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Le Survenant

For the first week of 10 Essential Books, Thomas Hellman brought Le Survenant to the Cinq à Six studio. 

Listen to him explain why he chose this book as his first entry on the list of 10 Essential Books: 

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Thomas's Blog
My choice of Le Survenant by Germaine Guèvremont as one of five French Canadian books to talk about on CBC surprised some of my colleagues from Radio-Canada's Plus on est de fou plus on lit. This is same book that many Quebecois students spent months reading, analyzing and dissecting in high school. And, as is often the case, you end up hating the books you are forced to read in class. But I never had to read this book in school. I was introduced to it when I participated in the Radio-Canada equivalent of Canada Reads a few years ago. And I found it fascinating for many reasons. 

Le Survenant was published in 1945, the same year as Bonheur d'Occasion by Gabrielle Roy (The Tin Flute in English). It is interesting to note that two of the most important French Canadian novels published at that time were written by women and talk about the working class. Gabrielle Roy talked about a poor French Canadian family in Saint Henri. Guèvremont described a hard working -but relatively well-off rural community near Sorel.

Here's the story: One fall evening, a stranger appears at the door of a family of farmers asking for room and board in exchange for helping out with the work. The man will stay for one year, working on the farm, living with the community. The book describes how this outlander (the book's title was translated as The Outlander in an American translation) will affect the community, becoming an object of fascination, fear, hatred and admiration. Of course one of the young women in the community will fall madly in love with him.

This is a very realistic portrait of rural Quebec in the early 1900s. One of the book's distinguishing qualities is to reproduce linguistic expressions of that place and time. 

On Radio-Canada, Monique Polak chose to talk about Anne of Green Gables as one of the classic English Canadian books. She said reading this book was a welcome reprieve from the mad pace of modern life because it described a simple life. There is a bit of that in Le Survenant. The community lives close to nature, works the land. The rhythm of life is closely tied to the cycle of nature and the seasons. 

But this is also a very closed community that can be stifling to one who is an outsider. The farmers' sense of identity is given by the rules and traditions of the community, the land, the church, the narrow horizons that frame their world. The outlander will soon grow weary of the insular attitude of the community. He is, in many ways, a modern figure arriving in an old world. 

This is a beautiful, classic story. It is very much about Quebec identity and history but it also expresses something universal: the relationship between solid communities and strangers, the way people create systems to guide their lives, and the need to sometimes break down those systems, challenge them. The tension is between staying in a comfort zone, resting on a certain ignorance of the world, and the desire to see more, know more, and lose a certain innocence...

In choosing my five "classic" french canadian books, I wanted to give the listeners a sense of how much the cultural scene has changed in French Canada in the last century. Most of the books I will talk about in the next weeks were written in the last few years. But I wanted to start with Le Survenant because it created an intersting contrast with these later books. I can't say what my later choices are yet. You'll have to listen to the show. But suffice it to say that they are the product of a society that, in may ways, has stepped out into the world, like the outlander.