A Literary Map of Montreal
It is a dangerous game to compare cities, but if you asked most honest Canadians what Canada’s coolest city was the most common answer would have to be Montreal. This truly bilingual city of great universities, world-renowned festivals (Just for Laughs and The Festival International de Jazz de Montreal), is at heart a city of culture. Of late the world has turned to Montreal for its music, for current phenoms like Arcade Fire and the Stills. But the literary riches the city has and continues to produce are equally impressive and worth taking note of.
Never one to shy away from speaking his mind, Mordecai Richler was as often praised for his truth telling ways as he was decried, especially in certain nationalistic Quebecois as well as Jewish circles, for his supposedly anti-francophone and anti-Jewish sentiments. Montreal’s most famous author left the city twice, once for Paris, in pursuit of the Lost Generation, and once to London. Ultimately, though, he would return to the place he came from and his best known works so often paint a picture of St. Urbain, the street he grew up on.
The book that first made him famous, and the first of many of his works to be made into a film, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz is a tale both humorous and tragic, about a character named Duddy who is from a poor family, in the then highly undesirable neighborhood of St. Urbain Street, but as he grows up has every intention of being rich. Whether he can succeed is a different story. The complexity and wonder of the character, however, is about a young man who is both ruthlessly materialistic, but is, at the same time, the inveterate underdog, and, like Richler himself, one who hates pretense and snobbery.
A more ambitious novel like St Urbain's Horseman won Richler his first Governor General’s award. Set in London and Montreal in the 1960s, it tells the tale of Jake Hersh, a side character from The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, now grown up, married with kids, and working as a somewhat successful movie director caught up in a sordid sex scandal. All the while, he remains obsessed with a long-lost cousin who was, amongst other things a Nazi hunter.
Of his many accomplishments in both fiction and non-fiction Richler will always be remembered for the three kid’s books he wrote starring Jacob Two-Two, the character so named because he always has to say things twice to be heard. All three books are big sellers to this day, but none more so than the original, Jacob Two Two Meets the Hooded Fang, which was so influential as to spawn not one but two movies.
Like Hemingway did with The Old Man and the Sea, it was at the very end of Richler’s long, illustrious career, that the famous Montreal author received one of his greatest literary prizes, winning the Giller for what some call his best novel, Barneys Version made into the recent film starring Paul Giamatti. Written as an “autobiography,” the book manages to both be a genuine tale full of heart and wit, but at the same time ask that meta-fiction question concerning the reliability of the narrator...
In his hour-long interview on CBC’s “Q” last year, Leonard Cohen told host Jian Ghomeshi that he went into music to make money. While he was of course speaking somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he was also being quite serious. It turns out that even seemingly successful (ie. already published) writers, like Leonard Cohen was before turning to music, can struggle to survive.
To be a fan of Leonard Cohen’s music, is to, on some level be a fan of his lyrics, which is to say his poetry. It is no wonder that Cohen’s debut as a musician was as well received as it was. He came to the lyric writing game fully formed what with four collections of poetry and two novels released before he had even written “Suzanne” or any other song on his first album, “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”
The Favourite Game, Cohen’s first novel, was written in London and on the Greek island of Hydra. It is about the youth and early manhood of a character named Lawrence Breavman. Writing for “The Globe and Mail” in 2000, T.F. Rigelhof compared Cohen’s coming-of-age story to none other than The Catcher in the Rye and said, “I've long regarded The Favourite Game as one of the 10 best Canadian novels of the 20th century.” Concerned as much with its biblical references as it is with a woman who has touched the protagonist’s Jewish soul with her gentile body, the themes present in so many of Cohen’s most famous songs are here in his debut novel, including of course the conflict between the spiritual and the erotic.
Beautiful Losers was Cohen’s second and last novel that he wrote before becoming one of the world’s most famous singer-songwriters. A product of its time, Beautiful Losers is an experimental novel, representative of much of the edgy and radical writing that came out of the 1960s; Linda Hutcheon referred to it as the first Canadian post-modern novel. It is a story about a love triangle, it is a story about an obsession with a 17th century Mohawk, it is witty and unusual, original and deep and it is considered by many to be Cohen’s literary masterpiece.
It would be remiss to overlook what many consider Cohen’s best writing of all: his poetry. From 1994-1999 the artist lived in a Zen monastery atop a mountain in California. A great many of the poems collected in Book of Longing were written there. Perhaps the most popular work in Cohen’s catalogue, they were his first collection of poetry published since 1984’s Book of Mercy. More than just a book of poetry, however, Book of Longing is filled with evocative and often erotic sketches and drawing to go along with Cohen’s ever-carefully selected words.
Governor General Award-winning playwright Michel Tremblay did not grow up on St. Urbain, nor is he Jewish, but the area he did grow up in, the then working class, French neighbourhood of Plateau Mont-Royal, has resonated throughout his work as much as St. Urbain effected Richler, if not more so.
His first, and arguably most famous play, Les Belles Soeurs, was highly controversial at the time for its portrayal of working-class women and for its attack against the conservative religious society that Tremblay had grown up amongst. That a play published in 1965 could even discuss sex, never mind abortion, as openly as it did was nothing short of shocking. Of equal note, was Tremblay’s groundbreaking use of joual, a Quebecois-French that has a far more street-level, brutal quality to it than the French that had been used in French-Canadian plays previously. More to the point, like any great artist, Tremblay was not just using the “dialect” of French to shock his audiences, but rather to share the beauty of the linguistic background he came from.
Les Belles Soeurs, set the standard for a playwright who has come to be known as a great writer for and of women. Tremblay’s plays invariably centre around troubled women and gay male characters. An early play like Hosanna was itself groundbreaking as one of the earliest Canadian plays to feature gay characters. Soon after Tremblay became famous across the country as a writer, he came out of the closet and quickly became a champion of the gay rights movement in Canada.
The original famous Jewish writer from the once decrepit neighbourhood of St. Urbain, Irving Layton’s family moved from Romania to Montreal in 1913. Layton’s road to becoming one of Canada’s most famous poets was a long and arduous one, the anti-Semitism rampant in Montreal back then halted him in any number of ways, including being part of the reason why he was expelled from school, as well as what prevented him from going on to study at McGill. His collection A Red Carpet for the Sun (currently out of print) won him the first-ever awarded Governor General’s Prize. The poet, as noted for his oratory skills in debating and speech, as he was for his written prowess, was nominated by Italy and South Korea for the Nobel Prize. Though he did not win, it is perhaps a small consolation that he was up, that year, against possibly the Spanish world’s most famous modern author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Layton was noted for writing against bourgeois dullness and for his erotically charged poems. The man was enough of a legend to warrant a Montreal street, Irving Layton Avenue, to be named after him.
For a good overview of the man’s works check out A Wild Peculiar Joy: Selected Poems.
Though Yann Martel no longer calls Montreal home (he lives in Saskatoon), his family is of French-Canadian descent and when he wasn’t living all over the world as a child, he ultimately spent most of his formative years in Quebec’s largest city. Before 2001, Yann Martel had published three books that received positive critical response but had not sold a huge amount. Then everything changed with the release of his Man Booker Prize winning Life of Pi, a bestselling sensation around the world. Blending a rather erudite philosophical investigation into religion while being a narrative that Wikipedia defines as a “fantasy adventure” novel, it is no small wonder why Life of Pi would become the literary sensation it did. Best of all, perhaps, is Martel’s wonderful use of animals throughout the story, not the least of which is the Bengal tiger that the central character, Pi (Patel), shares a life raft with for over 200 days. More than ten years old already, Life of Pi remains truly original, riveting and is that rarest kind of tale that has the kind of legs to potentially live on long after we are gone.
Martel’s major follow-up Beatrice and Virgil, had a lot to live up to, and while it did not win the same measure of success as its domineering predecessor, it is a thoroughly engaging book that manages, in a rather unique way, to narratively investigate the Holocaust like no book before it. Without giving too much away, let’s just say that Beatrice and Virgil are not people. They’re animals. In other words, this is no straight tale that attempts to retell of a survivor’s experience. But nor is it an Orwellian Animal Farm-like attempt to satirize. Ever the ambitious writer, Martell aims here for something wholly original.
The biggest and brightest star to emerge out of Montreal in a long while is Lebanese-born author Rawi Hage. From tough beginnings, it seems, emerge great writers, at least so seems the case with the writers from Montreal. Born in Beirut, Hage grew up in war-torn Beirut and lived during part of his twenties in New York, under less than ideal circumstances, before coming to Montreal where he started out making a living as a cab driver, while trying to get a visual art career off the ground. As the story goes, he was only able to quit the job and start writing full-time after his first novel, DeNiro's Game, won the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, at €100,000 it is the world’s richest literary prize for a single book. Set in war-ravaged Lebanon, Hage’s novel was and is so revered not just for the political intrigue of its setting and content, but for the lyrical, at times, downright poetic, way in which Hage sets his words on a page.
Cockroach, the follow-up to DeNiro's Game, managed like its predecessor to get shortlisted for both the Giller and the Governor General’s Award. While not nearly as recognized as its IMPAC winning predecessor, Cockroach is notable not just for the brutal history that besieges its central characters, the history we witness in DeNiro's Game but because the setting is modern day Montreal. Better still, it is told by a narrator who, while morally correct in his thoughts, is a thief by profession who can, in a blatantly Kafka-esque manner, transform himself into a cockroach so as to get into homes or other places to steal as he pleases. In the Guardian’s review of the dark and often sexy novel, the book is described as a more ambitious sort of sequel to DeNiro's Game.
Having bred legends of the past like Layton and Richler and been the adult home to writers of our present and foreseeable future like Hage and Martel, it seems undeniable that Montreal has every right to continue to lay claim to being at least one of this city’s coolest places and perhaps, dare we add, its cultural capital.
For Further Reading
Also not to be missed: Heather O’Neill, whose Lullabies for Little Criminals was a Heather’s Pick, and in 2007 was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, the Governor General’s Award and won the Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.