Saint-Justine-de-Dorchester, which did not have its own library during his youth, now features a library named in honor of the author.
Works in Literary Context
Roch Carrier is an instinctive writer. He claims to write not so much to display as to discover what he knows. He continually experiments, not following any school but in an individualistic way, from book to book, capitalizing on new techniques without ever betraying the distinctive voice and vision that have marked all his work.
Le Conte In some respects, Carrier's imagination seems most fertile in the short-story form or, more precisely, in its brief Québecois version known as le conte. These fast-moving sketches begin in reality and quickly escalate into fantasy. The language is metaphorical, the development poetic. In a few hundred words a grotesque situation is exploited, a miniature moral is drawn, and an ironic commentary on human foibles is neatly and forcefully made. In “L'Encre,” for example, from Jolis deuils, a general is signing a peace treaty. His pen catches and splutters. The ink spreads. It covers the paper, the table, the floor, the city, the country. It invades the neighboring nation. War is declared. The ink extends its empire. Fighting becomes futile and a cease-fire is ordered. A new treaty is drawn up. One of the generals initialing the clauses is nervous. His pen catches and splutters, and so on.
Exploring Dichotomies While many of his most loved works—such as his children's books—are rife with humor and light, Carrier's adult books celebrate opposites of both light and dark: violence and laughter; gusto and defeat; man's potential grandeur and his faltering performance; life, or as Carrier would prefer to put it, love and death. In his first three novels, for example, the author set out to chronicle what he calls “three of the dark ages of Québec.” Floralie, Where Are You? (1969) is set in the latter part of the nineteenth century at the time of the coming of the railroad to rural Québec. Here the dark is in the ignorance, superstition, guilt, and fear of a backward, isolated, church-dominated people. La Guerre, Yes Sir! (1968) takes place during the second conscription crisis late in World War II. In this novel, the same forces operate, augmented by those of political oppression and racial prejudice and strife. Is It the Sun, Philibert? (1971) is set in Montreal during the heyday of Maurice “Rocket” Richard—Quebec's most famous hockey player—in the early 1950s. In this work, the darkness extends to social injustice, industrial abuse, and modern urban stress.
Though the three novels share some settings and characters, their underlying thematic unity and intensity of tone are their strongest bond. In this loose trilogy, Carrier staked out his fictional territory and established the creative attitudes and the narrative voice that characterize the rest of his work.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Carrier's famous contemporaries include:
Frank Gehry (1929–): Canadian-born architect famous for his inventive and visually whimsical buildings.
Leonard Cohen (1934–): Montreal native famous as a songwriter, poet, and novelist; inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008.
Jacques Chirac (1932–): President of France from 1995 until 2007.
Joe Orton (1933–1967): English satirical playwright, he wrote risqué black comedies that shocked and amused his audiences.
Philippe Panneton (1895–1960): Working under the pen name Ringuet, this Canadian academic, physician, and writer cofounded L'Académie canadienne-française and was given title of ambassador to Portugal, among other titles.
Works in Critical Context
Carrier has earned a critical reception as diverse as his audiences. At one critical extreme are novels such as Heartbreaks Along the Road (1984), his most ambitious work to date, and, at the other end of the spectrum, those works that display Carrier's humor and compassion at
their inventive best, such as the classic “The Hockey Sweater.”
Heartbreaks Along the Road In Heartbreaks Along the Road, written in the style of rough rural realism, Carrier paints a satiric fresco of village life in the 1950s under the regime of “le Chef,” Québec premier Maurice Duplessis. The village is Saint-Toussaint-des-Saints. The loose plot revolves around the building of a new road as the result of a campaign promise, although the road leads nowhere and is dismantled as soon as it is finished to make more jobs for the unemployed. Dozens of characters appear in single episodes or anecdotes and then melt into the background again. Such a broad comic panorama is unusual in Québec fiction, and Heartbreaks Along the Road has been heralded as the Québecois equivalent to Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude.
The Hockey Sweater, and Other Stories “The Hockey Sweater” owes something to the previous novel and recalls Carrier's first published fiction. In this story for young readers, “a disastrous boyhood episode is fondly recreated,” says Horn Book reviewer Ethel L. Heins in Contemporary Authors Online. A young boy outgrows his fan jersey, which is emblazoned with the logo and colors of the Montreal Canadiens—“the best hockey team in the world.” His mother “writes to Mr. Eaton” (orders from the Eaton's catalog) for a new one. The eager fan is mortified when the package arrives and his mother hands him a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey instead, the very emblem of the much-hated rivals.
If adaptations and borrowings are any indication of positive reception, “The Hockey Sweater” has one of the highest reputations: The story was funded by the National Film Board of Canada and made into an animated short film, with Carrier as narrator of both the French and English versions. As one of Carrier's most famous contes, it has been excerpted for the backside of the Canadian five-dollar bill. Considered by many to be an allegory, an exemplary story of the tensions existing between French and English Canada, The Hockey Sweater is also “a funny story,” according to School Library Journal contributor Joan McGrath. “But it is the fun of an adult looking indulgently back to remember a horrible childhood humiliation from the tranquil plateau of adulthood.”
Responses to Literature
- Carrier writes on subjects that are as important locally as they often are globally. Investigate the history of hockey in Canada, starting in the 1940s when Carrier was a boy. Consider the influence of the Montreal Canadiens versus the Toronto Maple Leafs: What was the impact of their rivalry on hockey fans? What did their competition represent to Canadians?
- Try your hand at a conte. Write a story, making it as short as you can. Try to have a situation, a rising action, a climax, and a resolution. Exchange contes with fellow students in an open-microphone reading session.
- Much of Carrier's writing is autobiographical. His stories of childhood moments and events are appealing and often funny because of this: Whether they are narrated in English or French, there is something most people can identify with that makes them laugh. Think of an event or incident in your childhood that you feel is relevant to most people, and write an autobiographical sketch (or memoir). Describe the event. Describe the characters involved. Narrate what someone did to cause an embarrassing moment. Add dialogue or other details to make it funny.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Here are a few works by writers who, like Carrier, have also written contes, fairy tales, or folk tales, often set in their homelands:
“The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1867), a short story by Mark Twain. Twain uses his considerable storytelling abilities and many folktale conventions in this humorous and widely anthologized story.
Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. The Folklore of the Old Plantation (1880), by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris repackaged African American folktales in the collection, which enjoyed wide readership among whites in both the North and South in the generations following the American Civil War. His work is controversial, as many African American writers of the twentieth century accuse Harris of appropriating black culture.
The Wide Net and Other Stories (1943), a short-story collection by Eudora Welty. Welty mixed various mythologies with folk conventions in these masterful stories set in the American South.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2008. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale, 2008. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC
Neeman, Harold. Piercing the Magic Veil: Toward a Theory of the Conte. Tübingen, Germany: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1999.
Books in Review (Autumn/Winter 1989): 209–11. Unsigned review of Heartbreaks Along the Road.
Canadian Children's Literature 69 (Winter 1995): 90–91. Jetske Sybesma, review of The Longest Home Run.
Horn Book (March 1985): 371. Ethel L. Heins, review of The Hockey Sweater.
Canadian Encyclopedia Historica. Roch Carrier. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com.
Library and Archives Canada. Roch Carrier. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/.
Random House. Author Spotlight: Roch Carrier. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/author/results.pperl?authorid=4352.
YouTube. Video: Roch Carrier Reads from The Hockey Sweater. Retrieved February 25, 2008, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOIagVQsOBw. Added November 7, 2006.